Life Healthcare CFO Pieter van der Westhuizen: At the frontline in a medical crisis

Pieter highlights the double challenge of acting as CEO and running finance during a pandemic.

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Pieter van der Westhuizen, group CFO at the Life Healthcare Group, describes 2020 as the most challenging year of his life. Not only did he have to step into the role of acting CEO after the previous CEO’s departure, in addition to his group CFO role, but no sooner than he had taken up the reins, the unprecedented global healthcare crisis of Covid-19 hit.

As the acting CEO of a healthcare company, the pandemic brought with it not only the standard workplace challenges that impacted every business, but also new demands, requiring deep thinking and quick action by leadership.

“As a healthcare company, we have been in the frontline of fighting Covid-19 and so our challenges during this period have been very different to other industries. Our strategy was to ensure patient and staff safety first and foremost. That meant rapidly putting in place appropriate proactive and reactive responses to unfolding events, as and when the need arose,” Pieter explains. “What is very important in the healthcare industry specifically is to have a caring and empathetic approach when executing your role, at any level and within any faculty.”

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The overarching goal from a finance perspective has been to ensure liquidity and solvency during the Covid-19 period and beyond. “In addition a huge priority was to ensure that all relevant employees had the ability to work remotely, with proper equipment and connectivity. This was followed by making certain that formal feedback sessions were scheduled to track the team’s daily and weekly progress against varying degrees of challenges,” he says.

As the acting CEO, Pieter’s focus was on ensuring appropriate protocols were implemented to ensure patient and staff safety in addition to regular communication with all key stakeholders on the actions taken during the pandemic as well as to provide motivational messages to all our staff in all countries we operate in. “I am proud and humbled by the dedication and professionalism our staff managed during this crisis,” he adds.

The finance team increased the regularity of the financial forecasting and scenario analysis to reflect the changing environment as Covid-19 raged on. Since it was business unusual, he constantly updated the business on the actions required to adapt to the new and very fluid working environment in the operations and Increase communication to inform teams of what is happening in the business, as well as updates on projects on the go.

“We also set clear targets to conserve cash to ensure the sustainability of the organisation and put in measures to monitor the achievement of these targets regularly and take immediate corrective actions, if the need arose,” Pieter says.

As if a pandemic were not enough to deal with, the group was the victim of a brutal cyber-attack that effectively took IT systems down for 30 days. The team immediately had to switch over to manual systems and make alternative arrangements to enable communication between the various teams.

Lessons for leadership
Looking back, Pieter says the first half of the year has been the most challenging period of his career. The pandemic tested all leadership teams in the world differently. Looking within his own domain he says: “What has been effective for me is to adapt my leadership style depending on the stakeholder, the situation and the challenge. ”

Pieter says that as an organisation, one of their biggest strengths is the number of long-tenured employees within the group. “This assisted during the crises we have faced recently because these individuals have a clear understanding of the business issues and how to deal with these, even in unprecedented circumstances.” He reflects that, “Although Covid-19 is unique, the principles of crisis management are similar in nature, but merely amplified. This made my role as a leader manageable, even during the very daunting times!”

He points out that most business problems do not have a clear-cut and immediate solution and that. “You need to collaborate with experienced leaders in other areas of expertise such as HR and marketing to reach consensus on the way forward. Our organisation had unique challenges during this period, and I think as a team, we have done exceptionally well to manage both the pandemic and the unexpected cyberattack”.

Looking ahead, Pieter anticipates that Covid-19 will present several challenges and changes in the finance function of the group in the future. “I expect changes relating to monitoring and sustaining performance in a remote work environment, as well as the increased utilisation of technology to assist in a more efficient work environment and to create the framework and ability for remote delivery of one’s role.”

He expects that calculating the financial impact of Covid-19 on the group and determining the run-rate of the impact will be significant challenges, “specifically, what operational cost and revenue will remain even if Covid-19 is not around anymore. Most notably we will have to look closely at its broader impact on the economies we operate in and the resultant impact on healthcare funding, inflation and salary expectations.”

In addition, he envisages an increased focus on environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) matters due to the impact of the pandemic on communities where it operates in and the requirements of the various stakeholders.

Pieter says being honest and transparent, with a strong work ethic, independent thought and persistence in getting to the bottom of any potential problem have been his guiding principles, adding that, “I have been fortunate enough to work for and with a number exceptional leaders and experts in their respective fields. I have learned a lot from them and each one has contributed to my growth and my accomplishments. I think being humble and collaborative as a colleague, and later in my career, as a leader have been helpful in my career.”

Even though it has been extremely difficult, he says a standout professional accomplishment so far has been shouldering the responsibility of leading the Life Healthcare Group as acting group CEO and group CFO through the initial phase of the pandemic (Pieter Wharton-Hood was appointed as group CEO in September). “It was immensely challenging but also extremely rewarding. I learned a lot about myself and the manner in which I need to adapt my leadership style for the various situations and depending on the stakeholders,” Pieter says.

Finding a balance
After a year like 2020 (and the pandemic isn’t over yet), Pieter certainly needs to focus on the things that restore him. He believes in a balanced approach to life and outside of work he loves all sports but specifically watching rugby and football and is a big fan of the Liverpool football team.

“I like playing golf and socialising with friends, which has gotten tricky now with Covid-19. I also love art; especially painting building landscapes using water colours.”

From a personal perspective, Pieter says he is blessed to have a loving wife who has supported him throughout his career. “Our two wonderful kids are my pride and joy.”