Mariette Ebersohn - CFO Mango Airlines: `Goodbye bean-counter, hello unpredictability`

"The CFO position was traditionally a “bean-counting” job primarily responsible for various accounting, reporting and budgeting exercises. Nowadays, the role is much more unpredictable with a number of additional expectations raised beyond traditional technical accounting and regulatory field of expertise." After having interviewed a great number of male CFOs, we are proud to introduce to you the first female CFO in our series. We wonder - would she have a different view on the industry, her role, the world? We'll find out. Please meet Mariette Ebersohn, CFO of Mango Airlines - South Africa’s leading low-cost airline. The airline was launched on 30 October 2006 with bookings going on sale at midnight on the same date; its first flight took place only two weeks later. Mariette joined Mango’s team in August 2008.

Her career in finance started little over a decade earlier. She completed her Accounting Articles in 1997 at Deloitte & Touche in the Johannesburg Audit Division. Thereafter she had a great three months JIT (Just-in-time) assignment in Bermuda, obtaining experience in the Insurance and Re-insurance, and Investment and Pension Fund Industries. Returning to Johannesburg she spent the next year with the Deloitte Special Services Group before she was offered a job at South African Airways in September 1999. She started off as a Group Financial Accountant, and shortly thereafter moved into heading up the Revenue Accounting division. In January 2005 she left SAA to be a free lance specialist assisting companies with SAP implementations and other ad-hoc assignments in order to have more free time with her children.

Later in 2005 she joined ABSA Corporate and Merchant Bank as an Information Architect responsible for design and implementation of IT solutions and act as a key integration between the IT and Business. She was approached by the CEO of Mango shortly after the company's launch to join Mango, and "the sheer passion and vision that was laid out for the company" convinced her to join them in August 2008 where she is still today.

What do you enjoy most about your job?
I truly enjoy the interaction within our management team as well as broader staff to experiment with ideas that can contribute to the company's overall success. Our company has a very flat structure without layers and layers of decision makers and red tape and the interaction between all cross-functional disciplines within the organisation where everyone's input is valued, is unique.

How has the role of the CFO changed in the last ten years?
The CFO position was traditionally a "bean-counting" job primarily responsible for various accounting, reporting and budgeting exercises. Nowadays, the role is much more unpredictable with a number of additional expectations raised beyond traditional technical accounting and regulatory field of expertise to be a strategic business partner working very closely together with the CEO to execute the businesses growth strategies. This often means that the CFO has to gain experience in areas such as information technology, commercial and industry related technical expertise in order to pull all the parts together to be able to implement the processes and strategies that drives the core initiatives, and to measure performance of the business on all various levels.

How do you see the role of the CFO evolving in the next say five to ten years?
Due to the demanding pace of the global business environment we see the following trends:

1. Decision making becomes much more rapid and decisions are made far more frequently and with shorter lead times. This means that the CFO must find new ways to validate information and obtain answers satisfactory to make informed decisions.

2. Lesser dependence on traditional trends and financial analysis, as it is often found that the business environment and conditions change in such a way that the future does not vastly resemble the past and if the competitive and economic environment changes in such a way that historic data becomes virtually irrelevant and outdated. It means new "out of the box" thinking and innovative ways to build models not only based on "historical experience and knowledge".

3. High reliance on automation and information technology. A CFO that cannot drive the company into better and more efficient ways to do business will soon be the biggest liability for a company instead of an asset.

4. Due to the increased involvement in business strategy, it becomes more and more important for the CFO to delegate more efficiently in order to create space for self development in order to stay relevant in the business. The CFO is also expected to have a much greater understanding of the global competitive environment.

5. The CFO as ethical barometer becomes more and more critical. The CFO must ensure that ethical business practices and behavior is displayed consistently throughout the business. This drives a large part of the culture of an organization and can stand the business in good stead for longevity.

Would you say that accurate forecasting and budgeting is still feasible for a financial department in today's tumultuous financial markets? How do you deal with the volatility?
It is certainly much more challenging than before and a zero based budget and continuous rolling forecasts become very important. More important is to fully understand your competitive trading environment and understand your company's strengths and weaknesses in comparison with the rest of the competitive market. In tough economic times, most of your competitors will likely be subject to the same challenges, for example rising fuel prices, weakening currency and increased regulatory costs. You just need to ensure that your action plans and behaviour let you "hurt slightly less" than your competitors for you to survive until you get breathing space.

Predictive forecasting on potential competitor behaviour and your counter-behaviour can mean the difference between survival and failure. Do research to understand what Global best practise companies are doing differently, you can often learn a great deal from their actions and behaviour to see how you can apply it in your own environment.

What do you see as the greatest challenge for South African companies in the global economic situation and for your industry in particular?
I think the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report formulates South Africa's challenges accurately. The main challenge remains the labour market efficiency which ranks very low in relation to rigid hiring and firing practises, a lack of flexibility in wage determination by companies and a university enrolment of only 15 %. It remains a constant challenge for companies to find the right calibre of resources and often companies are forced for considerable amount of time to deal with unreasonable demands from labour unions instead of focussing on their core business.

Whilst we are facing unemployment figures at unacceptable high levels, there are still a large disconnect between government and the private sector on incentives for entrepreneurs to start up small businesses and by doing so, create the much needed employment. The risks in our current labour regulatory environment just simply make an entrepreneur think twice before risking money in a new venture. Very strong leadership is required at government level to drive strategic initiatives for South Africa's growth path.

As a low cost carrier, leisure remains a high portion of our target market. The high crime statistics in our country do negatively impact tourists' decision to choose South Africa as preferred holiday and travel destination. South Africa has just recently spent large sums of money in upgrading of Airport Infrastructure but we are yet to see a sizeable impact of return tourism from the investments during the Soccer World-cup period. The excessive increases of airport taxes also digs into the pockets of travellers who would weight up the already high cost of travelling to an end-of-hemisphere destination like South Africa in comparison with other more affordable and convenient travel destinations in Europe, America and Asia.

Our domestic travel market is also extremely price sensitive, and where Mango has driven a lot of the growth in the un-flown market, with the high regulatory airport and other charges, air travel is still out of the reach of a number of South Africans who has the potential and desire to fly, but simply cannot afford it.

Which skill do you think a finance professional should master to be most successful in his work?
Apart from a sound mathematical and accounting knowledge that is a pre-requisite for this profession, the following skills are required in my opinion:

1. Relation management skills - when you are dealing with co-workers on all levels and people outs ide your organisation, trust you and feel that you respect them, you will get that extra level of commitment and engagement.

2. Communication skills - you may understand your models and information perfectly, but 80% of the people will not. If you cannot convey complex information in an easy understandable format and terms, your message will not be understood.

3. Problem solving skills - many times problems will be escalated to you no matter how big or how small, and in many cases the expectation would be for you to resolve them instead of escalating it yet again to a second layer of management or people. People like to work with people who can come up with good ideas and resolutions to problems, especially in tough environments. It creates inspiration.

Which achievement or project in your business career are you most proud of?
I have had good experiences in all the companies I have worked for, but the most recent was the time that I joined Mango where I had to implement a full financial control environment in an extremely short time from literally nothing was the most interesting and rewarding challenge thus far.

Which education would you recommend for a successful career in business, and why?
A Chartered Accountant qualification will have you specialise in the accounting field, however, if your aspirations are to fulfil perhaps different functions within your career, some experience and education in the following fields will come in handy: Information Technology, Risk Management, some aspects of Human Resources and an overall MBA covering a broader aspect of business is recommended.

Who is your role model in life and why?
In our industry one of the most successful people is Tony Fernandez, the CEO of AirAsia, who bought the failing AirAsia airline from the Malasyan Government just after the September 2001 crises and within a year, as turned it into one of the most successful Low Cost Airlines worldwide. Their experiences and global best practises are studied across the world by leading airlines, today still.

We have role models in many spheres in life, and it is important to have people close to you that you can draw knowledge and inspiration from. My dad is someone that is a real spiritual leader in the community that he serves, and even whilst growing older, still remains mentally and physically fit and serves his community with the most humble attitude. His motto is always that what you do to others comes back tenfold to you. He never fails to remind us to be thankful for our blessings every day from the Lord above. Money is not an important factor for him, but purpose in life is. I have learned a lot of life lessons from him.

What vital piece of advice would you give today's young ambitious finance professionals?
Believe in yourself and your abilities. Whether you are an entrepreneur or an employee, in very few cases does success just land in your lap, it is a lot of dedication and hard work. Find an industry that you are passionate about, it is very rewarding to really apply your mind in an environment where you have the desire to learn more and not just do your job for the sake of making a living. Continuously look for opportunities to learn and never think you know everything. You can always learn something from someone else. Plus: never compromise your ethical standards. Although your career is important, the other sectors of your life: family, friends, health and spirit is not to be neglected as these outlive your career and life is too short to compromise on this.

If you also would like to share your ideas with the CFO community, please get in touch with us to arrange an interview with you.Please contact Jurriën Morsch on [email protected].

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