Masslift Africa's Thembi Mazibuko is colouring outside the conventional lines of a CFO

Thembi also enjoys letting her creativity show as Masslift Africa's head of communications and marketing.

Thembi Mazibuko is the CFO of Masslift Africa, the sole distributor of Mitsubishi forklifts in Southern Africa. A self-described creative at heart with a financial qualification, she also heads up the company’s communications and marketing department and says, “As the CFO I excel at financials, reporting, risk mitigation etc, but I’m fortunate to have taken charge of marketing for the company.”

Thembi’s strong creative streak presented itself from childhood and she has always had a passion for the arts, but says she got into a career in finance after realising that she had an aptitude for numbers and that being a CA would be a good choice. “I have the natural aptitude for finance, and I enjoy it, but it doesn’t invigorate and excite me as much as when I am being creative.”

She has struck a good balance, where as a CFO she performs the technical finance duties, but says, “When I am feeling low, I can switch to something imaginative like our social media or working on press releases. That gets my creative juices flowing and boosts my energy. Then, with that gusto, I can go back to the day-to-day finance things that need to be taken care of. I have found that I need to find a creative outlet to be a balanced individual.”

Showing up wholly
Forthright and confident, Thembi believes in bringing her whole self to work. She says leveraging her creativity has enriched her career. “I have always looked for opportunities to express my creativity and I am naturally drawn to people and interesting experiences. Even in previous roles, I would always put my hand up for organising events or initiatives that were people-led. For instance, I enjoy pulling together presentations or campaigns that require imagination. At Barloworld Logistics, I was part of the ethics and compliance committee and I was heavily involved in crafting the messaging for that initiative.”

This curiosity has also enabled her to learn a lot about the business outside of the confines of any one role.

A fresh perspective to problem solving
Typically, people who are creative don’t venture into careers such as finance, but, speaking about her willingness to explore and express both sides of her personality, Thembi says having two very different vantage points helps her think outside the box.

For instance, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, as a CFO in a marketing role, she understood how important it was to stay visible. The prevailing trend is that when the chips are down, finance leaders often pull the marketing budget first. “Instead, we have done the opposite and it has helped in terms of our brand equity; it has communicated to our customers that even though it is business unusual, we are still here and are ready to support their business.”

She says another powerful aspect of her personality that helps her succeed is that she has a curious mind, “I don’t just take things at face value. While I believe in data-driven decision making, I have also learned to follow my gut. In some instances you won’t always have all the information at your fingertips, and that is where being well read and exposed to different ideas and concepts comes into play. However, I have found that being willing to dive into the details has stood me in good stead and has helped me navigate new and tough situations.”

As a person who easily connects with others, she has built a solid network of people she calls on if she wants to brainstorm or when presented with something new to navigate.

Leading teams
She believes leadership is about multiplying yourself, “So that when you’re not in the room, people are still able to do what’s required at the right standard without feeling like they will get penalised if things go wrong.”

She says leaders have an important role in creating an environment where people are free to speak out and fully express their abilities, “This means identifying their native genius and putting them in positions where they are naturally effective. With my team, I make it very clear what the goal is and collaboratively agree on how to achieve it. People are more invested if they give input on how to get there, not a top-down approach.”

She tries to empower the teams she works with so she doesn’t have to micromanage, “I come in when there are real challenges and glitches, but it is important for everyone to have a clear understanding of each person’s role and how their contribution is going to impact the goal or strategy we are working towards.”

Growing through crisis
“In the past year, there has been a lot of problem solving and through that, my role evolved,” she reflects, “The business looked to me as the CFO to do a lot of forecasting, but given the unique circumstances of the year, you couldn’t base the outlook on historical data because of how unusual the times were and because the environment was constantly changing. So, I decided to lead with my instinct and life experience and use all resources to try and figure out the right way ahead.

Overall, we managed to navigate out of that successfully, even managing to pay out increases and bonuses, which is testament to the calibre of people on the team and the infrastructure we operate on.”

She says when the company went into lockdown just before year end, they initially thought it was going to be a short event, but soon realised that it would be a long journey. She says first and foremost among the board, managers and team the biggest priority was keeping the business afloat. “During the hard lockdown, only technicians were able to go to work. The focus was on cash, on how we make sure we pay salaries – with some employees’ family members getting retrenched, difficult financial situations in homes – negotiating with suppliers, and so on.”

Looking forward she says she wants to make Masslift a business brand. “We want to evolve from the materials handling space to one that is a lot more well known in the market as thought leaders in certain spaces. There is a lot of opportunity to make the Mitsubishi brand as synonymous with forklifts as it is with cars.”
She says her mind is fixed on continuous risk assessment and says for instance, Forex fluctuations have a deep impact on their operations, so she is being vigilant and looking for blind spots so that the business can maintain its gains and build its brand equity. 

Beyond work
In her free time, Thembi immerses herself in the arts. She’s not only an avid reader, but a creative person in her own right; her passion project is a blog where she publishes contemporary romance pieces. She says this is a creative genre she enjoys because there’s value in stories which express humanity through light-hearted story telling. She also edits and proofreads creative works by other writers and loves literary events, which she can’t wait to enjoy once live events are back. In the meantime, she indulges in her love for literary works at every opportunity and loves hopping on a discussion with her book club friends.

This interview was originally published in the second edition of the 2021 CFO Magazine.