Matthias Wellhausen, CFO ArcelorMittal South Africa: Pick your battles


“More than in the past you have to pick your battles and prioritize,” says the experienced Matthias Wellhausen, CFO at steel producer ArcelorMittal South Africa. “There are a zillion things going on that are challenging. You have to focus your resources on the most important ones. This goes as much for an individual CFO as for the company as a whole, which should also put its energy into a limited amount of challenges.”

Wellhausen is a manager worth listening to. After 10 years at IBM and 18 years in top management positions in Germany and Luxemburg for ArcelorMittal, he has obtained an incredible wealth of experience. The German singles prioritization out as one of the most important tools of a modern CFO, but adds communication to that short list too. "Communication has also become more and more important. You continuously have to be able to explain internally and externally what you are doing and why."

South Africa already had a warm place in Wellhausen's heart when he came to the country in January 2013 to "help to bring ArcelorMittal back to sustainable profitability", as he describes it. "I knew South Africa already, because I had been coming here regularly during my previous position at ArcelorMittal . The good things about living here are not limited to the weather - people are very nice too."

Similarly, Wellhausen was already familiar with the challenges that the South African branch of the steel giant was and is facing. "I didn't start from scratch here, but there was not time to rest; I had to get working on it right from the start. That has been exciting and interesting. We have experience protracted pressure on our profitability and it has been our goal to re-establish sustainable profitability. We have reorganised and my predecessor has stayed and has solved a very difficult dispute with Kumba." The dispute with the AngloAmerican owned iron ore company had been going on for many years.

Wellhausen feels legal frictions like these are more common in South Africa than in other markets, like Europe. "Disputes are more common and protracted here, but at the same time there are also large pockets of reason, where it is possible to solve things." For the rest the German CFO feels the rainbow nation is a great place to work. "The structure of corporate governance is world class. When it comes to standards and values of people I work with, it is very comparable to what I am used to. That is why it is quite easy and pleasant for Europeans to come and work here. The business atmosphere is less formal and quite direct, which makes it easy to operate."

The steel industry has experienced a fairly long period of slow growth, but Wellhausen is more positive than a year ago. "We now have a very clear way forward. The most important thing is to believe we can work our way out of this crisis using our own energy." What would help, however, is a revision of laws that affect the industry, says the German. "The carbon tax law that is being prepared is damaging for the opportunities here. I am not generalizing about the government, but I am speaking about a very particular element where government has taken the wrong direction. Australia has just scrapped similar regulations and Europe is going a whole different route. Nobody asks for subsidies or help, but these types of laws make it a lot harder."

Overall, Wellhausen is not a pessimist when it comes to South Africa though. On the contrary, he feels Europe can learn a thing or two from best practices south of the Limpopo. "I personally think, particularly in the corporate governance area, that there is a lot to learn from the South African business world. Initiatives by the JSE and the King III report have led to state of the art finance practices, which are well-implemented. There is a lot of discipline and I find that very impressive. There is also a seriousness combined with a down-to-earth attitude. I like that hands-on, entrepreneurial approach that many South African finance managers show."

Besides running a profitable business, Wellhausen has been focussed on staffing matters. "Strengthening the talent pipeline is another of my goals; I want to make sure the company can be carried by young people in the future. It is of course a challenge to retain your talent. They are highly sought after everywhere. I have to say that finance people get trained very well in this country, they are definitely up to the mark - I am in a good position to compare that internationally."

ArcelorMittal has a big European training centre which is producing more technicians than the company needs for its own purpose, says Wellhausen. "If I look at finance we have a graduates-in-training program where people can learn on the job and we have a program for finance leaders, where candidates rotate through departments. This year I have accelerated both pipelines in South Africa. We also have our own university, through which e-learning and e-training is a possibility."

The attitude of youngsters is what defines success, the CFO says. "You have to be passionate and serious about what you do. If I look at the last 25 to 30 years, this has always made the difference between stalling and going forward. If you have passion, you will prevail. Our company is very permeable, there are no barriers in terms of race, sex or where you come from."

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