From scenario planning to integrity, a chat with McDonald's SA CFO Zaf Mahomed


“To me business is about integrity, honesty and authenticity," says Zaf Mahomed, chief financial officer at McDonald's South Africa. “What I like about being a chief financial officer is the ability to influence strategic decision making,” says Zaf, when he sits down with CFO South Africa for an exclusive interview. “As CFO you look at the past and the future. What I enjoy the most is using the past to improve the outcome in the future. It is also a continuous balancing act between governance and being a business partner.”

According to Zaf integrity and hard work are the benchmark of any successful professional and it is this belief that has underscored Zaf Mahomed's career. He the culture at the fast-food chain as the best he's ever worked in. "It is vibrant, entrepreneurial and there is a 'can do' attitude."

Growing up in Isipingo in Durban, near the old Durban International Airport, Zaf dreamed of becoming an airline pilot, but he went on to do accounting instead.

"I was good at it and my dad insisted that I get a degree. Becoming a CA was the best thing ever. The title is a springboard to so many other opportunities. It is all about how you use the qualification as an individual. I enjoy mentoring young, aspiring CAs to help them use their title to the best of their abilities."

Zaf started his career at Tongaat Hulett, in internal audit and moved through the ranks to become the investor relations and strategic planning manager. He extended his skills as FD with the multinational Johnson & Johnson and fulfilled the CFO role at furniture retailer Ellerine Holdings. When that company became collateral damage during the African Bank crisis, his skills and experience helped him to successfully secure the coveted job of McDonald's SA CFO. This opportunity came at a pivotal time as McDonald's celebrates its 20th year in South Africa this year and sees just under 8 million customers a month in over 230 restaurants.

The 'beauty' about having worked in different industries is the exposure to different business models, Zaf explains. "It is something I would recommend to anyone who wants to become CFO. I would not be where I am now if it had not been for my Tongaat Hulett experience. It honed a lot of my thinking in a highly integrity-based environment that had many businesses, including sugar, property and aluminium."

What the CA brings to the table is not only his technical and business acumen, but also something that can only be learnt through experience, he explains. "To me business is about integrity, honesty and authenticity. Of course you can't always be brutally honest, but you need to be transparent. If there is something in the company that is borderline, the CFO is the counsel and the balance. As a company we all want to get to the same destination."

Zaf believes that the CFO plays a pivotal role in recommending how much the accelerator can be used and when the footbrake needs to be engaged. "I used to be responsible for strategic planning and forecasting capability at Tongaat Hulett. It is about generating scenarios and making the numbers more relevant. People tend to look at them in a linear fashion. I like to look at high and low road scenarios and then zoom in on the differences between those two and see what we can learn from that."

"To me business is about integrity, honesty and authenticity."

Zaf's knowledge of internal audit was also an asset to the business. "I started my career as an internal auditor. If you want to be successful in internal audit, you have to understand business. The function also helps you look at business from a different perspective. Internal audit is important and cannot be undervalued in a business. A lot of what CFOs do is about systems, processes and one of my roles is enhancing the control environment and providing recommendations for better business intelligence."

Despite his focus on the control environment and numbers, Zaf emphasises that "you cannot have performance of an organisation without positive and motivated people driving it". The biggest challenge is finding good finance skills, says Zaf, echoing many of his peers. "You need people to be fully engaged and high performing and I tend to employ on attitude. I have tried as far as possible to work for companies that I believe in. That would also be my advice to future CFOs."

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