MD Sneha Shah reveals Thomson Reuters plans for Africa
No matter what the question is, in Sneha Shah’s world, the answer always starts with the same two words: the customer. In an exclusive interview with CFO South Africa, the charismatic Africa MD of Thomson Reuters speaks about her time in New York, the challenges facing modern CFOs and about her drive to help transform Africa’s aid-based economies into knowledge-based economies. Most of the successful projects Sneha has run, delivered because of a firm focus on customers. “For me, the customer is a passion,” Kenyan-born Sneha Sanghrajka Shah reflects. “Too many companies start with their products and ideas, risking irrelevance when the customer needs change. You cannot afford to lose sight of the customer, so my team starts with the customer every day. Even HR, which many organisations would see as a back-office role, has customer-facing targets to meet.” The same rules apply for CFOs, says Sneha, as “they have had to become more customer focused in order to be able to manage the increasing burden of regulation and risk. But overall, there is a trend globally where CFOs are becoming much more market-aware and client-facing. CEOs are becoming less of the singular face to the market and more like coaches to a strong business focused leadership team, and this has led to CFOs and other C-Level roles evolving accordingly.” Reuters has had news reporters in South Africa since the 1860s, and the finance business here started in the 1980s. The name has become synonymous with FX trading across the continent, but Thomson Reuters actually does much more, across a variety of industries and customer segments. “For a global information company with strong roots on the continent, we definitely need to do a better job of sharing who we are and what we do,” says Sneha, as she lists the range of Thomson Reuters services that can benefit businesses and their CFOs. The firm brands itself as ‘the answer company’ and combines news, broad and deep content and industry expertise with innovative technology to provide information to decision-makers in the financial and risk, legal, tax and accounting, intellectual property and science and media markets.
"We can play a significant role in empowering Africa, helping governments, corporations, banks and professional services agencies in making the shift to knowledge economies," she says. Specifically, in the CFO community across Africa, she sees huge interest for Thomson Reuters risk and compliance solutions.
"CFOs are faced with an enormous amount of pressure and have to be on top of all aspects of the business and market changes. Many of them work in organisations with disparate systems and manual processes, which simply cannot keep up with new and increasing regulatory demands. By helping them have immediate access to deeper and more relevant macro-economic data and insight into who they are doing business with, we highlight where enterprise risks are growing in their organisation, and we help connect the dots and enable CFOs to focus on what matters. We allow organisations to simplify their regulation and compliance obligations and free up resources for customers and growth."
Sneha considers Africa to be her 'home' continent and describes herself as "an Afro-optimist". Whether she speaks about the energy she gets from her children Rohan (10) and Aaria (6), her love for food, wine and adventure travel, or the way that her team at Thomson Reuters can help transform the continent, listening to Sneha is an enriching experience.
African first, and from an Indian heritage, Sneha relates to many cultures and easily flexes depending on her environment. With a British education and a degree in politics and international relations, young Sneha had hoped to qualify for a job at the United Nations in Nairobi, but the organisation only hired post-graduates "and I could not afford to do a masters".
With a knack for the proactive and the practical, Sneha grabbed a phone book and started at A, looking for Kenyan banks, as she had heard they were recruiting. "When I was at C in the book, I phoned CFC Bank and they offered me a position as a management trainee, which I promptly accepted. On one of my rotations, I learnt how to do FX trading - with Reuters terminals and thereafter, when the head of treasury went on maternity leave, I was asked to step up to cover and in the process, discovered how much I loved it."
At her next job at Cargill in Johannesburg, Sneha got to grips with commodity trading, before moving to the United States. When talking through her career, Sneha often enthusiastically remarks that she "was lucky" or that she "loved her job". People create their own luck, she believes. "Many people have opportunities presented to them, but they filter them out and often overlook these prospects. I try to be open-minded when people talk about new ideas, and this has helped me gain valuable experiences and learn an incredible amount."
After her husband was offered a role in the US (a stint that ended with them living there for 12 years), Sneha didn't sit idle for long. She credits a random conversation with a taxi driver for pointing her to Reuters for a potential role and joined the organisation in 2001 in an entry level project management role. Four years later, she led the build and launch of the DataScope Select platform, one of the company's flagship solutions.
"When I joined the project, it was over budget and not delivering," Sneha explains. "People had been managing messaging up to the business sponsor of the project, while the project team lacked focus and confidence as a result of several missed deadlines. It was important to realign the team's roles and responsibilities and to reset expectations with the sponsors as to what deliverables they could reasonably expect. "They weren't happy, but they understood the importance of having a plan and team they could believe in," she remembers, adding that this is where her dogged focus on customers began. "We took apart all the project requirements and deliverables in one month and narrowed the scope based on what customers actually wanted, as we were trying to do too much. We created a smaller, more diverse team that was passionate about blowing the lights out and had a dynamic startup mentality."
The project became so important to Sneha that she even took a conference call while in labour and about to give birth to her son.
"We had bets on whether I would deliver before the project as our deadlines were close together. This project, that started off so poorly, meant that much to me and to the team that we all went above and beyond in our own ways to deliver what has been one of our most successful platforms. This experience especially taught me how a committed, focused and diverse team can achieve much more than any single team member could."
Then came the 2008 merger between professional services firm Thomson and Reuters. Sneha was tasked with integrating a major part of the financial services business during the fallout from the financial crisis, and calls it "one of the best learning experiences I have ever had", adding that it was "not easy, but fun".
The cultural differences between the companies were vast, providing Sneha with an interesting challenge and an opportunity to approach the newly-created business from the perspective of the customer. "Reuters was a global company, where people were more flexible. They were used to working at odd hours, and often remotely, due to the various time zones we operated in. Thomson had more of a Wall Street "face-to-face" culture. Thomson delivered products quickly to the market, while Reuters prioritised quality." I learned quickly that to bring the best of the organisation to our customers, I had to allow the strengths of both organisations to shine, and accept that the best results are not always the fastest results, but rather those that come from the collective wisdom and buy-in of the team and the customer."
One of her next assignments was as Head of Global Business Operations for the media organisation, where Sneha led initiatives that helped the division drive the transformation from a fast declining print business to a growth focused digital one.
"I spent a lot of time with our customers and our sales people. We looked at different product development and revenue models, created new content destinations with brands and partners, and focused on events-specific content. It was internal, external, commercial and customer transformation all at once, over a period of three years - and an amazing experience."
Being from Kenya, Sneha has always closely watched what is happening in Africa. When an opportunity arose in 2013 to move back to South Africa to run the Financial and Risk business across the continent, she and her family jumped at the opportunity to come back and make a difference. Discussing this role, Sneha mentions that the move was in some ways, a leap of faith. "It was smaller than my then-role in terms of revenue and global scope, but potentially much bigger in terms of impact". In 2015, she went on to become the managing director for all of Thomson Reuters business on the continent.
Sneha could not be happier. With the transformation happening across the continent regarding land reform, law reform, financial markets development, and trade, Thomson Reuters is exactly in the right place at the right time.
"What keeps many of our customers awake at night is risk, regulation, compliance, currency exposure and talent. These are all challenges we can help with, both through our local and global solutions and through our strong focus on partnerships throughout the business ecosystem."
The strategy is bearing fruit, with impressive year-on-year growth, a doubling of staff across Africa, an impressive Africa leadership team, and an increasing number of locally driven enhancements to the global platform. A market surveillance system driven by the needs of central banks in Africa has been so successful that it is now implemented in several other areas of the world. "We have incredible breadth and depth of content in a variety of sectors from law to tax to financial services, and we can pull these assets together and help enterprises transform with all we can offer."
The journey ahead is going to be an exciting one and again, it will be all about the customer. "A small change can affect the whole customer experience. Because I was a customer once myself, I am adamant that no decision we take should negatively impact customers. If we continue to delight our customers, there is no limit to what we can achieve."