From Alexandra to the boardroom: MMI CFO Mary Vilakazi

After being made partner at PwC as a 27-year-old in 2005, Mary Vilakazi was “under enormous pressure not to fail”. Since then Mary has morphed from hardworking auditor to group CFO at MMI Holdings, the umbrella for insurers Momentum and Metropolitan - with a period as a dynamic consultant in between. “I think my success is proof that you cannot underestimate the power of being given opportunities,” she says.

  • This article previously appeared in CFO Magazine. (Rate card for advertisers.)
  • Mary was appointed Deputy CEO at MMI in 2017 and subsequently joined FirstRand as COO in 2018.
  • Mary was nominated for the 2017 CFO Awards and joined the panel of judges for the awards in 2018. 

In this interview we speak to Mary about her success at an early age, her role models, being black in a white finance world, the merger between Momentum and Metropolitan, the attitude that young accounting talents need to succeed and what business leaders need to do to make transformation successful. “I would especially like to influence the direction of MMI’s strategies around financial wellness for communities.”

Born and raised in the township Alexandra in Gauteng, Mary has had to fight against prejudice and stereotypes throughout her career. Having faced some of the most demanding audit tasks imaginable, Mary Vilakazi is more familiar with tough times than most. The previous year though has been particularly taxing, with her appointment as MMI CFO, the pressure of South Africa’s economic crisis and – first and foremost – the death of her first born daughter, all weighing on her mind.

Were you one of the smartest kids in Alexandra?
“On the contrary, I think my success is proof that you cannot underestimate the power of being given opportunities. There were children that were a lot smarter than me and when I drive into the township today, I still see them there as adults. They never benefited from tertiary education, while I got lucky and got exposure to some education programs. As part of the Gifted Child Program I followed a Saturday program at the Redhill School in Morningside. After that, I attended St Enda’s Community College with a Rotary Fund scholarship and PwC later provided me with a bursary to study for a BCom degree. That made all the difference.”

How special was it for someone from Alexandra to become an accountant?
“When I grew up there was no information available on those types of careers. We knew about bookkeepers - my mother was one- but there were no accountants in my environment. I did read about people like Wiseman Nkuhlu, the first black CA, and others like him. The existence of those people made it possible for me to aspire to become an accountant. They were role models, even though I had never met them.”

You mention your mother’s support as crucial. Why?
“My mother is still a big supporter. She is my resident au pair and makes it possible for me to work as a fulltime executive. When I grew up, she was a bookkeeper and was always very supportive. She worked as a creditors and debtors clerk and was completely self-taught. She did a lot of courses to stay up-to-date. She is very entrepreneurial and very hard working to this day.”

“Instead of pocket money, my mother gave me lollypops and amaskopas (coloured popcorn popular in townships), to sell on the street during my holidays. The profit was my pocket money, but I soon realised I could buy more packets from my income and sell those too. At the time I thought it was unfair that other kids got pocket money and I didn’t, but I liked selling and it was exciting to turn R100 into R300.”

In 2005 you became one of the youngest partners at PwC in the world. What were your strengths that convinced your colleagues?
“Again, I was lucky. I had done some vacation jobs at PwC during my studies and when I signed up to do articles, so I had a two week advantage over most people in my group. During articles I gained great experience in the financial services sector, especially working in insurance, working with firms like Fedsure, African Life, Alexander Forbes and Regent Life.”

“During articles I used to win the awards for the most productive employee in my group – and billing hours is what counts at a firm like PwC. During the last year of articles I was given a lot of responsibility, because I was always dedicated to ensuring I add value and go the extra mile for the client. The quality of the companies I worked with on audits was high and I worked with some really smart PwC people, some of whom I am still in contact with now.”

What lessons did you learn from those smart people?
“While doing articles I worked for two female partners, Marna Roets and Catherine Dugmore. From them I learnt to always aim for excellence. Their approach was very thorough, ranging from managing people well to being very good technically. For me, having two female partners was quite important in a male-dominated environment, although I might not have realised the extent of this at the time. It was very enabling and it prevented me from setting my expectations too low. I knew it could be done, because I had two role models. I looked up to Futhi Mtoba as well. She was a very senior partner at Deloitte [and currently chairperson of the firm, JR] and she was the chairperson of ABASA, the Association for the Advancement of Black Accountants of Southern Africa. She is a great leader and is very passionate about making a difference.”

How was it to work in an environment dominated by whites?
“That was a bit of a struggle. It probably still is, but I think it is less of one now. You feel you have to disprove stereotypes and prejudices all the time. It may feel that there is unfairness in the system. At the same time I also worked with white people who felt they didn’t get a chance. I guess that is the story of South Africa. That is why I took a personal approach, focussing on my abilities to prevent getting bogged down. Even my age was an issue, as I was still in my twenties.”

You were – and are – young, female and black?
“I had to work on myself, think hard and gain perspective. Those three tags were quite a load to carry. They put me under enormous pressure not to fail and let any of those three constituencies down. I couldn’t drop any balls. I came from a society that was dominated by white males, so in a way I also believed in that and carried my own stereotypes, but I realised that was not helpful. I examined my own strengths and managed to free myself from those things. That would also be my advice for others in similar positions: focus and perform to the best of your abilities.”

Why do you look back at your stint as a partner in Cape Town as a fun period?
“When I joined as a partner I moved to Cape Town and started working with Metropolitan. I have always been a Joburger, so there were some things that I battled with in Cape Town, but it was an immediate culture fit with Metropolitan. There were a lot of capable people under the leadership of CEO Peter Doyle, who did some amazing things. He was also very progressive regarding transformation. I saw senior black people going through the ranks at Metropolitan, which was inspiring. It was an empowering environment.”

What did you think of the merger with Momentum?
“After I left PwC in 2008 and joined the Mineral Services Group (MSG) as a CFO, I was asked to join the Metropolitan board in 2010 after the compulsory cooling off period. I have been a non-executive member at MMI ever since, until I became an executive in 2014. During my first board meeting the merger was on the table. As a smaller firm, Metropolitan was vulnerable, so it was better to be proactive about its future and diversify its earnings. With Momentum being a traditionally Afrikaans company, the firms came from very different cultural backgrounds, but the business case spoke for itself because the companies were very complementary. It was a necessary merger. Interestingly, I am now based at the old Momentum head office – and I am glad to be back working in Johannesburg.”

Why did you leave PwC?
“My eldest daughter started high school and I wanted to be more present, so I had to slow down a little bit. At an audit and advisory firm there are always deadlines and it is difficult to carve out some family time. I was also interested in working in an environment that was not a big corporate, but more entrepreneurial.”

“In 2011 I left MSG, but I stayed on the board and kept consulting for them two days in the week. During that period as a consultant, I also helped lots of small companies putting together business plans and did a lot of referrals. My proudest achievement is that I managed to spend more time with my family, while still staying up to speed with the industry and developments in the business world.”

In May 2014 you joined MMI. How has your life changed?
“Quite a bit! I started as head of balance sheet management with the end view of being considered as the next CFO. I was, once again, lucky that the existing balance sheet management CEO wanted to go to the UK and the CFO was about to retire. Balance sheet management is a great place to start for a CFO, because it gives you the whole picture of the business from a balance sheet point-of-view, especially since it concerned two merged firms who were still in the process of integrating.”

What do you like about being CFO?
“After December 2015 I am not sure if being a CFO is still an enjoyable role, because the economic environment is difficult, but what I like is being involved in business opportunities and working with hard working, passionate people. It is a broad role, where you can really influence the drivers of the business as a custodian of financial resources.”

What do you want to achieve at MMI?
“I want to ensure that we give shareholders good returns and we exceed the expectations of our investors. Internally, I see my role as providing insights to the other exco members – to help improve the level of profitability and performance.”

“Another thing I am cognisant of is that there is a growing feeling in South Africa that transformation is slowing down. As a CFO I want to play a big role in shaping and contributing to our response to that. I would especially like to influence the direction of MMI’s strategies around financial wellness for communities. When we offer clients solutions, it needs to be good for us, good for them and good for the shareholder. We need to be a good corporate citizen, cognisant of the bigger picture and striving for sustainability. This comes from my personal values and informs where I want to work. Luckily my view is shared by CEO Nicolaas Kruger and the other exco members.”

What needs to happen to speed up transformation and increase the number of high level black CAs?
“There are no quick fixes. It starts with increasing the number of black accounting students, but it is also a matter of creating opportunities. My personal view is that the rate of transformation is slowing down. There needs to be a deliberate effort from senior leaders to appoint talented black professionals in influential positions.”

You are a role model now yourself – how do you make that practical?
“It is something that is very close to my heart. I want to use my influence and make a difference in people’s lives, especially young black women. I am part of various networks, have individual relations with people and am also involved in some trusts in the fields of education and entrepreneurship.”

What’s next? General management or CFO of a bigger company?
“I haven’t quite decided. My role started in July 2015 and at the moment I am working to ensure we have a finance community within MMI that I can be proud of. I am involved with strategy and am in a sweet spot at the moment, so I am not really thinking of the next step. Of course things can change and like in the past, I will be guided by my intuition. I listen to myself and what my needs are.”

Kamogelo
Mary brings last year’s car accident that killed her beloved, 20-year-old daughter Kamogelo up herself. “What made me come back to work was the supportive environment at MMI, but also the fact that Kamogelo was very excited about my job that I had started on 1 July. After she died, a lot of her friends showed me text messages where she had mentioned how proud she was of me.” Mary admits her life has always been “a tussle between work and being present for my children,” but she says, Kamogelo was her biggest fan, and succeeding as chief financial officer will be the best way to honour her memory.