CFO of the Week: MTN's Brett Goschen, part 2: stick to ethical business in Africa

After conquering Nigeria and Ghana for MTN in various CFO and CEO roles, Brett Goschen was ‘redeployed’ last year as Group CFO. Today we publish PART 2 of an exclusive interview with Goschen, in which he explains how to successfully do business in West Africa.

Click HERE to read PART 1 of this interview, in which Goschen talks about the business support role of a CFO and the challenges a mobile telecommunications multinational faces.

What was it like building MTN up in Nigeria?
"I was still working as managing director at Altech Autopage Cellular, when MTN approached me for the CFO role in Lagos in 2002. I was at a service provider level and thought this was a great opportunity to move up the industry value chain. Gaining international experience was also attractive to me. It was an amazing life and work culture experience. A place like Lagos has thousands of expatriates, who are away from their family and their usual circle of friends. That means it is very sociable and there is always something to do. Everybody is a lot friendlier."

"Most importantly, MTN Nigeria had just launched, so this was a massive greenfield opportunity. When I arrived, we had about 600 000 subscribers in a population of over 150 million. These days, MTN Nigeria has over 58 million subscribers and contributes almost half of the attributable profit of the whole MTN Group."

Some CFOs see Nigeria as the next frontier, others are nervous. What is your assessment?
"Obviously it is a huge economy, in real terms even bigger than South Africa. At the end of the day, you need to look at the opportunity, the expected returns and the risks. There were only a few hundred thousand people on fixed line telephones when we entered the market and we obviously benefited from a first mover advantage. In addition, when we started, there was very little existing competition or entrenched interests to upset. That is probably an easier model than new entrants to other industries may face. We have seen some failures of other international and South African companies going into Nigeria, but overall it depends on the soundness of your strategy, business model and ability to execute."

What advice can you give companies - and their CFOs - who want to conquer Nigeria?
"You need to be prepared to accept the pain. Don't be tempted to deviate from your ethical standards when encountering difficulties."

"One other area we found to be key to our success is having local shareholders and directors from all the major ethnic groups and regions. It might be harder for small businesses to achieve, but you need to have the right local partners. They can help you and provide guidance on community issues. In addition, using an appropriate advisor, like one of the Big 4 accounting firms, is essential for anybody doing business in Nigeria."

"To get acceptance from authorities, consumers and business partners, you need to develop and employ locals at a senior level. There is an incredible talent pool in Nigeria. At MTN, we have an academy and create our own skills base. Where is a new operation and we genuinely cannot find the skills locally, we look to the diaspora. It is also important to make sure your workforce is diverse."

And Ghana?
"There is a saying that if you are not yet in Africa as a business, you should try Ghana first before venturing elsewhere in Africa. It is investor friendly and it is easy to get to interact with government officials and other stakeholders. However, bear in mind that the country is facing a foreign currency shortage and their currency has recently devalued fairly significantly."

How have you enjoyed your role back in South Africa so far?
"My return to South Africa was rather sudden and I had to leave the packing up of my house to my wife in Lagos. Day-to-day life is much easier in South Africa in terms of the ease of moving around, shopping, the choice of restaurants and those kinds of comforts. Professionally, I am enjoying my multi-country role. I also have much more contact with equity investors and, take value from their insights and views. I am also more exposed to the Treasury side of things, international lenders and investment bankers."

After your CFO role in Nigeria, you were CEO in Ghana and Nigeria and now Group CFO again. How do you compare the roles? What advice can you give ambitious, young CFOs?
"I have been CFO three times and CEO three times since I joined the industry. I seem to alternate between the roles. From my perspective, I haven't set out to pursue one or the other career path. It has more been a case of where the opportunities and challenges have been and where I could contribute the most at a particular point in time. I believe that the focus of a CFO role should be on supporting. I believe that if you strive to make other people successful in the pursuit of the company's objectives, you will be successful too. That attitude can prepare you for a CEO role too."

"If you want to be a CEO, the best place to start is by focusing on your business support role. Enable your CEO to be more successful, enable your marketing manager and enable your tech guys. Be patient - don't be in a hurry with your career. If you want to be a CEO, everything you do as a CFO is still going to be valuable for your development. There are different types of CEOs that are effective. You don't always need to be a larger than life Steve Jobs kind of person."

Also read part 1 of this exclusive interview!