MTO CFO Cindy Cloete solving number puzzles

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As CFO of a leading agro-forestry circular economy organisation, Cindy likes nothing more than solving puzzles.

After completing her undergraduate accounting degree at the University of Stellenbosch, where she met her husband, Cindy Cloete moved to Durban to complete her honours. “Sometimes the way things work out is very serendipitous,” she says. “I ended up at a firm called BDO to do my articles, which is not traditionally part of the big four, but to be honest it suited me perfectly. I’m one of those people who wants to learn little bits about everything and working in a smaller firm allowed me to do just that.”

Moving up to Johannesburg after completing her articles, Cindy learnt even more through working in a variety of roles and industries, in everything from pharmaceuticals to cement and construction to banking. “In the world of finance, it’s not just the numbers that keep me going,” she says. “I like the picture, the story that the numbers tell. Making sense of the numbers depicts what’s going on in the business from a numerical perspective – that’s what I like to uncover.”

Seeking a better quality of life for their growing family, Cindy and her husband decided to move back to Cape Town in 2018. That’s when MTO came knocking. While she was completely unfamiliar with the forestry industry, Cindy was inspired by the people of MTO and their passion for what they could do within and outside of the company in terms of creating transformation in the forestry industry. Four years later she remains motivated by this shared commitment to making a difference.

“While forestry is a very traditional industry in terms of the way things are done, MTO has a vision of creating a more circular economy with forestry,” she explains. “Besides just conducting traditional forestry activities, this vision involves embarking and expanding into agriculture, having a more holistic transformation strategy in terms of how we can help our communities, our own people, and how we can transform the industry.

“It was, and still is, exciting to me that MTO is committed to transforming, growing, and exploring other alternatives within the industry. To a large degree, we’ve embarked on quite a few of those journeys.”

This thinking ties into an executive development course she’s currently completing with the University of Stellenbosch, which includes a module on sustainability where the idea of a circular economy is particularly topical. “For example, MTO supplies biomass – a plant-based material used as fuel to produce heat or electricity – to a dairy, so that they are less reliant on fossil fuels for generation of steam for pasteurisation of their milk,” she explains. “This is just one of the things we’re doing as part of our current strategic initiatives where we are focusing a lot on energy and biomass projects.”

Another part of MTO’s holistic transformation strategy is transforming the communities in which it operates – an initiative to which Cindy strongly connects. “One of the things I’m passionate about is education,” she says. “My parents and grandfather were teachers and one of the things my mother always says to me is: ‘you may not have anything, but as long as you have an education, you can do something.’”

Cindy was also raised to always have gratitude for what she had as well as an awareness that there are those who don’t have as much. “One of our projects is around food security, access to education, healthcare and housing and it’s amazing to be part of embarking on that journey,” she says. “The challenge from a finance perspective is that this is something that hasn’t been done before.”

This presents just the type of puzzle that Cindy loves to piece together. “We need to figure out how to marry the finance with the awesome things we’re trying to do from a transformation perspective,” she explains. While all corporates have the goal of making profits, investing in people, and protecting the planet also need to be imperatives, the value of which global business is beginning to recognise.

“My role is to support the transformation projects while trying to convince our shareholders and people interested in our equity that we are doing the right things,” she says. “It’s exciting. From a financial perspective, it’s very much about making profits and transformation projects need to work in parallel with this – ensuring we’re performing from an underlying operations perspective which then enables us to support and drive these initiatives.”

Marrying the two also demands a certain degree of flexibility, a quality which Cindy herself has cultivated through the lessons she’s learnt in her career so far. “As finance people we’re often viewed as seeing things as black or white, right or wrong,” she says.

“I’ve got a type one personality, so it is like that for me, but I’ve learned to be flexible and open to change throughout my journey because of the different types of people that I’ve worked with. That doesn’t mean your values are negotiable, there are certain values that I continue to hold dear to my heart irrespective of how flexible I am. It’s more about being flexible in terms of considering that there’s a different way of doing things and knowing that considering a different opinion is fine.”

This is not only something Cindy applies at executive level where she consciously listens and considers others’ points of view, but also in terms of managing her team. “By being more flexible as opposed to just thinking I’m 100 percent correct, we’re able to hopefully arrive at a mutually beneficial answer,” she says.

“In terms of my team, if people realise that you are willing and flexible enough to consider their viewpoints, it makes them open to sharing them, something that they don’t always do in a hierarchical environment. I think it kills a lot of creativity when a leader thinks they’re the only one with the right answer, so I encourage my team to ask questions, to share and to challenge me on important issues.”

Indeed, there’s nothing quite like a challenge to get Cindy’s juices flowing, which is why she’s passionate about her CFO role. For example, while the Covid-19 pandemic brought much turbulence and anxiety, it was a chance to put her problem-solving skills to good use. “For me, the difficulties were combined with a sense of wanting to fix the puzzle, to figure out how we get out of this,” she says. “What gets me going is the ability to look at something from a high-level view and seeing how to move around parts of a problem to solve it.”

Cindy is particularly proud of how she and her team managed to work around gaps in the TERS system to ensure staff members benefitted as much as possible in an uncertain environment. Maintaining connections digitally, both through lockdown and hybrid working, was also a significant challenge in terms of supporting the company’s people through a nerve-wracking time – and is something she’s proud to have mastered.

Speaking of how she spends her leisure time, Cindy laughs saying that having three children doesn’t afford her much time for hobbies. “However, I love the beach, anything water-related, as well as the multitude of wine farms that surround Cape Town,” she says. “No day can be better spent than by sipping on a glass of wine amidst the beauty of the Cape.”
Considering the dedication that she shows to her work, it’s clear that Cindy deserves many such days to simply unwind from the rewarding and stimulating, but mentally taxing task of puzzle-solving.

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