New job, new baby - Meroonisha Kerber's got this

She took on the Implats CFO role during a restructuring, just as she fell pregnant.

When Meroonisha Kerber makes a new beginning, she doesn’t do things by halves. In a meeting with members of the nomination committee and the CEO of Implats to discuss her appointment as CFO, they briefed her on the challenging nature of the role due to the difficult financial circumstances in which the company found itself in a persistently low platinum group metals (PGMs) price environment, and which would require some very tough management decisions.

“I joined Implats on 1 August, and we announced a restructuring around the company’s Impala Rustenburg operation on the second. We had some liquidity issues – the balance sheet was under a bit of pressure because of years of depressed platinum group metals prices.”

This restructuring would potentially affect the lives of many people employed by the mining company – a fact that Meroonisha was very aware of. Her second day on the job – the day the restructuring was announced – was her hardest day professionally.

“Announcing a restructuring that could potentially impact the livelihoods of 13,000 people is a sobering way to come into a company. When I joined, I had some idea of potentially how many people would be affected, and I came in to be a part of that. I was aware too of how difficult it was for the management team to get to this point.”

But taking on the CFO role wasn’t the only significant change that Meroonisha was making in her life at the time. When she entered into discussions with the Implats leadership, she was also waiting to find out if her latest round of IVF had resulted in a pregnancy. While not legally obliged to do so, she felt ethically compelled to share the possibility with the company she intended joining.

“It was a difficult time joining a company faced with significant challenges, and then, on a personal note, not knowing if I was pregnant or not. When I told Nico Muller, the CEO, of this possibility I was very nervous. I thought he would have a change of heart, but he just said, ‘This is life.’ I knew then he was going to be supportive through the process, which was hugely comforting.”

It turned out that she was pregnant, which meant that she took maternity leave at a difficult time for the company. But with the support of the CEO and her extremely hands-on team, she was able to navigate her new professional and family roles.

“All challenges create opportunity. I’ve learnt a lot with all the changes and haven’t at any stage regretted my decision – but my life certainly would have been simpler if I had stayed where I was.”

She did work while on maternity leave. “We were inducing the early conversion of our US convertible bonds into equity, and were also in the process of acquiring a Canadian palladium asset. My colleague, Kirthanya Pillay, executive of corporate development, who ran these processes, was very supportive during that period and tried to accommodate my availability. From Nico all the way down to my finance team - they’ve really been there for me.”

The benefits of experience
Although Meroonisha joined Implats from AngloGold Ashanti, she had previously spent 11 years at Anglo American Platinum, so the peaks and troughs of the platinum cycle were not new to her.

“Being in the industry for such a long time, you accumulate knowledge around the technical aspects of the business. To be able to get the final metal out in platinum group metals is much more difficult than in gold. So understanding the complexities does make it easier to come in as a CFO – which then, of course, comes with its own unique challenges.”

Shortly after the restructuring was announced, PGM prices rebounded, providing more optionality to her and her team.

“The reality is that in South Africa, which has deep conventional mines with large infrastructure and overheads, and high labour complements, when the cycle turns, these operations come under significant margin pressure.”

The asset that they acquired in Canada has “really healthy margins”. “This acquisition gives us the opportunity to continue to operate profitably through the cycle. However, almost half of Implats’s production comes from Impala Rustenburg, which has a high costs base and puts us, as a Group, under pressure.

“However, restructuring is never an easy decision for a mining company to make, because a large part of our costs is labour.  When I arrived, the company was reducing costs through the supply chain. The business had to address operations making losses in an oversupplied market. Once supply chain costs are reduced, the next thing to look at is labour, which are the hardest costs to reduce because of the socioeconomic impact on all our stakeholders.”

The decision was therefore made to reduce the Impala Rustenburg footprint by reducing the number of shafts in operation in a phased manner to ensure profitability – this at an operation which is currently ramping up two new big shafts. Implats’s biggest challenge was to get the timing right so the shafts scheduled to go into care and maintenance coincided with the ramp up of the new shafts enabling the redeployment of labour resources and mitigating job losses. But then PGM prices turned.

“We made progress in addressing the profitability of this mine, but we’re now in a higher price environment, which gives us more optionality. It doesn’t mean the problem goes away, and we’re still trying to see what the best options are for Impala Rustenburg in the longer term.”

She says that while a different industry might be easier to work in, she’s never had a dull moment in the mining space. “There’s always a different challenge, and it’s a very complex environment with numerous stakeholders and the volatility of commodity cycles. But I think it’s the challenging part that I enjoy.”

Her biggest challenge, she says, is her responsibility for the balance sheet. “I have to make sure that we are liquid, and that our balance sheet is strong enough to withstand volatility in prices, exchange rates and pricing disruption. It focuses the mind when 40,000 employees are dependent on the decisions we make. We have to make sure that the company is robust enough from a financial perspective. It’s quite a sobering responsibility and something I take very seriously.”

She says that she’s also found new corporate actions – such as the US convertible bond transaction and being part of the acquisition of the Canadian asset – extremely interesting and exciting.

“And in between all of this, I try to spend as much time with my son as possible,” she says.

The importance of family
Meroonisha comes from what she describes as a humble background. Her parents couldn’t afford to send her or her three other siblings to university. “Being the practical person that I am, I looked at what career I could get a bursary for, which would guarantee me a role after I completed my studies. I wanted to know that once I had qualified, I could get a job easily and be able to take care of my family. I looked at engineering, but finance was my final choice. It helped that I enjoyed accounting at school.”

Her family, she says, is very tight knit, and she and her siblings were all there for each other through university, helping with tuition fees and general support. “I realise how important it is to have a support structure to rely on. My mom is awesome.”

Meroonisha’s youngest sister introduced her to the man who became her husband – they both worked for SAP, she in South Africa and he in Germany. Meroonisha says that she had been extremely career focused for most of her adult life, so finding a life partner when she was in her forties was something of a surprise. And then realising that they wanted a baby, and managing to fall pregnant has been extremely positive, but also an unexpected turn.

She says that her husband is extremely supportive and has negotiated a reduced work week with flexible work arrangements for himself, so that he can spend mornings with their son. Her mother looks after their son in the afternoons.

“I don’t have to worry about whether he’s looked after while I am working. And that allows me to work the hours that I do. Without this kind of support, I don’t think I would have been able to do it. We wanted him so much, but we also have to make certain time sacrifices.” 

She says that some evenings she’ll go home earlier so that she can spend time on Skype calls later in the evening. “People are much more accepting of the demands of family life than they were in the past, and that, and modern technology, has made it possible to be more flexible.”

Hindsight and foresight
In a year in which Meroonisha has settled down into the role of CFO of a significant listed business, become a parent, returned to work and effectively balanced the demands of these challenging roles, it’s a good time for her to reflect on the steps that got her here.

“When I started out in the mining industry, things weren’t always easy for women. In hindsight, if I could go back and change things, I would probably have stayed truer to myself.  I became quite tough to deal with the environment I was in, and that’s not necessarily the person that I am. I realised later on in my career that if you’re not being true to yourself, it creates a certain tension. As a woman, you’re often told not to be emotional at work. But in hindsight, the thing that set me apart was the fact that I was a woman – I didn’t have to be less emotional. I would go back and tell myself to embrace more of who I really am.”

Meroonisha believes that the winning formula for being a great CFO is having a sound understanding of finance, especially in the face of the complexity of the current regulatory environment, understanding the industry you are in, and then having a strong focus on corporate governance and a strong and reliable finance team.

“Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions and you need a strong moral compass. It’s not always easy to make the right decision, but if you have integrity, then it’s easier.”

When CFO Magazine asked her where she sees herself in five years’ time, she was candid about the fact that her focus right now is on the present. 

“I haven’t thought that far. I hadn’t thought in a million years that I would become a mum. And then I’ve been trying to get back into work and find that balance. Five years from now seems a very long way from this. I’m just trying to take it day by day.”