Nick shares his thoughts on life, legacy, and longevity as he prepares for retirement in two years.
When Nick Thomson started his career over 40 years ago, he embarked on a legal B.Com, as initially wanted to go into law. But after a few accounting classes, he realised that he was more interested in finance.
With a B.Com in hand, and after a few months of working at Goldfields, he started articles with Ernst and Whinney, a predecessor to EY, and recalls, “I enjoyed the academic challenge of qualifying as a CA. I found that it was a qualification that combined the power of an understanding of numbers and what goes into them, with an understanding of business and the economics of what’s happening in the world.
“Using that combination of insights, you can better identify the areas where you can make a positive contribution. What I also learned was the importance of hard work and prioritisation, as with most of my generation, our final few years of studying and the preparation for the board exam was done part-time on top of working a full week – and often the weekends – due to client deadlines.”
After becoming a CA in 1982, Nick stayed in the profession, which gave him exposure to significant development opportunities. There he learned how various aspects of business operated, which formed the foundation for a long, successful career.
After completing his articles, he stayed with EY, becoming a partner in 1987, after spending a year with EY in London. In 1999, he moved from KwaZulu-Natal to Johannesburg and took on the Transnet account as the overall engagement partner.
It was a significant account encompassing entities crucial to the development of South Africa, such as the ports, Spoornet (later Transnet Freight Rail) and Metrorail and in those days, SAA. “What made working on this account so fulfilling was that back then, an auditor was also able to be a trusted advisor and could support both management and the board to identify and implement improvements,” he says.
It was after 20 years as a partner with EY that he crossed over and joined Transnet Freight Rail (TFR) as chief financial officer in 2005, working with industry giants such as Maria Ramos, Louis van Niekerk and Chris Wells to improve the performance and governance of the SOE.
At TFR, he was responsible for the financial aspects of both the operational turnaround and growth strategy which entailed, among others, the strengthening and strategic management of the balance sheet as well as enhancing the internal control environment and negotiating significant commercial contracts for the coal line and iron ore and manganese lines, which provided the revenue needed for the rejuvenation and expansion of capacity on these lines.
In April 2012, Nick was appointed as group chief financial officer at Afrox. His responsibilities included the financial portfolio, treasury function, procurement and strategy. In 2015 he joined Reunert, an industrial group with a portfolio of businesses in electrical engineering, ICT and applied electronics as their chief financial officer.
Building blocks for lasting success
Looking back on his career, Nick offers some of the fundamental principles which have stood him in good stead. The first is to operate within a personal value system:
“I would advise young finance professionals to identify their own set of beliefs and join companies that align with them.”
He says values alignment is crucial because a key requirement in finance, beyond simply driving performance, is having integrity and doing what’s right. “Very often doing what’s right is not that easy, so your strength of character combined with the organisation’s sense of right and wrong become very important,” he says.
Another key element of longevity is clarity around issues. “I avoid jumping to conclusions and always make time to understand issues and think through solutions before offering an opinion. Very often, people talk before they think; the older you get and the higher up you go in your career, you realise that it's more important to think before you speak and to listen.”
Additionally, he urges anyone growing their career to be guided by their interests and not a paycheck. “Ideally do not join an organisation just to make money, but rather because they solve problems and provide solutions/products you identify with, and because you think there’s an opportunity for you to make a difference in the organisation. By having meaningful work that you excel at, you are likely to make the money you want.
“Solely chasing money can disrupt the choices you make, and in the longer term you may find fewer opportunities for learning or advancing your career. This is because when you go on to new jobs you are constantly changing environment and contact bases and not developing the deep skills and the industry understanding needed to help develop the success of that organisation, which is where you really start to add value. So, it’s important when joining an organisation to understand how you are going to grow in it, and the different roles you could potentially take on, so you have the opportunity to change your role frequently but not the company you work for.”
Nick advises periodically taking a step back and seeing how you can put the skills you are building along the way into play in a different or expanded role, thereby ensuring that you do continue to use your skills and add to your arsenal of your competencies. When the time is right based on your self-assessment, you should actively seek the new role you are ready to challenge yourself with.
“The great thing about being a CA is that there are so many career paths you can pursue,” he says. “You can stay in the profession working in areas such as business consulting, tax, auditing or technical advisory and have many different roles within the same business , or if you so choose and depending on how you chart your course, you can find yourself in the C-Suite participating in the strategic decisions and managing performance and capital allocation which impact the success of the company you are with. Alternatively, with all the skills you have built through becoming and practising as a CA, you can start your own business or buy into a business.”
Tried and true leadership
Nick’s leadership style has evolved over time and is a mix of his intrinsic personality and influences over time. “I would say I have a collaborative leadership style. I like to understand issues and be on the same page so that we are all going to solve the problem together. It’s not an autocratic style, although it is also not purely democratic in that ultimately decisions have to be made and implemented and responsibility taken.”
He says strong relationships are key to leading any team, “Over time and in dealing with significant issues with clients or in the business, you soon realise you can’t do everything yourself. As a leader, if you don’t rally the people and resources you need to meet challenges and achieve goals together, you will have a difficult time.”
Nick outlines his general approach to navigating an issue as:
“First try to understand the problem, then develop a view of your own. Then consult others to test your view and refine it, build consensus and have an action plan. As a leader, it is important to follow up; you do not abdicate at the point of allocating responsibility. You still have to check in and make sure people are not getting stuck or derailed.”
He says that as you go up, your sphere of influence gets greater than your own department or function and the people who report directly to you. “You have to widen your understanding of other parts of the organisation and touch base with people throughout the business in order to be able to help address opportunities and issues holistically and to help where needed.”
The legacy he wants to leave behind
Talking about the legacy he wants to leave when he retires, Nick says that because he isn’t the founder of a company, he understands the rules are different. “I have been in enough organisations to know that if you have been in professional management, that when you leave, the organisation will miss you for a short while, but will continue without you. That’s just the nature of things, because people live in the moment and for the future. And once you are no longer a part of that, they and the organisation move on.”
One of his proudest career accomplishments has been watching people develop and go on to achieve big goals and have significant impact. He has also found it rewarding to see how he has affected people’s thinking and ways of doing things.
“I hope people I have worked with continue to use the lessons we learned together to achieve great things in their own right and grow others in the process. I would wish that to be my legacy,” he says.
When he isn’t working, Nick has a passion for running. He has run three Comrades and seven Two Oceans Marathons. “I have always been a runner. The great thing about running is that it allows you to clear your head, it's flexible, and you don’t need fancy equipment to enjoy it.”
With more time in his schedule, Nick looks forward to logging more steps in retirement and seeing more of his family.