CFOs need to be ruthless and human: Peregrine Group CFO Rob Katz

As Group CFO of Peregrine Group, Robert Katz says he has learnt valuable leadership lessons from his two favourite hobbies - boxing and long-distance running. In this exclusive interview Rob discusses the need for finance leaders to be both ruthless and human, and shares what he has learned in the ring, on the road and beyond.

  • Rob Katz became the CEO of Peregrine in 2017.

“You cannot afford to crack under the pressure. You can never go backwards; you have to go forward.”

“Our era is poor in authentic heroes,” Rob wrote in a recent edition of ‘Soul Sport’, a publication by and for the Jewish community in South Africa and which explores the fusion of sport and spirituality. A read through this gripping article about three Jewish prize-fighters who were caught up in the holocaust reveals much of what Rob loves and stands for: contemporary history, biographies, Judaism, writing, order and structure, boxing and the amazing power of the human spirit.

“The youth from Poland, the fighter from Thessaloniki and the Sephardi Jew from Tunisia all tell of the horrors of traveling in cattle cars, of the painful separation from loving families and the violation and exploitation in the name of war and genocide. All three are bound together by two common threads: being Jewish and a love for the sport of boxing.” – Rob Katz in Soul Sport

In 2016, Rob not only penned this piece, he was also nominated for the CFO of the Year Awards for his successful tenure at Peregrine, an innovative niche listed financial services company within the wealth and asset management domain. After he let slip that he “grew up in the ring” during his childhood in Johannesburg and after he talked about the “tough” working environment and the role he sees for himself as a mentor to his staff, CFO South Africa looked him up in his office in Sandton and quizzed him on the lessons CFOs can learn from boxing and long-distance road running.

“I like to read and write,” says Rob, when asked about his ‘Soul Sport’ article. “I also get interviewed on a boxing talk show quite often,” he reveals, showing some YouTube footage of the internet show ‘Hot Boxing Talk’, where he is introduced as a boxing historian and discussed the legacy of the legendary Muhammad Ali, who passed away in June, calling him “the greatest in heart and the greatest in toughness”. Scrolling through his phone, Rob then shows another video, in which the CFO is donning gloves and having a go at a punching bag. He later says that he was “a very average boxer” when he grew up, never able to dedicate as much time as he would want to the ring, as studying at night and working during the day got in the way. But he clearly still loves to throw a punch.

Lonely in the ring
“Boxing was my first passion,” says Rob. “As I got older, I wanted to find a sport that was social and physical and I started long-distance running. If you want to keep fit consistently, you have to participate in a sport that you like with people that you like, just as in your work you need to do a job you like with people you like. The advantage about long-distance road running was joining a club like Bedfordview running club where lifelong bonds and relationships were formed with people from all walks of life running up big hills at five in the morning training for Comrades Marathons.”

Boxing and running require a methodical approach, discipline and long hours. No wonder Rob says CFOs can learn a lot from it. “Boxing has taught me it is lonely in the ring – and it is lonely in leadership. The higher up you are, the lonelier it gets and the more slippery the slope. As you take on better opponents, the margin of error decreases and the ability to fail increases. The same thing is true when making a career as an executive.”

Both long-distance running and boxing dictate that you cannot go backwards, says Rob. “As a CFO you are often faced with long, relentless hours of working through decisions or long meetings where you have to be on top of your game all the time. You need to be well-prepared technically, mentally and physically. The discipline that is required in my sports has provided me with practice for the long hours I work as a CFO, either in meetings, doing research or putting together presentations for the board. You cannot leave anything to chance.”

Pictured left: Jonathan Hertz, Group CEO, Charlene Nolan, Group Financial Manager, Rob Katz, Group CFO, and Heather Berrange, Audit Partner KPMG

No room for error
No doubt there is a significant dose of adrenaline that stimulates both the sportsman and the CFO to keep going and stay focussed. “It is not normal to take punches or run 89 kilometres, but if you condition yourself you can do it. It often gives me an advantage over other people. I can outlast almost anybody.”

“Being a CFO is very pressurised and it is relentless. You cannot afford to crack under the pressure. Just like in the ring and on the road, giving up means failure. You need to carry on.”

These lessons are becoming more pertinent each day, says Rob. “There is no room for error. Being CFO of a listed company is no joke! It is also important to note that as technology is speeding up, the CFO’s decision-making process needs to accelerate too and it is increasingly important to have high levels of energy. You need to be relentless and keep going, one step in front of the other.”

Being born into a Jewish family, Rob lives his religion, which is “very structured and rule-based”, not unlike what is required from a CFO. “It is a way of life,” he confirms. “The values and philosophy of Judaism dictate everyday life. I enjoy reading Jewish law and philosophy.” A few weeks after Muhammad Ali died, the famous Romanian-born Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel passed away. “Elie Wiesel was one of my absolute heroes. Despite the horrors, like witnessing his father’s cruel death, he came out of Auschwitz with humanity and dignity. He still had hope and wrote and spoke about that, which culminated in him winning the Legion of Honour and Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.”

Focus on the core
Peregrine is a niche financial services provider which, according to Rob, “attracts some of the most competent and capable people in the industry; real traders that stand out in their fields. In these businesses we need people with the right mentality, people that can take the business forward through all kinds of economic cycles”

Rob’s nomination for the 2016 CFO Awards came on the back of a massive and prolonged spike in the share price of Peregrine Group – the value of the company grew threefold between mid-2013 and mid-2015. As most CFO’s would, he deflects questions about his role. “I am just one of many people of Peregrine’s success,” says Rob. “The Holdings team led by our group CEO Jonathan Hertz has enabled the people that run our businesses to “run the businesses”. In addition, we have disposed of non-core businesses along the way and focused on the core.”

Intellectual capital UK-firm Stenham Property was one of the sales, as was Peregrine’s private equity business with its “choppy earnings”, says Rob. “We prefer predictability. With my background as CFO of the retail division at Standard Bank, I have a good understanding of the importance of annuity income.”

Besides running a nimble and effective group finance team, one of the most important aspects of his role is the relationship with the markets, says Rob. He adds that a thorough understanding of future growth prospects is vital. “The market looks to the CEO and CFO for guidance on the company and to find out what fair value is. We are proud of our success, but it has not come as a surprise. We have a fantastic amount of intellectual capital in the group. We are now getting recognition from the markets.”

Following on the theme about sports and its social side, Rob says the people side of work is crucial because of the sheer amount of time you spend together. “The influence of a leader on other people is enormous. You have a meaningful effect on their well-being. I view the people who work with me as my responsibility. I like to see them growing. I don’t mind people making mistakes, but they shouldn’t make the same mistake twice. I try to build people up, and it does require a big investment of time but it is certainly worth the effort.

Rob feels the intangible nature of Peregrine’s business makes it even harder to operate as a finance executive. “What I enjoy is the academic and people side of being a CFO. It is technically challenging. I work with a lot of people in a lot of disciplines and am integral to the strategic decision-making. I believe in honesty. Being a CFO in a listed company, if you lose trust once you lose it forever. I also believe you need to enjoy what you are doing. You cannot go to the gym and hit the bag and keep the discipline if you don’t enjoy it. Work is the same.”

The success of Peregrine’s businesses is largely due to several leaders, Rob calls them “real leaders in their industries”, who are both brilliant and in many cases, exceptionally well off financially.

"The challenge is to make sure we can assist these leaders of the underlying businesses strategically and with financial muscle. To do that we need to be clever, fair and human. Our secret at Peregrine is that we do not accept mediocrity. If you are not successful, we will part ways. Life is not a dress rehearsal and we certainly try to be honest all the time with our people.”

Shoshana foundation
Besides boxing, running and working as a CFO, Rob Katz also runs a charity that he founded. The Shoshana (rose) Foundation aims to assist single mothers in need, by providing financial assistance and organizing get-togethers. “I grew up in a single mother background,” says Rob. “It is difficult being a single mother. You have to be both a mother and father. Earning a living is challenging because often you have to focus primarily on your children. I can tell you some heart-wrenching stories. That is why I decided to do something to help.”

Visit the Shoshana Foundation's website.