Ralph Mupita: What not being a CA taught me

As an engineer, Ralph Mupita believes he brings skills such as pattern recognition into finance.

Ralph Mupita, the CFO of telecommunications giant MTN, didn’t have a conventional journey in building his finance career. Unlike his counterparts, he doesn’t have a chartered accountant (CA) qualification; he is a civil engineer by training. 

Speaking during an interview with CFO South Africa editor-in-chief Georgina Guedes at the Finance Indaba on Thursday, Ralph said his journey into the finance world is akin to a “life of accidents”.

Not coming from CA ranks, Ralph said he had to reinvent himself. In trying to break into the business world because there wasn’t a lot of infrastructure activity in South Africa during the ’90s for engineers, he applied for a Master of Business Administration with a focus on investment banking. His application was rejected. He views the rejection as a gift because it propelled him to start his finance career at Old Mutual, where he spent 17 years in various roles. 

“I think coming from an engineering background has helped me a lot in the finance profession. Engineering teaches you about pattern recognition, observing trends, using and trusting data to make decisions. These skills help when it comes to problem-solving in finance,” he said. 

After spending more than a decade at Old Mutual, he was approached in 2016 by MTN chairperson Phuthuma Nhleko to join the telecommunications company as CFO. 

It was a moment of “jumping in the deep end”, as months after he joined MTN, the company received a more than $1.5 billion fine from the Nigerian government for failing to disconnect 5.2 million subscribers as part of its crackdown against unregistered SIM cards. Ralph and his team have managed to overcome this hurdle, with MTN even embarking on a listing of its shares on the Nigerian Stock Exchange on May 2019. 

He believes his finance journey underscores that not every CFO should hold a CA qualification. 

“South Africa and the UK have an obsession with CAs being the only ones who can do finance. In the US, a lawyer or engineer can be a CFO. Europe is the same. Having a CA qualification is specific to SA and the UK.”

Ralph called for the finance profession to adjust its thinking about the journey of a finance professional.

“Anyone can do well in the industry if they are surrounded by a good team. I don’t need to know everything. The problem in the finance industry is that you have the breeding of the same kind of thinking. People are who are curious and different are in short supply. Curiosity is important for growth whether you are a CFO or CA.”

Ralph recently received four awards at the CFO Awards, including CFO of the Year, for the pivotal part he’s played in turning MTN around during its moments of adversity. 

He credited his team for the big wins. “The award wasn’t about me. The work gets done by the team. Very little gets done by individuals. I’m blessed to have a world-class team.”

To young and upcoming finance professionals, Ralph had the following advice: “One of the important things in life is to stay hungry and stay foolish.”

“Always be open to learning. Find people who are interested in you being successful and people who will help you have a long-term vision for your career.”