Ravi Singh: Working in Africa keeps finance flexible

CFOs must be agile, adaptable and hands-on, says Ravi Singh, CFO of Liberty Africa Insurance.

Tell us in brief about your role – is it focused more on strategy or day-to-day finance tasks?
“It’s focused more on strategy purely as a result of the environment that we are operating in i.e., having to focus on nine countries comprising 12 entities (seven long-term insurance businesses and five short-term insurance businesses) on the continent. There is naturally a significant focus on the day-to-day detailed finance operations and results in each of the entities. We also consolidate the results and bridge the gap between the group finance function at head office and the various countries. Being cognisant of deadlines and having to provide explanations on the performance across each entity, along with ad-hoc group requests, is time consuming. I’d therefore say that it’s currently a 60-40 split between strategy and day-to-day respectively. And when I say 40 percent, I mean there’s a lot of hard work that goes into that!”

You’ve been in your role since June 2016. What achievement in this time are you most proud of and why?
“Two come to mind: one is that we’ve eventually managed to automate the link from the operating systems to the accounting system for a number of the entities. That’s quite an achievement as it creates efficiencies across the countries and allows the finance guys to focus on more value adding analysis and other issues rather than having to push work out manually and reconcile the operating systems to numbers. Infrastructural challenges can be a barrier in some of the regions when it comes to automation. I am therefore proud of the successes that my team and I have managed to achieve despite these challenges.

“The second one is that through this role, I act as the Audit and Risk Committee (ARC) chairman/member, as well as a board member for a number of the African entities. It is an achievement in that it is not always easy to get ARC and/or board experience within South Africa. Furthermore, we have minority shareholders in most of the countries, some of which are highly successful entrepreneurial partners. To be given the lead on ARC matters and to sit with guys who’ve seen it all and done it all is quite a personal achievement for me and I’m proud to have transitioned these businesses to be more focused on corporate governance and to be more risk savvy.”

In your opinion, what is currently the most exciting aspect of the company’s strategy?
“The most exciting part of the company's strategy is that you have a unique strategy for each of the 12 different entities. While there is standardisation of the overall strategic intent from a group perspective, to get each entity to align with the strategy requires adaptation and a thorough understanding of the market, competitors and the growth available in that operating country. Implementing and tracking the strategy through the end-to-end integration of these companies, i.e., re-branding, implementing systems, implementing sound corporate governance, etcetera, along with ensuring that we implement suitable products and grow the sales channels at a cost that makes business sense, is very fulfilling, especially when done across so many entities that are at different stages of business maturity.”

How do you keep the finance team – and the business – flexible and agile in all of this?
“It comes with the role in Africa! [This he says with a very hearty laugh.] I can say that Africa is not for sissies! It is extremely difficult and when you’re looking at 12 entities, there is certainly no lack of challenges. There’s always something to test the finance guys. It’s very fast-paced in Africa and there are constant risks that need addressing, numbers to be reviewed in great detail so that they are explainable at a group level, so it’s a busy environment to say the least.”

What are some of the nuances of the industry in which you operate?
“A big issue that we have is the markets in some of the countries. If the markets take a dip, you see the impact on your investments, which translates into an impact on your income statement. You must be extremely cautious as to where you invest your money, including bank selection in-country, where it is compulsory to invest a certain proportion of funds locally.”

What is the biggest external risk facing the company and how do you mitigate this?
“Regulatory changes, which tend to come through regularly and quickly – just as you think you’re settling down, something comes up in a country and in an instant your income statement looks different. There are other regulatory issues to contend with too, such as that CFOs can only be local residents. We’ve also seen capital requirements change regularly in a few countries, which immediately impacts your capital adequacy ratio and future financial decisions.”

What would you say has been the most difficult decision you’ve faced in your career?
“The 2008/2009 global financial crisis, which coincided with my very first CFO role. Being a newbie to a CFO role – and dealing with that level of discomfort in the country and markets – resulted in me having to be more resilient on costs and savings to make up for any shortfalls. There were a lot of hard decisions that I had to take as a junior CFO which were unpopular, including retrenchments. There was also cost-cutting of comforts to which staff were accustomed. I had to deal with a lot of unhappy staff and their comments or concerns. But coming through that has made me stronger as a CFO.”

In your opinion, what makes a great CFO? Moreover, how do you see the role of the CFO going in the future?
“CFOs must be agile and adaptable within the space they operate. While the big requirements were traditionally on accurate and reliable financial reporting, strategy and moving the business forward with the CEO/MD, the reality is that the role has evolved over time and there is equal pressure for you to be more hands-on in areas such as risk and compliance, data issues and IT, cyber risk, product rollouts and projects. That requires a strong finance team to support you. Naturally you’d like the person or people who represent you in the various meetings to be highly competent and capable of making decisions in those meetings. It makes it easier to monitor the execution of decisions. There are, however, certain more riskier issues or projects that require attention to detail and hence full oversight by the CFO from beginning to end. A great CFO therefore must have the ability to employ and lead a strong, competent team while also understanding when to go back to basics and get involved in the detail of riskier issues from start to finish.

Have you achieved a work-life balance and if so, what does this look like?
“This particular role has probably been my most vertical learning curve. It’s difficult focusing on one business at a time, so when you’re dealing with complexity and 12 separate business entities, your work-life balance does take some strain. Also, because I sit on some of these boards and I’m the ARC chair for some of them, the travel is extensive. It’s pretty tough but you get through it. I’m married and have two boys – ages nine and 12. We have a good support system so that makes it a lot easier. On weekends we try to have as much fun as possible as a family.”

What are your interests outside of work? How do you like to spend your free time?
“I enjoy travelling, reading and soccer. I want to provide my kids with as much exposure to worldwide cultures as possible. We like to plan our travels and maximise leave. I love soccer and we’ve been to games outside of South Africa as a family. Next on our travel list will be Italy, a favourite of the entire family.”