Rhinos, tenders & transformation: a chat with SANParks CFO Rajesh Mahabeer

"SANParks is a large, multifaceted organisation with several focal areas, including tourism, conservation and the management of estates. This mix creates a different level of complexity. I would say SANParks is far more complex than other environment where I've worked," says Rajesh Mahabeer, CFO of South African National Parks (SANParks).

Rajesh is responsible for the organisation's entire financial portfolio, supply chain management and fundraising, and oversees a department comprised of 170 people nationally. "It's very gratifying to see such large estates managed to such word-class standards on very lean budgets."

Why did you choose to pursue a career in finance?
"Growing up, I always had a strong orientation to understanding figures and understanding the actions that support the figures, and vice versa. I felt that I was able to make sense of the issues relatively easily. I realised early on that I had a strong inclination for numbers, which made me investigate what careers were available to someone strong in the numbers game, especially Mathematics. I eventually narrowed this down to a career in finance, given the broad role it plays in the world generally."

You've been in the finance industry for a long time - some 35-odd years. What would you say are some of the most significant changes you've seen during this time?
"My journey in the accountancy profession has been both exhilarating and fascinating at the same time, largely due to a several paradigm shifts over the last 35 years. The accountant of the past was someone considered to be a 'bean counter' and somebody who balanced the books in the back room. But over the years there's been a transition from the back room to the boardroom, and the role of the accountant has grown as South Africa's economy grew, particularly due to opportunities on the global markets. This called for advanced technical skills in terms of IFRS and transfrontier tax treatments and significant input in developing the strategy of the organisation and implementing the financial strategy effectively. The accountant now has a direct role to play in developing and driving the organisation's strategy and ensuring it meets all of its objective beyond just the financial. The CFO has positioned himself to be aligned to the role and responsibilities of the CEO by being a direct support structure to both the CEO and the board, thereby ensuring the success of the organisation on a sustainable basis."

"A finance background enables you to get involved in various aspects of a business, allowing you to make a significant contribution that affect the wider organisation."

What is your proudest accomplishment to date?
"Each time I joined an organisation, such as Walter Sisulu University, the Auditor-General of South Africa and more recently SANParks, I did so at a time when there were significant challenges in terms of the financial management and the construction of the books for the financial year-end. So I joined each at vulnerable points but together with my team managed to stabilise the organisation in a short period of time, get an unqualified audit report and get the organisation into safe waters as far as financial governance, management and administration were concerned."

What do you most enjoy about your line of work?
"It's very dynamic and fast-paced. I enjoy being engaged in several meetings that straddle the length and breadth of the organisation, from anti-poaching to growing tourism income, to developing a financial platform for future growth, fundraising, looking at the IT strategy. Being embroiled in so many different aspects of the organisation has given me the opportunity to grow and learn, and also bring past experience and skill to the discussions at hand."

You've been CFO of SANParks for just over one year. How has your time here been? What have you achieved in this time?
"Fascinating from day one. There have also been many challenges. SANParks is a large, multifaceted organisation with several focal areas, including tourism, conservation and the management of estates, which is collectively the national park system. This mix creates a different level of complexity. I've been exposed to many areas of the business I've not been formally involved in previously, such as the fight against rhino poaching, or working to grow tourism incomes with colleagues. The role has been quite different and varied. But it's very stimulating and I remain completely engaged."

"I joined on 1 February 2015, just before the financial yearend. We were able to streamline what we had to do in preparation for the financial year-end audit considering the various administrative challenges, which were adequately dealt with by the team. We got an unqualified audit report and the AG reported that our financial statements were free of material misstatements. I also serve on the executive committee and the audit and risk committee, and support the board in its work. To date, we've made significant inroads in corporate governance and strengthening the organisation's financial administration and management. All these things together have positioned SANParks into a space where it can effectively go out there and promote its brands in terms of trying to secure donations for the many things that it needs to do. We've just gone through a process of developing a fundraising strategy, so we've been positioning the organisation to capitalise on its strong global brand and support this by presenting a strong corporate governance picture that will give donors confidence."

As SANParks CFO, you are responsible for driving the organisation's financial strategy. Could you tell us what this strategy entails?
"Our strategy begins with our revenue streams, which are broken down into two segments: tourism income and conservation fees generation. We also receive a third income stream via the government as the land is government ground, and a fourth from donations. We currently cover about 80% of our operating costs based on our own revenued income - a high percentage for a public entity. The plan is to continue growing our revenue streams, especially where tourism incomes are concerned, to get to the point where we can cover 100% of our operating costs whilst government will continue fund the maintenance and development of infrastructure . Our responsibility is to ensure we get financial efficiency and product effectiveness in the execution of the infrastructure work we undertake in the national park system."

"SANParks is broken down into two: the Kruger National Park, and then all 21 other parks, which comprise the parks division. We have a strong finance team. The finance and SCM functions at SANParks comprise a total of 170 people nationally."

What would you still like to achieve, perhaps over the coming year?
"There are significant projects underway currently. For example, we are going through an organisational design process within the finance business unit and we are currently embarked on some significant tenders which I'm driving as CFO. We are also engaged in significant fundraising activities intended to bring us appropriate levels of donor funding. Recently, the Howard G Buffet Foundation made a generous donation of R255 million to SANParks, which enabled us to bring technological interventions in the fight against rhino poaching. We are also reconceptualising our strategy and approach in the way we structure ourselves in responding to specific challenges within SANParks."

"In terms of our business model, SANParks' strategy remains very much what it is - tourism, conservation and caring for the animals. But we need to look at our parks from a national perspective and set about growing them by acquiring adjacent pieces of land and increasing their size. We've also got a strong transformation agenda. We drive this through our SCM practices, our employment equity agenda, our CSI commitments and growing black visitors to our parks. That's all evident in our five-year plan, as is the targeting of 50% of women in management - also a national government imperative - and having 2% of our workforce being physically challenged."

You've spent much of your career in professional services or at manufacturing companies. You're now in tourism. What unique challenges have you encountered here?
"The dynamics around running a tourism entity are very different, but we have a strategy and are fortunate to have high numbers of day visitors to our parks. In terms of the accommodation side of it we are above the industry standard in terms of occupation levels. These are key revenue generators. Managing a tourism entity revolves around occupation levels and visitors, and continuously attracting visitors. We also have high levels of patronage of foreign tourists - our tourist destinations are even more attractive now with the depreciating rand. On the conservation side, this has its own business model and unique set of challenges, as conservation is a whole different scenario and can be tricky. One has to have the correct balance between the upkeep of the land and animals when compared to the costs that it takes for that upkeep. So you need a serious understanding of the financial principles and key business drivers. I would say SANParks is far more complex than other environments in which I've worked. But it's also very gratifying to see such large estates managed to such word-class standards on very lean budgets."

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