Santam CFO Hennie Nel on always chasing change

Hennie says that there’s a huge amount of change and vibrancy in the Santam business.

Hennie Nel, the CFO of Santam, says that his challenge in life has been to find the right balance in doing all the things he enjoys. Hennie told CFO South Africa about all the interesting things he's managed to get done, including working on three continents, making the switch from auditing to taking on the CFO role at Sanlam, mentoring and developing young professionals, and building a home on a smallholding in the mountains.

While he was at school, Hennie contemplated a number of different career paths, including teaching, but ultimately settled on a commerce degree, based on his interest in business and skillset.

After completing his honours at Stellenbosch University, he joined Coopers & Lybrand in Cape Town, where he completed his articles over three years, working in the wine, advertising and retail industries. Then, at the end of his articles, he made what he describes as an “almost impulsive decision” to travel to Singapore to work for Coopers there.

“I had never travelled overseas, and thought this was a good way to get there. I did something different from most of my friends, who went to London. It sounded like they did things very differently in the Far East, and I thought it would be interesting to experience a culture that was unlike the South African or British cultures I was used to,” he says.

Settling in to Singapore
Coopers provided a week’s worth of accommodation in Singapore, after which the young auditor had to find his own place to stay in the bustling and very foreign city. “I looked at what I could find and realised with my salary that all I could afford was to rent a room with a local Chinese family, in a flat in one of the big housing estates. I ended up moving into a flat that I shared with a family of seven.”

He says that the opportunity to experience another culture’s family life was mind-expanding. “I’d been isolated from a cultural perspective growing up in Stellenbosch, and now I got to see that although people operate in a different way, in the end, we’re all the same. It was fascinating. I stayed with them for the full year, and by the end of it, we were all very good friends.”

Some of the cultural differences he recalls were that the family he stayed with don’t drink alcohol, whereas he, as a good son of Stellenbosch, loves wine. And they also don’t consume dairy products. However, he says that there’s a strong culture of interacting as a family and work colleagues over meals. “They have such a good habit of talking to each other. If we were working and a mealtime came up, we would all stop, and sit together and talk about anything other than the work. They had a remarkable ability to switch off and have a real conversation.”

On the other hand, on his first day in the office, when it got to 5.30 in the evening, Hennie started getting ready to pack up, but noticed that no one else was doing the same. He asked an assistant whether everyone would be leaving and she said, “No, it’s still about two hours before we go out for dinner.” Hennie recalls that the Singapore team were happy to keep working until eight or nine every night.

“They were also very direct in conversation. They would say things exactly as they were, which could come across as aggressive. But then we’d all go out together and have a great meal.”

Back to the West and South
After his year of in a culturally different environment, he moved across to London, still with Coopers, which by then had become PwC, where he worked in motor retail, the sugar industry and a little in financial services.

“The London experience was good. It was really empowering. You are forced to think on your feet and be proactive. You can’t wait for things to happen. I learnt a lot in the work environment.”

While he was in London, he married his South African fiancée Elmien, who came over to join him there. Together, they travelled extensively out of London. However, after three winters in Old Blighty, Hennie felt that he was at the end of his endurance. “I enjoy the outside, and London is in semi-darkness and rain for most of the year. As much as I enjoyed the city, and had a really good time there, when PwC offered me the opportunity to work at their Financial Services Group in Cape Town, I felt that it was time.”

His son Christian was born in the year after he returned, and his daughter Frida three years later. Hennie, who finds it challenging to find time for all the things he wants to do, found that having children was good for him. “Kids make you focus on what’s really important, so that was a great learning experience for me as well.”

In those years, he was instrumental with his team in building up a strong Western Cape Financial Services Practice at PwC, but was then approached by Santam, who had been a client from 2001 to 2007, to take on the role of CFO. “When I’d been working at PwC, I’d done a lot of work on the consulting and auditing side, and I’d looked at corporates and wondered what it might be like to make the switch. I thoroughly enjoy change, and in a professional services firm, you are constantly working on new projects or transactions. So I was worried that a corporate might require the same thing every month.”

Another concern was that he would miss the training aspect of his profession, which he found extremely enjoyable, as in professional services, there are new employees joining the business all the time. “You get to see them develop. In that first year, they are uncertain, then they evolve into confident professionals. I really enjoyed participating in that remarkable process.”

However, the Santam position appealed to his desire for change, and presented a number of interesting and exciting opportunities, so he took the leap. “The fact that I am still doing it, eight years later, is a testimony to the fact that things don’t stay the same from month to month. There’s a huge amount of change and vibrancy in the Santam business, and the claims environment are often impacted by natural disasters – outside the control of the business.”

The Santam story
In his new role, Hennie was part of evolving Santam’s international strategy, in partnership with its holding company Sanlam. In 2013 the board approved the strategy, which provided Santam with the opportunity to participate and be part of all the general insurance acquisitions Sanlam makes outside of South Africa. “For every business Sanlam buys, we have the opportunity to participate, Hennie explains.”

This agreement between the groups has resulted in the acquisition of an interest in companies in 12 counties across Africa, India and Malaysia. “Two years after the strategy was presented, we had the opportunity to buy into Saham, the largest insurance group in Africa, outside of South Africa. Saham had operations in 26 countries across the continent. We worked closely with the Sanlam team. We invested R2.5 billion in this business over three years.”

This, Hennie explains, gave them quick access to a footprint of general insurance businesses on the continent, to support the expansion of the Santam Specialist Business, through which they now have access to new insurance opportunities including large infrastructure developments. 

Hennie’s Group Reporting team is relatively young, and he and the management team are employing and moving people into new positions on an ongoing basis. He’s enjoyed seeing how colleagues advance in the group and how they grow into new roles as time goes on.

Teamwork and mentoring
Through regular interaction with the teams reporting into him, Hennie’s also found that he didn’t have to sacrifice his passion for developing people. “I really enjoy mentoring, not only formally, but very much informally as well. I like to engage and share ideas in an environment where people can say what they think and then give feedback. If they can get confident enough to give you good feedback, then it’s a tremendous benefit, because often you have blind spots you don’t even know about unless someone has the confidence to tell you. It works both ways – and they gain as much as I do, hopefully.”

One piece of feedback he was given by a team member that has stuck with him was that he is not clear enough when he disagrees with someone. “Do they even know you’re disagreeing with them?” his colleague asked, adding, “They aren’t getting the message strongly enough.” Hennie was delighted with this candour, has internalised the feedback and is now much clearer when he gives feedback.

When Covid-19 struck,  the Santam financial reporting team got working from home within a week. “In our business, agility is a key requirement – and the team demonstrated this with passion when we had to take the office home.”

He knows that Santam will see significant economic impact from the pandemic. “We will all have less to spend, which will impact the top line, so we’re having to consider how we’ll manage our cost base in these circumstances while looking for opportunities to grow the business.”

However, he adds that there have been remarkable learnings from the lockdown period in terms of the flexibility of working from home, and he is considering to what extent he and his team can continue to apply that flexibility in the long term.”

Hennie describes running as one of his big passions in life. “I really love it – for myself, to be on my own and get my head clear.” He struggled without this release in the early days of lockdown, along with the four dogs in their family home, who were also desperate to get out again.

In another form of escape, Hennie and his family like to get away to their smallholding in the mountains, where they can relax far away from the bustle of the city. He is also still a travel enthusiast, and the family make an annual pilgrimage to the Wild Coast.