Sappi SA CFO Pramy Moodley: Understanding the power of numbers helps you lead

Pramy started working with numbers when she was young, helping out with the books for her family's farm.

Sappi Southern Africa CFO Pramy Moodley grew up in the rural community of Stanger, 64 kilometres north of Durban. Being part of a family that farmed meant that all-hands on deck was a way of life. “We had a sugar cane farm and as a one-man operation, my dad relied on his family, seasonal labour and others in the community to help out,” she says. She remembers the freedom of growing up close to nature, befriending local kids and workers, playing volleyball and watching sports with them to the point that she was fluent in Zulu. 

From a young age she and her siblings pitched in on farm chores and helping where needed. When she showed a talent for numbers from a young age, her father showed her how to do the books, starting her lifelong relationship with accounts. As the years went by, she got better and better, recording sales, making sure what was paid reconciled with the sugar cane loads sold.

The family also grew a little produce on the farm and her parents offered people in the surrounding community goods on a cash and credit basis. When she was 13, her father passed away and she assisted her siblings in recovering outstanding debts as her father hadn’t been too strict on collections. 

Seeing how numbers on the balance sheet transpired in real life was formative, as was witnessing the various challenges the business faced, like drought and changing market forces. She also saw the balancing that went into maintaining the enterprise, such as taking out loans to sustain the farm through tough times. “It had its ups and downs, but I wouldn’t change that for anything. The lifestyle and growing up in that community gave us a sense of sharing and wanting to help those less fortunate,” she says. 

When it was time to leave for university, pursuing accounting as a career was a no-brainer since she had been working with numbers in a business context from a young age. 

After obtaining her B.Com at University of Natal, now UKZN, she joined PwC for her articles, and then went on to join Sappi, a leading pulp and paper company.

Keeping the business healthy through Covid-19 turbulence

Pramy has been with the company for 18 years now and says the first half of 2020 has been one of the most turbulent periods she has witnessed. The Covid-19 crisis brought with it lots of volatility and as a business with a global footprint, what happens in the rest of the world directly impacts the company and equally, decisions made in South Africa affect customers on the other side of the world. “For instance, the majority of the product produced within a certain segment locally is exported to the East. When these markets went into lockdown it impacted local production.”

As demand patterns changed and the production challenges of operating under a lockdown became clear, the leadership team had to make decisions quickly and Pramy says receiving timely, relevant and accurate information has never been more important. 

“As a leader, collaboration and communication has been crucial,” says Pramy. “Pre-Covid, different functions could operate and align at a high level however this has changed significantly. ” For instance, managing cash flow and forecasting could be done from a high-level within the region, but now detail is more crucial. The demands of the crisis have intensified the ties between various functions, pulling people from various disciplines under one umbrella to have a lot more aligned conversation. 

“As a finance team, we’ve been active in offering input to the corporate team around scenario planning to manage our liquidity and debt position. This teamwork exposes the knock-on effects of decisions early on and the impact it has on the business and its employees.”

Keeping the business healthy through the turbulence is her highest priority and her team has been forced to manage cash closely, with the main focus being on working capital and capital expenditure. 

She says one of the aspects of her personality that has been an asset in the crisis and also helped her succeed in the past is her sharp focus on detail and leads with a flexible, yet tough approach. “I believe the quality of one’s work gives them their credibility, and when we don’t deliver at a certain level it tarnishes our image, because it’s not what you expect from a leader.”

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, Pramy anticipates more challenges in next 12 to 18 months, “The situation hasn’t stabilised completely, but having been through the cycle, I am a lot more familiar with pressure points and how to address them and collectively we know the various inputs required to deal with different situations.”

She anticipates that the biggest shifts will be operating in an ever-changing and fast-evolving world. “In our area, the challenge is to be able to innovate at the same pace with how quickly the world is changing.” 

She also proffers that the company’s biggest strength may also be a hindrance. A lot of people at Sappi have been with the company for a long time, many for over a decade or two and some for up to 25 years. 

She cautions that, “with longstanding patterns, the danger to fall back on old solutions is a possibility. Not being familiar with massive change and adapting with speed and agility is something to be alert to”.

Ushering in new ideas

However, Pramy is reassured by the fact that the company has extremely strong, dynamic leaders and in recent years have pre-emptively initiated programmes and introduced new systems to usher in fresh, new ideas. Additionally, the company has stood up to the strain of the present crisis and the demands have birthed a stronger, more formidable team. “Sappi is a company that recognises hard work and when you give your all, rewards you accordingly. It offers opportunities to develop and grow, but in turn you have to make the most of those breaks,” she explains.

In her own area of influence, she has been proactive about encouraging a mindset of efficiency and impact, urging teams to free time for strategic work, and add a lot more value through innovation and automation where possible. She anticipates that the environment in the coming months will demand that decisions be made quickly and many in real-time. “Budgeting process timelines will shift, not on an annual basis but more on a quarterly basis due to so much uncertainty. The pressure will be on to be decisive, generate the correct information but also use it as wisely as possible at the right time, because it will become outdated very quickly.”

Baking up a storm at home

Outside of work Pramy enjoys baking and loves to read but admits that with two boys aged five and nine years old the luxury of sinking her teeth into a book is not one she has easy access to. 

She loves to be at home spending time with her husband who has been very supportive of her career and also a CA himself, baking up a storm with her kids and the lockdown has afforded them a bit more time to experiment with various cuisines.