After more than 12 years in a core finance role, this techie-at-heart has returned to his roots.
Fulfilling a core finance role was never part of Sean Berrington’s career plan, but he found himself in one when he was appointed CFO for Group IT at Standard Bank in 2016. In an earlier interview with CFO South Africa, Sean shared his journey with us and why he is so positive about the opportunities ahead.
“Throughout my articles, I never dreamt of being a CFO. In the early days, I honestly didn’t know where or what I wanted to be,” he said at the time. “At that point, we were at the very early stages of seeing the opportunities technology had to offer, and the more I immersed myself in those, the more I learned, and the more my passion grew.”
As time went on, Sean realised that there was a growing need to connect technology to long-term business value: to help bridge the value gap at a strategy level, to help businesses transform, and to help solve business challenges in new, creative and sustainable ways. His role as CFO provided him with firsthand experience to see the opportunities.
“I have always had a passion for tech, and my past experience as a CFO brings different values and conversations to my current role. Technology, and the ability to evaluate its customer value proposition, is now an integral part of any executive role.”
Now, as Sean joins the technology team at EY Consulting his detour has paid off.
Early in 2023 Sean saw the opportunity to pursue his original plan of becoming a technology leader. “I’ve lived and breathed technology since I qualified as an accountant, and while my roles have always been in finance, the skills I’ve gained along the way have put me in the perfect position to share my knowledge and insights,” he says.
He explains that, increasingly, the impact that technology has is profound. “My passion has really been around how to help people and businesses get the most out of the various technologies available. EY has an incredible customer base, amazing partnerships and incredible solutions, which is why it was the perfect match for me, and for the company.”
Sean’s new role puts him at the forefront of the technologies that help EY’s clients make a difference. “There’s a multitude of components to the role, but the most important part is working with the broad base of really fantastic clients that EY has and helping them make sure they’re tackling their digital investments and transformations correctly, and in a way that adds value to their customers and their businesses, sustainably,” he says.
“One of the biggest things I’ve been impressed with since joining EY is just the depth of experience that exists in the organisation. There’s an incredible team and I really hope we can continue to elevate the profile of this team to really add meaningful value to local South African, African and global clients,” Sean says.
In his first few weeks, Sean was given exposure to a client about to launch a new offering to the South African market. “This client has been able to do in a matter of months, what others (in years past) were only able to do in years. It forced me to take a step back and just appreciate how much technology has helped them achieve that.”
“I thought I knew a lot about tech, but I’ve probably learned more in the last few weeks than I have over the last three years. The strength of EY is how we orchestrate the right technology, data and relationships to unlock transformative power.”
Goodbye, Standard Bank
Sean joined Standard Bank in 2011 and has been fortunate enough to experience different roles and opportunities over the 12 years he has been there. He most recently served as the CFO of Group Engineering.
“It’s great to have been in an organisation like Standard Bank and to be able to share those experiences with other organisations as I embark on this journey. I hope to take the practical learnings I’ve had as a CFO and apply them to creating innovative solutions,” he adds.
Sean explains that the thing he’ll miss most at Standard Bank is the amazing team he’s worked with over the years. “I had an incredible experience and the partnership, the engagement, and the friendships developed with the broader team over the 12 years will resonate with me for a long time.”
“As I move on, the team will get to experience new leadership, creating new growth opportunities, new ways of working and adding room for new perspectives,” he says.
With the world abuzz about ChatGPT, we asked the new tech leader what his advice is around the new technology. “It already has and will continue to revolutionise the way we consume technology,” Sean says. “It is the culmination of a series of technologies that has resulted in a new technology called Generative Artificial Intelligence, of which ChatGPT is one.”
However, he explains that at the core of this (and the pinnacle of the fourth industrial revolution) is cloud computing. “Cloud has fundamentally changed the way we look at technology, it has enabled us to be online, always and everywhere. It is on our phones, in our houses, at work and in our cars. It enables organisations to deploy solutions faster, be more resilient and benefit from billions of dollars’ worth of investment they would otherwise have had to make themselves, and has allowed technologies to be deployed at a scale we would never have thought was possible.
Sean further adds that the true strengths of Generative AI won’t be whether it can be used to write random poems (as most of us are using ChatGPT for), but how it’s going to help organisations and clients interact, interpret surroundings, identify issues, analyse problems. “Already ChatGPT has been integrated into Microsoft Teams, allowing for advanced minute taking, action tracking and meeting scheduling, and it has been integrated into Bing (Microsoft’s search engine), creating a radically improved search experience.”
Talking about the impact that technology will have on jobs, Sean points out that there is a massive amount of research available that talks about the positives and negatives of technology, and how it is affecting society, but there is no definitive data to support whether it is causing job losses.
“It really comes down to the receptiveness and willingness to learn and reskill. There are enough compelling data points that people must embrace the new future as opposed to being fearful of it. As an example, there are currently a large number of youth accelerators that are creating opportunities for unemployed youth to reskill. This is creating an opportunity for young adults to get experience in a skill and exposure to the working world that they would not have got otherwise.”
In his personal life, Sean has fully embraced sustainability and tech living with his smart home. At any point he has more than 70 devices connected, but all managed within a strong secure environment. “I’m a firm believer of embracing technology in your everyday life. There is huge potential, however, if you don’t understand, ask (don’t just click) and always make sure that there are clear boundaries.”
Building for the future
Sean’s smart home started out as a 110-year-old house in Parktown, that he and his wife are currently busy refurbishing. “It’s been a very rewarding experience just to see the house come alive. Every spare minute I have is spent turning it into a home,” he says.
When they aren’t building a home, Sean and his family, which also includes two dachshunds and a nine-year-old daughter, are busy entertaining guests. “I wouldn’t call myself a gourmet cook, but I really enjoy going a little bit beyond the norm when it comes to making food,” he says. “I haven’t experimented a lot lately, but I really love trying new recipes, and then having our friends over to enjoy it with us.”