Simon Ridley, Standard Bank: Curiosity breeds good CFOs

“As CFOs we need to be trusted advisors, rather than critics,” says Simon Ridley, CFO at the Standard Bank Group and CFO of the Year 2014. In the run up to this year’s CFO of the Year gala, we are publishing a short version of the interview we had with Simon for the first issue of the brand new CFO Magazine – which will be launched during the CFO conference and awards event on 14 May.

Thanks to a quarter of a century of CFO experience at Absa and Standard Bank, Ridley is regarded as one of South Africa's most respected finance leaders. Over the last decades, he has seen the role of Chartered Accountants changing - but he emphasizes that the basics still need to be in place. "CFOs and CAs need to switch from number crunchers to analysts to business partners. That doesn't mean just being a friend to other executives. It is crucial that we are myth busters. Often businesses believe in certain conventions, but assumptions or beliefs can be wrong and it is our job to test and challenge them."

There are many examples where organizations would have been well-served by finance leaders who had the courage to bust the myths, says Ridley. "If you go through many of the recent corporate failures, from Enron to banking collapses, you will see they are often due to misheld beliefs. This is especially the case in banking -compared to industrial companies banks are quite highly leveraged and that means the room for error is quite low."

"Would Simon's mom understand this?"

Ridley himself considers the massive strategy change that Standard Bank underwent as one of the most interesting processes he has ever been part of. "At some stage we wanted to be the SAB Miller of banking and spread our business across all emerging markets. We're now consolidating it back to Africa and that is difficult. We had to do a 180 degree turn to avoid imploding. Typically, those turnaround processes are done by a new management team, but that has not been the case for us. Not many people go into a market and then out of it again and in the end the reversal did not cost too much money, so it's been an interesting experience - even though it felt a bit schizophrenic to sell businesses we had recently bought."

Asked what tips Ridley would give to ambitious CAs who wants to scale the corporate ladder, he immediately emphasizes the need for well-considered career choices. "I always tell our youngsters 'Be honest with yourself about what you like and what you don't like to do. Otherwise there will be issues later'. The people that get to the position of CFO quickest are the most curious people. Never being satisfied with one answer and an irritating sense of curiosity are great assets for a finance leader. It is also important to work for someone who adds value to you. Don't make a career jump for money if you don't respect your prospective boss."

A final tip from Ridley is to keep your language simple. "You always need to think as a shareholder with little time for waffle. In fact, when I try to explain stuff I always ask myself if my mom as a non-banker would understand what on earth I'm talking about, and a lot of people in Finance at the bank now seem to do the same! The question is always 'Would Simon's mom understand this?"

  • The annual CFO Awards will be held at the beautiful Summer Place in Johannesburg on 14 May 2015. Speakers will include Mervyn King, Doyen of Corporate Governance, the immensely popular 'lifehacker' Martijn Aslander and awards chairman Vusi Thembekwayo. CFO South Africa invites you to buy a table at the CFO Awards, attend the CFO Conference and become our partner. For more information visit CFOAwards.co.za or email Jurrien Morsch at [email protected].
  • CFO Magazine will be launched during the awards event on 14 May. Subsequently, copies will distributed to the top finance leaders of South Africa. To enquire about inclusion or advertising opportunities in the next issue of the magazine please email Jurrien Morsch at [email protected].
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