Stanlib CFO Avashnee Ramdial gets candid about culture

Avashnee Ramdial has learnt that finance departments don't deliver well if their culture isn't cohesive and collaborative. She explained how she got this right as the CFO of Stanlib, based on a similar process in her prior role at Absa, and how she is keen to share the learnings from the hardships she has faced with other women in finance, in an interview with Georgina Guedes.

Avashnee Ramdial is candid about the fact that taking on her role as CFO of Stanlib hasn’t been easy. In fact, it’s been one of the most challenging roles of her career. “I had to reinvent the Stanlib finance team – I had to address everything from the experience levels in the team to the way it was structured, to building a financial reporting capability that provided financial insight to business,” she says.

She joined Stanlib in October 2018, and the new finance operating model was implemented on 1 April 2019.

“At the same time, Stanlib was on a turnaround path, so I have had to be the kind of business partner the company needs from a finance perspective, delivering on the finance and strategic requirements to get us where we need to be. And I had to do this with a whole new team, and a whole new way of work,” she says.

She says that with all of these changes and demands, the one thing that was important to her was to bed down the right culture in her new team. In her previous role at Absa, the learning and development team brought in a highly skilled in organisational development specialist to help her team to optimise performance and to become more cohesive, including developing business partner relationships with stakeholders.

“When I joined Absa, there hadn’t been a CFO in that division for nine months – the same as here – and the team didn’t work together. The business wasn’t getting the right finance support. That’s where the organisation development specialist helped me, so I brought her in to help at Stanlib as well.”

The consultant worked with the team on collaboration, communication and how to become a high-performing business unit. “We looked at where we could add value. We don’t want to be just producing numbers – that should be only 40 percent of our day job.”

She knew that the efforts that had been made to achieve this were bearing fruit when key difficult business professionals started to recognise the value of the reporting that they were receiving from the finance team.  “In the past the business did not trust the numbers produced by finance and kept their own records of their financial numbers,” she recalls. “We were able to build their trust to the point where they no longer need to keep their own numbers.”

She says her team now provides answers to questions that the business raises quite quickly, and that it’s been “really great” to hear the appreciation of the stakeholders. “At Stanlib, the culture is definitely one where good work is recognised and appreciated.”
 
Further engagement at Stanlib

The same process took two years at Absa, and in her final year there, the team worked cohesively and ran smoothly. This achieved, Avashnee felt that it was time to move on. “I needed a change. I like a challenge, so that last year, when there was very little I needed to get involved with because the team was able to run with stuff, got boring.”

On the other hand, she says at Stanlib, there is so much going on from a strategy perspective that it will keep her engaged for some time. “All the things we are trying to do, I don’t think I could reach quickly, even if my team were up and running. After I’ve stabilised them, there are other things I want to get involved in.”

One such activity is the improvement of investment performance and the re-establishing of Stanlib’s market share. “We had four CEOs in a short period of time, and now Derrick [Msibi, Stanlib CEO] has been here for three years, so there’s a stable leadership team.  Our recent results and the improved investment performance are evidence that our hard work is starting to pay off.

She explains that the South African market is very sceptical in terms of where to invest. “There are lower margins on fixed-income lower-risk products, and higher margins on higher-risk products. Investors are going into fixed-income money market products because they are more stable, so it’s hard to build flows into those higher-risk products.”

In addition, the South African economy is impacting on market performance, which she says also presents challenges and constraints for the investment community. Taken together, these challenges make Stanlib’s 2019 results even more impressive. The asset management business increased its headline earnings by 30 percent, after attracting seven percent more assets under management, and gaining R1.7 billion in net fee income – five percent higher than in 2018.

It certainly hasn’t been plain sailing, however, and one of Avashnee’s toughest days professionally occurred soon after she’d started at the company. At an Audit Committee meeting, Stanlib’s previous external auditors revealed an issue that hadn’t been communicated to the Stanlib management team. “The way I was trained, one of the key things you do before an external meeting is that you make sure that you are aligned with the management of the business before you go to the audit committee. You understand what the issue is and make sure you are all on the same page.”

It turned out that the issue that the auditors raised was factually incorrect, but even though she was vindicated, Avashnee self-examined to assess what she could have done differently. “From now on, I will always ensure that I ask if there’s anything that they feel that they need to disclose.”
 
The great accountancy unknown

Avashnee chose a career in finance because she simply loved accounting.  Her father and a number of other family members are medical professionals so there was an expectation that she should do medicine but she was drawn to accounting, even though she didn’t know what chartered accountants actually do.

“It was going into a great unknown. While I studied, there were parts I liked and didn’t like. Then I joined Deloitte and loved articles. I wanted to be an audit manager, and then wanted to be an audit partner. I stayed for more than ten years and learnt a lot.”

She started out at Deloitte in Durban, but was then seconded to Johannesburg. “That was one of the biggest decisions of my life – moving from what I knew if I stayed at home, to something completely different, living on my own with no family. It required me to prove myself in so many different ways.”

She says that Durban was a small office and the mindset in the Johannesburg team was completely different culturally and professionally. She then went for a partner assessment, after which it’s a waiting game to take on the role and during that time, she realised that she wanted a change. She wasn’t sure if it was to move on to another firm and become a partner, and wasn’t even sure she wanted to stay in audit. So she let Deloitte know that she was looking for an opportunity, but would stay on until she found something she wanted to do.

“It was a weird time – the first time in my life that I had no idea on what I was going to do,” she recalls.

She’d started casting her net in November, and by the end of January, she had an offer from Standard Bank. She thought it was too early in her search to accept anything, but the bank was persistent, and eventually she took on the role and spent seven years with them.

“Standard Bank exposed me to so many different areas of banking both within and outside South Africa.  I’d had no financial services experience when I joined Standard Bank, and now, twelve years later, I’ve only worked in financial services, moving on to Absa, and now Stanlib.”
 
Broadening horizons

Avashnee is the single mother of two children, Arianna (six years) and Nikhil (nine). She says that she spends most of her downtime with them, and what she likes to do best with them is travel. “They’ve been travelling from when they were little. I really want them to have a wider view of life and to appreciate different cultures and people.  I also teach them about what I do and have taken them to work to meet my team and the people I work with.”

She recently took her children on a cruise through India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, which she says they loved. They’ve also been to Singapore, Bali, Mumbai and Dubai.

“My parents live in Durban. They’ve always been my pillars of support throughout my career but especially in the past six years. My ex left when my daughter was three months old and I was a new executive at Standard Bank. Through that, I learnt that life will present challenges, and you can get through them and still succeed and be happy.”

She feels so passionate about helping people to overcome the challenges that life presents, that she actively mentors young women, especially new mothers that are balancing work and family.  “I think that so many women don’t get to senior positions because they drop out due to the pressures of the world. So I try to teach them the lessons I’ve learnt – find the strength to be able to fight against those things, to always persevere and to never give up even when everyone around you is doubting you.”