CFO of the Week: Steven Whiley (Neotel): great CFOs take risks

“A great CFO needs to have appetite for a certain level of risk,” says Steven Whiley, CFO at Neotel, South Africa’s second fixed line operator. Whiley is currently part if the negotiations for the sale of Neotel to communications giant Vodacom and has earned his stripes during a long and varied career as CFO in several industries. “The best CFOs can look at the balance sheet and understand from there what makes the business tick.”

Whiley joined Neotel in 2012, after helping to sell IT company Peresys – where he was CFO as well – to an Australian firm. In the past twenty years Whiley has worked in industries ranging from food manufacturing (Imana Foods and Rainbow Chickens) to retail (Massdiscounters: Games & Dion Stores). In an exclusive interview with CFO South Africa, he shares his vision of what makes a great Chief Financial Officer.

“You need to know which levers can be pulled and should not be too conservative,” says Whiley. “A great CFO is also able to motivate people, can attract quality people and is competent with numbers – the bean counter stuff needs to be a given.”

Whiley’s vision of the ideal CFO translates into some practical advice for young, ambitious CAs. “Two things: don’t be afraid of risk and work damn hard. There is a tendency among young CAs to feel they have studied all this time and now they have arrived. But if you want to be successful your CA qualification is where the hard work starts. I have learnt so much more post qualification. Learning only starts when you are a CA. We are also a product of our conservative training. We learn about balanced opinions. You need to forget some of that and learn to take measured risks.”

The Neotel CFO feels the experience he has built up in a wide range of industries has benefited him throughout his career. “When you do your training as a CA you can have a broad focus. Each different environment you work in has significant peculiarities. If you look at food manufacturing, retail or IT; these industries couldn’t be further apart from each other, both in terms of challenges and opportunities.”


At the same time, Whiley feels there are some universal truths. “What’s important for a CFO is to understand your company from what you see on the balance sheet and figure out what makes an income statement work,” he says. “That is the same anywhere – and it is something that sets the great CFOs apart. Going from the one to the other industry makes the work less boring and you get a very good idea of the levers you can pull as a CFO.”

Neotel is currently mostly in the news because of its pending sale to Vodacom, something that Whiley is intimately involved in. Although he says he gets “a kick” out of the process, he feels the sale brings extra challenges on a daily basis. “Of course it is harder to run business as usual with the sale looming. The potential sale has a significant impact on the business. We need to try to work as if there was no deal on the table.”

When preparing a business for a potential buyer, many of the normal CFO routines are crucial to the process, Whiley explains. “The core of the CFO’s job is about ensuring there is financial integrity, the reporting is accurate and that the board and the exco have access to the right information. During a sale that is exactly what you do. You need to do it with integrity and you cannot over or under represent anything.”

Whiley is a CFO who spends most of his week on strategy. “I get involved in things like pricing negotiations, client contacts, looking at new business cases. I am very fortunate that I can concentrate on the out of the ordinary stuff at Neotel.” What happens to him when the company is taken over by Vodacom? He doesn’t know. “After I helped to sell Peresys, the new owners wanted to slot me in for a while, but I did not feel that would have been a good idea. I left a lot earlier than they would have liked. This time around I have had no conversation about what happens next to me personally with Vodacom. It is not something that I worry about.”


With a CV of the length and weight of Whiley’s he has no reason to worry. The CFO says he is proud of what he has brought to the table at his respective employers. “In each of the businesses I have been involved in I have managed to bring about significant change. I am very proud of that. At Rainbow Chicken we were losing money hand over fist. It was a matter of adapt or die and the clock was very much against us. We lost R80 million in a month when I joined and R320 million in a year. I managed to turn that around and at the end of my 4 years we had gone from producing 3,2 million birds per week in 7 process plants with 140000 people to producing 4,7 million birds in a week in 3 plants with 6000 people. The big strategic move was getting out of commodity pricing.”

“Mass Discounters had pathetic profits. We were very highly geared. We had an overdraft of a billion rand and paid all our bills as late as possible. We didn’t know what stock was where, in which of our 32 warehouses or in which stores. During my tenure, profit went up by 140 percent and instead of 1 billion rand overdraft we had one billion cash, which we used to buy several DIY chains. Taking Peresys and selling it was also superb. It was a little business and we made it attractive for the Aussies.”