Suren Singh, Morvest Business: 'superstar' CFO leading the change


Morvest Business has been through some radical, strategic changes over the last few years and Suren Singh has been leading the charge as CFO. No longer an ICT company, Morvest now positions itself as a global diversified investment holding company à la Bidvest. Singh believes in clarity and says his passion rubs off on others. “I want to know more about my craft and the work I do than anyone has ever done in the history of the world,” he enthuses. As finance chief, Singh says during this interview with CFO South Africa, he is “in an ideal position to bridge the natural tensions between the CEO and the Board”.

What do like most about your job?
"I like the Warren Buffet quote: 'Do something you love, only then you find satisfaction from your job'. Being a CFO has always been a dream for me. I come from a family that ran many businesses. They wanted me to take over, but I wanted to become CFO of a listed company. We have moved from the JSE's AltX to the main Board of the JSE in June 2011- that makes the job very rewarding."

What is the role of the CFO in your view?
"As a CFO you are one of the two most important people in the company. I see myself as having 4 faces. Firstly, I see myself as a strategist, providing financial leadership in determining strategic business direction and aligning financial strategies. Secondly, I function as a catalyst to stimulate behaviour across the group. Thirdly, I help build high performance. And lastly, I see myself as a steward, protecting and preserving the assets of the organisation, including responsibility for risk, accountability and information quality."

"To me that is challenging and exciting and it makes the job very satisfying. I can say I have been effective in funding the strategy. The CEO looks at me often; we have that type of relationship. I give the strategy life through numbers and funding. A lot of assurance has to come through before we can sign off."

What is your recipe for success?
"My dad always said: protect your good name, because it is your biggest asset. I know what I want and believe clarity is power. Vague goals promote vague results. I want to be the most passionate person in what I do. When I'm successful in that, it will become contagious. I want to know more about my craft and the work I do than anyone has ever done in the history of the world. That is why I devote my time to learning something new about my field every day. I believe in investing in my personal and professional development, like all superstars do. A sound value system is crucial too and includes honesty, integrity, trustworthiness and passion."

Morvest Business has changed course dramatically - why?
"We were experiencing pricing and international pressure in parts of our business and industrial services segment, resulting in decreasing profitability, revenue and sustainability of the business. We also battled with competition and market saturation in the B2B business in South Africa. We addressed this by diversification of the group into new industries and geographies like Ghana. We continue to identify investment opportunities, like growing the commercial property portfolio for example" and diversifying into new industries "

"We have moved away from being an ICT solutions provider to being a global diversified investment holding company with decentralized management and a shared services centre for Finance. Selling that to the Board was tough. The repositioning means we won't come up against the likes of EOH and Gijima anymore, but can be compared to the likes of Bidvest. We have limited the business to three verticals. Our focus on return on investment means we concentrate on businesses that are in the top 3 of their industry, have strong annuity type income, strong, free cash flows, a sustainable pipeline of at least 20 years and depth of management."

"When the alarm bells started to go off the change in our business was done quite quickly."

"Sustainability and global competition started to be a problem. We service the telco industry as we are the sole provider of scratch cards and sim card fulfilment. MTN moved procurement to the Middle East. Companies like Vodacom that moved their procurement to Luxemburg started benchmarking us against competitors from China and India. We continue to see that South Africa and Nigeria were becoming challenging. The cross road was that we realized we were missing the plot. We went to the market and had to talk to about 30 brands that was in the group, without much cohesion. Now we have a clear message about being a global diversified investment company."

"When the alarm bells started to go off the change in our business was done quite quickly. Our investment in businesses like Simmons, that meet the investment criteria and that will be around for over 20 years, was quick. The group was also quick to exit from new startups that do not meet the investment criteria of strong management and sustainable durable competitive businesses that provide healthy IRR targets of 35 percent."

What have the changes meant for Finance?
"We have decentralised our shared services to the 3 business verticals. We changed the span of control of Financial Accountants & Financial Managers reporting to the CFO, which has given me more time to focus on strategic planning, direction and funding. Now, the CFO's office only provides strategic direction instead of operational financial management. That has been a big change."

"We still want to implement CRM systems throughout the group, bolted onto the existing ERP system. The same goes for an advanced Bills of Material system. We are also testing multi-currency reporting model, which is imperative being a global diversified investment holding group."

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