The future of finance will require a convergence of risk and finance, says RMB CFO Markos Davias
“One of my mentors that has impacted my leadership style and journey from early in my career is Hugh Harrison, a partner I worked for at Deloitte. He is now our RMB Global Markets CFO, but even in this role he still challenges, advises and guides me. In him, I have always had someone whom I could trust to place the mirror in front of me. He is brutally honest but fair in his feedback and if it means he needs to make you a little emotional and teary eyed, so be it,” says RMB CFO Markos Davias, who harbours a passion for young accounting talent, promoting diversity and embracing cutting-edge technology. A solid centre-back, strong in the air, leading from the back, stopping goals at all costs – these are some of the phrases Markos uses to describe himself on the soccer field, and indeed, many of these phrases correlate with the CFO’s approach to leadership. “My family, more recently fatherhood, sport and specifically soccer have all had an influence on my life and career choices.”
At the office, Markos’ biggest joy is spending time guiding young professionals on their career choices in the fast-paced world of corporate and investment banking. At 36, he has not only the energy of youth on his side but, as RMB’s CFO, he is also able to play a critical part in grooming future financial professionals, equipping them to embrace the waves of technological enhancements that are disrupting most finance teams.
With Markos striving to be a role model for the young chartered accountants that he interacts with during RMB’s Count CA Programme road shows, he plays in the frontline of dealing with the most current issues. “Every year I find the questions I get from students are more difficult and specifically technology orientated,” he says. “How are the banks dealing with FinTech? Will a bricks and mortar bank still exist in ten years’ time? Will technology solve Africa’s problems? What are banks doing about cybersecurity?”
The RMB Count CA day is a development initiative to explore the future career avenues that CA trainees can consider in a corporate and investment bank. The students are recruited from Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg and get the opportunity to meet some of RMB’s inspiring leaders and top talent. Markos is very excited about the fact that the RMB Count CA Programme is this year for the first time also open to accountants (CA, ACCA or CPA) from Nigeria, Namibia and Botswana.
“We started the initiative in 2013,” he explains. “Collectively, my colleagues and I interact with over 200 CAs and historically we have hired about ten to 15 CAs off the programme, depending on RMB’s staffing requirements. We also run a two-year CA rotation programme, whereby successful candidates get the opportunity to rotate through several support and front office roles, receive training across a variety of disciplines, interact a lot with our CFOs – including myself – and ultimately find which area best aligns with their interest, skills and career aspirations. It’s effectively a two-year interview that works both ways,” says Markos.
Apart from the many industry-related questions Markos has to field, students often want to know why he chose a career in the financial services industry and what it entails to be a CFO of a big company such as RMB. At 20, Markos had the tough choice between trialling overseas as a professional soccer player or following in the footsteps of his father and pursuing his studies to become a CA. With no regrets, he chose to stay in South Africa and complete his studies at the University of Johannesburg. Thereafter “lady luck”, as he calls it, landed him in the financial services industry division at Deloitte, where RMB was one of his clients.
Markos evidently still enjoys drawing analogies between sport and business. True to his humble nature he prefers to be in the background and make sure finance and risk don’t score own goals. Even convincing him to do an interview with CFO Magazine required significant persuasion. “As a defence, we always want to make sure we win the ball fairly and pass it forward to the midfielders and strikers. If a team has a solid backline, they can then attack freely, trusting their defence to do its job. Strikers should be the true heroes,” he says.
It was at RMB that Markos found his calling – a proud African corporate and investment bank built on Traditional values and Innovative ideas. “RMB is different,” he says, describing his employer as his family away from his family.
“I was drawn to the bank’s people values and commitment to excellence. RMB is a company that encourages fun, accountability, trust, humility and learning. There are no pedestals or glass ceilings here. As a corporate and investment bank, we are often being humbled by the markets or macros. Without our clients, we have no business, so adding value to them and becoming trusted business partners is a critical focus area.”
This is Markos’ tenth year at RMB and he has worked in all of the finance departments, except private equity. He became RMB CFO in 2015 and acknowledges experience can only be earned with time, adding that he is lucky to have several experienced colleagues and mentors to draw guidance from. With a smile, he adds: “Sadly, most people think I am over 40 anyway.”
Look in the mirror
Markos has learnt from some of the best in the industry. “Everybody needs a good mentor to coach you or a sponsor to guide your career. I have had many mentors and sponsors throughout my career. While at Deloitte, many partners gave me good guidance and honest, hard feedback, which made me more self-aware and resilient. More recently I have been blessed to have various RMB mentors and sponsors. RMB’s former CFO was instrumental in guiding and skilling me for the future, making my transition into his big shoes a little easier. I was also fortunate to have worked for two amazing co-heads in the investment banking division who helped mature and hone my commercial, financial and EQ skills. Being forced to look in the mirror daily and be aware of my blind spots has definitely been a big part of my personal and business growth,” he says.
“One of my mentors that has impacted my leadership style and journey from early in my career is Hugh Harrison,” Markos adds. "He was a partner I worked for at Deloitte. He is now our RMB Global Markets CFO, but even in this role he still challenges, advises and guides me. In him, I have always had someone whom I could trust to place the mirror in front of me. He is brutally honest but fair in his feedback and if it means he needs to make you a little emotional and teary eyed, so be it.”
“I remember a few years back, as RMB Head of Finance, I responded to a comment in a particular meeting by shooting from the hip. Hugh was also in that meeting. I didn’t handle it very well and afterwards he was clear in his feedback on how I could have handled it better,” says Markos, who doesn’t mind that his mentor now officially reports to him. “You can’t change such a relationship and he is still my mentor. It gets lonelier as you become more senior in an organisation, so you need lots of trusted sounding boards and welcoming criticism is important.”
One of the things ambitious youngsters should do, is to find such guidance, says Markos. “In most specialisations, you can teach the important technical skills, especially to people with a strong background of learning. But there are personal leadership characteristics that are harder to convey or teach. For example, we have a flat structure with a lot of informality at RMB. You cannot teach people to be good delegators, negotiators or be comfortable with an unstructured environment. Staff need a high level of EQ and need to learn to confront conflict as opposed to hiding from it. That is not something you always learn during articles at audit firms and neither at university. These are some of the additional things we look out for when we recruit new talent.”
Another aspect we look at when recruiting is diversity, which is a key element of the RMB culture, Markos explains. “When I look at potential recruits, I ask myself: how do you, as an individual, bring diversity to the team? That can relate to race, gender, coming from different firms or different universities. Each comes with a different way of thinking and has a unique stamp from their life-to-date experiences.”
Markos emphasises that the bank’s diversity drive also means hiring youngsters that have audited manufacturers or other industries different from financial services. He also likes to look outside the Big Four. “People from smaller firms are often hungrier. They have had to do it the hard way. When you give them a chance, they give it ten times back in discretionary energy. While we may have to invest a bit more in technical skills than with guys that come from the Big Four or that have financial services experience, the commitment levels always seem higher due to us giving them the opportunity.”
RMB believes that exceptional performance is only possible with exceptional people and that creativity and innovation unlock the strength of diversity, says Markos, adding that gender diversity is a key part of the bank’s overall transformation strategy. “We acknowledge the critical role that both men and women play in the success of our business. Women make up more than half of my finance workforce and it is essential that we continue to attract, develop, advance and retain female talent at all levels,” he says.
“We have a gender equality initiative called Athena to create an environment where women feel empowered to achieve their individual career goals, and to grow the number of women in financial services in South Africa. With more women filling leadership positions, the discussions have started to change and are much richer – our female colleagues are very persuasive, challenging and insightful.”
One of the most challenging and demanding tasks for banks in the next decade will be to incorporate the latest technology, while maintaining an ambitious and happy staff complement. Markos spends a lot of time working on and anticipating the role of cutting-edge technology. “We need to find a balance between transforming our platform, bringing robotics and attracting the right workforce and talent to complement that,” he says. “My team and I call it intelligence amplification – IA as opposed to AI – as we believe technology will amplify our employees’ ability to be effective. These days, I spend about 35 percent of my time on technology, partly operational and around cybersecurity, but also often high level ideological discussions about where technology can take us.”
“I also really enjoy seeing new deal structures and translating these into their financial outcome,” says Markos. “In my current role, I hope to continue focusing on being a business partner – trying to make our business unit CEOs think about things they haven’t thought about yet, especially when looking at earnings volatility, risk and returns. The future of finance will require a convergence of risk and finance and being cross-skilled across both disciplines is where the future growth opportunity and niche is. I find more and more that alignment between our CRO and myself and our teams is critical to understanding the full risk and finance value chain.”
By Joël Roerig
This article first appeared in CFO Magazine