CFOs must have a deep understanding of operations, says Hatch CFO Craig Sumption

Craig Sumption has been with Hatch, a global concern headquartered in Canada and supplying engineering, project and construction management services, process and business consulting and operational services to the mining, metallurgical, energy and infrastructure industries, for more than a decade. He assumed the role of Regional Director of Finance for the firm's African, European and Middle Eastern operations two years ago. A passionate finance man who knew very early on that he wanted to go into the field, the father of three's grasp of the numbers remains second to none. He shared his thoughts with us about volatility, moving into Africa and leadership.

Did you always want to be in finance?
"At the age of 10, I knew I wanted to be a chartered accountant. Put numbers in front of me and I'll have a look at it. I'll pick up something funny fairly easily if it's there. I just know and accept that that's how my brain works. I went to Wits and did my BCom and followed that up by doing my articles at KPMG. Then I joined a group of small companies, before eventually making my way to Hatch. I've been here about 10 and a half years now. I started off with one of the joint ventures we were with Transnet as the financial manager on that venture. which was good exposure on both financial and commercial fronts. After that, I served as the integration manager on the merger with Goba Engineering in 2013. I learned a fair amount during that intense process.

"Two years ago, I moved into the CFO role for Hatch Africa, but technically my title is Regional Director of Finance because we look after Africa, Europe and Middle East. Our Canadian colleagues in finance do still play a fairly strong role in certain areas. My role involves a fair amount of travel. I have been to the St Petersburg, Abu Dhabi and London offices this year and I believe that face-to-face time is vital. You've got to work connect with people, talking to them and understanding what's going on in their projects and how that fits into our world.

"I haven't always had a specific interest in this sector, but it is an interesting one, as we work with a diverse range of professionals. Even though people are professionals in their own right, it doesn't mean we all understand what everyone else is doing. I often feel like I'm an interpreter between project managers and engineers."

Hatch emphasises its socially responsible and eco-friendly practices. Is this a significant part of operations?
"Hatch is a socially conscious entity. As South Africans. we are very conscious of diversity and we don't always realise how much diversity there is in a lot of other countries around the globe, including gender diversity. There has been a strong drive to get more female engineers involved in operations. We recently had one of our younger female engineers, act as a construction manager on site in a traditionally male-dominated environment. We have our own in-house environmental practice, who work on our projects and also function completely independently. Technology and innovation is a very important part of this. As a global company, we invest in technologies we feel will have a lasting impact. We also employ a lot of smart people around the globe. It's important to make sure we maximise those aspects and not just do a project."

These are volatile times, both economically and politically. How do you deal with this?
"The last two years have been tough globally and every industry around the globe has felt the pressure. It's also not been an easy process to go through when you're cutting costs as much as you can and pulling back. You have to be smart about this and get the message across clearly. When you're going to spend, spend wisely in a targeted approach and do the right thing. I don't think we're completely out the woods yet. As a company, we've made certain adjustments and globally, we've got a lot more work-sharing happening, with engineers in South Africa working on projects around the globe."

Africa is seen as the next great frontier for many companies. How do you view operations on the continent?
"Working in Africa can be difficult. Our company policy has always been to move into Africa on the back of a major client. We know that our income stream and payments are pretty much secure on that front. But from a finance perspective, there's a lot of behind-the-scenes work and effort that goes into that. Generally if we go into a country, we're going to be there for some time and have to set up an entity, so you end up working with a lot of other hands as well. Ultimately, it comes down to the people you work with on the ground. You have to try and get a sense of who will give you the right support on the ground. You also have to make sure things are done properly, because a reputational slip can be costly. There is a certain amount of risk involved with employing people. We take a look at employing locals, but you've got to take people along who know the Hatch way of doing things to help local staff to grow and develop. Tender processes in some of these countries is very tricky, because unfortunately there is a lot of corruption throughout Africa."

What opportunities do you see for Hatch going forward?
"Globally we are seeing some up take in terms of opportunities and that's positive for us right here and now. Locally .there will be a fair amount of work that will need to be done. Exactly when is still very debatable in our sector and our industry. Our state-owned companies will have to spend more money once again, but there is so much flux within these organisations. Prasa has got new stock arriving and Eskom's infrastructure build is ongoing. Our municipalities are in desperate shape with regards to some basic services. There is a lot of work to be done around the supply of water. The opportunities are there, but I think they're going to be more sporadic than they have been."

As a modern CFO, how important is it to have a solid understanding of operations and go beyond the numbers?
"It is vital for a finance professional to have an understanding of the operations. I've been to one or two sites over time, but I've learned more from talking to the guys and understanding their projects. Ultimately, there are numbers that go into the proposal. If you've got absolutely no feel of what the project may be or what it might entail, you can't provide full value added input. You can do a calculation check or make sure that people are using the spreadsheet correctly, but I think we need to be doing more in terms of adding value. We have to be able to collaborate so as not to lose money or projects, or, in the other direction, over-spend.

"The CFO has a pretty good view of the organisation and is involved in many things. You even get sucked into HR disputes, because there are numbers involved. You have to get involved in strategic decision-making, because we bring a different perspective to ensure a more well-rounded picture."

Describe your interactions with your CEO and company HQ.
"The CEO and I touch base daily and sit down and have discussions every now and then with our month-end numbers. As a global organisation, we have a monthly global conference call with HQ in Canada regarding the numbers. After that, I sit down with our senior leadership team and run through those numbers with them as well. We have a senior leadership team WhatsApp group that is quick and useful. We work pretty closely and interact a fair amount. I also have a fair amount of interaction with our Canadian finance team and our global CFO, because of our dual reporting lines. They do the corporate pull-together of all the numbers and publish quarterly results."

How would you describe your leadership style?
"I would describe my leadership style as interesting. I like to rely on people and let them get on with it without micro-managing them. There are times when I will have a look at some of the detail. I like to have a feel for numbers as well. Numbers are not cold and hard to me. Sometimes you just have to dig into that to get that sort of feel and that's where it gets a little difficult. It's an area that I try and monitor very carefully. I don't always get that right, but my aim is to try and let people get on and develop and grow and make sure that they are moving. I don't like to sit down with a set of instructions for my team. You need to be clear on what needs to be done and take it and do it.

"Open communication is the corner stone of my leadership. People often talk about transparency, but transparency can only work if the recipient of the information is capable of understanding the context of the information. There's certain information from a finance perspective that you can't make available to everyone because they don't understand the broader context. So you need to be careful what information you share and who you share it with. But you still want that information to get out to people so that people know how things are going and what is happening. You have to manage that information within the communication process."

Does mentorship feature in your working day?
"I don't do any formal mentorship - I see it as a more informal process. I do end up being a sounding board for various people. People do like to come and talk to me when they need to let off steam and I assist on that front. When people are not certain about things and they want to come and bounce off an idea, they know that they can do that with me and I'm not going to create chaos with it. Very often, when people talk through their issues, they find their own solutions."

How do you spend your time away from work?
"I don't have a lot of time for anything else, but I enjoy my golf, so I get out and play when I can. My relaxation lies in reading business books, autobiographies, novels and other books of interest and some novels. I enjoy family time, doing things with the family. I have three boys aged 26, 24 and 22. I stay in touch with what they're doing, as I want a feel of what's going on. And none of them are an accountant. Although my eldest is a maths teacher."

Have you managed to strike a work-life balance?
"The work-life balance is an ideal. I don't know that as a CFO you can have that perfect balance, as there's too much on the go and too much responsibility. I've come to terms with this. I might not be perfect, but it's not something that stresses me. I'm comfortable with it and as a family, we've come to terms with this. You deal with a lot of frustrations on a regular basis and if you let all that get to you, you're going to go insane after a while. You got to work hard, managing to work through the frustrations without letting them stress you too much."