Why SAA's interim CFO Fikile Mhlontlo is the man for the job

Fikile Mhlontlo found a new purpose when tasked with returning SAA to the skies as its interim CFO.

Fikile Mhlontlo was born in a rural village within the small district of Bizana in Transkei, Eastern Cape, and grew up under trying circumstances. As the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child”, and Fikile was a product of that. “The community would come together to support any child who showed potential – the true Ubuntu at work” he explains.

With the nurturing and support from his village, Fikile went to a local school, Lugwijini, to get his education, alternating his attendance days so he could attend to his chores at home when he wasn’t learning. He explains that on the days when he wasn’t at school, he would plant or hoe the fields in the morning and shepherd the family and neighbouring livestock in the afternoon. On days when he did go to school, the boy next door would attend to the livestock. “The arrangement, which was fairly common at the time, was a way of affording each other the privilege of attending school,” Fikile says.

He adds that different members of the community supported him in many ways, including financially.

This arrangement continued until he was in primary school, when his parents found a new arrangement to enable him to focus on his education. They had turned their home into a shebeen and after school he would help sell various types of liquor, Fikile laughingly states, adding that this might be why he doesn’t drink as an adult. “I understand the liquor too much.”

In 1985, when he was in standard seven, the principal of his school, Mr Budoda Magawana, addressed his class, advising them to consider doing accounting after passing secondary school. Mr Magawana told them about Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu, who had qualified many years earlier as the first black CA, ran an accounting practice in Umtata, was a lecturer at a university, as well as a business advisor. “Professor Wiseman had proven that it was possible to break through to something greater,” Fikile says, explaining that this Mr Magawana’s address was what had inspired him to become a CA. “Professor Nkuhlu had shown that accounting, which I had no full appreciation for at the time, can take you to where you want to go, regardless of your background – it knew no boundaries.”

This marked the beginning of Fikile’s journey into accounting.

Growing into a leader
After passing his matric, Fikile went to study at the University of Transkei (now part of Walter Sisulu University) on a part-time basis. Similarly to how he had grown up, when he wasn’t working towards becoming a CA, he was working to earn extra money and to help his family. “I was even a shoe repairman at one time,” he laughs.

He obtained his BCompt and BCompt Honours and was recruited by EY to start serving his articles. “Joining an accounting firm as a trainee was a lot of hard work,” Fikile says, but adds that coming from a rural upbringing, he was no stranger to it. “I had fun,” he reminisces.

After working his way up to the position of audit partner and serving with EY for close to 13 years, Fikile made the decision to look for a role outside the practice, where he would continue to add value. Instead of joining well established organisations, where the strategies and systems have been tried and tested, he decided to pursue a position in the public sector, where he believed his role would have a bigger impact. He was on a journey to grow and make a name for himself.

With this conviction Fikile joined Denel in 2008 as a financial director and group CFO, where he played an instrumental role in taking the defence technology conglomerate from a loss-making public enterprise to a successful, profit-making one.

“I grew in the role, travelled across the globe, dealt with various business issues, contributed in terms of setting strategic direction, in broad leadership and taking the company forward,” he says. He also attended various leadership courses over the years as part of career development including Executive Development Programme with Henley Business School.

Leaving the public sector
Fikile stepped away from the role after he successfully navigated Denel onto a more certain course. “I said to myself, after seven years in the sector, I had no wish to return to the public space, unless the institution I came back to was of national importance and had a greater impact on society at large,” he says. “The return wouldn’t be about me, if it were to happen at all.”

Fikile went on to serve as an executive director and interim group CFO of Concor Construction. Returning to the private sector, he realised that the business issues both sectors faced were the same and that the solutions were also similar. “The advantage of the private sector is quick decision-making, because delays could cost you money,” he says.

He explains that construction is largely about infrastructure development and is a pillar of the economy. “It’s a very complex industry involving infrastructure construction over a long time, a need to predict related construction processes upfront, attribute costs and attach a mark-up, sound revenue recognition, as well as long business development cycles in a stagnant economy.” He adds that accurate cost estimation, attracting relevant skills and managing the communities surrounding the projects are vitally important and key success factors for these projects.

Fikile was involved from a leadership and financial perspective in the iconic Msikaba Bridge project just outside Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape, the Conradie Park Development in the Western Cape, power projects and various medium-size projects.

He explains that one of his key highlights during this time was working with local communities that wanted to leverage these major projects and better their lives. “I love the sector and wish it well in its attempts to rejuvenate itself in a challenging economic environment.”

After almost three years in the role, Fikile stepped down when his contract ended and placed his focus on his role as a non-executive board member and chair of the audit and risk committee at Lovelife South Africa.

Returning to the public sector with a purpose
Fikile has recently been appointed as an executive director and interim CFO of the public airline South African Airways (SAA). “The opportunity to work with the interim board at SAA in transitioning the airline from business rescue to operations following deep restructuring was tempting enough for me to get involved,” he says.

Again, Fikile received support from all his friends, family and acquaintances, congratulating him on the appointment. “Some of them were quite surprised that I have taken on the role due to the historic challenges the company has faced and the high turnover of executives,” he says.

Fikile, however, remains undeterred. “There have been many changes in the airline and in the stakeholder environment that supports the airline. I choose not to judge the airline using its past and rather focus on what contribution I can make in taking it forward.”

Since joining the struggling airline in April 2021, he has been responsible for providing leadership from a finance perspective and supporting the CEO, group executives and interim board as the company goes from business rescue to being operational again. This includes engaging financial institutions, regulators, drawing up budgets and supporting the development of the restart plans for the new SAA.

On top of having to reposition the company after the many challenges it has faced throughout the years, Fikile has also found himself having to navigate the challenges of operating an airline during Covid-19. “The outbreak of Covid-19 worldwide and its impact on the state of the economy has continued to present a tough trading environment for airlines,” he says.

The national lockdown that commenced on 26 March 2020 saw all flights to and from South Africa grounded. Since then, there have been various Covid-19 risk alert levels with continued negative impact on the financial performance and cash flow of airlines. “SAA has not operated scheduled flights since the national lockdown and used the time to address various business issues, like funding, restructuring and more.”

Despite the complexities that come with returning the state airline to operations, Fikile seems not to be a man who shies away from challenges. “I have learnt in my roles that you need to understand the problem statement, in order to figure out a correct solution, gather tools and address the issue. Genuineness, consistency and humility go a long way in handling most issues,” he says.

Fikile is looking forward to SAA resuming flight operations and the iconic brand attracting passengers again. “The market has missed SAA as per various feedbacks from passengers and we are now about to take off,” he says.

And with SAA set to take to the skies in September, Fikile appears to be achieving what he has set out to do when joining the airline. He is clearly the man for the job.

You can read the full Special Feature in the third edition of the 2021 CFO Magazine.