Yolande van Biljon steering the SABC to independence

As the CFO of the SABC Yolande van Biljon is part of the team responsible for steering the broadcaster back to financial sustainability.

Yolande van Biljon joined the SABC as CFO in June 2018, motivated by the opportunity to improve the financial management of the public broadcaster. “Some people are just made for these sorts of roles. I’m just not suited to working at a commercial entity. At the SABC I can contribute to our society at large. The SABC reaches half of our population on any given day,” she says.

Despite her affinity for the role, she describes her first two years at the broadcaster as demanding, as the organisation struggled to overcome a legacy of governance failures and maladministration. In 2019, this legacy left the SABC battling to pay suppliers and staff, and the SABC faced a real chance of “black on air”.

Government stepped in with a R3,2 billion bailout, paid in tranches and earmarked for pre-defined categories of utilisation. The funds enabled the broadcaster to pay its outstanding bills and initiate its turnaround.

Despite this tough time, she believes that she has seen more wins than losses during her tenure at the SABC. One of these wins includes seeing a performance-management culture rolled out within the organisation. She is also part of the executive team executing a plan to restore the organisation’s sustainability and remove dependence on state bailouts. Nonetheless, there is still much work to be done to revitalise the 84-year old broadcaster. “The current business model is outdated. We are about ten years behind when it comes to digital transformation,” she adds.

The SABC’s turnaround plan has three main elements: dealing with the legacy and governance issues; looking at regulatory and policy issues and commercial and operational issues. This plan also includes disposing of non-core assets like under-utilised property to generate cash. Improving financial governance has been a major focus for Yolande: “Our goal is not just to attain a clean audit but to create the right culture and systems to entrench good corporate governance.”

The turnaround plan has been successful so far. According to an opinion piece by SABC group CEO Madoda Mxakwe published in the Sunday Times this past August, the SABC board and executive team have already achieved over 50 percent of the aims of the turnaround plan, in just nine months of the 36-month implementation period. The broadcaster reduced its losses from R1,7 billion in 2017 to R444 million in 2019.

Requirements of the role
In her position, Yolande also oversees supply chain management, logistics and real estate for the SABC. With these responsibilities, she is in charge of a staff complement of 250, of which 150 belong to the finance team. She has 15 direct reports and is averse to micro-management. She believes in instilling a culture of self-motivation where senior finance team members operate as CFOs of their business units.

On a daily basis she is involved with supply chain matters, innovations and, together with the team, investigates new digital and commercial opportunities in support of the turnaround of the SABC. As with other state-owned enterprises, reporting consumes a healthy chunk of her time. Cash-flow management, especially during Covid-19, is also a high priority.

Working at an SOE is not without its trials. “It’s hard not to be distracted by the broader challenges facing SOEs including the noise and media articles. Other challenges include retaining key talent and operating within the constrained finances that we have available,” she explains.

The evolving finance role
Since she joined the SABC, Yolande has introduced technology into the finance department to automate certain processes. Her colleagues have embraced automation and digital transformation. “The traditional finance role is disappearing, and it’s never coming back. I believe that the finance professional of today needs the skills and knowhow to translate the numbers into a vivid picture and story that will resonate with non-financial colleagues. They also need to be confident and comfortable engaging with technology,” she says.

She expects her team to be involved in understanding the financial profitability levers at the organisation. This includes analysing the financial performance of different TV channels and radio stations – right down to the level of a radio slot or television programme. This provides the real, forward-thinking intelligence to the organisation, necessary to support effective financial transformation.

A public mandate
The SABC is mandated by the Broadcasting Act to provide programming that is varied and comprehensive to meet the needs of all South Africans. During the first 26 years of democracy, the SABC delivered universal access and local programming in all south African languages. For example, SABC Radio has a more than 70 percent share of all adult radio listening in South Africa, which translates to 28.1 million adults listening to SABC radio stations that broadcast in all 11 official languages, weekly. Radio remains a critical source of information, news and entertainment for millions of South Africans that have limited access to other forms of media.

Yolande strongly believes that there is a need for a platform to enable a national discourse and promote human development. With the increasing global dominance of social media, streaming and pay-TV, the need for independent, publicly owned media is essential. “The SABC has an important mandate and provides an essential service. We need to remain relevant. We need to operate competitively in an evolving digital landscape, whilst delivering on our mandate of providing a range of compelling, informative and entertaining programming via television, radio and digital platforms.”

The SABC’s major revenue streams are advertising, TV license fees and sponsorships. The broadcaster is not funded by the state, except for a 3 percent revenue grant intended for educational programmes. The television licence fee of R265, on which the SABC solely relies to develop all local content on both TV and Radio, has remained unchanged since 2013.

The way forward won’t be smooth sailing. The SABC has been affected by shrinking advertising budgets, non-payment of TV licences and negative publicity. Digital media channels such as social media, and streaming services are draining revenue away from traditional platforms. The costs of sports rights, which are key to the SABC transmitting sport of national importance to the public, have been escalating far beyond inflation, and have become impossible difficult for the SABC to afford.

The SABC also faces fierce competition from subscription TV and on-demand services and newer streaming entrants such as Netflix and Showmax. As data becomes cheaper, streaming content will become more accessible to more South Africans. Recently, Netflix has also moved into creating local content.

Broadcasting in a time of Covid-19
It took four days for most of the SABC’s workforce to move off-site when lockdown was announced. For many employees, this was their first taste of online meeting tools such as Zoom and MS Teams. While it took some time for the organisation to adjust, Yolande says that there have been many success stories from lockdown: “We have a simply phenomenal team who have come forward with suggestions and simply did what had to be done. The strength and resilience of our colleagues has been very inspiring.” The SABC continued to execute its mandate without interruption and almost entirely off site. More so since its role in this time was particularly critical.

With the only means of connecting among staff being online, communication became more important than before. “Management has kept the communication channels open. We’ve adapted reasonably well to new technologies – continued communication and catching up with team members online on a regular basis became the norm,” says Yolande.

While an estimated 75 percent of the SABC is working from home, providing the news and remaining on air however still requires that some employees must come into the office or travel to cover a story. The pandemic also ushered in a difficult time for journalists, who have had to execute their responsibilities in new ways – while also often at increased risk of exposure to the virus.

As a loner by nature, Yolande has coped well with lockdown conditions. She credits regular exercise as the reason she has managed so well.

A career in public service
Yolande is no stranger to working in the public sector. As the CFO of the Road Accident Fund, she was part of the team executing a turnaround strategy. Soon after she joined, she realised that the organisation had a huge funding shortfall. Her work involved changing the way the organisation dealt with treasury and cash management.

As the CFO and a member of the executive team of Denel Dynamics, she contributed to the turnaround of the defence technology company. When she left the organisation, she could report industry acceptable financial results, strong internal controls and a healthy orderbook.

Her private sector experience includes financial management positions at ITI Online, Topmed Healthcare Distributors and the group CFO role at the GladAfrica Group of Companies. She began her career as an auditor at BDO Spencer Steward.

She holds B Com (Accounting), B Compt (Hons), B Comm (Hons) and M Comm (Taxation) degrees and qualified as a chartered accountant in 1996.

Making time to unwind
Yolande believes it's vital to balance a job with a life outside work. To relax she enjoys going to the gym or taking a run in the suburbs. “I love running in the spring where I am surrounded by fragrances and colour.” She also spends time with friends and family and likes to eat out. Her favourite magazine to read is Popular Mechanics and she enjoys political intrigue and crime fiction. She also looks forward to a time when she can travel once more.