Yota Baron has been pursuing her first love, cars, her entire life

Yota first fell in love with Ford when she was eight years old, now she’s the motor company’s CFO.

Yota Baron’s love of cars started when she was eight years old, when her father bought a blood red Ford Granada Coupe. “I remember how exciting it was when he drove it into the driveway,” she recalls, explaining that her father’s new car, and his friend’s Ford Capri, sparked an admiration for Ford motor vehicles. Little did she know that she would eventually join the company that made these very cars.

Along with her passion for cars, Yota knew she wanted to pursue a career in finance from a young age, and after high school she became the first woman in her family to graduate from university. However, while most aspiring finance professionals do their articles after university, Yota was too eager to get into commerce and never completed hers. “I didn’t enjoy the consulting aspect of finance very much, and I never regretted the decision,” she says.

As a result, Yota spent most of her career learning on the job, and it's this approach that got her promoted to CFO of Ford Motor Company South Africa in August 2021. “I started at the company in a very junior finance role, and my story shows how you can succeed in a corporation over time if you are prepared to learn, to work hard, and to grow as a person and leader,” she explains.

Yota joined Ford Motor Company in 1990 in South Africa and in 2007 was given the opportunity to go abroad as the marketing sales and service controller for the group’s Asia Pacific and Africa (APA) regions. Over the years she climbed the ranks in the organisation to business planning manager for the APA region, then returned to South Africa as the operations controller. Once again she was given the opportunity to move into a regional role in Dubai as the marketing sales and services controller for the Middle East and Africa (MEA) region and subsequently the profit manager and CFO of Ford Direct Markets before returning to South Africa in her current role.

Driving big, fast cars abroad
After working for Ford in South Africa for 17 years, Yota went to Thailand, where she worked for two and a half years, and then to Shanghai, China, where she stayed for four. She returned to South Africa for two years before going to Dubai, where she has been working until recently. “I loved working abroad, and I think it expanded the way I think,” she says. “It gave me a different perspective on diversity, because everyone spoke different languages, had different religions and different approaches to doing things.”

She adds that Dubai, specifically, was a great place to be, because it gave her exposure to multinational challenges and learning opportunities. Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, the Middle East and some of the countries in South-East Asia all fell within her ambit. “While the world was talking about becoming agile, Dubai had already gotten it right because of the many different countries we had to work with.”

Yota explains that, not only did she have to learn very quickly, but apply the lessons quickly as well. “One of the most exciting parts of working in Dubai was that I got to drive some really exciting cars,” she reminisces. Yota, who loves driving big and fast cars, explains that she drove a Ford Mustang, a F150 Raptor, as well as Ford’s luxury car, Lincoln.

Returning to South Africa
The new appointment, however, saw her return to South Africa again. “When I started with the company, I never thought I’d have the opportunity to be in a role like this,” she says. “But the experiences I’ve had over the last 30 years, particularly abroad, have equipped me for the job.”

Yota explains that the motor industry can be volatile. Right now, there are many challenges in terms of technology that is moving forward quickly, and she finds herself having to absorb a lot of new information. “It’s like drinking from a firehose right now.”

Yota explains that the motor company is currently working on the launch of its flagship vehicle, the Ranger, which it exports to over 100 markets globally. “This is probably the most exciting thing happening right now.”

Becoming the teacher
Coming back to South Africa has also given Yota the opportunity to spend more time with her two daughters, Monique and Jessica, who have taken after their mother when it comes to chasing success in their careers. “I am very proud of them as they’ve progressed in their respective fields, with high work ethic and high emotional intelligence,” she says.

However, she adds that her daughters had an advantage growing up with parents who knew business and raised them to know it too, while there are other young people whose parents were previously disadvantaged and couldn’t provide them with that opportunity. “People like myself can pay it forward by mentoring these young people.”

Upon returning to South Africa, Yota set her sights on growing the young people in the Ford organisation. “Being able to come back to your own country in the most senior position in your field and to pay those learnings forward is really exciting,” she says.

Learning beyond finance
Yota has a couple of pastimes, many of which complement her eagerness to learn. She loves to read, and listens to audiobooks during dead time, like when she’s travelling. “I love listening to Fat Wallet, they give lots of investment updates and advice. People think because I’m a CFO I’m some sort of investment guru, but I’m not,” Yota says. “What’s nice about Fat Wallet is that they really simplify how you think about investing your money and creating wealth.”

She also loves cooking, explaining that it’s probably her Greek heritage, where food is always central to any social event. “My love language is to make great food for people and to watch them eat it.”

Yota has a lot of favourite recipes, as well as an entire collection of recipe books, but says that the one she always gets asked to pass on to people is her Greek lamb with roasted potatoes. “It’s a firm favourite in our family and no celebration happens without it,” she adds. “I can also make the best tzatziki to go with it – I don’t even need a recipe.”

When she’s not spending time with her daughters, reading or cooking, Yota drives around in her beloved Ford Ranger Raptor, where she is taken back to where her entire journey started.