KC RottokBy KC Rottok|April 12, 2022|6 Minutes|In Opinion


Lauding the unsung bean counters of Africa

The Chief Financial Officer  the title lacks glamour, but he or she is at the heart of companies; they balance the books and do the dirty work. It is a lonely job working late into the night to contain costs to make sure there is enough money to fund the enterprising ideas that CEOs and directors come up with.

Often CFOs are thought of – if they are given a second thought– as bookkeepers, bean counters, and number crunchers; working away, quietly, in the back office.

I have spent eighteen months speaking to the CFOs of Africa’s biggest companies and it is clear that beyond the books and handsome remuneration; there is drama in the lives of the hard-working backroom boys and girls.

Take Craig Miller, the CFO of Anglo-American Platinum, a top 10 Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) and one of Africa’s biggest mining companies. They call him ‘Dr No’ because every time people ask him to spend money, the answer is always the same. He counters that always tries to guide, rather than direct – when he says no!

Yet Miller’s ability to say no to spending helped him balance the books, in crisis, when platinum plants broke down and stoppages came with COVID-19. Despite this, the company managed to record headline earnings of over $3  billion, in 2021. Hard work paid off, but Miller has a tinge of regret about the long hours he spent at his desk early in his career. The civil rights activist with a long history in Africa, Rev.Jesse Jackson once said: children need your presence, much more than your presents.

“If there is one aspect of my career I would change, it would be how much time I previously spent with my family,” says Miller, ”I often wonder what kind of childhood my sons would remember. Would they think of dad as someone who was around a lot, or as a figure consumed by his job?”

Dineo Molefe, CFO of the South African subsidiary of telecommunications giant MTN feels the same. If she could do it all over again, Dineo says she would work fewer hours than she did at the start of her career. She advises young professionals to be less hurried.

“It seems as if we are all under extreme pressure that everything needs to happen now. It is important to regularly take time to pause and evaluate whether what we are doing is aligned to what we were put on earth to do,” she says.

The training of a CFO  teaches them to deal with pressure; some of these pressure could draw empathy from a statue.

For instance, Abigail Mukhuba had to deal with a harsh boss in her rise to Financial Director of Africa’s largest insurance company, Sanlam.

Her team worked over Christmas, to meet a filing deadline, as they struggled to balance their figures. Mukhuba phoned her boss at 3 a.m.; to tell of their predicament. He burst out laughing. She was taken aback; for a moment she thought he hadn’t quite understood.

“No Abigail, I understand exactly what you are saying, “he retorted. “And it is hilarious. What do you expect me to do? Tell the investors that we have a balance sheet that does not balance? That just doesn’t happen. Figure it out!” With that, he hung up.

“I learnt from that you are not always going to get people to hold your hand,” she explains. “You must dig deep and be self-driven to find the solutions that are required. And that is exactly what happened there; we gathered ourselves to make one last solid effort to reconcile the numbers and succeeded just in time.”

Digging deep is something Andre Du Plessis has done so many  times he could take a spade with him to work. As one of the founders and CFO of Capitec – the so called ‘the world’s best bank’- he has faced tense  make- or- break moments of survival.

On 29 January 2018, Capitec management woke up to the news that Viceroy Research had published a document accusing the bank of massive overstatement of financial assets and reckless lending practices, claiming that the bank was ‘simply uninvest able’

‘Managing an operation that processes 6 000 transactions per second means if something goes wrong, it can be catastrophic. This calls for a mindset of thinking straight and acting straight. My approach is to consult colleagues, have robust stakeholder discussions, engage in fervent prayer and to gather critical information to make the best decision,’ Du Plessis says. It worked.

In writing my book Masters of Money, these are a few of the mountains CFOs have had to climb. I think these individuals are certainly unsung captains of industry that deserve much more recognition.