Energised by Chaos and Economic Crisis
Unilever’s James Todd represents the modern versatile CFO with a flair for turnaround strategies and a genuine passion for the products, people and company that he’s served for the past 30 years.
CIARAN RYAN: This is CFO Talks and it’s a pleasure today to be joined by James Todd, who is CFO for Unilever North Africa, Middle East, Iran, Turkey, Israel and Russia. That’s a lot of geography to cover. His job includes performance management, business planning and secure financial management in a highly volatile and fast-growing region. Today’s podcast is sponsored by Draftworx, which provides automated drafting and working paper financial software to more than 8000 accounting and auditing firms and corporations. CFO Talks is a brand of the South African Institute of Business Accountants. First of all, welcome James, how are you? You are talking to us from Dubai.
JAMES TODD: Thank you Ciaran, great to be with you, and also great to be in Dubai, although from previous experience I am missing South Africa.
CIARAN RYAN: Just tell us what temperature is it there today?
JAMES TODD: At the moment it’s just hovering below 30, so that counts as relatively cool for Dubai, it’s very pleasant.
CIARAN RYAN: A balmy cool day, if such a thing is possible. I think you were telling me before we went on air that it gets up to 50 degrees.
JAMES TODD: Yes, normally in the summer the tempting thing to do is to bail out and go somewhere a little cooler and work remotely. But since we’re working remotely anyway, and we had all the challenges of lockdown, my family and I spent the summer in Dubai where the temperature was up in the high forties and hitting 50, which is quite an experience. So one of many experiences of 2020.
CIARAN RYAN: And do you ever have the unfortunate experience of the air conditioner breaking down?
JAMES TODD: The air conditioner has artificial intelligence built into it I think of a very sophisticated guide, which can detect exactly the moment before the weekend, just that correct moment to anticipate that it’s really going to be unpleasant. So at that point, the thing triggers, it’s absolutely inevitable, but not too many of those when it was really hot, thank goodness.
CIARAN RYAN: Prior to being CFO for Unilever North Africa, you were CFO for Unilever Africa, which I guess somewhat a smaller region, and before that Unilever Maghreb, which is covering the North African markets. So that’s a lot of geography, a lot of area to cover, a big job, and I suppose that has a number of challenges, particularly during these times. So can you just explain how you are able to serve as CFO over such a wide region? What are the challenges you have doing that?
JAMES TODD: Absolutely, Ciaran, Africa was challenging from its sheer scale, of course, but the current role takes it to a different level. So if you can visualise on an Atlas Casablanca to Vladivostok, it’s a huge number of times zones. We deal with that by breaking the business down into four blocks on Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, it’s the same language, that’s a very natural block. Then we put Turkey, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan together, another block. Israel for traditional reasons, although it’s starting to change, stands on its own. Then we have North Africa and the Middle East. The key to managing that really is having a great team, as in so many things. So I’ve got fantastic CFOs who locked down those particular parts of the business in terms of both delivering the performance, looking after control compliance, being really close to their teams there. The key there is that because we’re in consumer goods, we have to be close to our markets. We have to have really CFOs, in my mind, who are comfortable being in the trade, comfortable being with consumers, they really understand how the products are performing. So handling something like this all starts off with having the right people in place and I’m extremely lucky there. But then it’s also about the roles, this is incredibly volatile territory. The Iranian rial has gone over 100% inflation this year, the Turkish lira just stopped short of 50% recently. So my role is very much about managing the portfolio and look at with that kind of chaos and volatility, how can we look at the different markets, both keep a strategic focus on where we’re going long-term but also then see how do we shape our delivery as various surprises crop up to really make sure that we maintain a clear delivery through whatever luck, whether it’s good luck or bad luck, can throw at us. Is it do we hold onto our strategy tightly, do we flex it a bit or do we do a full-scale pivot, which we’ve done in a few places in the course of this year, to make sure we drive delivery hard and of course, very much about ensuring synergies are there in particular in areas like digitising the business, we can learn a lot from each other in terms of how we approach that, and I facilitate those synergies over the enormous territory that we’re looking at.
Very deep roots in the African market
CIARAN RYAN: Everybody knows Unilever, it’s quite an old well-established company. We know the products, the toothpastes, and the various consumer products that you make. I guess one of the complexities is you have production facilities all over the world and in addition to that, you’ve got growing markets and you’ve got mature markets. Talk to us about Unilever and Africa, is that a major growth market for you?
JAMES TODD: Yes, absolutely, it’s one of the reasons I loved being in Africa, there are always these interesting aspects, these tensions there, and we’ve both been in Africa for over a hundred years. So Lord Leverhulme within four years of launching Sunlight Soap in the UK, turned up in Cape Town, it’s a long, long, long established business in South Africa. In Nigeria over 80 years, Ghana very long-established, Kenya very long-established. So we’ve both got very, very deep roots in these markets. It’s really beautiful talking to consumers when I go out and do consumer visits. For example, in Nigeria, even in Northern Nigeria, and people talk about our brands as Nigerian brands, their own brands, brands that they’ve grown up with. So that’s one aspect of it is those deep roots, but at the same time, one of the most tremendously exciting aspects of living and working in Africa is the sheer opportunity that is there, and not just the opportunity but the attention, which is required to make sure we deliver it, by really being close to what people need, really being close on affordability. As you say about our factories, making sure we’ve gotten the right business models, which can deliver the brands that people love and the brands that people want, but at a price, which is right for them, so that we can really build the market and then generate growth. That’s something which with economic cycles swings to and fro, so we always have to be on our toes to maintain Africa as a growth market. But we’ve had great growth and there’s still a great deal of opportunity to come.
CIARAN RYAN: It always fascinated me, I spent some years working in Ghana myself, and you would go to sometimes very small villages out in the middle of nowhere and you’d see a banner or a poster for Sunlight Soap. It’s rather like Coca-Cola, it really is a fascinating subject, how deep the penetration of brands that Unilever brands and brands like Coca-Cola have got into the most remote places in Africa. That, as you say, has sometimes taken 80 years but they are very familiar brands in these places.
JAMES TODD: Yes, absolutely and one of my beliefs about being a CFO is you have to live the company that you’re working for and I’ve been in Unilever for more than 30 years. So I know the brands backwards and I’ve seen it in many countries. So I go out and see consumers whenever I’m traveling, I get out and see consumers. So I’ve [unclear] in someone’s yard in Wagadugu, and I have to admit I’m not just saying this for effect, I’ve genuinely been moved to tears. Actually, Niger was one of the examples, a country of terrible poverty and we maintained a very small factory there producing a basic soap, but a good quality soap, and when I went out and I was taken to a number of houses, talking to the ladies, predominantly ladies who buy our products, hearing them talk the significance, so the soap that we have in Niger is given to people when they get married, they’re given a carton of it, it’s given on the birth of a child. It has that place in their life and they talk about it and how it makes the chore of doing the household washing because it smells nice and because they know they can rely on it. It’s really very important to them as they unbelievably steer their lives, manage their households on very low incomes. I freely admit, I’ve sat in those conversations at times gulping back a tear because it’s just really moving to be a part of that, and to feel that something as apparently insignificant as a bar of soap can actually bring some positivity to the life of someone who otherwise really has a tough time making ends meet.
CIARAN RYAN: I can’t even remember all the brands that Unilever has. You mentioned Sunlight and that triggered some memories. Just rattle off a couple of other brands.
JAMES TODD: Omo, of course, at the heart of what we do, we’ve got Knorr, which is an absolutely fantastic brand, which brings joy at dinner time for all kinds of people. We’ve got a great tea portfolio in South Africa, you’ll be aware of Joko, and we’ve got Lipton elsewhere in Africa, with
a massive heritage again. Sunlight in its various forms, Domestos is really great as a tool for keeping people’s homes clean. I think not necessarily in South Africa, but around South Africa, Vim as a very straightforward cleaner is absolutely critical. During this past year Lifebuoy soap has been literally a lifesaver, it’s played a massive role and it’s had huge growth as the importance of handwashing has really come home to the whole population of any country and actually the world. So there are many, many brands, I hope they are familiar and nicely established in people’s homes.
‘The fundamentals of being a CFO and caring for your team and developing your team have not changed.’
CIARAN RYAN: Every single one of those, of course, are very familiar brands. We’re joined by Nicolaas van Wyk, the Chief Executive Officer of the South African Institute of Business Accountants. Nicolaas, we’ve just been getting a little bit of background about Unilever and I wanted to just pivot the conversation a little bit here towards the role of the CFO. James has been talking about this huge geographical area that he has to manage as CFO, and it runs from the North of Africa and the southern tip of Africa all the way to Vladivostok in Eastern Russia. It’s an extraordinary geography that he has to cover. James, maybe we can just talk a little bit about the role of the CFO. For 30 years you’ve been involved in the finance area of Unilever, how have you seen this role change over that period of time, and maybe you can just talk about some of the things that you are most proud of in your role as a financial executive.
JAMES TODD: It’s been fascinating to see the changes. I also actually had the privilege of being the CEO in our business in North Africa for four years, which gave me a chance to actually work with a CFO and have some insights into how it felt, which is something that I think every CFO should aim to do that really has shaped my thoughts on it, and I’ll come to that maybe. The interesting thing is at the heart of it, what we do I don’t think really has fundamentally shifted in terms of the intent that we have. We play a fundamental and critical role around control stewardship and locking down the foundation of the business. If those basics aren’t right then we don’t know where the businesses going, we don’t know how we’re performing, and anything can happen. So the core of what a CFO does and ensuring compliance, ensuring control, that remains. Now of course, how we do it has changed. The same is true if we look at adding value to performance about driving correct decision-making, setting strategic frameworks, that as a core role stays constant, but we now have massively changed approaches to data, information and our ability to do analytics, which changes how that works. I was thinking about people and was about to say that the fundamentals of being a CFO and caring for your team and developing your team have not changed. But when I reflected on that, in my first CFO role, I had huge numbers of people doing transactional tasks of processing invoices at either end of the value chain of keeping things running over and we, like many businesses, have progressively outsourced our transactions. So where one of the major aspects when I started as a CFO was to manage an absolutely huge department, very, very diverse in terms of the capabilities, diverse in terms of the expertise. Actually, the, the departments have shrunk and many of us have outsourced the sheer, transactional side, so that large-scale managing of teams has shrunk a bit. But what interestingly goes with that in my mind is that we have to be careful that those transactional activities don’t turn into a black box, that we keep a clear focus, a clear understanding of how we can retain control, how we can still be very clear what’s happening and that the right standards are being met as that happens. That we work out how do we deal effectively with maybe the third parties that are providing those services. So that’s the kind of shift we go through. I think automation as many of us work through our data, as we work through analytics, we’re moving into environments of far more automation. Again, we have the same challenge that what used to be within our grasp now progressively moves away. So we have to have a very clear sighted view on how do we keep that foundation of control, stewardship really solid while moving out of the hands-on human control, human observation, human overview that we’ve had in the past. So that I think is an absolutely key aspect that we need to remain close to those foundations. At the same time, we need up weight how we’re partners to the rest of the business, and I think for many businesses, this has been clear during the times of Covid that as CFOs we helped to steer the business in terms of the right priorities to continue to drive value, create value, even under the most difficult circumstances. So I think that’s the other aspect, which has increased, I think we’re now far more frontline in delivering operational value, in a sense in delivering strategic value. In some of the areas where we were very much on the more hygiene side of keeping the business running, we’ve been able to do outsource, but we need to make sure we retain the right overall control over how that is actually impacting the business.
CIARAN RYAN: Nicolaas, let’s bring you in here, maybe you can offer a little bit of insight there into the changing role of the CFO. James has already mentioned the automation as being a big part of it and teams, really managing the teams. This is a long way, is it not, from the old CFO that we used to imagine ten years or 20 years ago.
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Yes, it’s very interesting hearing James speak, especially the passion he has for the clients and I suppose that demonstrates the new face of the CFO, being client-focused and customer-focused. James, I saw on your LinkedIn profiled that you have a BA Philosophy, which intrigued me tremendously, because as we’ve been speaking with many CFOs over the last couple of months, that seems to be very prophetic, I suppose, in a sense that you did that because that’s exactly where the position now is. How much did philosophy assist you in developing this people-focused approach to running the finance department?
JAMES TODD: Philosophy is not an obvious choice and what I should say, Nicolaas, is it made the few years of getting through my accounting exams absolutely terrifying. So in that respect, I’m not sure that I’d recommend it to an aspiring CFO. That was a very sudden shift of focus. But there’s actually a lot in common because while we tend to think of philosophy as being rather up in the air and spiritual, actually a lot of what I studied was about logic. It was studying the area of philosophy of science as well, and how you can be clear about what is true and what’s not true. A lot of time spent on that and ethics, of course, which is a really fundamental part of what CFOs do. So I still find fairly routinely that some of my old thinking of getting my head into that logical framework still absolutely applies. What strikes me is that Covid has I think simply accelerated an increased pace of change, which we could already see around us. I think one of the areas as CFOs that we need to be attuned to is that the absolute focus on our core narrow territory is great and is critical for the business, but actually if we’re going to understand this change which is happening, we need to be looking out at other points of reference and really trying to…what I try and do is try to read broadly to take on other, as you say, understand our clients, understand customers, talk to them about what’s happening so that we have the widest possible way to understand it because the world is getting increasingly difficult to understand it’s changing much faster. So we must really build up that skill of being able to rapidly look at very complex, fast-changing issues and to be able to simplify them without trivialising them. That’s the core skill, which I think is so much of what we need to do in our daily lives as CFOs now.
‘One of the things I feel we sometimes miss in businesses is the real magic of social networks.’
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: I absolutely share your view and that is why we’re obviously a professional body looking at designations and structuring the profession, but we had to adjust our designations to include a new designation for CFOs, because what we’ve seen is the modern CFO comes from a variety of backgrounds, and the more diverse the background, the better the role of the CFO. So it’s built on exactly what you said, stewardship, performance, strategy, operations and a very strong HR focus. So we’re building that and then what we also found is that we’re thinking is it possible to develop a qualification for a person to one day become a CFO because there’s so much, in addition to accounting, that I think somehow we’ve lost. So we’ve been in this process now for a couple of years, which we can discuss with you further, I’m sure I would want to get your view on those. But the other question, you are working in North Africa, we are also just expanding to North Africa through all our networks, there are quite a few CFO associations, I think you and I are on the Tanzanian CFO forum, and it does give a nice idea to maybe unify or network or solidify CFOs in Africa. There are very strong CFO associations in Morocco, Algeria, Tanzania and Egypt. But when I come down Africa, I don’t see that as much, it’s not formalised. Then the last one I found is ourselves, SAIBA, developing a formal network for CFOs. How would one go about, especially with your international experience, in getting those CFOs to maybe network more and have a better influence on the work that they perform?
JAMES TODD: Oh, I think it’s a terrific idea because the reality is that by sharing experiences between CFOs, we could all really get our professional and our personal development moving. My experience is it’s quite difficult to do. I’ve been on listed company boards in Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, and you actually then discover quite different ways of operating, in particular between the Francophone and the French speaking, North and West of Africa and other parts of Africa. But the intent of doing it I think is a great intent, and sometimes in life, you have to be really frank, I’ve got no idea how to do it. But I’d be very happy to join you in trying to do it, I think that would be a really great ambition. One of the things I feel we sometimes miss in businesses is the real magic of social networks. We all love LinkedIn in and that’s how we connect, as we’ve done, and that’s helpful, but I think where CFOs can really contribute to each other is if you get that kind of network and you have a problem you haven’t encountered before and you can put it out there because the reality is, if you look at Africa, there is a CFO who’s definitely been through that problem somewhere before. That would be an incredibly powerful way to, in some ways, modernise the continuous professional development. To be able to do that with each other would be such a powerful approach.
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Thank you very much.
CIARAN RYAN: James, let’s talk a little bit about what impact Covid has had on the business. I imagine that because you’re in the consumer markets, mainly that the GDP crash would have hit your business, is that correct?
JAMES TODD: Yes, in a mixed way, it’s been absolutely fascinating because GDP is a very averaging measure and we’ve seen that taking place. What we’ve seen is very much market by market, extraordinary differences between markets, some commonalities. But because we’re so dependent on the retail trade, we’ve experienced different forms of lockdown having a different impact. I must say, I wonder how much governments talk to each other because we’ve seen markets which have closed supermarkets at the weekends, markets which have closed supermarkets
mid-week, markets which have closed supermarkets in the evening. It’s an absolute mystery what logic was going on in them. We’ve seen whole parts of the retail trade or the hotel trade being shut down for weeks on end in some areas. So that means that we’ve experienced the impact of Covid very differently according to what’s happening in the markets. We’ve also found that our portfolio has really being skewed by this. So I’m sure we’ve all washed our hands over the last ten or 11 months, more times than we had done for quite a long time before that. So of course, our cleansing brands have gone through the roof. There are other areas where consumers have been less focused on the need for certain product types. So we’ve seen how we sell to the trade changing dramatically and very differently across countries. We’ve seen the change in the brand portfolio, and we’ve already come back to making sure that we can really understand our growth against competition because when you compare different countries, different countries and different bits of the markets responded in different ways. So the acid test for us has been about really making sure we understand our market shares, even measuring market shares has become a bit challenged, but we think we have a fairly good idea of that, where I have to say I’m happy with the results across my full territory. But of course, then looking to make sure we’re driving growth, taking very thoughtful approaches to profitability. I think there have been some fascinating questions. So we decided very early on that business continuity, almost as an act of faith, justifies whatever investment you put into it. So we have invested massively in terms of in particular for our frontline teams in factories in the markets, really going many extra miles to ensure the maximum possible protection for them, screening, testing, so that they are able to keep the real basics of the business functioning, and every cent of that investment has paid off in terms of our competitive growth. So I think what’s really intriguing is looking at how the business has changed and against all expectations what I’m seeing actually in each of the businesses I’m involved with is we’ve got faster, we’ve got more agile, we’ve got much sharper in our priorities. One of the key messages that I’m repeatedly saying, probably irritatingly, to all of my colleagues is we can’t let this go. When the burning platform of Covid has gone, we need to keep up this fast decision-making, we need to keep up being able to rapidly change course to pursue opportunities. So it sometimes sounds a bit strange to say, we need to get the best out of Covid, but I think it’s made many of us much, much sharper as businesses, and that’s something we need to cherish and nurture and make sure we don’t lose when things return to normal.
‘I love environments which are in a state of complete chaos, ideally economic crisis.’
CIARAN RYAN: That’s fascinating. So you’ve actually used this crisis as a way to reinvent or reprioritise areas of the business. One thing I want to touch on here is your time in North Africa, for example, you were something of a troubleshooter. You turned around Unilever’s loss-making Tunisian operation and you guided the business through the Arab Spring and the years after, it was 2011, a very difficult time in North Africa. My question is this, is troubleshooting part of the arsenal of the modern CFO?
JAMES TODD: Yes, it’s a great summary…the view of our global CFO is that I’m a troublemaker rather than a troubleshooter, because everywhere I go there seems to be a revolution or war or something that happens. I think certainly a core part of what we do as CFOs is problem-solving and we problem solve in a way which is objective, which is analytical. But I hope, coming back to Nicolaas’s earlier point about how we can be great CFOs, that we’re also doing it with our intuition firmly out as well, and picking up the signals, making those complex correlations. So I think we are core problem-solvers because we provide an objectivity and analytical capability in the business. I should think that every CFO listening to this knows those moments when the CEO turns to you looking for the comfort that this is the right thing that is being said, the right decision being made, the right thing that is happening. In times of really rapid change, we’ve got to respond to that and we’ve got to really up our game in terms of being people who can fix things, people who can say in this complex environment, this is the most important aspect. So that’s one thing. So I think it is a core aspect of what CFOs do, the extent to which you make that the entirety of every day is another issue and it takes me in a slightly different direction, which I think is a key thought for us in terms of leading our teams. But one of the key things I think in a career is to find what really moves you. It’s fairly obvious from my CV, I love environments which are in a state of complete chaos, ideally economic crisis. I was in Tunisia as the Arab Spring broke out, I actually negotiated with one of our customers and I certainly wasn’t prepared to leave until we’d finished the negotiation, which finished with tanks in the car park. As we did the negotiation, the CEO of the customer I was dealing with, we were interrupting the negotiation so he could shut down the stores and I could ensure that our factory was safely shut down, and stay in touch with the unions and steer it through. That kind of thing is what gives me energy. Iran is my pet project, it’s an amazing country just in its own right. But doing businesses is fascinating, 100% devaluation, and we have a business, which is fantastically performing. So we’re creating cash, which then devalues at that speed, and how do you deal with that? How do you manage to navigate sanctions environments, which we put enormous care into doing so as a proper responsible multinational. We’re confident we can operate in Iran in a way, which is correct, which respects global sanctions and does the right thing. But we’re also true to Iranian consumers. I love those kinds of problems. I love debt. I have a pet project, a distributor in one of our territories who managed to build up a phenomenally large debt, a crazily large debt, and I love that sense of sitting opposite someone who owes you money, and in particular in this case over a period of time, just steadily having the confidence of reducing that figure. For me, that’s what really gives me energy. You can hear it, you’re not going to shut me up about it now. I think that the key is that everybody needs to find out what gives them that positive energy. Some of us need tranquility, my wife needs tranquility, so that makes an interesting home environment. I need chaos. I think in a career if you can find the environment where you thrive and look for roles in that, that’s absolutely your route to fulfillment. I think you can hear in my voice that I enjoy every moment of those kinds of situations.
CIARAN RYAN: Wow, that’s a fascinating viewpoint, this embrace of chaos and bringing some order. You just triggered something there about Iran and 100% devaluation of the currency, sorry, is that right, 100% devaluation, over what period of time are we talking here?
JAMES TODD: That was in 2020, I think it was 113% when I looked.
CIARAN RYAN: How do you handle that?
JAMES TODD: This is another interesting thing; the reality is you can’t handle it and that’s one of the other things I find quite exciting about these very unpredictable environments is in a profession, which is all about precision, in those kinds of environments you have to be very comfortable with ambiguity. So it’s about, for me, it’s about being confident that everything we could possibly do, we have done. So my poor Finance Director in Iran is steadily and has been over the last few years, steadily working through a list of places where we can put money and we’ve looked at agricultural land, we’ve looked at gold, we’ve looked at gold proxies, we’re looking at real estate, looking at real estate to do with the business, we’re looking at real estate, which has nothing to do with the business. It’s, in a sense, an impossible problem and that’s why it’s such fun. That’s why it’s so engaging because you have to just keep looking and looking and looking and making sure what you’re doing when you think you’ve found the answer fits in both with what international sanctions require and what local regulations require and to have the confidence that you can get fulfilment from having moved forward, from having made an improvement, even better from having, worked with the team on the ground and enabled them and supported them so that they can drive those things and that you get real fulfilment from that. Every step is a, is a little victory.
‘Investing in Africa is a beautiful experience because you know you’re having a positive impact.’
CIARAN RYAN: Wow, okay, the clock is running down here, but I’ve got a couple of quick questions for you to just tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up and how you ended up there today. So you’ve been 30 years in the Unilever Group, so you really are part of the family. How did it start?
JAMES TODD: So, yes, I guess you study philosophy because you intend to be unemployed. I wanted to be an academic and I absolutely loved my degree course. I loved every second of the studying side of those three years. What I realised is that philosophy actually narrows you down. You narrow down, narrow down, narrow down to a specific theory of a specific individual and dig into that, and that’s not my temperament, as it may have come across already. So I decided I needed a craft, and in the process of companies looking to recruit, Unilever appeared, and I realised I was really fascinated by this idea of everyday consumer products, FMCG, that you do something which ends up in everybody’s kitchen. I just find it a fascinating thing to be involved in. So I joined Unilever’s graduate entry scheme. If I’m really honest, I’m not sure, I ploughed my way through CIMA exams, I’m not sure I had a great deal of purpose in my early years in the business. I was working in central London, I spent every penny I earned and probably rather more and had a great time. I got through my accounting exams, but I wasn’t quite sure why I was doing it. I was very interested in Central Europe. It was the time of Glasnost and Perestroika Central Europe and Eastern Europe was changing, and I wanted to be a part of that. Just as I got thinking I was going to set off on my own, Unilever kindly bought me a margarine factory in southern Poland. It wasn’t quite like that, but it felt like that to me. I entered a business which had no computers, accounts done on big sheets of paper, sometimes a little bit glued onto them. A team of 34 ladies, broadly my mother’s age, and of whom one spoke some English, and I had to sink or swim. Firstly, that turned out to a miraculous experience, just seeing by given some care, some development, just how fantastic a number of people in that team turned out to be. I was given the brief to go out and recruit all the great young people I could. So I built a fantastic team that I brought in. I had an undergraduate, who hadn’t actually finished his degree, as chief accountant, for example, he had no idea he couldn’t do it and he did it brilliantly. So was an interesting lesson. What I realised was that seeing how I could contribute to people’s development, seeing that we were producing better products at lower cost, better prices and making consumers happier, and we were making money. That for me really said, this is the point of being in finance, steering the business to do that is something actually pretty magical. That has a real benefit for people in addition to being commercially strong. So I had a couple of jobs in Poland, I met my wife there, I fell in love with the country as well, which could be a whole different story, we won’t go in there. I think I needed to be brought back in, so I was brought into a then global strategy role in central London, central Unilever in London, which was great because then I saw the business from 40,000 feet, rather than having been at times it felt underground in what we were doing in the operations in Poland. I got the chance to travel the world. I ended up being it’s called an executive assistant, I like to think puppy was the right term, for one of the global directors who ran half of the business globally. He had a fantastic trust in me, he let me read everything he saw, he asked my opinion on things, he gave me projects, which were way out of my depth and took me everywhere he went. So I learned a lot from that experience. I had the benefit of visiting South Africa at that time. It was a point when Unilever was working with Nelson Mandela on the Mandela scholarships, and so we were getting some phenomenal people through that route into the business, had the extraordinary privilege of meeting the man in my first week in the country, which at that point you know you’ve landed on something special. We had an incredibly inspiring CEO at the time, who I actually wanted to work with. That’s one of the amazing things in your career, when you meet someone you want to work with. So I had a great experience, it’s a very strong, iconic business, as you mentioned about the brands, Ciaran, in South Africa. After a couple of years, someone asked me, expecting the answer no, if I’d like to extend my turf to Africa, and I had the chance to get out and see Nigeria before I had to make the decision and I simply fell in love. This is where you expect me to say wildlife, landscape and all those things, and the beauty of Africa. Actually, I fell in love with African markets and just the sheer challenge. I mean literally markets, so we have in open markets people selling our products all over Africa. That moved me so much. You heard me talking about consumers earlier, and so I had the most fantastic time, we needed to do some restructuring sharp in the business up at that point. So that’s always a bit of a positive and negative when you’re doing that, but I think we got the business into good shape there, into nice growth, we really improved profitability. As an outcome from that then got the chance to be Managing Director in the Maghreb, which we’ve spoken about. The whole Arab Spring story, in Libya I met Gaddafi just before the revolution and then was not sure of my welcome when I went back during the revolution, but happily that all was safe. So the most extraordinary personal experience to be a part of that. As a CFO to see through a CEO’s eyes, what being a CFO is about. Unilever then decided to have another big investment wave in Africa, and I was asked to go back into total Africa as a CFO, which I did for the last five years before I came here, had the time of my life. Investing in Africa is a beautiful experience because you know you’re having a positive impact. It needs a lot of management, needs a lot of careful running but I was able to do that. I’m still mentoring many people from my Africa team from those days, in spite of having moved on. Then there were a few, in the nature of multinationals
I think it’s healthy to cycle people through. So they had to kind of tear my hands away from the CFO Africa role, but they found me some really exciting markets, as I described earlier, here in North Africa, Middle East, Russia, Israel, Iran, Turkey. So that’s how I’ve got here and I think you can probably hear from everything I’ve said that as a career path, what this has given me above all is really deep fulfilment, and you live as a company, which is very strong on its people side, so I have made some incredible strong, lifelong friendships on it, which is a wonderful thing to have. But also what I’ve done in terms of the sheer working side has been able both in terms of delivering business results, but also feeling part of making a difference to consumers across Africa, in the Middle East and beyond that, this is something which has been truly worthwhile and certainly massively fulfilling for me.
CIARAN RYAN: I can feel your passion, you love your job. You’ve got to see people in parts of the world that probably very few of us ever will, and a great company with great endurance. James, my final question to you because we are out of time here, are there any books that you would recommend for aspiring CFOs, and they don’t have to be about debits and credits.
JAMES TODD: The truth is I’ve never finished a business book and I don’t read business books. I think in the end, business is all about relationships, that’s a key thing for CFOs to have in mind The whole purpose of being in businesses is to influence people, to do things which they may or may not know they want to do, so that you get the right effect. The truly greatest book about relationships is
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace is too long, we’ll leave that aside. But Anna Karenina, as you read that book, you recognise the people you know, the people you work with, you see their weaknesses and their strengths laid open and you see how life unfolds and how things can be, and it’s also just a thing of complete beauty. So it will rinse your brain, cleanse your soul at the end of a tough working day. I always encourage everyone I deal with in finance to read Anna Karenina, you can’t go wrong.
CIARAN RYAN: Yes, I think for character development, Tolstoy is unbeatable, and that is a great book, I also recommend it highly. He does kind of bring out that everybody has flaws and everybody has beauty inside of them, they’re not one-dimensional characters. They’re very, very interesting studies in human character.
JAMES TODD: Wonderfully put.
CIARAN RYAN: James, we’re going to leave it at that, it was a fascinating discussion. I’m so glad we had this opportunity to interrupt your day in Dubai and get to find out a little bit about you and what it is that you’re doing. I would love to stay in touch and get you back on, particularly, as things start developing now, maybe the economies start picking up. It’d be great to catch up in a few months again, if you’re okay with that?
JAMES TODD: That would be fabulous, it’s been a great pleasure, Ciaran, Nicolaas, thank you very much, indeed. If there’s a chance to pick the conversation up again, I’ll be delighted to.
CIARAN RYAN: Great. Nicolaas, is there anything you want to say?
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: It was amazing, I’ve learned so so much, it was amazing. Thank you for sharing it with us and I’m sure all our networks will equally enjoy it. Thank you, James.
JAMES TODD: Nicolaas, you and I have a joint product, a joint project now to unify the CFO’s of Africa.
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Thanks so much, James.
CIARAN RYAN: Thanks James and thanks Nicolaas.