Despite being a self-confessed late bloomer, Marius Möller has an impressive CV and extensive experience in senior financial leadership that led to his current position at Business Science Corporation, a fourth industrial revolution enablement company.
MATTHIEU RIVART: 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. I’m joined by Nicolaas van Wyk, CEO of the South African Institute of Business Accountants, SAIBA. It is a great pleasure today to meet Marius Möller, who, despite his young age, already has a very extensive CV and experience with ten years of senior financial leadership in healthcare, technology and professional services industries. He currently fulfils a top management position as a finance and commercial director at the Business Science Corporation Group, a global data science advisory and technology business. Prior to that, Marius was finance and IT director at Fresenius Kabi SA, a global healthcare company after an experience at Discovery Health as finance divisional manager. Marius has a very impressive academic background, being a chartered financial analyst, the prestigious CFA, with CIMA and MBA qualifications. First of all, welcome Marius, how are you today?
MARIUS MÖLLER: Thank you, Matthieu, I’m very good and I’m honoured to be on the show and thanks for the very kind introduction.
MATTHIEU RIVART: It’s a pleasure, let’s start, you’re a CFA, which is one of the most prestigious and demanding qualifications in finance, so could you please tell us bout the challenges you’ve been through in the qualification process and share with us the motivation you had to pursue this programme.
MARIUS MÖLLER: Sure, maybe I’ll start with the second part of your question, which is around what motivated me to do this qualification. From the outset I was very much a late bloomer when it comes to academics. Back in school, I found studying really difficult, I didn’t have much direction, I didn’t even have accounting at school. I had changed schools and accounting had only started in my previous school in a subsequent year, so the school I went to didn’t allow me to do accounting. So I think it was really later at university that I started to find my niche and enjoy finance and started seeing a bit of sense in academics and really found a bit of purpose in it. To get back to your question around why I did the CFA qualification, the interest started during my MBA actually, where I really enjoyed the corporate finance subjects, the stats, we had a subject called mergers and acquisitions, and I think that was a point in my career where I was still trying to explore where I wanted to take my career and the CFA qualification was just really interesting. I never thought from the outset that I would necessarily complete it, I think that’s the nice thing about the CFA qualification, there are three levels and each level by itself is really quite useful to have. I know lots of people who have just done the first level and got a lot of value out of it. At the time, I was at Discovery, my career wasn’t really in accounting as such, I was more doing corporate finance type of work, we were building out the healthcare services part of the business, which was really a new and unique offering, setting up new business. So the CFA qualification at that point just made a lot of sense, differentiating myself and then specialising in that direction. So I started the first two levels while I was still at Discovery, I think, and then I got my first CFO role at Fresenius Kabi SA, and I think at that point I had to make a decision whether I wanted to continue with the CFA qualification. But given my personality, once I started something it was really hard to just let go. So to get back to your point, I think studying and working is particularly difficult. I have a lot of respect for people who study, work and have children because that is really a game changer. It was a really challenging part of my life to finish this course, but it was so stimulating and challenging that I just pursued it. At that point I was really doing it for myself, there was no vested interest in terms of salary increases and that kind of thing, but I was just really stimulated and enjoyed the challenge. I can really recommend the programme.
MARIUS MÖLLER: It’s three levels, you can do it at your own pace, you don’t have to do it in three consecutive years. I think I did the first two levels and then I waited a year, something like that, I can’t remember. But yes, you can do it in three years, and I was fortunate to pass the three exams at the first attempt. So three years is possible.
MATTHIEU RIVART: Fantastic and congratulations on passing the three exams. Talking about your career now, you’re currently working for Business Science Corporation, which divides its activities between data science and advisory and capital, could you tell us a bit more about BSC and what your current role involves?
MARIUS MÖLLER: BSC is really a fourth industrial revolution enablement company. So you can imagine at this time with big data and even Covid has totally accelerated this digital transformation, I am very fortunate to be part of a company that is really very relevant at this point. The company started 20 years ago, it’s founder-managed, two young management consultants, Elton Bondi and Andreas Cambitsis started the company 20 years ago, they jokingly, half serious, half-jokingly tell me, well, they were doing data science and data analytics of big data 20 years ago, before the world even knew what it was. So I think it is a company that’s head of its time, there are about 120 professionals in the company, really good growth, all organic, no acquisitions. It’s a South African company but we’ve got subsidiaries in Australia, UK and now busy setting one up in the US. As you alluded to, the business is split in two parts, the one is the analytics and digital services business part and the other part is the capital part, which is around products, and I’ll go into that in a bit more detail later. If you look at the data science, analytics, there are quite a few different offerings that we have but I think if you had to distil it to the core, there are probably three businesses within that, with the first being the pure data science, advisory business, and we’re very specialised in what we call revenue science, it’s all about finding ways to enhance and increase customer revenue. There’s a lot of science around that, you can imagine, it’s around pricing, segmenting the market and understanding the size and the value of different market segments, [unclear] modelling, understanding consumer behaviour and that’s all about the price and demand elasticity. So it’s all that kind of modelling that we’ve really established a niche for ourselves and we do pretty well on that side. So that’s the one part, the revenue science, data science part, and then there are two other businesses that I would mention, the one is what we call planning science and that’s probably a business that most accountants would relate to. It’s all around implementing planning capabilities in large corporates. It’s what we call integrated planning because it’s all around finding operational drivers and then building rolling forecasts around the actual operational drivers. So you can imagine, it’s quite a complex model, it really models and distils everything down to the operational level and then the outputs are obviously financial outputs. Companies are able to run various scenarios at any given point and are able to do attribution to see what the variances might be. It kind of overlaps with data science but the difference here is we are actually implementing a capability that stays behind after a consulting engagement. Typically, the revenues are a little bit different, we would get some licensing revenue off the product and maybe a support contract in maintain the product and enhancements around it. The third part of the business is what we’d call the productivity science and that’s all around improving the operations of companies and we’re actually very big in the mining sector. Here we leverage technologies like equation-based simulations or even digital twins, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of digital twins, which is really – don’t ask me too much detail around it, it gets really complex – it’s about creating a digital replica of a live operational business. So you can digitally see how things change under different parameters and causality is established. Obviously, the point of these simulations is just to optimise businesses to find the sweet spot at which they can make the most money, be the most efficient with their resources. I think if we talk about the data science and advisory side, it’s mainly about those businesses, we do a few other things like virtual reality, which is quite big in the training space, which is really interesting as well. The other side of the business is BSC capital and that’s around software products that we develop in house and they serve two purposes, one to augment the consulting, which makes the consulting more sticky, it’s a differentiator, and the other side is that businesses buy the software as a standalone product without any consulting. These products are very much around integrated planning, the modelling I was speaking about, and also performance diagnostics, which is really about explaining what actually happened and why it happened. So those are quite niche products, so I hope that gives you some background in terms of what we do.
MATTHIEU RIVART: Definitely, that’s very clear, thank you, Marius. Nicolaas, I think you want to ask something.
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Yes, Marius, that’s such a fascinating explanation of your company that you work for. I’m really, really interested in this approach, I haven’t heard of that before, to my own shame, but now I am so interested, I’m definitely going to read more about this. Tell me, what is really of interest to me is I see that on your LinkedIn profile, and I suggest that our listeners should really go and link up with you and follow you, so you started off in a BCom accounting, moved to management accounting and then, basically, you studied for the next five, six, seven years, you do your CIMA, do your MBA, add the CFA, and there’s even a lot of LinkedIn learnings that you do on the LinkedIn Academy, and then you end up as the CFO in this very technology-driven, analytical company. How did that transformation take place, if you can just share that with us, because what we do see is a lot of CFOs coming from such a wide and diverse background, it’s very much typical of how you also have developed. That’s why we started our own CFO (SA) designation because we saw that there’s no real designation that reflects this multi-layer competency that I now see on your LinkedIn profile. Maybe just elaborate a little bit more.
MARIUS MÖLLER: Sure, Nicolaas, I think it sounds like a lot of studying and it was, but it was over a long period of time and a lot of it was obviously done part-time, after my full-time education. I think the reality is that I definitely didn’t follow a conventional approach to becoming a CFO, I think a lot of my peers, who are CAs, knew at university already or most of them at university already knew they wanted to become a CFO of a listed company or a big, exciting company one day. My career was very different. Firstly, I come from a very entrepreneurial family, so the notion of working for a big corporate and that kind of thing was almost strange to me because I just didn’t have context to that in my family upbringing. As I said, at school I didn’t even have accounting as a subject but I was good at maths and numbers and I obviously had a very keen in business. So logically I decided to do a BCom, it started off with a very general BCom and then it became BCom financial accounting and then I did honours in management accounting. Then CIMA just seemed to be the sweet spot for me because I didn’t see myself doing auditing, just personality-wise, but I was also naïve, I didn’t really know what it entailed, it just didn’t really sound like something that really interested me at the time, whereas CIMA did. So I pursued the CIMA qualification at Stellenbosch University as an honours degree, which is really the CIMA syllabus, so that set me up very well. After the honours degree there wasn’t that much left of the CIMA degree, so that was quite fortunate. I then went to the UK and CIMA was very well recognised there, probably more so than CA, so that was actually an advantage. I think even in the UK I still didn’t know for sure that I wanted to become a CFO, I think finance interested me in a general way, not necessarily accounting, it was the corporate finance, the financial modelling, those aspects probably more so. Then I got back to South Africa, and I actually struggled to get back into the corporate scene and that’s when I decided to do the MBA. I was very happy at Discovery, I had five really good years there and I actually thought I would probably retire there, to be honest, it was really an environment that really suited me, and I was very fortunate, I got approached for a really big CFO role at Fresenius Kabi SA, which is really one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world. So that was fortunate, and I think it was at that point that I decided to specialise, and this is really my career path. Then I was approached for this role at BSC and the industry just sounded so fascinating, meeting the founders, all the innovation, talks of potentially listing one day and all the plans, it was just so exciting that it was impossible to not take up the opportunity and I haven’t looked back since. I hope that answers your question, Nicolaas, it’s a round about way but I think the reality is I didn’t really know that this is where I was aiming at until I got there.
‘I think what also counted in my favour was my time at Discovery.’
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: It resonates so much with what we also hear from the other CFOs who we interview, that they end up in this role as CFO after gaining valuable experience and exposure in different areas and studying different things. But the specific question that I wanted to ask you, you mentioned your previous employer and your current one, you were actually head hunted to fulfil that role of CFO. What we sometimes hear is that the employment agencies are very much fixated with a CA for a CFO role, but as we have interviewed so many CFOs, for example, the Hollard CFO is an actuary, also from a diverse background. But how did the employer react that you are not coming from a traditional role and why do you think they specifically looked for somebody with your experience and calibre?
MARIUS MÖLLER: I think it’s a couple of things, the one thing is it’s a multinational, they are headquartered in Germany, and our division actually reported into France. The fixation on being a chartered accountant is very much a South African thing. The big decision-makers were actually Europeans in terms of my appointment, and they actually had a preference for CIMA, I am not sure exactly why, but they had a preference for that. I think what also counted in my favour was my time at Discovery and Discovery is obviously the leading health insurance in South Africa. I think the pharmaceutical companies and all companies in the industry have a lot of respect for people with good Discovery experience on their CV. So I think it’s probably a combination of it not being a South African company and the Discovery experience, and a bit of luck as well, right?
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Perfect, that makes absolute sense. Back to you, Matthieu.
MATTHIEU RIVART: Thank you, Marius, that’s very interesting. Coming back to the data science, I’m very keen to hear more from you on the topic because we hear more and more about data and technology. According to you, in which ways are data and technology changing the finance roles, and to extend my question, how do you see the role of the CFO in future years, in light of these transformations?
MARIUS MÖLLER: That really is the million-dollar question, the bottom line is that it’s changing all industries and all jobs. Obviously, being in the company that I am working for, we’re really at the coalface of this because implementing technology and a lot of the technology that we implement is for the finance function, for the CFO, and we can see the impact that has on teams and on outputs that they need to produce. You’d obviously read a lot of press around automation and jobs are going to be lost, and if you’re not doing something incredibly innovative, you’re probably not going to have a job. But I don’t think I have such an extreme view, the way I like to look at it is almost what we call the data beneficiation continuum, it sounds really complex, but you can categorise how you use data in four categories and these categories increase in their sophistication impact they have in the business, so how you use data and the impact they have on the business. The four categories are, I’ll just quickly list them and then I’ll go into a bit of detail. The most basic level is what we call reporting and that’s just reporting historic information, the second level is what we call diagnose, so why did this happen and an example might be looking at a revenue variance, and the way that you would diagnose is to deaggregate the revenue variance. A simple example would be to look at revenue equals volume times price, so if you can deaggregate and look at the volume variance, and look at the price separately, you can establish the reason why you’ve missed the variance. It could be a mixed effect, there are so many things. So that’s taking data to the next level, which is what we call diagnose. The next level on the continuum is predicting, so that’s obviously forecasting using probability-driven assumptions to make a view of the future. Then the fourth level is what we call prescribe and prescribe is about providing actionable insights of what to do with this information to improve your business. So the reason why I think this framework is quite useful is – to answer your question – I think a general trend is that finance professionals will have to move up this continuum, so do a lot more of the diagnosing, predicting and prescribing because the reporting side is becoming quite automated, it’s becoming quite easy to do. So just reporting on actuals, you’re not going to build a career around that. The fascinating thing is how technologies enable us to be able to do these more interesting things and yes, technology will automate a lot of the manual effort in doing these analyses but at the end of the day, you’re going to need someone who understands the business, who can contextualise the information and who has the insight to actually provide actionable insights. Today, in order to add value as a finance professional, you’ve either got to make good decisions or you’ve got to influence good decisions, jut by providing information is not how value gets added. So I hope that answers your first question around how I see the finance role being changed. Your second question is more around the CFO and I think that follows onto this, there are a few trends that I am seeing, being fortunate as a CFO for the last six years or so, the one is, and this is something that is probably very much Covid-driven as well, the world is becoming so small, we’re not struggling to win clients abroad, in Europe, even though we’re delivering work from South Africa. So all of a sudden as a CFO you are dealing with a lot more complexity, setting up companies overseas, you’re dealing with different taxes, foreign exchange, currencies, all of that. So there’s definitely complexity and risk around this, but also a lot more opportunities with the world getting smaller. We’re finding in our game now, because it’s so difficult to attract top talent, especially young professionals, I didn’t really talk about this but in my introduction you said I am still young, but at BSC I am almost a grandpa, most of our guys and girls are in their early 30s, late 20s and they are incredibly talented and qualified, and almost at the peak of their careers, so it’s very hard to retain them. So we have almost got a policy now where you can work anywhere in the world and that is so attractive. But again, that adds complexity. So that talks to the theme of the world becoming smaller. The other thing is that I think things are just changing so quickly that I think CFOs have to become a lot more flexible and adaptive, which is not the stereotypical CFO. You need to be able to think out the box, you need to challenge the status quo but at the same time, you’ve got to be the commercial guy who plays devil’s advocate, who is the risk manager, all at the same time. So that really adds complexity to the CFO role and together with that there’s just so much data and information, I think there’s almost information overload. I think a good CFO really needs to cut through all this noise and be able to get the business to prioritise and to focus on things that really align to strategy, and not get lost in all the detail.
‘The CFO is obviously pivotal in maintaining a company’s moral compass.’
MATTHIEU RIVART: Yes, completely, Marius, and that really speaks to me, what you just said, especially because you are talking about automation and it comes back to the point of Nicolaas, where a CFO is more than just numbers, it’s about being a business partner and being able to understand the reality behind the numbers, and I think that was very clear in what you explained. Coming back to this topic of value creation and the role of the CFO, you’ve had experience in the healthcare sector, which is a very specific sector because there are a lot of questions about ethics, which are very specific to this industry, so what is the role of the CFO when it come to the creation of value in the healthcare sector?
MARIUS MÖLLER: Obviously, the healthcare sector is a very broad industry, you get health insurance, you get pharmaceutical companies, you get hospitals. So maybe just from the outset I’ll comment a little bit about some of the themes that might be general across the whole industry and very much what I have picked up from my experience. The one is that healthcare is a very emotive industry and what I mean by that is it’s very serious, it’s life and death. I remember when working at Discovery that if your claim was submitted and it wasn’t paid, it was a massive thing, and everybody would phone you because you work at Discovery. I think that emotive and serious theme is across the whole industry, if you’re buying a drug that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do or you have a bad experience in hospital, it’s a really emotive and serious industry. Then if I think about healthcare in South Africa, another theme that is quite significant is the fact that we’ve got two worlds, we’ve got the private sector, which I think gets 70% of the funding and has 20% to 30% of the population. Then you’ve got the state sector, which obviously is sub-standard and poorly funded. So you’ve got that dynamic, which is quite relevant in whichever company you work for in the health industry. Other themes are around regulation, the healthcare industry is highly regulated, I’m thinking of pricing and pharmaceuticals, which is governed by single exit price, medical aids are highly regulated. Then on the plus side of working in the healthcare industry, it’s a very defensive industry, so that’s the last expense people give up and it’s a grudge purchase, no one wants to get sick or spend money on medical aid but they do and they will continue to do that. So in terms of job stability and that kind of thing, that’s obviously very attractive. In terms of adding value in the healthcare industry, maybe I can reflect about the two experiences I’ve had. I’ve worked at Fresenius Kabi SA, which is a pharmaceutical company, they call themselves a healthcare company because there are some non-pharmaceutical products that they also develop. Firstly, talking about that, that type of business is very operationally complex, as you can imagine, you’ve got lots of stock level issues. You’ve got high volume of transactions, lots of orders and logistical issues and you need complex systems to maintain different pricing and costing of products. So in this industry as a CFO it’s quite an operational role, it really is and we call it financial controlling because that’s really the role, it’s around really making sure that all these key operational drivers are happening properly, that we’ve got the right stock, that it’s selling at the right prices, that you do the right forecasting in order to be able to have enough stock at hand. You’ve really got to get your hands dirty as a CFO because, as I said, it’s operational, it’s complex and there’s probably a lot less strategy, to be honest. The way you add value there is to make sure the processes are streamlined, that systems are fit for purpose, that you have the right staff who know what they do and everybody pulls in the same direction. I think the role of the CFO is really to pull everything together, which is all these different departments, logistics, client management, ordering, all these operational departments and at the end of the day, everything comes down to numbers, how many of each stock item do you need to order, how many staff do we need to recruit and at the end of the day, as the CFO it’s about pulling things together there. That is so different to my experience in healthcare insurance, I wasn’t a CFO there but I was in a reasonably senior position. So as a funder, you’re in a very unique position, you’ve got a bird’s eye view of the whole industry, you interact with hospitals, you’re very close to new technologies in terms of new drugs on the market. So it’s a very different ballgame, it’s very much about product design, it’s about innovation. The accounting is actually relatively simple, as you can imagine, it’s an annuity type business, you bill clients the same amount every month and as long as they don’t lapse as a member, it’s a fantastic business to be in. But there I think the CFO’s role is a lot more around innovation and not necessarily coming up with innovation, you’ve got to do that as well, but it’s about assessing the financial impact of innovations, the business case around that and supporting the business more on a strategic manner, I’d say. Then you were asking about ethics as well, ethics is such an important topic, I don’t necessarily think or in my experience that there’s necessarily unique topics to do with the healthcare industry when it comes to ethics, but the CFO is obviously pivotal in maintaining a company’s moral compass. As I’m sure everybody knows, ethical issues are very much tied to money, greed and opportunities are always linked to money, the role of the CFO is to control the purse strings of the company, so the CFO has an incredible responsibility to make sure that a company acts ethically. People often ask me, what advice can you give to a young accountant, and I always say that the most important thing, for me, is to just be perfectly honest. What I mean about that is to not necessarily to not steal because that goes without saying, but it’s about being so trustworthy and forthright in everything you say that people can really rely on you and trust in you because as an accountant, as a CFO particularly, people make big decisions on the information you provide and if you start winging things and you’re not sure and you just say something, you very quickly lose your credibility. So I think that’s definitely a key thing for me, around just being forthright and honest.
MATTHIEU RIVART: Yes, completely, thank you, Marius, for reminding not only us finance professionals but all professionals about the importance of ethics in our everyday life. We could probably spend a whole interview speaking about this topic. Unfortunately, we’re coming to the end of the interview but before we go, there’s a question I’d like to ask you, what do you do outside of work, what do you do in your downtime?
MARIUS MÖLLER: My life has changed quite substantially in the last year, I said I’m a late bloomer and I had my first child at 39, so I really try to spend as much time as I can with my little one, I’ve got a little boy. That’s probably been the biggest advantage of working from home, we’re kind of doing the hybrid model at the moment. I don’t know how much of him I would have seen in the last year if it weren’t for that, so I am very grateful about that. So a lot of my time is spent with family but something that is extremely crucial for me is exercise, I think it’s the only way I know to manage stress levels, to clear your mind and to stay sane. Then I’ve also got a bit of an interest in stocks, I’ve got a small portfolio, nothing serious, I leave the real investing to the guys who spend all day doing that, but that’s also something I spend a bit of time on.
MATTHIEU RIVART: I was expecting that from you, Marius, being a CFA. Are there any books that you would recommend to our audience?
MARIUS MÖLLER: I have to be honest, I haven’t read too much in the last while, I’ve got an app called Blinkist and I read summaries of books. But the last really meaningful book I read was Living the 80/20 Way by Richard Koch, and I think it’s quite an old book actually, it might have been a revised version but it’s all around the Pareto Principle, and intuitively it seems so simple that you 20% of your effort is spent on what 80% of your outputs are, and we see that in all our data, we probably get 80% of the profit from 20% of the customers. But what made this book so unique for me was that it wasn’t just around your career and how to be successful in your career, it was around your whole life, from finding happiness and having a meaningful life, it was about friendships and hobbies. It was really a very holistic book and I would certainly recommend that.
MATTHIEU RIVART: Okay, great, thank you so much, Marius. Thank you for your time and your feedback. Personally, I had an amazing time having this conversation with you, you brought a lot of input, and I was taking notes when you were talking about the four different branches of this field. Thank you, again, for your time, it was a real pleasure for us to have you online and we’re looking forward to hearing from you.
MARIUS MÖLLER: Thank you very much, Matthieu and Nicolaas, it was a privilege, I also enjoyed it and let’s stay in touch.