Vijay Misra has had a fascinating and at times incredibly challenging career as both a CFO and CEO, he shares some valuable insights from his journey into the darkest corners of the profession.
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.
CIARAN RYAN: It’s my great pleasure today to welcome Vijay Misra, who until recently was CFO at True Blue Investment Holdings and was previously CEO at Ithala Limited. Now, Ithala Limited is a subsidiary of Ithala Development Finance Corporation, it has an extensive branch network throughout KwaZulu-Natal, it traditionally offered home loans and banking services to townships and rural areas in KwaZulu-Natal, where other banks have a limited interest. We’ll get to that in a minute. In his former role as group CFO at True Blue Investment Holdings, he was responsible for formulating and implementing financial strategies for the group. When he joined in 2016, he inherited an overgeared balance sheet and a fundamentally flawed business strategy that would have led to the liquidation of the group. That fate was averted thanks to some very timely interventions. In the past five years, Vijay and his team managed to liquidate unproductive debt, reformulate the business strategy and sell off or close down non-core operations that were a drain to financial and operational resources. Also on the line, we’re joined by Nicolaas van Wyk, who is the CEO of the South African Institute of Business Accountants. First of all, welcome, Vijay, and welcome, Nicolaas.
VIJAY MISRA: Good evening, Ciaran, good evening, Nicolaas. Thank you for having me here.
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Good evening, Ciaran, and hello, Vijay. It’s nice to be back again.
CIARAN RYAN: Vijay, let’s kick off and just talk a little bit about your career, your more recent career, you’ve had an interesting and adventurous journey as an accountant and a CFO, both at Ithala and more recently at True Blue. Your CV says you left True Blue at the end of September, tell us what was behind that decision. What prompted that decision?
VIJAY MISRA: Firstly, I had been at True Blue for five years and, as you say, adventurous and interesting, it was certainly a very fruitful time, extraordinary in many respects, and to get to what the core focus of my tenure was, it was really to restore balance sheet health. I was allowed to work with great autonomy in redirecting or refocusing our balance sheet strength. I worked with some outstanding individuals, who made the turnaround a reality. I enjoyed tremendous support from the shareholders. I began contemplating resignation nine months or so prior to actually leaving. I actually resigned at the end of September this year. I really felt that I had outgrown the role in the organisation and I had been reflecting on whether there is an alignment of purpose between myself and the organization. Secondly, at this stage in my life I wanted to be involved more in an organisation that was having a greater impact in society.
I kept asking myself the question, what is the dividend to society? For me, that cannot simply be creating employment opportunities, whilst that is critically important, given where we find ourselves in the South African unemployment stats at the moment, I was more interested in embracing social cohesion and transformation, transformation not only in terms of race, but also in terms of thinking, vision and business. We had achieved a phenomenal, if not miraculous, turnaround from a financial perspective. My personal purpose was being lost. My standpoint on governance, on some of the governance aspects rather, was creating tensions and it was time to go. I delayed my resignation because in some aspects, the team was not happy. I wanted them to be. But on June 10 this year, I realised that I did not want to continue in the role and I resigned. I was requested by the CEO to stay on until the end of September. I gladly obliged and I left on September 30 after some very, very fond farewell functions.
‘I’ve always had a philosophy that you cannot grow a business by cutting costs and that growth must never outpace the ability of the balance sheet to withstand normal levels of stress.’
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, so it sounds like you had quite a challenge when you started there. We are talking about some fairly serious balance sheet restructuring that went on there, you had to sell off unproductive debt, you had to revise the whole business strategy, there was some closing down of operations that weren’t working. Talk to us about that in a bit of detail and how did you go about fixing this and the lessons that could be used from that that would be helpful to other CFOs?
VIJAY MISRA: I think the first thing is I’ve always had a philosophy that you cannot grow a business by cutting costs and that growth must never outpace the ability of the balance sheet to withstand normal levels of stress. The real issue that I was confronted with was a rapid growth and expansion in the footprint, and that expansion did not generate the anticipated cash flows. The natural consequence of that was ever increasing amounts of debt we’d taken up to meet the short liquidity shortfalls. That creates short-term solutions but the mismatch between inflows and outflows on the one hand and the maturity profile of debt and increasing interest rate cycle, coupled with increasing unemployment and low customer confidence, on the other hand, created the perfect storm in many ways. I think the greatest lesson for CFOs, faced with similar challenges is to ensure that the numbers stack up, do your job. In a growth phase, always remember to develop institutional capacity to keep pace with the balance sheet growth and the market and governance imperatives. Any mismatch here could have disastrous consequences. This was really the heart of the problem that I inherited in 2016.
Rapid growth had masked or obscured the problem of very poor growth in
same store sales. It was essential to create the right focus. For me, I had to give the team time to absorb and adjust to different priorities. As a CFO, my role was to know exactly what the cash flow situation was, to be open and honest, to be transparent with all key stakeholders, bankers, auditors and key suppliers in particular. The ability to instill trust and confidence with the stakeholder you’re dealing with is extremely important. The relationship of trust will always be invaluable when you encounter turbulence along the journey, and we did encounter many, many unanticipated incidents of turbulence. The stakeholder belief that we were an organisation that was run on an ethical basis and that we were committed to meeting all our obligations, allowed us the latitude to really begin to implement our plan and create creative plans to overcome our liquidity shortfalls. Obviously, with any fundamental change in strategic direction, there are those who do not fit in. Here we had to have courageous and difficult conversations and part ways with some.
In a turnaround you have to be a motivator not only to your finance team, but also to your colleagues and the board. Be a good orator, you have to tell motivational stories and instill hope and energy, stick with the plan and to encourage your team to perform better. Also, it was very important to celebrate the small gains as we went along, it helped to uplift everybody’s spirits. One of the hardest parts was to redefine the way in which CAPEX was to be evaluated and funded, and the way we changed this, it was a paradigm shift in the organization. Here my experience in banking was very useful. We isolated non-performing or stranded assets, closed some of them down and dealt with the rest separately in order to allow focus to growing the profitable parts of the business. Getting operations moving in the right direction was key. Fortunately, we appointed an outstanding COO, and the rest is history, as they say. We now operate on a totally different business model, having sold off the non-core assets, disinvested from other areas, closed some poor performing stores and having strong balance sheet and monthly revenues.
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, I think it’s probably worth pointing out that True Blue Investment Holdings is a holding company for a quite a number of KFC stores, am I correct in that?
VIJAY MISRA: It’s an investment holding company, one of the arms of our corporations are KFC, we had over 100 stores at one time, 61 of those were in South Africa and then we have Namibia and Mozambique as well. Over and above that, we had a property portfolio, and we a hotel business as well.
CIARAN RYAN: Great, Nicolaas, let’s bring you in here, I think Vijay brought up some interesting points there about the role and what’s expected of a CFO, particularly, and this thing keeps coming up, the ability to communicate and to tell a story. He expressed it very, very well. Is this something that we’re finding more and more is that CFOs are having to be front and centre, they’re no longer in the dark backrooms.
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: It is something that we’ve seen over the last couple of years developing, and it has to do with the complexities of business, Covid challenges, financial crises. So you need CFOs who are strong business operators. We’ve clearly seen a move away from accounting as the entry point for being a CFO. It takes years to develop into a CFO and that requires business knowledge, operational knowledge, strategic knowledge, HR and IT, and it takes a unique personality to combine all of those into this new role of CFO, and I hear much of that in Vijay’s responses. He mentioned being an orator, getting the trust from the board and being able to make decisions and to accomplish that, as I say, takes experience, lots of experience. You learn on the job with mentors and additional courses and then you become a CFO.
VIJAY MISRA: Nicolaas, I couldn’t agree with you more and I think the point that Nicolaas raises of being immersed in operations, it is absolutely essential because I started my career in this finance field in the early ‘90s and it has evolved, whereas previously you could be the technocrat, now you have to really understand operations and what makes the business tick, because the role of CFO is no longer simply to produce the monthly management accounts and the financial statements. The role is far broader than that now.
Ithala CCMA arbitration
CIARAN RYAN: All right, if we go back to 2015, you were then CEO at Ithala Limited and that was a very interesting journey as well. Maybe you can just explain your tenure at Ithala. How did that go? How did that end? I think there was a CCMA arbitration there, maybe you want to talk about that, maybe you don’t, I’m not sure.
VIJAY MISRA: No, no, I certainly do want to talk about that. I think maybe even here there will be lessons for other CFOs who may be faced with similar issues.
CIARAN RYAN: Just before you do that, for people who are not in South Africa, let me just explain, the CCMA is the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, so it’s a place where you go to resolve your labour disputes.
VIJAY MISRA: We could spend all night on this issue here, it was a long and drawn-out saga. But to summarise, in I think it was 2008, 2009, KPMG was appointed to conduct forensic work on the Ithala loan book, Ithala Development Finance Corporation. They issued two reports, one being a forensic report into Dolphin Whispers, which was a loan that was extended to a group of promoters. One of the promoters was Nandi Mandela. The second report that KPMG issued was a loan book review report on loans granted between 2008 and 2009, above a certain value. If my memory serves me correctly, I think that value was around R5 million. I was one of the officials who was interviewed by KPMG. Their report on Dolphin Whispers was issued in August 2009. The loan book review report was issued sometime after that. Their reports implicated me in various oversights and omissions as related to my role as acting COO of the business finance unit. Now, the business finance unit was the actual unit that extended the credit.
‘I read through the charges and immediately I knew that these charges had no merit whatsoever and in many instances were fabricated.’
Ithala then engaged through attorney Jeremy Deidricks, senior counsel Jerome [unclear], who was assisted by advocate Vusi Khuzwayo, to go through the reports and formulate charges against implicated officials. They drafted charges and discussed the same with KPMG. Following their interactions with KPMG, [unclear] issued a report stating that the charges were weak and ought not to be proceeded with. He also mentioned that the KPMG investigators held the same view. This report was issued in December 2009. In December 2009 I was then appointed CEO of Ithala Limited, that’s the retail banking arm of Ithala Development Finance Corporation. In late March 2011, I was presented with 41 charges of misconduct by the then group CEO, Siphiwe Madondo, and also present was the chairman of the Ithala Limited board, [unclear] Buthelezi. I read through those charges [unclear] fabricated and have no merit whatsoever. The charges related to Dolphin Whispers, which I alluded to earlier, with 32 charges on Dolphin Whispers, many of those charges were duplicated and triplicated. Cedar Falls, which was a loan where the promoter was May Mkhize, wife of Zweli Mkhize, [unclear] there were five charges on [unclear], distribution centres, there were two charges against that and then there was [unclear], there was one charge there. So that was a total of 41 charges, I hope my maths is correct, by the then group CEO, Siphiwe Madondo, in the presence of the chairman of Ithala Limited, Mr Buthelezi.
I read through the charges and immediately I knew that these charges had no merit whatsoever and in many instances were fabricated. I told them that the charges were false, the charges related to Dolphin Whispers, there were 32 charges against Dolphin Whispers. I was given the option to either resign or to challenge the charges at a disciplinary hearing. I was extremely disappointed and angry. I met with advocate Khan, and I took his advice and agreed to challenge this at a disciplinary hearing, as my integrity was being challenged. For me, as a chartered accountant, I wanted no blemish on my reputation. At the time I was of the view that this will be over very quickly. I was suspended then on April 7 2011.
I was represented at the disciplinary hearing by advocate Khan, instructed by [unclear]. Ithala was represented by [unclear], who was purported to be an advocate but was not registered with the Society of Advocates, and he was instructed by Jeremy Deidricks, who was also the main witness for Ithala. In addition, Mr Philip Burring from KPMG also gave evidence that was really, really questionable, in my view. The hearing was chaired by university professor, Professor Brenda Grant. During the course of the disciplinary hearing, we raised two points [unclear], in both instances, the chairperson ruled in favor of the employer. In a nutshell, the first point [unclear] was that the group CEO had no capacity to charge me or use the Ithala Limited letterhead, and the second point was what was the identity of my true employer.
After these rulings went against our position, we then brought a recusal application for the chairperson to recuse herself. Again, the chairperson ruled in favor of the employer. The hearing then was concluded in April 2012. I was found guilty of six charges relating to Dolphin Whispers, three charges on [unclear], one charge relating to Cedar Falls, and I was dismissed in May 2012. I did lodge an appeal internally to the Ithala Corporation board, which was also rejected. I then took the matter up to the CCMA immediately. On lodging our papers at the CCMA in May 2012, we then had this matter continuously being adjourned. Ithala changed attorneys three times.
Then the final attorney that they used was Dunstan Farrell, and he also requested three postponements because he was not ofay with the matter, which were granted in hindsight. I was very upset about that. But in hindsight, I understand the labour law rules that require the other side to be heard. So whilst I didn’t agree with the continuous delays, I understand that now that that was the correct ruling from the chairperson’s point of view, even though it was very frustrating for me. So we had a 16-month delay before the matter actually commenced in September 2013. Mentally and physically, I was drained and despondent. Once again, Jeremy Deidricks gave hearsay evidence because he was an attorney with no direct knowledge of anything. KPMG also gave evidence through Philip Burring, and the quality was the same as at the disciplinary hearing. I was represented at the CCMA by Bruce McGregor, and I cannot thank him enough for his efforts and wise counsel in keeping me focused through this ordeal. I suffered two heart attacks, one in 2012 and the other in the CCMA in 2014 because of the stress…
CIARAN RYAN: During an actual hearing?
VIJAY MISRA: Yes, yes, in 2014 during the hearing, and Bruce McGregor actually drove me to hospital. Bruce and I have become good friends through this, and I have instructed him on many, many matters on behalf of True Blue since then. The arbitration closed on June 5 2015 and Commissioner Sullivan handed down his award on June 22 2015, clearing me of all charges, awarding me full back pay and reinstatement. I was told that Ithala had spent something in the region of R8 million in legal fees and still lost. So yes, a real abuse of the public purse. This is, of course, one of my proudest moments when I look back now. But you can imagine the kind of turmoil I was in, I could very well have lost my life during this process. But at the inception of this challenge, I never, ever, contemplated that this thing would take three to four years to be completed. It was a simple matter but because of the tactics of delaying or probably trying to frustrate me and to exhaust me out of the ring, so to speak, the matter just continued being postponed.
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, so you were reinstated. Did you actually rejoin the organisation or did you just claim the back pay that you were awarded and move on…
VIJAY MISRA: No, I then elected to conclude a settlement agreement with them, and I left. So I never returned back to the office.
CIARAN RYAN: Wow, that’s a hell of a story and congratulations, it does take some incredible fortitude to survive something like that. This is something that you see happening a lot in the South African public sector, particularly where there seems to be endless availability of funds for fighting disciplinary hearings against staff who…somebody who has a beef with you, it could be your senior, it could be somebody else in the organisation. It’s not the first time I have heard something like this.
VIJAY MISRA: Unfortunately, many people don’t have the resources or maybe the stupidity like I did to continue with the fight. But fortunately for me, I’ve come out on the right side of this and I managed to survive it.
More protection required for SOE CFOs
CIARAN RYAN: Nicolaas, have you got any comments on this, what we’ve just been listening to?
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Yes, it’s a horrific story and these things, unfortunately by design, take ages to complete and that drains your health. But what we have seen of late, and it has been in the recent news, is attacks on CFOs, especially in the public sector, and even killings. We did make a submission a while ago but maybe we should just follow through on that, to make suggestions, especially in the Companies Act, and I see the Companies Act is now up for amendment, that the function of the CFO should maybe be an official appointment, the same that we give to the auditor or the company secretary. In that there would be more protection for CFOs because at the moment they just have their appointment through an employment contract within the state-owned entity. But if there is more statutory protection, maybe that would help but I would love to hear your view on that.
VIJAY MISRA: The Companies Act does in a way make that kind of provision. Firstly, it deals specifically with the CFO. Secondly, you have what is called a prescribed officer. So there are provisions and powers created there but what happens with many of the public entities, a CFO is not a member of the board, it’s normally just the CEO and that’s where the first imbalance gets created in terms of your standing at board level. The PFMA, the Public Finance Management Act, is also a very powerful piece of legislation for the public sector. It has onerous requirements for the board and for CFOs, depending on what type of public entity you have. But you cannot legislate corruption away and vested interest because those who are intent on flouting the law or to do things for their own personal gain, pieces of paper and contract mean nothing. The fact that R8 million in legal fees could have been spent, if that is the correct number, tells you that there’s no price that they would not be willing to pay to achieve their ends. So it’s a very difficult situation that certainly people that are in the public sector find themselves in and I sympathise with them.
CIARAN RYAN: Vijay, if we can just shift gears here a little bit, tell us a bit about yourself and how you became an accountant in the first place. Your career journey, which sounds rather interesting and unusual, and not without some huge challenges along the way.
VIJAY MISRA: I’m actually a chartered accountant, maybe because the universe conspired, I was not intent on that in my early years, I was more partial to a study in the sciences or in law. But anyway, be that as it may, I studied at the University of Durban Westville, which is now UKZN. I did my articles, strangely enough, at KPMG in Durban and from KPMG I moved to New Republic Bank as the head of audit and risk. Within a year I was promoted to group finance manager, and this was a really challenging role for me. I was relatively young and inexperienced. I remember now I can look at it fondly, but 16-hour days were the norm. I had to deal with an audit, a rights issue and a takeover in the first 12 months of that role. Three years later, I had to deal with the curatorship and receivership, which was also a very unique experience. I suppose it was during that phase of my career that I began to really have a passion, if I can use that word to describe my leaning towards good governance.
I joined Ithala as a consultant in late 2000 to set up what would later become the bank of Ithala Limited. In 2001 I became divisional manager of finance at Ithala Limited. I moved back to Ithala Corporation in 2002 to become divisional manager of finance and risk. One of the notable things that that I did in that stage of my career was I set up an insurance division or I was involved in the feasibility study to set up an insurance division, and that proved finally to be a stroke of genius because it really was profitable for the group. In 2004, I was promoted to group CFO. This was a very demanding and rewarding role from an experience point of view, the story that I’ve narrated to you about the dismissal, it probably wouldn’t have happened had I not made it to CFO. I acted as COO of the credit function and this is really where I had to deal with the politics, problems on a regular basis. In December 2009, I was appointed CEO of Ithala Limited, I was dismissed, as
I say, in 2012, reinstated in 2015 and I elected to take the settlement package. I joined True Blue in June 2016, as you alluded to in the introductory comments, it’s a QSR operation in South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique. In addition, we had an extensive property portfolio, a logistics and warehousing operation in Namibia and the hotel business in South Africa. We also had a retail
liquor business which we sold off as it was not core to the group. I resigned in June this year and left at the end of September. So that’s the career.
‘I believe that the experience that I have had can certainly add value to boards.’
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, so you resigned in September, what now, what’s next for you?
VIJAY MISRA: I’m really not sure, I’m enjoying this time, but I would actually like to be involved more in a non-executive director capacity for the right organisations. I believe that the experience that I have had can certainly add value to boards. I really don’t at this point want to go back to being a CFO or a CEO, but one never knows what 2022 may hold.
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: What I am hearing from Vijay is what some of the more experienced CFOs are all contemplating and that’s a new term called the outsourced CFO. I would really recommend, and I think the industry would appreciate if Vijay could share his experiences because I’m sure in many companies they go through similar crises and changes, and if you’ve gone through the mill, there’s so much that you can give back. So it is something that we’ve contemplated at CFO Talks and with SAIBA, to also see how we can utilise these amazing resources that we have in CFOs for small and medium, large companies and just make that available because South Africa needs them. So we hope that we won’t lose the experience that Vijay offers, especially during these times. But partly, I suppose, that’s why we started our designation for specifically CFOs because they’re so different from just being an accountant, that’s the Certified Financial Officer (SA) that we’ve registered with SAQA. I’m definitely going to speak to Vijay about that designation, I think it’s the perfect fit for this stage of his career.
CIARAN RYAN: Vijay, what do you say about that? We are noticing a number of former CFOs who are now freelance guns for hire and bringing their experience to the marketplace.
VIJAY MISRA: Absolutely, I know of not only CFOs but also former partners or directors of the big four auditing firms who are doing the same thing once they reach the mandatory retirement age. I’m nowhere near that but we have to give back, I have had the luxury, if I can call it that now, of being both in public sector and private sector. So that blend of experience will be invaluable in both spheres in South Africa. We need leadership, we need experience, we need people who have the right mettle in the key leadership positions.
‘Accountants and auditors in particular, must be held to a higher standard. The responsibility of trust placed on us by society is an onerous one.’
CIARAN RYAN: A quick couple of questions here, is the accounting profession in crisis? What we’ve been listening to from you today is fairly alarming, although that is not necessarily a reflection on the accounting profession. But what is your opinion on that, is it in crisis?
VIJAY MISRA: I like the way you closed that comment of yours. Let me say this much, the profession does not exist outside the society that it serves. For me, the real issue is the decay of the morals and norms in society in general in South Africa. There’s a term, [unclear] accountants arise out of the decay that is far too prevalent in the middle class in South Africa, and it’s perpetuated further by those with political influence and access. The accounting and auditing profession have in too many instances been found wanting. Here I think of the likes of Steinhoff, Tongaat Hulett, VBS, Vrede Dairy Farm and the KPMG debacle, to name but a few specific, very disappointing and reprehensible acts perpetrated by members of the profession.
These acts and those that have been highlighted at the Zondo Commission are most certainly indicative of a crisis. The vast amounts of fruitless and wasteful expenditure and irregular expenditure that is reported annually by the Auditor-General augments the reasoning that accountants have been compromised either willingly and or as a result of undue influence brought about by those with political power and influence. No large-scale corruption and looting can occur only with accountants and auditors being compromised. I hold the view that the legal profession must also shoulder a significant responsibility for the situation we find ourselves in, that we experience now almost on a daily basis. Contracts for most of these questionable acts and omissions, these contracts are drafted in most instances by members of the legal profession. They should have been more circumspect in the execution of their instructions. Accountants and auditors in particular, must be held to a higher standard. The responsibility of trust placed on us by society is an onerous one. Too many are far too casual in their understanding and commitment to this responsibility. I think it was Nicolaas who alluded to the murder of Babita Deokaran, and that raises another important issue, and that is that no finance job or no job for that matter, should result in someone losing their life.
The levels of corruption and intimidation that have been woven into the tapestry of the political elite have created unprecedented fear and intimidation in many who work in the public sector. The technical skills required to be a CFO are easily taught and learnt, to be a successful CFO, though, requires courage, discipline, sound values, good mentors and role models. These are, to my mind, some of the essential ingredients required to restore the profession to its correct standing. In my view, having a board of directors as a good reference point for wise counsel is very important in supporting the CFO and CEO in meeting the reasonable and legitimate expectations of all stakeholders. Where the quality of the board and access to non-executive directors is restricted, then the recipe for crisis is exacerbated. Ultimately, individuals give life and meaning to the title of CFO. It is, therefore, about the choices and decisions that an individual makes after applying their mind to the facts and circumstances that support any particular transaction. It is in this process that compromised accountants create the crisis. It would be remiss of me also not to emphasise that the crisis has been created by a few compromised accountants and boards of directors. The majority of us are respectable and responsible members of our profession.
The state of the profession
CIARAN RYAN: I think that’s a great summary of the state of the profession and thank you for that. But what would you say were one or two of the more challenging assignments that you’ve had in your career? Maybe you’ve already touched on them because having a heart attack during a CCMA hearing, I think is about as severe as it can get. But is there something else that we should know about?
VIJAY MISRA: [Laughing] Well, I don’t know whether the heart attacks were brought about by the career or my own, let’s call it, temperament or zero tolerance for the kind of nonsense that I was going through. But look, that’s just the struggles to clear one’s name, if you want to call it that. But I think, not surprisingly, my most challenging assignment was when I was acting COO of credit. Firstly, I was the CFO of the group, that is a full-time job on its own, and your now doing another executive job simultaneously. So you can imagine the demands that I had on my own time and the stresses that came with that. Secondly, of course, many of the lending programmes were politically conceptualised, marketed and funded. So I’m neither trained nor skilled in politics and my governance positions were often at odds with the political principles at the time.
There was tremendous political interference and attempts to direct funding to particular individuals or entities. We would often be summoned to the offices of the MEC, the MEC being the person in charge, the member of the executive committee in charge of Ithala, who normally would have been the MEC for Economic Development and Finance or the HOD and requested to give explanations for declining of certain loans or slow turnaround times with regards to approval of loans. I was always at odds with the vision of the politicians. This is what I interpreted the true mandate of the organisation to be. There were times in that process that I became very despondent. I remember pleading to the CEO to relieve me of the acting responsibility. He would tell me that he had no one else that he could rely on and I should persevere. Those were really dark times. As I look back to those times now, I have a sense of satisfaction and pride that my strength of character and boundaries ensured and prevailed. The second difficult assignment I had, not surprisingly, again was at Ithala, but it was in the time I was CEO of the bank. I took over an operation that was loss-making, that had capital adequacy challenges and was under the scrutiny of the Reserve Bank.
Restoring the capital adequacy was a prudential imperative and fortunately I was able to resolve that within a few months. The turnaround was a more demanding assignment and required many difficult decisions. People decisions proved to be the most challenging. Getting some of the team to embrace a new vision and way of thinking was a painstaking process. Fortunately, my strategy was backed by the board, and we were able to achieve outstanding results in a 14-month period. So yes, it would be those two, the COO position and then the CEO of Ithala Limited. I suppose I don’t regard the whole disciplinary process and the CCMA debacle as part of the career. It was actually a sideshow, a very, very deadly sideshow.
CIARAN RYAN: Just a question that occurs to me, you talk about getting summoned to the MEC. Now, for people outside of South Africa, MEC would be a provincial politician who’s in charge of that portfolio. So that sounds like you’re getting a little bit of pressure there to approve something that maybe you might ordinarily not do. Am I correct in saying that?
VIJAY MISRA: Absolutely, you’re dead on the mark on that that you would, because you’ve got to understand that the politician goes around and goes to imbizos and has these interactions with the community and gives the impression that money is just lying at Ithala for them to simply collect. You’d be faced with that kind of mentality from an applicant when you decline the loan and then they would not come back to you, they’d go straight to the MEC or to some structure, political structure to deal with that. So, yes, I think in the time between 2005 and 2009 that was very much the culture. I’ve been long out of that space now, so I can’t tell you firsthand whether that’s still happening. But reading from what happened with the with the Digital Vibes scenario, it would appear that some things don’t change.
‘I hope that my legacy will be that of a conscious-driven, courageous, uncompromising and principled leader who was able to create meaningful growth and evolution in the people I have worked with.’
CIARAN RYAN: Digital Vibes being another political corruption case happening here in South Africa, at the national level rather than at the provincial level. Very quickly, if you can answer this, because we are running down the clock here, but this has been such a fascinating discussion, I’m just inclined to hear you out on this, but what would you like your legacy to be?
VIJAY MISRA: I’ve never thought about that in any great detail and I really think my legacy would be a personal and private one that in my roles as son, husband, father, brother, friend, family is what’s most important to me. But without sounding too arrogant, I think my work and conduct over the years has written the legacy in terms of my vocation on its own. To answer the question directly, I hope that my legacy will be that of a conscious-driven, courageous, uncompromising and principled leader who was able to create meaningful growth and evolution in the people I have worked with and interacted with and to have made a meaningful contribution to the sustainability and good governance practice within the organisations I have served. I think nothing demonstrates that more for me. than a speech at my recent farewell where there were many speakers, scheduled speakers, and then there was one individual who stood up, was not a scheduled speaker, and requested to say a few words. He said, it is because of Vijay Misra that I have a roof over my head, it is because of Vijay Misra that I am able to pay my bond, it is because of Vijay Misra that there is a plate of food at home every day. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, in my view, but it talks to the impact that I had. This lady was facing a disciplinary action and I represented her in the early part of my career at a tribunal. HR was not happy that I agreed to represent the employee and even the CEO requested me to retract. I said, my word is my bond, I can’t find any reason in law or in policy why I should not represent her. The fact that she’s still there, tells you we won. I think that’s how I would like it to be.
CIARAN RYAN: Wonderful stuff. Okay, very quickly, what do you do in your downtime?
VIJAY MISRA: I love reading, watching sport, the Springboks, the Sharks, Tottenham Hotspur – I don’t want to say that too loud – playing golf. I try to play golf these days, it’s getting worse, exercising and being out close to nature. I love going out on game drives and at least I’m having more time to do that. That was one of the first things I did in the first week of October.
CIARAN RYAN: Where do you live? Are you still in KwaZulu-Natal?
VIJAY MISRA: Yes, I’m in Umhlanga in KwaZulu-Natal.
CIARAN RYAN: Umhlanga, okay, north of Durban. Are there any books that you’d recommend?
VIJAY MISRA: Yes, in keeping with the theme of governance, I think The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is a wonderful book. Also, Straight from the Gut by Jack Welch and then The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Those are good books. I think from a South African context, The President’s Keepers by Jacques Pauw and Gangster State by Pieter-Louis Myburgh are good books to read. Finally, and I’m reading this one now, so I don’t know how it will finally finish off, but it’s Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss, and so far, it’s very intriguing.
CIARAN RYAN: Nicolaas, any final comment there? I think this has been quite a fascinating discussion here. We’ve delved into some of the dark corners of the profession, and I think emerged with some really interesting takeaways.
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: I find it very inspiring, and you can see the dedication to a career over many, many years and so many lives have been touched and I’m sure there is a legacy. We see this with CFOs, they are very strong communicators, and they focus on development of people and, I suppose, that’s the biggest legacy because there’s always a next generation. So from my side, I think we just want to thank Vijay for his commitment and passion, it’s very clear.
CIARAN RYAN: Indeed. Vijay, thanks very much for that, quite an astounding story of an accountant and a commitment to the principles of accounting and CFO. I think this is going to be something that a lot of CFOs can listen to and take away some…I think the challenges, I don’t think anybody is going to find their careers are smooth sailing, you’re always going to get challenged in some surprising ways, and I think your story has just illuminated that. I’m very happy that that that particular chapter has ended the way that it did.
VIJAY MISRA: Ciaran and Nicolaas, thank you very much. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you gentlemen tonight.