An Enviable Position’

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 to welcome Nico Serfontein, who is CFO at Maserati South Africa, now that’s a job that might incite envy amongst many in the financial field. Nico recently obtained the CBA (SA) designation from the South African Institute of Business Accountants. Nico has been at Maserati since 2017 and at 30 years of age he represents a new and tech-savvy accounting executive. Prior to Maserati South Africa, he was senior accountant at online sports betting group, Supabets.

Nico, I want to learn a little bit more about Maserati South Africa, I see it forms part of a European group, maybe you can explain the structure, tell us about the group and how things have been going in the last couple of years, just give us a sense of the business conditions.

NICO SERFONTEIN: In 2015, a company called European Automotive Imports South Africa was assigned the distribution rights and retail rights for South Africa. It is a subsidiary of a greater group called the Ateco Group, which is the largest independent distributor in Australia. So from 2015 they have been responsible for the Maserati brand in South Africa and establishing the brand, growing the brand. In 2019 the group was approached by local investors to take over the brand locally in South Africa and in the middle of Covid they decided and agreed that there would be a slow handover from the one owner to the new owner, first the retail side of the business and then the import side soon followed.

It has definitely been a challenging two years, especially in the automotive industry, multiple Covid waves, hard lockdowns, a business handover for us, the riots, load shedding, increased import costs, fuel increases, volatile rand, the list goes on and on. Now with the war in Ukraine, one would never have thought it would affect our business, our rand and everything else as it is currently doing.

As an example, we were struggling to import certain parts for our vehicles due to certain parts being manufactured in Ukraine. So it’s been tough times but we’re still standing strong, there are multiple reasons and a combination of things that contributed towards our doors still being open. I need to talk to my team and say thank you to them and a big shoutout to them because when it came down to it, our employees were there, they pushed through, and they were committed. There’s a big passion to grow the brand even more here in South Africa. Lastly, our loyal customers, when you do buy a Maserati it’s such a passionate brand and group of people and a family.

You don’t just buy a car here, you form part of the family, a great part of our sales relates to return customers.

CIARAN RYAN: I want to learn about how you chose accounting as a career and also the CBA designation.

I had a love for numbers, it just comes easily to me and playing with numbers, analysis, formulas and Excel, it’s an amazing programme. So the love for numbers was always there and at the time when I needed to choose what I wanted to study, one was the medical route and my dad said if you’re going medical, I’m not paying for your studies [laughing]. So I moved into accounting, then I jumped into chartered accountancy and I enjoyed it thoroughly while I was studying full-time. Auditing was fun, it gives you a different perspective, but I love sitting on the other side of the table and explaining to the auditors what the business is all about.

Then the CBA designation, only very recently did I join social media, I didn’t have any interest in it, so I don’t have Facebook, I’m more focused on factual information like News24. Very recently I joined LinkedIn and got connected with Nicolaas van Wyk and I read up about the CFO (SA) designation and SAIBA, and it just sparked an interest in me, this is talking to what I believe in, and I can see this professional body making a difference and I want to grow with it. So I didn’t even give it two seconds of thought and I decided to register and here I am.

NICOLAAS VAN WYK: It’s very exciting for us to associated with Nico and Maserati. I would obviously love to think that SAIBA thinks in the same way as Maserati, obviously not building cars, but building designations. I was so happy when Nico mentioned what attracted him to SAIBA on social media, he engaged with us and saw what we’re about, and it is something different, it’s something unique, it’s not readily available in the market.

When I got involved with SAIBA, the board had to decide how do we position ourselves because we were struggling with lots of competition in the accounting sector. But what we found is that the market needed something that actually reflects what CFOs already accomplish. Now, Nico is the CFO at Maserati and he has explained to us how challenging that role can be and that’s not a role that you would just ascribe to being an accountant. It’s also not what we really believe the current BCom graduates are learning at university.

So we wanted to launch a designation that reflects what CFOs are actually doing and celebrate their accomplishments with them because it’s a hard slog, so much is on their shoulders, they engage with the internals of the organisation, they have to be representative with the external stakeholders and it’s a fine balancing act. But people still wake up every morning and do that job and without CFOs, our businesses and our economy would really struggle.

The designation that we started for our financial managers and CFOs is actually a celebration of what these amazing people can achieve.

CIARAN RYAN: Nico, if you can just respond to that, there’s obviously something about the culture within SAIBA, within the professional organisation itself that attracted you, maybe talk about what that was.

NICO SERFONTEIN: It’s like Nicolaas mentioned, it’s something different, it’s not solely about accounting, it’s more than accounting. It’s managing a business from all points, be it HR, stakeholders, suppliers. As a CFO, if I can put it this way, you have a finger in every pie. You’re involved with CEO decisions, and you are the gatekeeper in the end, and I would say the person who gives the final stamp of approval if all is in order. So everybody runs everything past you and there are some hard decisions out there, especially in challenging times.

With SAIBA it just spoke to me immediately when I saw it and the people who were also connected and registered with them, I know the CFO from Douglasdale Dairy was the one who specifically drew me into SAIBA on the CFO designation, and I think Nicolaas just summarised it perfectly for me.

CIARAN RYAN: I see that you’ve got quite a lot of training in IT-related fields, give me your sense of how important that is for senior financial managers to have an IT background today?

NICO SERFONTEIN: Absolutely, we need to work smarter and not harder, and this is something that I learnt early on in my articles, you are forced to find faster and smarter ways for transactions and balances. The same applies for senior financial managers or any senior role that you find yourself in. Our time is limited, you’re running from one meeting to another and then an urgent matter pops up. As an example, I usually have a list in the morning when I walk in of what I need to do or what pressing matters there are that need to be resolved, and on multiple occasions I walk out the office with that same list and I haven’t even touched it. So IT is definitely a tool that can assist us to buy you time, you can’t do without it, it helps you to work faster and more efficiently. I think it’s something essential for us as CFOs and senior financial managers to free up some time and focus on the more complex matters, and to ultimately get to our to-do list and start ticking it off.

CIARAN RYAN: Are we placing too much emphasis on accounting technical qualifications and not enough attention is being put on the pillars of the accounting profession, which is the ethics, the truthfulness, the trustworthiness and the leadership, which accountants are expected to give, which is why SAIBA and professional bodies exist. What’s your view on that?

NICO SERFONTEIN: I agree, I think experience outweighs qualifications in the end. If you are willing to work hard, if you do have the experience under the belt, the recruiters out there look for fully qualified people with these designations behind their name or so many years of experience or that they’ve completed their articles at this specific institution or at the big four. There’s a lot of good talent out there and I think SAIBA addresses this very well, it addresses the fact that not having a qualification but having the experience under your belt does add value and you can contribute and be the success story that a company needs.

NICOLAAS VAN WYK: That’s exactly the niche that the SAIBA board saw when we launched our CFO and CBA designation, and that is that there’s so much value to unlock in South Africa. We obviously have reached a growth peak with our current economic policies, we’ve got huge debt, we went through a whole state capture process. So the only area that we can find growth is to relook at our own resources and maybe look for things that we’ve missed. Traditionally, when we still had a growth economy, we had traditional ways of qualifying as accountants, you would get your BCom, honours, CTA and then qualify as a CA, maybe develop into an auditor. But that model doesn’t really fit our current situation anymore. I remember we interviewed the CFO from Hollard Insurance, who came from an actuary background.

So we’ve found many CFOs with different types of qualifications because there’s real value there. A lot of the time they are self-taught, gained amazing experience but if they don’t have the designation, they don’t receive the market recognition and that is what is holding us back. So with our designation we are on a mission to find highly skilled, highly competent people who really drive business growth, we recognise them with a designation so that they are broadly recognised within the economy. We’ve made these kinds of submissions with South African Qualifications Authority, with the Department of Education, engaging with all of the stakeholders at a CFO, financial manager level, from the JSE to the banking sector to the employment agencies.

We think that if we can get this right, we’ll make a huge contribution to GDP because we’ll have the right people doing the right jobs at the right time.

CIARAN RYAN: Nico, did you want to say anything on that?

NICO SERFONTEIN: I agree completely, the CFO role doesn’t fit in that shoebox anymore with a BCom degree, CA, more and more you see people with different backgrounds, different qualifications who actually step into that CFO role. It’s more than just numbers in the end, it’s actual experience, knowledge and I think we are definitely moving in the right direction, and I think together with SAIBA there are still great things to come.

CIARAN RYAN: Are there any books you can recommend?

NICO SERFONTEIN: You are going to laugh at me, but I have dusted off a few golden oldies, I have finished the one and almost finished the other. I’m busy reading The Last Lecture by Jeffrey Zaslow and Randy Pausch, it’s about a professor who was diagnosed with cancer and then his last lecture and the preparation for the lecture that he gave to his students and fellow colleagues as a final goodbye. The main theme was the pursuit of childhood dreams. I think we get so caught up in our day-to-day lives that we forget to dream, and we forget what our dreams were and why we are doing what we are doing. This book rekindles that childhood dream and fantasy that you had back then. So I really enjoyed the book.

The other book is The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma, again, a very old book but what I really enjoyed about the book is the fact that after every chapter there are key notes and it’s stuff that you can implement in your day-to-day life, and you can refresh your memory by easily going back to those key notes. It’s a very good book, very practical and very easy to read.

Ciaran is a seasoned journalist and podcast host. He has a back-ground in finance and mining, having pre-viously headed up a gold mining operation in Ghana.In this podcast he interviews various CFOs, get-ting more detail on the role of the CFO and their daily challenges and solutions.


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