177: Christopher Holton

My career has been built on the excitement of growth’

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.

Chris operates out of KwaZulu-Natal, where his clients include Wabona Bulk Terminals and Zungu-Elgin Engineering, amongst many others. He’s spent a good part of his career in and around the port handling, storage and logistics field. Chris, I see that you decided to leave the corporate world behind in 2019 and go off on your own, but I understand that story might have changed recently. So describe your journey, why did you decide to become a freelance gun for hire and what was the attraction of the corporate world that pulled you back in again?

For me, it was a long journey in the corporate world, I started off in the base of finance, I spent eleven years in the shipping and logistics industry, and I went from basically running the finances to running the country in terms of being agents for a large shipping line and a number of other shipping lines.

Then, of course, we had 2007 when the shipping world hit its ropes, and although we had built the organisation from about 30 to 110 people in all three regions, Gauteng, Durban and Cape, I had to retrench everybody. So it was quite a hair-raising experience but I found jobs for about 92% of them either internally or through my contacts, which I think was a mission for me at that time.

I moved into other parts of the business, which was interesting because I moved into more of a consulting side withing the business, which was the black empowerment side of the business, the BEE strategies. The company was also bought out by a Dutch parent, so I was involved a lot in the due diligence, and I started to realise then that almost my whole career was built on growing and the exciting changes within growing businesses.

I then found a new position at a fuel storage company called Vopak and that was an exciting time of five years, of which they spent close to R3.6 billion of foreign direct investments in project builds, so I was involved heavily in project builds, and I think my career has been built on the excitement of growth, mentoring people, growing people and growing a business. If I start plateauing, I start getting a little bit antsy about where I am and what I can add value to because for me, it’s about value-add.

Then I thought I needed a change in terms of what I wanted in life, I wanted to take a short sabbatical, which didn’t work out as short as I thought, it was probably a little bit longer and my wife said, listen, you’ve had your sabbatical, you need to get your mind working. That’s when I started the consulting side in April 2020.

Tell us about your journey as an accountant, how did the attraction to accounting begin, it seems that you’ve got certain areas of specialisation such as tax controversy, which is something I haven’t heard of before, dispute resolution, taxation generally and financing for small businesses. Is that where your passion lies?

My passion is in small business and the reason for that is about seeing other people succeed.

I know that I will succeed through other people, and I am happy, I will accept that, and my ambition is to succeed, obviously. At the same time, my passion is to see somebody else take something that they’re passionate about and create a living out of it and create an ability to employ others and grow that business. For me, small businesses are a wonderful way, especially in this economy now, of what we need.

Give us a sense of business conditions in Durban and in KwaZulu-Natal generally after the riots and maybe for those who are not familiar, can you just explain what actually happened and what impact this had on business.

Without getting into the politics of it, there was an upswell of people who became mob-like in terms of what they needed, in terms of what they weren’t getting and somehow it rolled out into the businesses, into the shopping centres. It was quite eye-opening when we think of that week-and-a-half, where shops were burnt, businesses were destroyed and whole areas were cut out totally.

The one good thing was that neighbourhoods came together quite drastically to try and ensure that it didn’t get out of hand, that it was contained. The worst of it was that you wake up one morning and your business was either gone or you can’t get to it and it’s going down and it’s being destroyed. I think a lot of businesspeople were very worried about how the rule of law would continue.

The good thing is that a lot of those businesses have bounced back, they have restarted but it has been a huge cash flow and a huge drain on their abilities and their lives to try and get their businesses back and running.

Do you find that as an accountant, you are having to tutor these entrepreneurs and explain to them what they can and cannot do, and the obstacles that they’re going to find in their road as they start to expand, is that the role that you see yourself in as a tutor or mentor?

There are a number of roles when I deal with small businesses, especially those guys who have a great concept, it’s working but they now want to expand it, they want to take it into a larger area. I equate the accountants and those guys to racehorses and jockeys. These guys are racehorses, they are Thoroughbreds, they can run a race, they can win a race and they are very good at what they do. They jockey is the one who needs to temper the horse so that it turns the corner at the right time, it holds back when it needs to and it pushes forward when it doesn’t.

So when you’re talking to these guys, you don’t want to break their excitement, you don’t want to break who they are because that is what makes them special. So you have to explain to them that there are some rules and you have to explain to them that there are ways that you can run your business within these rules and still continue to do what you do.

If you set it up properly, you build your foundation properly, it doesn’t matter how high you build your business, it will stand rock solid.

Is accounting still a worthwhile career and if so, why?

Definitely, I think accounting in its pure sense is analysis of numbers, but you’ve got to understand how you analyse those numbers and what to look at. As an accountant or someone with experience, if you’re looking at a bank statement and something doesn’t balance, with experience you find that literally in a third of the time and that’s taken years of training.

Usually that comes through articles and a lot of the hard work. But accounting is very important because without analysing the numbers and transferring those numbers into actual reality on the ground, people cannot operate. If you don’t have those numbers analysed, those numbers correct and you’re asking for reports in your business, which as we know, everything is going into automation, the internet of things. If it isn’t translated from a document or from an action into numbers correctly, what you are pulling out is rubbish.

For me, I think accountants should step a lot further, I think accountants should understand the base of how the numbers are being prepared, what creates that number, because if they don’t understand that, they don’t raise the right questions. So I think accounting needs to broaden itself.

You’ve been studying pretty much all your professional career and you need to be adding new skills to your toolkit. Can some of these skills be acquired by experience or can they be transferred through classroom learning, what’s your opinion on that?

I think classroom experience will give you the foundation for which your experience is built. I don’t think classroom teaching can teach you how to do something but unless you practice it, you will never understand it fully. You won’t understand the nuances of it, you won’t understand the ability to move from a client to a client or a business to a business and understand the changes. I think classroom teaching has a very good place in terms of building the foundation but without experience that foundation becomes old and useless. It’s like learning a language, if you don’t practice it, the language disappears over time, no matter how good you were at it.

The CFO (SA) designation offered by SAIBA really is in recognition of those skills that you’re not going to get taught, these experiences, where you are tested in the fire. There are so many soft skills and non-technical skills that have to be mastered, would you agree with that?

People talk about mission and vision, and those are wonderful things, they are nice on a board, they look great, but then it must also translate to strategy, which is also a nice term but then it becomes action. I think soft skills is the new word out there but for me it’s about communication, it’s how you communicate what you need, and you make sure that people who need you to lead them, understand what you need and produce what you need, and for you to listen back.

When you do your accounting degree, you learn the foundation of accounting, but I think with experience you learn differences in how you deal with people, how you relate to people, how you react to people, how your expectations are based.

Someone said the other day that expectations lead to your experience and your experience then leads to your behaviour.

I think this is where the learning comes in in terms of working with people, working in different organisations with different people and different levels of people. For me, it’s very much about how those people listen to you, how you need to communicate with them to achieve what you need to do in terms of the overall strategy of the organisation.

Are there any books that you would recommend?

The books that I read are everything from Lord of the Rings through to Nelson Mandela. So I have a wide spectrum, some relieve stress and others are teaching. Some of the books I have read lately, I read The Bricklayer’s Son by Ivan Clark, and why that was interesting for me was because I worked under Ivan for a short period of time at Grindrod. It was an interesting way to see his journey.

Another book that I have just started is The Vagabond by Frank Rautenbach, it’s about his journey from having everything to losing everything and then to regaining everything. I think it’s important that we need to understand that life is not singular, you’re going to have ups and downs, you’re going to have a break and you’re going to get hammered. The point is that strength comes through the fight.

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, getting more detail on the role of the CFO and their daily challenges and solutions.

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