199: Lili Grobler

Leading strategy at Stiles

Welcome to the CFO Club Africa podcast, where we interview leading CFOs from Africa and beyond. CFO Club Africa is a division of the Chartered Institute of Business Accountants, the professional body for business accountants, financial managers and chief financial officers. Go to www.cfoclub.co.za and join our community of accounting and finance executives.

Welcome to this CFO Club Africa podcast, each week we speak to leading chief financial officers and finance professionals about their professional journeys, their perspectives on the industries they are involved in and their perceptions of the skills modern CFOs must have to lead successful organisations.

My guest today is Lili Grobler, she’s a Chartered Accountant and the CFO of Stiles, a retailer and wholesaler of products focused on the building industry. She has been in this position since 2016 and prior to joining Stiles, she was a Senior Manager at Moore Stephens MO. Lili completed her articles at KPMG and she’s currently based in George in the beautiful southern Cape.

Lili, tell us a bit about yourself, where did you grow up and when did you decide to become an accountant?

Thank you for having me, it’s a privilege to be talking to you on this podcast. I grew up in George for my high school years and I was actually not meaning to go and study for accounting, I actually wanted to be a physiotherapist. But due to an injury I was advised to rather do something different for the rest of my life, which then ended up with me being an accountant.

I went to study at the University of Pretoria, where I got a theoretical foundation and exposure into my articles at KPMG in Johannesburg. Thereafter I moved back to George almost as a bit of a joke as to whether I could live here and work from here, and then it all came true.

Let’s talk about Stiles, tell us about the company, what exactly does it do and how big is it?

Stiles started 20-odd years ago in George as a family business and we strive to be exclusive and unique and to keep everyone’s houses and buildings stylish, providing sanitaryware, flooring and tiling solutions. We import mainly from Europe but also from other continents across the world and we place it into the retail market.

We’ve got nine outlets across South Africa and we also wholesale to certain other smaller hardware and retail shops that also specialise in tiles and sanitaryware.

We’ve also got a new specialised division that will assist any contracts and big corporate companies specifically, which we absorbed in May/June this year, so that’s an exciting leg of our business.

How many people work at Stiles?

We are approximately 160 people and it’s always growing, so we’re very excited. We’re busy now looking at a structure and growth and future prospects for where we can enter other markets, it’s very exciting times ahead for us.

You started at the company in 2016, was it difficult to slot into a family business?

Slotting into a family business wasn’t too difficult. I think moving from an accounting, auditing business into the practicality of just operating businesses was a bit more of a challenge because theoretically you only apply legislation and it’s almost like a ticking exercise, you did this, you didn’t do that. From an auditing perspective, giving a little bit of consulting and advice.

I was fortunate in that before working for Stiles I was working in local government on a National Treasury project called mSCOA and I had a bit more of a different approach to seeing how things are happening in general in business, whether it was local government or private sector. Obviously, totally different in its own ways but it has given me a bit of a different perspective and made it slightly easier to adapt.

The role of the CFO has changed significantly over the past decade or so, where CFOs become much more involved with the strategy formulation within such companies. Has that been an issue where a family member at Stiles may have totally different ideas as to how to run a business?

We are fortunate in that we are a very dynamic management team and Steve Joubert has amazing ideas, and from a creative perspective he’s got an excellent mind in plans and goals that he wants to achieve.

I had to learn over time to dream with him, before just saying no, that it can’t work or won’t work due to legislation.

But thankfully because we’re adaptable and we have a lot of open communication and we don’t mind debating ideas on how to get to a result, it’s not that difficult to work with someone who is family-orientated and a family-owned business.

Are you closely involved with the formulation of strategies?

Yes, I am very involved and currently we’re working on a lot of new and exciting aspects that are waiting for us for the 2023 year. We are fortunate that we can sit and be involved in all the business principles that we need on a daily basis to see how our strategies and our goals will be parallel working together.

When you study to become a CA, you focus a lot on auditing and accounting. As I said earlier, the role of CFOs has changed because it’s a lot more strategic. Obviously, you’re not being taught those skills as part of your accounting degree, you need to learn it on the job. Was that a difficult transition?

It comes with its own challenges when you have to step into unknown waters. But I am fortunate in that I love reading and I don’t sleep a lot, so I do most of my reading between midnight and two
o-clock in the morning. So if there’s something that’s new or a new challenge or something that needs attention or I don’t know enough about it and I feel that I’m out of my depth, I feel comfortable enough to go and do some research and find a way to make sure that I know how to navigate with the team to get to the result we need.

What do you regard as your biggest challenges as the CFO of Stiles?

I think the biggest challenge at the moment is that we have a very dynamic team, and we want to grow excessively fast and to also get the right resources in place fast enough to grow at the pace that we want to, is at the moment our biggest challenge.

There are a few issues that CFOs see as challenges, one of them being ESG reporting, is that an issue in your life?

Sustainability is the new hot topic in general worldwide. We can see that climate change has had an immense impact around the world, especially in South Africa. So yes, it is something that we also focus on, with the factories that we select, we try to ensure that they are compliant. Being a smaller entity, we haven’t had any forced reporting for sustainability, but we have been doing development with certain suppliers and entities to ensure that we have a bit more of a green footprint, instead of not caring about it at all.

Let’s talk about the roles of CFOs in businesses, you’re a relatively young CFO, do you think younger CFOs adapt quicker to a changing economic environment than maybe your older guard who have been in the business world for much longer?

I think to be more specific about South African CFOs and not to generalise too much internationally necessarily, I think we all learn from each generation and each generation comes with its own basket of talents and own approach. Yes, it’s more adaptable and we can pivot quicker to find a solution in a difficult situation but we as South Africans we pride ourselves in being solution seekers forever.

We’ve seen a lot, we’ve been part of Eskom load shedding for years, where the rest of the world is only getting to know water shedding and gas shedding, so we’re already ahead of the game internationally.

To answer the question generationally-wise, yes I think more adaptable in an IT environment but we still need the older generation to learn from and gain wisdom from their experiences in the past, going through recessions, going through wars and so on.

Many young people would like to pursue a career in accounting, what advice would you have for young accountants to become really excellent accountants and financial professionals?

I think what we’ve learnt mainly in the last few years is that you can only control things that are within your control. So one needs to make sure that your focus is aimed at the right target, that you don’t get caught up in things that are so much out of your control that it would rock the boat too much.

Secondly, each person has their own approach but don’t have tunnel vision and don’t just think that you’re going to do auditing for the rest of your life. There’s so much opportunity out there and if you can just get a very good foundation and then also use every opportunity that crosses your path to learn and gain experience. Even if you make mistakes, we’re all human, we have to make mistakes, otherwise we’ll never learn and we’ll never be in a position to find a better solution for the next challenge we have to face.

CFO Club Africa is affiliated with associations of finance executives in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Mexico, Morocco, Tunisia and Namibia, and annually hosts an international CFO summit. You have done the work and achieved the CFO title, now join the CFO Club Africa as a finance executive.

Ryk van Niekerk is an award-winning financial journalist with over 20 years' experience. He is Moneyweb’s editor and hosts the Market Commentator podcast and RSG Geldsake, covering the markets, and financial and investment content, joined by CEOs, entrepreneurs, policymakers and others.

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