‘The harder you work, the more it pays off’
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.
My guest today is Jeandre de Greef, he is the CFO and Director of the Tristan Group, and he has been with the group for seven years. This group provides procurement and project solutions to the energy, construction, mining and shipping industries in many African countries. Before Jeandre joined Tristan, he held several executive positions at Lonrho Seafoods, the Triple M Group and Nexxus. He holds a BCom degree from Unisa, majoring in financial management and financial accounting, and he’s registered as a Business Accountant in Practice at CIBA.
Jeandre, tell us a bit about yourself, where did you grow up and when did you decide to become an accountant?
I grew up in Bellville, Cape Town, I was a sportsman throughout, I enjoyed playing a little bit of rugby and I did swimming on a competition basis and, generally, sports really appealed to me. From an academic side at school, I probably could have put a little bit mor effort into it but you’re young and the idea is to enjoy life. But that changed after school, I went to Stellenbosch University for two years and then I decided to start working and at the time I was in the restaurant trade, I really enjoyed it and I did part-time studies through Unisa.
I graduated in 2004 and from there I carried on in the restaurant trade, mostly in general management and then my girlfriend, now my wife, said it’s time to move on and I officially started at Platinum Group as a junior accountant.
Throughout my life, numbers was one of the things that really appealed to me but not only the numbers, there was an interest in people as well.
I think the combination really helped me throughout my career thus far, the bridge between the numbers and people. Also, coming from an operational side, I think the combination of that really helped me understand the challenges on all levels and that’s important if you run an organisation to understand the challenges of each and every sector or department and how to bridge that.
Tristan Group is an interesting company, it does business in several African countries, and it also offers diverse services to your clients in those countries. Just tell us about the group and what the core focus is?
Tristan Group is part of a network partners, predominantly we’re a procurement house based in Cape Town. We’ve got a footprint in Angola, Congo, Gabon and Mozambique. The idea behind the business is to supply these footprints, so we’ve got logistics warehousing in these countries, and we supply from South Africa, not in totality, we also import, or cross trade is the better word, but we cater for the needs of our clients that require solutions in Africa.
We don’t only deal with the locations where we’ve got a footprint in isolation, we’ve got customers in Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda and a few other African countries. But the main focus is to supply logistical solutions to the African continent.
In the countries where we do have a footprint, it’s the one-stop shop for supplies to vessels, so we would cater for anything from technical equipment to food products, whatever the client requires. This is the biggest driver for us in Africa but we also do turnkey solutions, project-based modular units, steel structures. We’re quite active in Mozambique and Congo in that regard.
Apart from your financial role, what are your key responsibilities?
My responsibilities are the financial wellbeing of the group, obviously that is a very broad statement, but it involves the accounting side, it involves the tax efficiencies, it entails the operational requirements and the overall operational efficiencies of the business.
Operating in Africa involves a great level of risk and to assess that risk is very important.
I’m also responsible for the financial strategic objectives, this is done with my partners and that is one of my KPIs, where are we heading from a financial perspective, is that in line with the group vision and how to bridge any discrepancies.
How do you work with the rest of your executive team because the modern CFO’s role is way beyond just ensuring proper accounting?
I agree 100%. We are not a massive company, I think the diversity and agility is very important and I think it’s very important to have a core team where there is a great level of trust because there are certain tasks or certain missions that overlap with the portfolios of others and that’s where communication is very important. So you need to make decisions relatively quickly and is that in line with our vision. That interaction between the top executives is very important for clarity and also to move in one direction and not against each other.
What are your key challenges as the CFO and what keeps you awake at night?
To be honest, in Africa there are a lot of challenges and the biggest challenge is the tax authorities that are out to extract the most tax possible and it’s not necessarily based on concrete evidence or, more often than not, there’s no substance to the findings. To manage this process is quite intense and it requires a lot of energy. Luckily, we partner with good representatives, legal and financial people in the respective countries and we rely on them for advice on these matters. We’re a reputable company that plays above board, that’s the bottom line.
What skills do you think a CFO of such a geographically spread company should have to ensure that everything operates smoothly, especially on the accounting side?
Number one is solid controls to be implemented across the organisation. The next one is problem solving on a day-to-day basis is an absolute requirement. Then in general, you need to partner with the skills levels that can assist your organisation in the best possible way. It’s impossible to understand the full extent of the tax laws across these countries and it’s important to have sound advice from your partners to make the best decisions possible.
You have been a finance and accounting executive at several companies, how do you think the role of a CFO has changed over the past decade or so?
There’s an element of accounting that’s probably the biggest underlying responsibility but operational elements have fallen within the scope of the CFO, and I think that’s probably the biggest element that has come into the portfolio.
Do you have any advice for young accountants who are entering the corporate finance profession, what skills do you think they need to acquire to be really good?
I think the most important factor is to work hard and the harder you work, the more it pays off. That’s been my experience. If there’s one thing that I can advise on that has helped me, is try and get exposure on an operational level as well because there is often a big gap between the two, and to understand and to manage the financial role better, you require that operational sense and understanding of the elements that they deal with because it’s two different worlds.
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