‘Grace under fire’
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My guest today is Bajabulile Mthiyane, she is the Chief Financial Officer at Sasria and has been in this role since 2018. Sasria is the state-owned short-term insurer, which specialises in offering insurance cover against risks such as civil commotion, public disorder, riots, strikes and even terrorism.
Before joining Sasria, Bajabulile was the CFO at Sechaba Medical Solutions, Marchfirst Engineering Company, of which she was also a co-owner. Bajabulile also worked at HP South Africa as Business Transformation Executive Manager and she was also in executive roles at Africa Vukani Capital, KZN Economic Development, Unilever, the KZN Provincial Treasury, the telecommunications regulator, ICASA, and South African Port Operations.
She’s a CA and completed her articles at Deloitte in the mid-90s. Bajabulile, that is an awe-inspiring career path, it must have been a very interesting journey, was it always the plan to get exposure to so many industries?
It has been a very exciting career path I’ve had to follow in the last 26 years. I cannot lie to you and say that it was preplanned, not at all, but when I look at my career it’s so fulfilling and with great experiences, both in the public sector, private sector and parts of it as an entrepreneur. I can say that it’s shaped me into the leader I am today, leading people in the insurance industry.
I am quite fortunate, and I consider myself graced that I have been given various platforms to grow, to contribute and gain insights, and I believe these insights and experiences are what shape my leadership style today.
When you were a young CA, starting to build a career, you’ve just said now that you didn’t plan to be involved with so many organisations but do you set goals when you start in a new position, how you will approach it, what do you want to learn and when do you realise I have learnt as much as I could from this position, it’s time to move on?
When I was younger, I was one of the black women Chartered Accountants who qualified when we were a handful. So everyone was hailing you and I don’t want to lie, some of it got into my head, thinking I’m great because everyone wants to work with you. I would say to the people who are younger, to those people who are still aspiring to get to greater roles of leadership, be mindful of that, do not let your great qualifications, your unique skill, your pride or your ego get into your head because you still have a long career ahead of you. You must be mindful, take charge and be in control of your career path.
Now, let’s talk about when you get into a role and without jumping around without direction, it’s important to acknowledge what am I here for, what is expected of me and then personally, this is what I want to achieve in terms of growth, in terms of what I want to learn, what I want to contribute and the impact you want to make.
After you do that, you get your hands dirty and you make the most of the role by networking with the right people, being present in your role, being present in the business, be known for the impact that you make, learn as much as you can and go beyond what is expected of you.
Let’s talk about Sasria, it’s a very important state-owned company, let’s start with the looting and rioting that we saw in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in 2021, it brought Sasria into the limelight because the company had to pay out billions in insurance claims. How much did Sasria actually pay out?
It was such an unfortunate and sad turn of events; the estimated claim value is R32 billion to date. South Africa was set back by about R50 billion as a result of the damages to property and the looting. Up to date now at Sasria, we have paid just under R30 billion and you can imagine how much this has set back the economy of the country and basically Sasria, it has been set back by this turn of events. Who would have ever imagined that something like this could happen.
It was a very sad time for South Africa but in your role as CFO, it must have been a very daunting and challenging period, did you sleep at all during the weeks and months following the riots?
It was the most stressful period we have ever had to experience, not just myself as a CFO but the team in finance and the company.
It was highly stressful because on day one after all this happened, we knew that as a company we are now insolvent.
We could not meet our solvency capital requirements as required by the prudential authority, we were in breach of our solvency requirement. We could see that if we were to go out and start paying these claims, in a couple of months, even weeks, we are going to be bankrupt, we won’t be able to meet our liabilities of running this business and paying our people.
So it was highly stressful in terms of the number of hours that we had to invest in trying to rescue the situation and people were also worried about their jobs because the government, National Treasury, did not commit to the bailout there and then. All we had was just over R10 billion, which is what we had invested in the market but then this was R32 billion worth of damage. What were we going to do?
I must say that the morale went down, however, the commitment of the people and the love they have for this country, they got their hands dirty and here we are, we are still standing. We had support from National Treasury, they injected R22 billion into Sasria in order to be able to meet our solvency requirement and secondly, to meet all the claims that were coming through and just try to restore order, rebuild the country and restore hope to the people of this nation.
Today Sasria is solvent, we are meeting our solvency capital requirements, we are liquid, we are stronger and the people of South Africa…the malls that were damaged, they have been restored, people have their jobs back. It’s a good story to tell.
Let’s talk about the role of the modern CFO because it has evolved significantly over the past two decades, the traditional accountant in the corner is no more, the CFO is now really involved with the strategic aspects of the business but what do you think are the key skills that finance professionals and CFOs must have to be really good?
That’s a great question because a lot has evolved, especially post the Covid-19 pandemic, the whole world has had to reset, including businesses and finance.
In my opinion, I believe a CFO of today must be able to create an environment where people can thrive, where people can grow, and create an environment where people can become the best that they can be.
Your role as a CFO is to be that person who is alert, asking the right questions at the right time, being a sounding board, supporting people in generating ideas and enlarging them and making sure that everyone who is in the business, within the finance team and within the greater business, in the board, in the executive, you are that one key leader who is able to identify the best out of people and bring it out. You are able to identify that talent and then you bring it out to make sure that people are growing, they are thriving and they’re bringing the best into the organisation.
The second one is that it’s no longer just about spreadsheets now, as a CFO it’s important to have a helicopter view of the business and to be able to tell stories, versus just numbers. Numbers tell a story and we as a CFO need to take a lead to be able to tell these stories in ways that people in our organisation can appreciate, even the board, so that they are better equipped to make decisions.
The third one is as a CFO, in this world of uncertainty that we’re in, we need to have the ability of balancing the profit objectives with the sustainability objectives. Sometimes these can be competing because the profit agenda is about now, your shareholder wants to see a profit now, however, there is a way in which we have to channel our capital for long-term sustainability and in a manner that is responsible, and more purpose driven. You become the enabler of those difficult conversations in the business and channel them to better and more creative solution.
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