Finance Director, Africa & Middle East at Sage
Jordaan Burger, financial director for Sage Africa and the Middle East, talks about the new skills CFOs are having to learn – and fast – as a result of Covid.
Ciaran Ryan: Jordaan Burger is financial director for Sage Africa and the middle East and previously worked in the financial sector as product controller at RBC capital markets in London, and then worked as financial director for NWR info security, which is now known as F secure. Jordaan is a CA with a string of other qualifications, including a Master of Commerce in South African and international taxation. He joins us to talk about the changing role of technology in the accounting space and his own personal journey. My name is Ciaran Ryan for CFO talks and joining us is Jordaan Burger. First of all, Jordaan, welcome. How are you today?
Jordaan Burger: Hi Ciaran, I’m doing very well. Thank you, thank you very much for having me on CFO talks. Um, yeah, it’s interesting times hey with COVID-19 and working from home but yes, it’s going very well. Thank you.
Ciaran Ryan: I guess you’re working from you’ve got a South African name for people, you know, overseas. Are you based in Pretoria or where are you?
Jordaan Burger: Yes well I’m based in Pretoria, I’m actually born and bred here in Bluebull country. So I grew up in Pretoria, I finished my studies in Pretoria this is also where I finished my training as an accountant, so yes, born and bred in Pretoria and working from home, like I said,
Ciaran Ryan: Okay and you’ve spent a bit of time in London as well, working in the financial sector. So just tell us how did your career take off in this direction?
Jordaan Burger: Yeah, so after qualifying as an accountant in South Africa, I left for London with my wife and we spent just over two years there. It was really a good experience for me that’s also where I had the short stint with RBC capital markets, working in credit derivatives, which was a fascinating world for me and I experienced the big 2008 crash, which is also good and interesting. After London, we came back to South Africa and that’s where I went back into audit. Got a lot of multinational experience, some good clients, a lot of travel in Africa to some very interesting places. A friend of mine Philip and fellow audit partner at that point in time actually wrote a book about our travels, it’s titles from Juba to Luba. So very interesting countries visited Equatorial Guinea and South Sudan so that was also a very good time for me. After that I joined one of my audit clients in WR Info Security as Financial Director. It was a discussion we had a couple of times and it didn’t happen overnight, but when the time was right and the opportunity opened up I joined and that was really a whole new world for me, the cyber security industry.
Fascinating you know, what happens as these things come way, the various experiences one finds during your career and what every employer, every career opportunity gives you and I really enjoyed working in cybersecurity. Worked with some extremely fascinating and extremely intelligent people we’re still to this day, some, some of my best friends. And yes, I’ve been with Sage now for a year exactly, Tuesday next week and that’s been great, great company, challenging industry, amazing colleagues and I think we are setting ourselves up for a bright future.
Ciaran Ryan: I got stuck with when you said from Juba to Luba, I’ve been to Juba.
Jordaan Burger: Yes Juba is an interesting place.
Ciaran Ryan: Okay, so what did you do? Where is Luba by the way?
Jordaan Burger: Luba is a port city on an Island of Equatorial Guinea.
Ciaran Ryan: Did you travel over land from Juba to there, or was it just experiences in different places in Africa that, that you were writing about?
Jordaan Burger: Experiences in different places in Africa, so all of them air travel, but since you’ve been to Juba. We spent our time there at a camp on the Nile river. Just like I said, at that point in time it was a good opportunity to see all of those interesting places.
Like a lot of South Africans, you went off to London
Ciaran Ryan: And like a lot of South Africans, you went off to London. I get the feeling so many accountants or so many financial executives now in South Africa, feel it’s almost like a rite of passage, they have to go to London to see how the world actually operates. Were you surrounded by South Africans? You know, accountants and various other professionals, you know, looking to get some experience when you were there.
Jordaan Burger: Yeah, absolutely. I think a lot of South Africans, a lot of my friends actually went out over at the same time and some of them are still there to this day. Some of them returned back to South Africa, so I think you’re absolutely right. A lot of people almost see that as a stop, you have to make some time in your career. I always encourage that for younger people as well if you do get the opportunity before you start a family and things like that. I think it’s amazing what you can learn from other cultures and experiencing other cities and just the whole vibe of it, of an interesting place, like London, the UK in general, or any place for that matter. So I really encourage people to take opportunities like that if they come across them.
Ciaran Ryan: What was your experience of the, the work ethic when you were there compared to say South Africa. Do we square up against the English, you know, in the great city of London.
Jordaan Burger: Yeah. So I think we definitely do, I think there’s, we don’t need to stand back at all. I think we have a very similar way of working and this is now the second British multinational company I’m working for and it just works. I think the way we do things is very similar, there’s obviously some, some personality clashes, I think from time to time but that’s also very good. But I think work ethic wise South Africans have got nothing to stand back for. We proper qualified if you talk about CAS and all of that, we really up for the job, we talk the talk and we walk the walk. So, I think it’s good for us and if you get an opportunity like that, to go for it and absolutely nothing to stand back for.
Ciaran Ryan: And they really are lousy at rugby.
Jordaan Burger: laughs.
Ciaran Ryan: No I’m kidding.
Jordaan Burger: Well, it’s a good time to bring that up, we are the champions now
Ciaran Ryan: We can drop that in for another three years we can rub that in. So let’s just talk about the we’re in the lockdown here we’re four months into the lockdown, and of course that’s really sort of changed the business landscape in some tremendously important ways. How is this affecting Sage? By the way, I think before we get to that, just tell us a little bit about Sage and your role. You’re in charge of Africa and the middle East so just give us a sense of what kind of market are we talking about there and the products that you’re involved with.
Sage operates in four markets
Jordaan Burger: Okay well, Sage operates in four markets if I can call it that. So we’re into small accounting solutions and small payroll solutions and then also for medium businesses, accounting and payroll services. And that’s our global strategy to play in those four markets. We’re very strong globally, but also in South Africa, we’ve got a very solid presence and the whole market is shifting towards cloud. It’s been happening for a long time now, where software as a service has moved into the cloud and I think people were hesitant at first, but currently, if you not in the cloud space, you probably gonna not have a business in a couple of years. So things are rapidly changing, we’ve got cloud products in all of those sectors. In South Africa our Sage business cloud accounting and Sage business cloud payroll are doing extremely well. In our medium segment, we recently launched Sage Intacct as a medium accounting offering full cloud native, which is a fascinating product with brilliant credentials and even in medium payroll, we’ve got cloud offerings. So we still have some legacy products as well, some on premise products that we still have customers, but the migrations are very strong towards this cloud shift. It just makes more and more sense and you can think about something like Covid, which has just accelerated all of that.
People now start to really understand that, you know, you want to have access to your data from anywhere in the world. You don’t want to be limited by anything. You don’t want to worry about things like uptime. You need someone to take care of all of that. You need the real time data at your fingertips at all points in time. So yes that’s what Sage do, and I think we were good players in the markets and like I said the future is looking bright for us. I think we are slightly ahead of the curve.
Ciaran Ryan: Right? Sage, is it sort of pitched at the, a, the small business, the medium sized business, or does it have products which cover the entire spectrum?
Jordaan Burger: We don’t plan the enterprise markets. So definitely small and medium, but medium is also quite big. We’ve got some big customers who are classified in our world is medium, but I think we just don’t want to play in that enterprise market. Our focus is definitely on small and medium and in South Africa, coincidentally, I think that’s where the biggest market is. Yes, we do have some large corporates, you know financial institutions and other larger multinational companies, but the majority of companies are in that small and medium sectors.
Ciaran Ryan: Yeah. I think people often forget that it is in the medium and the small enterprise space that most people are employed. I was looking at the figures of that some time ago in large corporates I think there was a top 40 employee, 1 million people in South Africa, public sector employees, 2 million people. The rest, which is about, you know, 15, 16, million people that’s all employed in the small and medium sized business sector. So I guess you’re pitched very much at the right area. Just tell us a little bit about how’s business been during this lockdown. Are you getting, are you under stress or are you getting a lot more inquiries? I mean, cloud accounting has got to be accelerated I would imagine for a lot of businesses at this point,
Jordaan Burger: Yeah, it definitely accelerated, like I said and I think we are very fortunate as a business, Sage, our business hasn’t been that much effected. So we managed to get all of our staff, just shy of a thousand people working remotely 100% just before the lockdown was fully implemented. And to this day, we are still working from home exclusively We’ve got no people that work from the office and the business keeps ticking over and not just ticking over, I don’t think we’ve ever been this busy. It’s amazing what one can do and that’s why I say we’ve been very fortunate to not be severely affected by any of the lockdowns any of the restrictions we’ve managed to continue operating and we are busy. We’ve got a big customer base to support, and we trying our utmost best to keep supporting them, to think about, you know, our call centres, all of our call center staff also work from home. They don’t sit in a call center anymore, but luckily, we’ve got the technology to do that. That’s why I think we are in a very fortunate position as Sage. For our customers, you know, some of them have been affected depending on the industry. Some industries have been hit harder than others, but we are glad to see that things are picking up now on that more businesses are opening up and I think we’re all hoping for a good and solid recovery.
Ciaran Ryan: So would you say that from a revenue perspective that the business has it picked up as well? Or is it more just in terms of leads and building a pipeline for the future?
Jordaan Burger: No, definitely we’ve been, the impact has been minimal. We haven’t seen a massive decline of any sort so still taking over strongly, but I think where, I mentioned earlier that we still have a big base of, on premise and legacy products if I can call it that. That migration speed is just picked up tremendously now that the value of cloud is just so obvious that we’ve got lots of our existing customers migrating to the cloud offerings, but also in terms of acquiring new customers and new logos, we’ve seen some larger purchasing decisions in our medium segment being postponed as we went into these lockdowns, but now that we coming out, we can see the pace picking up again. So, yes, doing well and managing to get our products out there and also, like I said, launching new products like Intacct, which is a great opportunity for us to get even a bigger market share and to give our customers what they need to operate their business.
Ciaran Ryan: Sorry, what is Intacct? Just describe that.
Sage Intacct is a full cloud native medium accounting offering
Jordaan Burger: Sage Intacct is a full cloud native medium accounting offering. Intacct was I think built about 20 years back in the US and Sage acquired Intacct about three years ago. So being a cloud native product, it’s got a single source code, which means that you can’t customize source there is one single source code in the cloud, which all the customers use. That’s a public cloud, but that’s got lots of advantages as well. If you think about challenges like cybersecurity, now there’s a single source code, which needs to be protected and if vulnerabilities are identified through whatever means, it can be patched and all of our Sage Intacct customers are always on the latest version. You don’t push down the updates, but because there’s that single code base, your customers always on the latest version, you can patch vulnerabilities like I said. With it being a cloud native solution, it’s very well designed from a CFO perspective, that’s always been Intacct’s strong point to look at what a CFO requires from an ERP or an accounting system for a medium sized enterprise so it was built with that in mind. There’s lots of customization options, there’s lots of dashboards, automation, some AI behind some of the features, so phenomenal product. Tt recently launched, it launched during the month of August, but we are already seeing some good traction on that. So very, very excited about what Intacct is going to do in South Africa.
Like I said, it was first set up in the US 20 years ago, then acquired by Sage then, it was localized for the Australian market, then for the UK and now for South Africa. So we are looking forward to seeing what Intacct can do in our market.
Ciaran Ryan: I’m just interested to find out what is your biggest market cause you’re in charge of Africa and the middle East is, is South Africa the biggest portion of that or is it the middle East?
Jordaan Burger: South Africa is by far the biggest portion of that market. We’ve got a presence in East Africa, in West Africa, in SADC countries and in the middle East, but for Sage specifically, I think it’s close to 90% that sits in South Africa.
Ciaran Ryan: Oh, I see. What about your offices? You said you’re all working from home. Have you ditched your offices or you just keeping them, do you plan to go back into them at some point?
Jordaan Burger: We’ve actually ditched a couple of them, which is very interesting. So our biggest office is in Midrand, but we’ve recently given up our offices in Pretoria and Cape town and in Durbin. What we doing with that is, yes we will go back to the office at some point in time in the future. I think one of the reasons why we are performing so well and why we collaborating so well, remotely working from home is because we’ve got solid relationships between colleagues and those relationships were built in the office. So at some point in time, we actually do need to go back to the office and see people eye to eye but I do think it’s going to look different. I don’t think it’s going to be that frequent. I don’t see people working five days from the office, we’re looking at a more flexible set up in cities like Pretoria, Cape town and Durban to see what we can do there. Maybe consider you know, smaller satellite offices where people can ride a bicycle into the office or something like that, so we’ll just have the one big office in Midrand then as the official Sage office. But yes working from home is it is a completely new dynamic for me personally. I think it would, it was the exception for me not to go into the office, maybe one or two days out of a working month. Maybe that’s just going switch around, maybe we’ll see in future that one or two days a month, one goes into the office and for the rest of the time you work from home, we’ve been doing that for six months now, and it’s working really well for us. We fortunate once again, that we are one of those businesses that can do this, so it will obviously be different for businesses in other industries, but for Sage it’s working well.
Ciaran Ryan: What do you find in terms of the productivity of the staff? I mean I certainly find I’ve been working this way for quite some time. My productivity is higher because I don’t have to travel to so many meetings, but I would imagine in some companies you’re finding a little bit difficult to keep track of some of the staff and you know, maybe there’s some of the slackers are being exposed and, you know, what’s your experience. I don’t mean to be disparaging there, but you know, it can happen right.
Jordaan Burger: Yeah, it can obviously happen. So recently we did some research after COVID hit, the research part of CFO 3.0. And what is really interesting from that research is that, is this new responsibility upon CFOs that now have to suddenly manage remote workforces and it’s not just for CFOs, it’s obviously applicable to other people as well, but it’s, it is sort of like a new skill that we all had to learn. There’s a couple of basic things that you need to do to make sure that you work well, well continue to work well also daily check-ins with your teams. We encourage our colleagues at Sage to turn on their cameras so we can retain that familiarity with each other. Yeah, so I would say constant checking in. There’s obviously some challenging tasks that one has to do. If I think back to our budget, exercise, my team and I went through recently. You know, towards the end, it’s really difficult working as a team of eight on something complicated, like a budget. It would have been not easier in the office to say, do you have that number in there? Can you confirm this and this and this, not having to jump onto video calls all of the time to have it in a formal setup like that. But yes, once again, I think we managing, there couldn’t have been a better time I think technology wise for us to, to hit a snag like Covid, so at least the technology is there supporting this, working from home. But yes it’s been good.
Ciaran Ryan: Very interesting how radical and how quickly things have changed in terms of the work environment. Just talk for a second about finance, CFOs and finance executives since these are the people that we are talking to. They’re under a lot more pressure today than in the past. What’s your experience of that? What kind of pressures, this is something that keeps on coming up, you know, when I talk to CFOs it’s people issues, it’s regularity issues. What’s your experience of that?
As human beings we develop at times when there is pressure on us
Jordaan Burger: Ciaran, first of all I think pressure is good. As human beings we develop at times when there is pressure on us, we don’t develop as fast and as rapidly when it’s all smooth sailing. So once again, back to the CFO 3.0 research. This indicated to us that nine out of 10 CFOs play a role in organizations digital transformation strategy and where they’re not leading those roles they have to partner with the rest of the C suite to, to lead initiatives like that. For a lot of companies, CEOs drive 75% of business strategy and to just bring that back to my role, I’ve got a solid working relationship with our CEO, but what he requires from me is, real time accurate financial data. And I have to give that to him in order to support his strategy so that we make the right decisions. So, yes, on the one hand, there is this responsibility, additional responsibilities that have come our way, like you say, with compliance with cyber security, with managing remote workforces, but we have to adapt. We need teams and we need the technology to enable us to do that. Stress is a massive problem, right? There was some recent research by Robert Half saying that stress is increasing for a lot of CFOs, especially. I think there’s two Ts that are extremely important in managing that. The first one is to have a solid team. So I’ve got an amazing team supporting me in my commercial finance function and my responsibility is to enable and empower the finance business partners and FBNA analysts in my team to support the business. And so I can’t be in the entire business in an organization, the size of Sage, you know, in each and every meeting and make more of the calls. So I need to enable that team of mine to have the necessary authority and to know where we’re going strategy wise to support the businesses trusted advisors and to make the calls on a day to day basis and that’s where I’ve been very fortunate. The second T I think, is technology, right? So what I said earlier about having real time, accurate information to support business decisions, that’s becoming more and more important. You can’t have the Team without the Technology and you can’t have the Technology without the Team, so you definitely need both of those. But if we don’t focus on things like our teams, focus on things like technology requirements in this digital age, the stress is going to be unbearing and the challenges too great for us to survive. So I think we really need to focus on those two issues and the elements.
Ciaran Ryan: I’d like to see that research, that sounds very interesting. There was a research done out of the Queens university in Ontario, Canada, and it’s called moving from CA to CFO and they point out 34 competencies that an ideal CFO needs to possess in the future. Some of which you’ve already mentioned, you talked about cybersecurity, compliance issues, but it does appear that the skills required of a CFO. In other words, the CFO is no longer an accountant. I think those days are pretty much gone, of course that’s a part of it. But, and there is a qualification now that, or a designation that’s been introduced in South Africa by the South African qualifications authority called the CFO (SA), which is really trying to gear and equip the CFO for this new type of skill. What’s your feeling about that? Does the accounting academies and schools, do they prepare you properly for this kind of role?
Jordaan Burger: I think what those institutions give us is a very solid foundation to operate from, right. It’s difficult, the focus is definitely more people management and strategy and quick decision making and you know, driving where a business should be going if you operate like a CFO, but you can’t do that without that solid foundation without the background. Going back to what I said earlier about the team and the good team that I have, the people that are I’ve got in my team are probably way superior in terms of technical expertise and you always have to appoint people that are more clever than you. So I need them, right they are also very sharp in terms of technical and theoretical requirements with the day to day operations that we cover. So, you need to have that, but then I think as a CFO, you develop into a leadership role where you have to focus more on the people side of things and strategy, and where do you get that input from? It’s also an interesting topic and maybe a topic for another day, but I think you need to make sure that you do get that input some from somewhere, whether it’s with additional training, whether it’s leaning into people that come across your way, as you progress through your career. It is very important to get that input and to know what it is to mold yourself into a CFO. You just don’t become a CFO I think by just being an accountant and then overnight you suddenly a CFO, you need to really focus on developing the skills necessary for a role like that.
Ciaran Ryan: Yeah, it does seem like the CFOs typically they operate in the shadow of the CEO, but that is also changing. I mean, they’re having to become like the 2IC in the company, particularly now during COVID and this gets reinforced in every time I speak to a CFO, they really are being leaned on in a way that was never before the case where, you know, they’re having to focus on liquidity issues, you know, do we have enough liquidity, you know, enough money in the bank to be able to survive this, very, very demanding, very, very challenging times. Would you agree with that?
Jordaan Burger: In some way, I would agree with that. I’m in that role and I think I sometimes feel the pressure and the need for me to step up and answer a lot of those questions, but I think it’s wider than just CFOs right. I’m also in my capacity as CFO at Sage, I’m part of an exco team, which we currently have such strong subject matter experts in all of those various functions. I mean, we’ve got very strong leadership in terms of marketing, in terms of sales, in terms of people management, in terms of product developments and all over, so I think it’s more important for a strong exco to work together than just saying it all depends on the CEO or the CEO and the CFO. I think it’s more about teamwork and having access to thought leaders in all of those various disciplines and working together as team. I think currently in Africa Middle East for Sage that’s one of our strongest points is having a strong exco covering the entire business and all of the functions working together with a good and solid strategy in mind.
Ciaran Ryan: Do you think it’s important for CFOs to network together, you know, share their experiences. I mean, you’ve talked about your team and of course, you’ve got to be very integrated as a team and you also mentioned that you have people that work with you technically, who would be better than you, and you employ people who are smarter than you in certain respects, but at the CFO level, is it important that you network with other people, other finance executives.
Jordaan Burger: I think so and that’s a point I wanted to make earlier when I said in terms of how you develop. So it’s really important to get that input from somewhere, whether it’s other finance professionals you’re working with, or from networking opportunities, you need to get the inputs in and see some other examples. Otherwise you’ll only be exposed to what you see on a day to day basis. I think it’s important for people to understand and to know how other companies operate and do things, so that we can challenge our own thoughts. I don’t know how one can operate by just working for one organization and not looking beyond that to how other companies are doing it. I think it’s very important to network, like you say, to get input from colleagues from mentors and to develop your skills further, whether it’s through formal training or informal training.
Ciaran Ryan: Right, okay. Two quick questions, we’re running out of time here, but this is fascinating stuff. So the one question I want to ask you as we come out of this lockdown and it does look like things are relaxing quite a bit now, are you optimistic for the future? What’s the business climate going to be like over the next 12 months for Sage and do you expect this is going to be beneficial for you?
Jordaan Burger: That’s a very good question. So first of all, there was some recent research now in August by a Swiss private bank called Lombard Odier and Co they said that South African businesses have recovered up to 77% of pre Covid activity and I think that’s very promising. It means our economy is open up again, right. Companies, the restrictions are a lot less, I think a lot of the companies are operating again. But the damage may also been extensive I think, if you think about travel as an industry, you know, hospitality industries, even medical, I think, is a surprising one where I think not everyone understands how that was negatively affected by this whole Covid situation. So I think the world is different, right. The rise of the contact free economy is upon us, right. With lots of focus on digital commerce, things like telemedicine and automation, I think over at Covid 19 acted as a catalyst all of those, industries to evolve and for business to go that way. For us as Sage it’s important for us that businesses do well. We need businesses out there to do well so that they need our software to support their businesses in operating and ticking over on a day to day basis and to give them the insights necessary, to drive the strategy within their businesses. So I think we need to be optimistic, we need to keep thinking, we need to keep changing our businesses and adapting. We need to keep building resilience and we need to stay relevant. A couple of industries have almost become irrelevant and we don’t know what the future for them will be, so this is the time to think out of the box and think of other opportunities in these difficult times.
Ciaran Ryan: Good stuff. A final question, are you a reader? Are you reading anything interesting at the moment?
Jordaan Burger: It goes up from, from time to time and it depends when you catch me. So recently I haven’t done an awful lot of reading. The last good reading that I did was, there are two books I can highly recommend. The first one is Crucial Conversations and I think that’s one example of something, which CFOs probably need to have in order to fulfill their duties, you need to be able to lead good conversations and make sure the conversations go well in line with where you want to grow the business so that’s definitely something I can recommend. And then Outliers is another book by Malcolm Gladwell, which I think is fascinating, which proves that you don’t need to be a genius to do well. I think that the message of that book is that it doesn’t matter what you attempt as long as you put in 10,000 hours, you will succeed up to a specialist level. So I think anything that you put your mind to you can succeed at, if you’re willing to put in that effort and so those are 2 books I can recommend.
Ciaran Ryan: It’s funny, you mentioned the 10,000 hours Outliers and that’s Malcolm Gladwell isn’t it?
Jordaan Burger: That’s right.
Ciaran Ryan: I’m a guitarist, not a great guitarist, but I mean, I’m a guitarist. So I was just reading up about Steve Vai spelled V A I a great American rock guitarist and in his life story, he said he was not naturally good at this, but what he did was he was very disciplined and he just drilled and practiced and practiced. That 10,000 hours just keeps on coming up and, you know, you look at this guy and it’s, everything is so effortless about what he does and the music and the sound is so beautiful. It just does seem to be that isn’t it, it’s a question of the discipline and really just hammering it and drilling and even if you’re not good at something, you can absolutely become a master.
Jordaan Burger: Absolutely, so you can get there Ciaran, if you just put in 10,000 hours, you will be a guitarist of note, I think. The point has to be made that I think this happens to a lot of us unknowingly, right. So as finance professionals we go through the formal training and we go from one career opportunity to the next, but what we actually busy doing is we building up that 10,000 hours and at some point we realize what is second nature to us for other people might seem like brilliance or intelligence or something like that. Actually, it’s just the 10,000 hours that we’ve put in, so for youngsters out there. I think it’s important when they look up at people, like CFOs to not think it’s a special breed of people and something unattainable. You will get there, it just takes time and you need to put in the effort and the hours.
Ciaran Ryan: That’s lovely stuff Jordaan really, really inspiring and thanks for those recommendations, those book recommendations as well, people always like to, you know they like to have other people who recommend books enthusiastically and they can go and buy them themselves. So, let’s stay in touch, I’d like to receive that CFO research that you talked about, maybe we can have a look at that and maybe discuss that a little bit in more detail in a future conversation, if you don’t mind,
Jordaan Burger: Absolutely. Is a white paper on that and we’ve got the research available so you’re welcome to reach out.
Ciaran Ryan: Great, okay, Jordaan, we’re going to leave it there. That was Jordaan Burger, who is financial director for Sage Africa and the Middle East, Jordaan, have a great day.
Jordaan Burger: Thank you Ciaran, you too. Good luck.
Ciaran Ryan: Bye bye.