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COVER STORY: A rare and inspirational role model

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Mary Vilakazi’s career profited from training assistance from several quarters. Now she is intent on ‘paying it forward’ to help other young aspiring accountants replicate her achievement as CFO of a major listed financial services group. By Eamonn Ryan

Mary Vilakazi CA(SA) is a rare example of a non-executive director being invited to move to the other side of the board table and play an executive role. She was a partner in the financial services practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) from 2005 until 2008, where she worked on the audit of Metropolitan Life, one of the top financial services providers in South Africa, and left to gain broader experience but also to achieve a fairer work/life balance, she explains. Though she had long planned to move on, ‘I had so much fun with the Metropolitan people I was reluctant to leave.’

Mary thereafter served as a non-executive on the board of Metropolitan in 2009, making a contribution to various of its committees including Audit and Actuarial committees, and where one of the first decisions she had a say in was to approve its merger with Momentum, to form MMI. Then, in May 2014, she was persuaded to become an executive at MMI.

Mary attributes her success to date to having had ‘opportunities to excel and the best training during articles’. She qualified as a CA(SA) in 2002 having studied BCom at Wits University and subsequently trained and managed at PwC. The fact that her peers from that group are to be found today throughout business, she says, ‘is a sign of what a good training ground PwC was’. When she was elevated to a partner in 2008, at 27, she was one of the youngest partners of PwC worldwide.

Mary was born and raised in Alexandra by a hard-working mother who was her first role model. A superb student, her flair for numbers and head for business saw her streamed into accountancy to fully realise this aptitude. However, accounting was not initially her first choice: her activist older brother had frequent need of human rights lawyers, which captured her imagination – until she learned CAs can make better money!

She subsequently won a Rotary scholarship to a private high school and a scholarship to Wits University from Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC). Having her mom’s work ethic, she continued to work on the side, in her second year selling subscriptions for The Star newspaper.

After leaving PwC in 2008 she took the position of CFO of the Mineral Services Group (MSG). They were an entrepreneurial group of geologists, which appealed to her, but the timing – just before the global financial crisis and end of the long commodity boom cycle – was not fortuitous. ‘Commodities were hard hit, and this gave me a bird’s eye view of the challenges of entrepreneurism, when the buck stops with you.’ She says she particularly enjoyed being the managing trustee of MSG’s socially responsible arm, the Zenzele Development Trust, and remains a trustee to this day.

All this was accomplished while bringing up a large family. The work/life balance she sought she finally gained working as a consultant from 2010, which gave her more time to bring up four children. Tragically, her oldest – a Wits student studying Bachelor of Arts – died a year ago in a car accident, leaving just three aged 12, 4 and 3.

During this consulting phase Mary was in demand as a non-executive director, not just with Metropolitan, but was a director of Kagiso Media, Holdsport and the Development Bank of Southern Africa, and also chaired Remote Exploration Services and Remote Drilling Services, which are part of MSG. She was also an adviser to the Financial Services Board on long-term insurance.

She was persuaded back into the business fast lane in May 2014 – and moved back from Cape Town where she’d been based for the previous ten years – taking initially the job of head of balance sheet management at MMI in Centurion, to become Group Finance Director in September. This came about following an integration of the balance sheet management team into that of general finance. It was for her technical skills she was originally recruited, but her management skills prompted her promotion.

Reporting indirectly to her are 400–450 people via her direct management team of nine people, representing group finance, balance sheet management, corporate finance, and tax.

BRIGHT PEOPLE AREN’T NECESSARILY EASY PEOPLE

Mary works with the kind of smart people she enjoys. Just because they’re bright doesn’t make the job easy, as she points out: ‘These are forthright people with their own minds, are specialists and high-IQ people who like to get on with their jobs and not be interfered with. However, even high-IQ people can have low EQs, and it requires proper engagement while avoiding micro-managing,’ she explains.

Such a team lends itself to a consultative rather than autocratic management style, she says, but the reorganisation required within the finance division necessitated considerable restructure within the team, and she was able to effectively construct a new, stronger team that gives her personal satisfaction and pride, as one that blends experience and youthful enthusiasm. Her role is to set the direction for the team, but given the intellect therein she recognises the necessity of having an open mind to new, fresh ideas.

‘What makes problem-solving more effective and interesting, I find, is diversity within a team, whether in terms of discipline, gender or race. Such people each think a bit differently. For instance, increasingly in financial services we need more people from the humanities discipline because often there is no wrong or right to a situation, but having as well-rounded a solution as possible,’ she explains.

The attributes she looks for in team members are: being hard-working; a commitment to excellence without becoming bogged in self-defeating perfectionism; being eager to learn; business savvy; and leadership. It may be a finance department, but even today’s finance specialists need to be people-people rather than just either finance-people or techno-people.

Mary assumes full responsibility for taking the tough decisions in the team: ‘I never previously fully appreciated the importance of this factor until observing in other organisations what happens when leaders fail to make tough decisions. As a result, I do not shy away from such decisions or having difficult conversations with people when it is called for, though I always aim to do so with respect. A big part of my role is working with people, and fortunately I have long enjoyed studying and trying to understand human behaviour – so working with others to enable them to make their best contribution comes naturally to me!’

TO HER FALLS THE DUTY OF CORPORATE CITIZENSHIP … AND MORE

Mary has a multi-faceted role on the Exco: as head of her department, as a fellow member of Exco, as a woman, and as a citizen. ‘My responsibility is not just to my team, but to my fellow executives where I have the dual role of ensuring the group financially maximises its financial resources and opportunities and delivers on its promise to shareholders.’ As one of only two female executives on the MMI Exco she subtly influences issues around transformation – both as to race and gender. ‘I also play a role in MMI’s corporate citizenship, supporting the business to ensure we’re doing the right thing as an organisation, and ensuring the resources are available for corporate social investment.’

Mary’s close involvement in these corporate values stems from her own sense of commitment, having been a recipient of ‘a lot of goodwill’ through scholarship programmes for school and university. ‘A big part of my personal motivation is to reciprocate those benefits and “pay it forward”. I’ve always been involved in various foundations such as Thuthuka [of which Mary is a trustee] and several others. I’m passionate as a South African: we have a great country that has a tremendous need for greater leadership – I was given opportunities and want to ensure others get the same,’ she says.

She gets tremendous satisfaction from her current role and from MMI’s business strategy and purpose, she says. ‘It’s to help clients achieve financial wellness as individuals and communities – so the more we help individuals the more we help communities.’

She is, for instance, proud of the ‘leap of faith’ she took with one individual actuary – who was highly motivated and exceptionally bright but with little management experience – to replace herself as balance sheet management head. ‘I ensured he had the necessary support and it has paid off. It is successes such as these that most motivate me,’ she enthuses.

As a rare black female executive in the life insurance industry, she is conscious of her position as a role model while not consciously projecting it. ’I try to just be myself; it’s not forced. But I cannot deny that many women seeing the glass ceiling that still exists for women but aspiring to success look to me as an inspiration – they tell me so!’ For this reason, she rates authenticity as possibly the highest value, and she ensures she’s consistent in both her professional and personal life.

SMALL MOMENTS OF BIG IMPACT

‘I believe that the attribute that other people appreciate most about me is my consistency.’ This also means she is in heavy demand as a mentor, something to which she lays down conditionality to avoid being swamped. ‘I’m particular about people I do formal mentorship with. I have to be sufficiently interested in them and their career; it must be someone I can recognise talent in that I feel I can unleash – but when these conditions are met,’ she says, ‘mentoring provides small moments that can make an impact towards creating a future star.’

A big part of mentorship is persuading people to invest in themselves, as well as to recognise the often massive sacrifice made by one’s parents. ‘My mother was a particular role model for me. Even though she didn’t have a lot of money and was at a mature age, she began studying towards matric because she valued education, and also

Tips for newly qualified CAs(SA)

Gain depth in whatever work you do by continuing to work at something until you are able to do it exceptionally well.

Embrace change. ‘A lot of the work we do today will be replaced during our lifetimes by Artificial Intelligence and analytics, so be prepared for much of your knowledge to become redundant, and have a willingness to change with it,’ Mary says.

‘Invest in your own personal development.’

Make sure you have supportive networks in terms of family and friends. ‘My career has been entirely predicated on these supports.’

‘South Africa needs all of us – from a community point of view, this country demands more from all of us,’ says Mary.

Author: Eamonn Ryan

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