Grit, resilience and authenticity marked Ashanika Perimal as a world-class leader at an age when most of her peers were still pondering their next career move. But she never dreamed she would one day lead a 100-strong team spread over seven southern African countries and accept the global Women in Finance Award – nor that this would be but one of several accolades reflecting her dedication and passion.
When you’re one of three children, raised by a single mother on her late husband’s pension, resourcefulness develops as a by-product of your upbringing. That’s probably why Ashanika Perimal has seldom baulked at the challenges her career has thrown her way. Navigating countries like Burkina Faso and Mali at a time when these countries have only recently been identified as potential investor destinations? No problem. Managing a team of 50 people at the tender of 27? Why not?
Ashanika’s unshakeable nature was shaped by 45-minute walks to school, bursary applications written by hand because she couldn’t afford access to a printer, and working from 8 am to 10 pm on weekends (for R10 per hour) to pay for the textbooks her NSFAS loan didn’t cover.
While holding up this gruelling schedule, Ashanika also worked as a tutor to earn extra money – all while working as hard as she could. ‘Failure was not an option. It would have meant finding the money to repay my bursary,’ she recalls. As it was, she was able to pay back her student loan only seven years later, once she had completed her articles at Deloitte.
Inspiration and aspiration
Why a career in accounting? ‘I was inspired by my older brother, Vijay – who was himself inspired by an accountant who worked with my father. Coming from a humble background, we thought his lifestyle was something to aspire to. I saw all Vijay’s long hours and sleepless nights as he worked towards his CA qualification, but it never put me off. I believed education was a passport to a better life.’ With its clear structure, accounting also appealed to Ashanika’s desire for order after the hardships of her childhood. More than that, she saw it as an opportunity to give back to society. ‘Obviously, people like doctors save lives every day – but when you’re a decision-maker, you’re in a position to foster integrity and inspire. And when you’re managing the finances of a company, you have the power to guide its growth.’ Ashanika views herself as the guardian of her organisation’s interests, making it possible to continue employing people whose salaries are used for food and education.
It’s a position of trust that’s hard earned. ‘There’s nothing like the CA’s journey,’ Ashanika insists. ‘I believe that this path contains so much intangible value. Our training is so robust; so much learning takes place because we’re exposed to many different parts of a company.’ This is what drives the profession’s value, she maintains.
Ashanika’s career is a perfect example of how this training forges flexible, versatile thinking. She assumed her first managerial position immediately after completing her articles. Yes, she was young, she allows, but she’d had an outstanding role mother in her mother, who taught her to be independent and take responsibility. All of this translated into a maturity that impressed her employers – which is how she came to find herself travelling to Mozambique three days of every second week to manage a team of accountants while still in her early twenties. ‘I went into that job knowing absolutely nothing. I came from a small town, so moving to Johannesburg had been a big deal for me – now I had to find my way around a country where English wasn’t the first language. I got my first passport when I travelled to Mozambique!’ It wasn’t that she was unafraid – but, she says, sometimes you have to take a leap of faith, be brave, and trust in yourself.
Six months later, Ashanika had been appointed financial controller of South Africa, Kenya, Mauritius and Namibia – an appointment which she describes as the making of her career. ‘With all other markets saturated, overseas companies naturally turn to Africa. That opportunity helped me gain valuable experience in the continent, which opened many doors.’
The value of fun
One of those doors was at Murray & Roberts Cementation – where, just two months after taking the post, she was managing a team of 26 people. One year later, she was named finance manager, overseeing a 50-member team. Ashanika used the opportunity to hone her people skills, transforming an already tight-knit team into one that had an indomitable spirit. ‘The greatest compliment I received was when one team member told me our department had been dull before I got there, and then I changed everything. I’m an extrovert. I think that work should be fun, rewarding and stimulating.’ And it can be – provided the people working together share a profound trust. This is what Ashanika worked hard to instil: ‘My team knew they could come to me with anything.’ In return, she expected a strong work ethic. ‘I focus on creating order and getting results’ – as evidenced by the fact that year-end, a time when the team worked away until early hours of the morning before her arrival, had become just like any other day by the time she left.
As much as she enjoyed her time with Murray & Roberts Cementation, Ashanika reached a point where she feared she was becoming complacent. ‘I needed to learn and grow,’ she says – and so, when she was headhunted by FedEx Express, she accepted. As senior finance manager (as well as a board member), Ashanika was in charge of a 100-strong team spread over seven southern African countries. While finance and compliance were a large part of the job, along with internal controls, leadership was at its core. ‘Managing that many people in so many different countries wasn’t easy,’ Ashanika admits. It was a ‘challenging but rewarding experience’, one that required personal change management as she adjusted to the demands of a sizeable NYSE-listed global company. Clearly, she was up to the challenge – when, in 2017, she was a winner of the company’s Five Star Award, she not only beat about 600 000 other employees around the world to take home the coveted accolade, she’d also had a much shorter tenure than most previous winners.
Ashanika says that her time at FedEx Express taught her the value of being yourself. ‘The reality is that no one in an organisation achieves anything alone; it’s always the team that accomplishes the goal. If there are 100 people in a team, it’s because every single one of them is needed. And you need to manage and reward them. Sometimes, that means placing yourself on the line; being human and showing them that they can approach you.’ Ashanika strived to make this clear from the first day of her appointment. By the time she left FedEx Express, she knew each one of her 130 team members’ names; not because she wanted to impress them or thought it the right thing to do, but because she had a genuine interest in them. ‘I really like people and I understand the sacrifices each of us makes to come to work every day,’ she says.
That personal interest is an integral part of the trust-building which is so central to her leadership style. Ashanika believes that as a female, this approach comes naturally to her. ‘I suppose that being a woman in business can be difficult, but it’s also what you make of it. If you show that you can add value, people will respect you − and I think that companies increasingly respect what women bring to the table.’ Ashanika doesn’t deny that women are wired differently to men, nor that they have different roles to play, but she has turned this into one of her strengths. ‘I think my femininity gives me courage, by being brave, by being compassionate, by being family oriented. I cherish my family, and I appreciate that every member of my team feels the same – and they repay this.’
It’s clearly not only her team that appreciates her unique take on leadership. In February this year, Ashanika was one of two finalists selected for the prestigious Women in Finance of the Year Award, beating out her London-based opponent to take home the accolade at the Future of Finance and CFO Summit. ‘I felt so honoured to be recognised on this global platform. I never imagined I would receive such recognition; it’s truly gratifying that years of hard work resulted in this moment. It’s a true affirmation that slow and steady wins the race – my journey here was years in the making and, far from being a lucky break, was helped along by so many people. I hope that this award is a symbol to all women and girls that you can succeed, no matter what challenges you face.’
Her next chapter sees Ashanika join Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology as head of finance and business control, where her responsibilities include looking after the overall financial health of the business. Again, there is a strong focus on leadership, and Ashanika is looking forward to having a greater involvement in business operations and commercial aspects.
Joining a company in the middle of a lockdown is no easy feat, especially for someone who sparks off others’ energy and relishes relationships with her colleagues. ‘I don’t know when I’ll meet my team in person for the first time,’ she points out. However, she takes a characteristically pragmatic view of the situation, saying that ‘it’s just another challenge to overcome. There have been other times when life hasn’t been easy, and I’ve managed to get through those.’
From a personal perspective, Ashanika is one of the many parents who has tried to juggle her work demands with home school Zoom calls for her seven- and five-year-old – but, again, she chooses to be practical rather than pessimistic. ‘I just take one day at a time and focus on the things I can control rather than wasting my energy on things I can’t,’ she says. Her husband, Michael, is and always has been a tremendous support, and the couple take it into turns to attend to the children. ‘Michael has given me infinite motivation and encouragement throughout my career and personal journey thus far. Together, we have built a wonderful fulfilling home, family and support system. Aside from managing our careers, we are happily raising two loving, respectful, and understanding children. I owe any success in balancing career demands and being able to enjoy the joys of family life, all to my incredible husband. We have a great partnership,’ Ashanika says.
She admits that the future is hazy right now. ‘Every leader you speak to will tell you that nothing will be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic,’ she says – but not all the changes that will come about are negative. Ashanika anticipates that companies will have a greater appreciation for flexibility and remote working now that people have proved that it is possible to deliver results while working from home. Certain adjustments are inevitable, but this is where resilience comes in. ‘We all have to accept that if we’re not fluid, we’ll be left behind.
‘We can live in fear, but that means that we’ll lose time that we’ll never get back. The only answer is to make the most of our time, even during difficult circumstances,’ she concludes.