How will we go back to work, what safeguards will be implemented and how will the working environment change? We spoke to three CFOs from different industries to find out more.
As businesses prepare for a post-COVID-19 future, many leaders suggest that we should not expect a return to the past. With the crisis evolving by the day, CFOs and finance executives need quick perspectives to ensure they are taking the right actions for their organisations, employees, shareholders and themselves.
CFOs across multiple industries are currently implementing strategies to ensure their business can continue to survive financially during the downturn. They are also exploring various scenarios of how to progress when restrictions are eased and we begin to emerge from the pandemic. If done correctly, CFOs have the opportunity to position their business for success right from the beginning.
Aarti Takoordeen CA(SA), CFO of the JSE, sees the pandemic as an existential call for greater humanity in leadership practices and an opportunity to invest in social upliftment that will outlive us. The pandemic reminds us of our transience, she says, pulls hard on the strings to our soul and appeals to our charity to help others. Above all, it is an existential call for greater humanity in leadership practices and an opportunity to invest in social upliftment that will outlive us.
‘It has exposed pre-existing fault lines in our economy. Fiscal pressures, low growth and uncomfortably high unemployment levels are a reality against a backdrop of a technical recession. Meanwhile, market volatility has surged.
On some days, the JSE volumes and value traded more than trebled with enormous complexity.’
She says that creativity and innovation are key to fuel progress during these difficult times. For many business leaders, the crisis represents uncharted waters and will test the boundaries of our leadership capabilities and the ultimate derivation of innovative opportunities.
‘Leaders have been forced to rethink strategies, lead with empathy and act quickly to steer the organisation to success,’ Takoordeen says. ‘Leadership teams have been aligning on business priorities and stealth in decision-making, continuously engaging with their teams, acting and leading with courage, and championing innovation and creativity.’
EMBRACING NEW WAYS OF WORK
With the concept of traditional work routine having been flipped on its head, virtual teaming and technological mobility became a necessity almost overnight.
The lockdown has forced us to be more considerate and empathetic to people’s personal circumstances, strengthen trust, and build a cohesive and driven workforce. The impetus has shifted to influencing outcomes and guiding rather than tactical management, Takoordeen says.
It has also become necessary to recognise the personal circumstances of colleagues, whether they have children at home, are single parents, have elderly people to take care of, or live by themselves.
‘These learnings are shaping our post-COVID-19 HR policies and practices and promoting a flexible organisation that is cognisant of the realities of its most valuable asset: its people. Leadership Wednesdays, group online yoga and virtual meditation sessions are just a few simple but effective examples implemented by the JSE that support this notion and instil balance.’
Every business has been forced to adjust its operating model. Business continuity plans have been tested as well as risk management regimes. While leveraging technology has been a must for survival, it is also key to driving business transformation and competitive advantage.
‘The JSE is no exception to this,’ says Takoordeen. ‘We have managed to run the markets through a completely remote workforce without business disruption. We have also introduced many new digital service offerings to our market during this crisis. We recognise the importance of swiftly adapting to the environment we find ourselves in. We continue to remotely manage over R24 billion average daily value traded (YTD) and an average of 406 000 deals per day, more than 40% higher than last year’s average for the same period.’
There is still room through to leverage digital tools and platforms to work even smarter, she says. This applies to every business in South Africa. ‘Now is the time to tap into new and exciting technologies that can further unlock the digital economy and assist businesses in distress. We have seen a shining example in China’s use of the Internet of Things, 5G communications, artificial intelligence, and big data to fight against the outbreak. This innovation assisted various sectors including healthcare, education, and logistics and most importantly, saved lives. We can no longer be thinking of digital technologies as nice-to-haves but rather as an integral part of our products and services. In the end, the crisis, as devastating as it is, with the right focus can inspire unprecedented growth.’
A TEAM EFFORT
The pandemic and the resulting lockdown’s impact on businesses has been so significant on all aspects of operations at security barriers company Trellidor that the navigation through this process has required a team effort. Without a strong collaborative effort across finance and admin, labour, health and safety, marketing, sales and operations, it is difficult to see how any organisation can proactively respond to the pandemic, says Damian Judge CA(SA), CFO of Trellidor.
‘We established a COVID-19 steering committee, which includes senior management, who represent the key facets of the business. The committee meets weekly to ensure the organisation is actively responding to the measures being implemented by government and is minimising the impact of the measures on our stakeholders as much as possible while balancing the sustainability of the business as a whole. Clear communication is vital in managing this process, given the uncertainties and changing circumstances.’
Maintaining the sustainability of the group through difficult trading conditions is Trellidor’s core focus. Judge says cash conservation will be central to achieving sustainability in the medium term. The financial impact of the lockdown will lag the opening of the economy and the company is planning for constrained cash resources over the next six months. A natural consequence of this is cost reduction where possible across the organisation and much emphasis is being on recovering outstanding debts.
‘Rolling forecasts will be a key tool in managing the organisation through the unlocking,’ Judge says. ‘With meaningful and effective rolling forecasts, we will be better placed to respond to any changes in the economy and implement the reactive plans to maintain our sustainability drive.’
Judge says navigating the pandemic lays bare the strengths and weaknesses of team members. ‘It’s important to be proactive in managing these, as your organisation needs operating at the highest level, now and in the months ahead.’
He believes it’s necessary to be more conservative in planning over the next 12 months and make sure that operations can sustain lower levels of trading for an extended period.
‘Make sure you have a team of people around you who can implement and execute the strategies required to maintain sustainability. The South African economy has been hovering above the bottom of the curve for some time now, even before the lockdown. Only effective implementation will get us back up.’
Judge says there is little doubt the lockdown has resulted in a more progressive uptake in technologies which promote a change in how some industries conduct their business and these could have longer-term impacts.
‘Regardless of how we do business, the fundamentals will remain the same. What I would like to see in the “new normal” is a more deliberate attempt by individuals and companies to make a sustainable change in how we interact with each other and the planet. As a collective, we need to take ownership of what caused the pandemic and the impact it has had on all walks of life and try our hardest not to repeat it. I am not sure how many more global lockdowns we can afford.’
As an essential services provider, Vodacom has had a multi-faceted approach to the pandemic, focusing first on the safety of staff, being responsive to the needs of customers, and contributing to the needs of the broader society as a result of this pandemic. The company recently announced that it will invest R500 million into ensuring sufficient network capacity to enable people and businesses to work seamlessly from home, as availability of the network is key to the effective functioning of all the other sectors of the economy.
The company recently switched on Africa’s first live 5G mobile network in three cities – Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Cape Town – with further rollouts planned to other parts of the country. This network will support both mobile and fixed wireless services and will enable Vodacom customers with 5G-enabled devices, and within a 5G coverage area, to access one of the fastest and most sophisticated network connections in Africa.
‘My hope is that we can innovate and evolve to the changing environment quickly,’ says Mariam Cassim, Chief Officer: Vodacom Financial Services. ‘The success of any business during this pandemic is the speed and agility to respond to change and continue to remain relevant, especially as the world moves quicker to adopting digital solutions. “Business as usual” will not necessarily hold true any longer, as businesses are being forced to think and act differently. While it may take some time to recover, I do believe South Africans are resilient and will bounce back.’
She says her role is to manage her team and ensure that they remain on course to deliver on the business strategy. ‘The lockdown has obviously affected the way we work, but we are using the time productively and are actively working on a number of new and exciting initiatives and partnerships that will transform our business. One of my biggest personal concerns is the impact of COVID-19 on individual lives from an emotional and financial perspective. It’s an inherently stressful time.’
To help employees through this, Vodacom’s group CEO hosts a weekly webinar or fireside chat which provides an update to all 5 500 employees on what is happening within Vodacom. In this way, employees are kept in touch and their connection with the business strengthened.
Among the lessons learned thus far, Cassim says, it has been most important to maintain perspective and remain focused. Circumstances may change and impact the timing and manner of delivery of a service or product, but ultimately you can’t afford to be distracted.
‘Use the opportunity to think differently about the way business is usually done and seek out the meaningful, impactful and value-creating opportunities despite the turbulence,’ she advises.
Cassim says she hopes that we have all become more aware of others and their struggles and that we will in future take decisions that are more holistic and more cognisant of the overall human, social and environmental impact. This is essential in order to build a sustainable future, she adds.
THE NEW NORMAL, THEN
As businesses prepare and deliver new steps for the future, many planning professionals suggest that we should not expect a return to the past. The pandemic has demonstrated that work that is least disrupted is work that is done online, so focus more on technology: the mobile phone, apps and remote conferencing have come into their own during this lockdown. It is vital for businesses to embrace this and ensure that they have a strong digital presence and footprint.
AUTHOR | Monique Verduyn