CFO (South Africa)
Women CFOs rising at Investec
Marlé van der Walt: “I thrive on change”
On 8 March, International Women’s Day, Investec South Africa launched its “Women on the Rise” campaign, highlighting its relationship with women in business, education and sport. As part of the launch, Investec introduced the public to its newly appointed Specialist Bank CFO Marlé van der Walt. CFO South Africa spoke to her and Roxane Leita, the head of finance at Investec Life, about their finance leadership experiences.
Marlé is not only an expert in growth and transition; she has also been serving in CFO roles since the tender age of 26. She chatted to Caylynne Fourie about her experience in the worlds of work, life and motherhood.
What is your professional and academic background?
I started my articles with PwC in Durban in
1999, after doing Academic Articles (lecturing) at the University of Stellenbosch for a year. I did a regulatory audit on a new client (BOE Bank at the time). That got me into Financial Services and made me a banking regulations expert. In my third year (second year with PwC), the audit manager left, which instantly made me the resident banking specialist.
I took up the manager role on the audit, which was my first break. Just over a year later, BOE acquired a listed entity on the JSE doing unsecured lending and approached me to become the CFO for the business. I was 26 at the time. It turned out that it was a struggling business, which landed me my first “turnaround” CFO role. I remember the person who appointed me said: “I am sorry Marlé, we sold you a lemon”, to which I responded: “Don’t worry, I am putting on my CV that six months here equals two years’ experience.”
Fast forward, we lived through the run on the bank at BOE. Nedbank acquired BOE three months later, and we turned the unsecured lending business around in three years. I also picked up the risk role for the division in this time and during the Nedbank restructure was then offered the role as CFO: Nedbank Retail Banking Services in Johannesburg, transforming and consolidating all the finances for the retail franchises and brands within Nedbank. I was 29 at the time.
You are known as something of a Basel expert. How did that come about?
Barclays offered me a role to set up a technical audit function at their newly acquired subsidiary, Absa. This involved giving assurance over risk, finance, compliance and especially the new advanced Basel models that they were implementing at the time. It involved building an entirely new team of specialists from the ground up.
In 2010, I joined Investec as the chief internal auditor, where I was responsible for designing and driving new standardised methodologies and systems globally. For the past six years, I was the CFO for Private Bank, while simultaneously leading the Basel IRB programme. We have significantly grown the Private Bank franchise and profitability over the past six years.
There’s a great story about how Investec recruited you. Please share it with us?
Investec recruited me while I was pregnant with twins. At the time, I was a mom of three kids under the age of two years old – my son and twin girls are 20 months apart. My first interview was five days before the twins were born and Investec then met with me at my home three times after the twins were born to conduct further interviews.
Some people find change unsettling, but you seem to have built a career on it. How do you feel about change?
I love being part of transforming businesses. I thrive on change and have the ambition and energy to drive business forward. It is extremely rewarding
Roxane Leita is the head of finance at the recently launched Investec Life. She chatted to Toni Muir about being involved in the launch of a new business and continuously setting goals.
What has been the toughest lesson you’ve learnt in your career?
Setting goals is not something you do once off. It’s a lesson I’ve had to keep learning and I don’t think it’s an easy one to learn. You have a goal and you to see the transition.
What is your vision for your new appointment?
Investec recently held a Capital Markets Day, where we announced our three-year targets. We have a great franchise and an even better business. My vision is to make sure we deliver the goals we have set and exceed them. Having been involved in many business growth stories, I will play an active and influential role in strategic decision-making, analysis, measurement and reporting in reaching these targets.
“To this day, I still count the number of women and people of colour when I walk into a meeting room.”
Roxane Leita: “You always have to set yourself new goals”
How do you feel about being a woman executive in a typically man's world?
Having served in leadership roles and on executive committees from a very young age, I have never felt that I was treated differently to men. Maybe I was too naïve to realise it when I started. I always received a lot of respect, acknowledgement and encouragement from my male counterparts. However, to this day, I still count the number of women and people of colour when I walk into a meeting room. I think that when it comes to issues of diversity (gender and race), I have a responsibility to speak out with passion and energy to ensure the minority voice is heard. reach it, but it’s not the end of the road – you’ve got to celebrate it, but then you’ve immediately got to decide, now that you’ve reached this, what it means and what’s the next goal. When I qualified as a CA and reached the end of my articles, I had to decide what to do with the rest of life in terms of a career. It’s a bit of a shock to the system. It was a seven-year journey to qualify – that was my goal. But there was no ticker-tape parade and I was left thinking, now what? You’ve climbed this peak only to realise that there’s another one. Every time I’ve reached a goal,
I’ve found I’ve had to deal with that again. So, I reach it, I celebrate it, and then I plan what’s next.
What would you say has been the most difficult decision you’ve faced in your career?
There have been a few. In each of the decisions I’ve labelled as tough, the reason why I found them so was because it moved me out of my comfort zone and I experienced growth – and growth is never comfortable. One of my most recent tough decisions was choosing to leave PwC after 13 years to join Investec. I left an associate director position there to be a CFO here. I had dealt with many CFOs but it’s different now being on the other side of the desk. But it was smoother than I thought, perhaps because I’d been in auditing as long as I had and dealt with a variety of CFOs and finance professionals over those years. I also had great support within the business, which helped.
What prompted you to move from PwC to Investec?
Investec approached me directly. I met with Michael Goemans, the CEO of Investec Life, and he laid out his vision for the company – this was a new thing Investec was moving into. He laid out what role I’d play in building this company, and I found that very appealing. It was what prompted me to make the change; to be part of something new.
You’ve been in the role since January 2018 and the business only launched in September 2017. What have you achieved so far?
I’ve accomplished a lot. I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve been able to on-board quickly (support from business was great) and run with the finance function. Because we are a startup, we’ve tried to ensure that management is hands-on. We’ve also kept the team small, tight and agile. I’ve been able to make good use of the group finance function, as a lot of the basic functions I’ve been able to leverage off group. I think that one of the great things about being a small startup in an established company is leveraging the support base.
As a young CFO, what makes you most excited when you consider the future of the finance industry?
I’m excited about automation and where it’s going because I think it will mean that a lot of the routine transactions are going to be automated, which frees people up to do more analysis. I think this will make the turnaround time of giving financial information quicker and therefore more relevant. We’ll have access to greater volumes of real-time information which businesses can use to better inform their decisions.
I’m still trying to get my head around how you prepare for this role, but I think it shows that you need to have a learning mindset and be willing to use the technology as it comes through so that you don’t become redundant or outdated. You must keep pace. It’s interesting, exciting and unsettling all at the same time.
Have you achieved a work-life balance and if so, what does this look like?
I tend to not like this phrase as it implies a 50:50 split at all times, which for me is unrealistic. I prefer work-life integration. I consider what needs my focus right now, and sometimes that’s work and sometimes that’s family. It comes back to what is my current goal. For example, at financial year end, I’ve got to dedicate more time to work. I’m a working mother and that has its own challenges. Sometimes everything falls into place and goes smoothly and other days not so much. I’ve learnt not to sweat the small stuff.
What are your interests outside of work? How do you like to spend your free time?
I run after my children – I have two boys aged two and four who keep me very busy. Weekends are spent playing Lego and reading Dr Seuss. There’s a lot of family time. I really enjoy travelling. I’ve taken my kids overseas a few times, as well as on trips around South Africa. I think it’s very important to expose them to different things and to see the world.
“I’m excited about automation because I think it will mean that a lot of the routine transactions are going to be automated.”