128: Tina Maharaj

‘I was one of those crazy people who loved auditing.’

Tina Maharaj lives by the maxim, adapt and thrive, this tenacity and a flare for accounting has led her through a dynamic career to CFO at the SABS, where her current focus is on the financial turnaround of one of the world’s leading providers of standards.

CIARAN RYAN: Today’s podcast is sponsored by Draftworx, which provides automated drafting and working paper financial software to more than 8000 accounting and auditing firms and corporations. CFO Talks is a brand of the South African Institute of Business Accountants. It’s my great pleasure today to welcome Tina Maharaj to CFO Talks. She is currently CFO at the South African Bureau of Standards, where she looks after various portfolios and heads up a team of 113 people. One of her key mandates is to develop strategies to assist with the financial turnaround of the SABS, while keeping an eye on the day-to-day financial operations and treasury functions in the organisation. Prior to that, Tina spent four years at the Development Bank of Southern Africa as manager in charge of financial strategy, and from 2009 to 2013, she was manager of the bank’s management information and tax systems. Her qualifications are admirable, she is a CA with an MBA from the University of Stellenbosch, and she’s got an MCom taxation from University of  Potchefstroom, to name just a few. In 2020, she was awarded the CFO South Africa designation by the South African Institute of Business Accounts. We’re going to get into that in a minute, but first of all, welcome Tina to CFO Talks. How are you today?

TINA MAHARAJ: Good afternoon Ciaran and thank you very much for having me here. I am good, thanks.

CIARAN RYAN: It’s quite a career journey you’ve had, tell us about the South African Bureau of Standards. Bearing in mind, there are people outside of South Africa who listen to this and they probably want to know what this is. We, of course, know this as the body that sets standards in terms of quality and so on, but describe its role in the South African economy and why it’s important.

TINA MAHARAJ: The South African Bureau of Standards, the primary focus is the development of standards, but we also do conformity assessment services. So in addition to developing the national standards to support the efficient functioning of the economy, we offer services such as certification testing, inspection, and verification. The role of SABS is critically important in the South African economy for a number of reasons. Standards provide technical solutions to drive industrialisation in key sectors in the South African economy, be it manufacturing, the digital economy, agro-processing mining tourism, the various sectors, they drive the quality of products and services and provide a level playing field for businesses, be it large or small businesses to meet quality objectives. Further to that, the standards support domestic, regional and international market access, so allows for the export of South African products and services outside of South Africa. Our testing and certification services provides assurance to the market that the products and services that you are getting meet minimum national standards and thereby protects the consumer from a health and safety perspective. [Unclear] also provides solutions to critical or key focus areas. For example, climate change there are a lot of standards on renewable energy, energy efficiency, carbon emissions, so standards in various sectors. The uptake and implementation of standards by industry improves operational efficiencies, it reduces operational waste, it enables cost savings, improves products and services, and ultimately improves the bottom line and stakeholder confidence. Standardisation supports entrepreneurs, it helps entrepreneurs to develop innovative products and solutions and helps to build new industries, new companies and in turn, support, job creation. It provides solutions for regulators to adopt, and this ensures that regulations are underpinned by international best practices. Regulators don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but reference national standards to achieve their objectives. So there’s a whole host of competencies that the SABS sets out to achieve in the various areas of the various industries that we do service. I think that sums up why SABS is so important to the South African economy.

‘Our focus is on turning the SABS around from a financial perspective.’

CIARAN RYAN: Thanks for that. To what extent is the South African Bureau of Standards reliant  on government funding? I see one of your roles is to develop strategies to assist with the financial turnaround of the SABS. Give us the background to this, is the SABS trying to wean itself off state funding?

TINA MAHARAJ: The SABS receives 30% of its total income from government and 70% is our own revenue generation from commercial activities. But we’ve seen over the years, that funding from the state has reduced when other priority areas arise. So Covid-19 is a good example, where funding was required to support the economic stimulus packages. So grants to SOEs and public entities were cut in order to fund these initiatives. I believe in constrained fiscal times, it’s quite important that entities that are able to generate their own revenue, do so. So that you can free up funding for other priority sectors or priority initiatives. So to answer the question, yes, in the long term, that is the plan to wean ourselves off state funding, but I think that is the long-term view. Right now, our focus is on turning the SABS around from a financial perspective. We’re experiencing quite significant financial constraints, we’ve made losses for the last couple of years, there’s pressure on our liquidity. So the focus is on a financial turnaround. We’ve seen a decline in revenue over the years for a whole host of reasons, but our cost base has remained fairly flat and fairly fixed. So the strategies we’re implementing focus on revenue generation and cost containment, and all emphasis is on returning the SABS to financial sustainability at the moment.

CIARAN RYAN: Let’s just explore your own career journey there for a moment. I see that you went on to study tax. That seems to have come from your time at the Development Bank of Southern Africa or were there other reasons for that?

TINA MAHARAJ: I would say it’s been a passion, rather than a specialisation, and it arose for other reasons. So when I was at university, tax was something that I just took a liking to, I really enjoyed the subject and I took to it quite easily, and I always wanted to study it further. So when the opportunity arose I did do that and I think my rationale was always that if I ever got tired of a corporate environment, I would do tax consulting. So I’ve had a bit of exposure in a few of my roles, but it’s not something that I do regularly anymore. Life moves on, your career progresses, there are other priorities and other passions that you begin to explore. But I think it’s something that I’m hoping that I’ll pick up again later on in life.

CIARAN RYAN: Financial strategy is part of the modern CFO’s toolkit and this is something that you’re quite familiar with. Another, of course, is team management, communications, these are not things that you’re learning in accounting school, right? Is this something you have to learn later in life, something you developed as part of your career evolution?

TINA MAHARAJ: Yes, I definitely think it’s not something that you learn at the accounting schools. I think universities try and push you and try to prepare you to some extent, but the real learning starts as soon as you enter the corporate environment. You’re thrown into the deep end on the first day you set foot on the job and now you need to apply all the technical theory that you learned in university, and it’s a huge learning curve. I believe communication skills and team management is something that you learn as your career progresses, and a lot of it you learn on the job, and I think you’re just honing those skills over time. Every new opportunity comes with challenges and new learnings. I must say, for me, work experience while at university, having strong mentors in my life, coaching a bit later on and often being thrown in the deep end, certainly helped to build those skills.

CIARAN RYAN: What drew you to accounting in the first place? Was it a natural aptitude or was it something that you inherited from your parents maybe, what was the course of that?

TINA MAHARAJ: It was just a natural aptitude. My parents are not in the accounting field. So just a passion for the subject from a young age. My career path, I always wanted to be a chartered accountant or a doctor and I think the CA profession chose me at the end of the day. My parents often tell me that when I was a little kid, one of my first words was calculator. So I just laugh at them because I think maybe somehow I was destined for accounting. But I love my career, I love the choice that I’ve made and where I am today, and I think I learn and grow on a daily basis. I know somehow I’m contributing, and being in the public sector, I think whatever we do in our roles contributes to the greater good of South Africa, the economy, and for a better South Africa, ultimately.

‘I thrive on trying to make a difference every day, trying to change things and rebuild the organisation.’

CIARAN RYAN: Just following on from that, tell us a little bit about your career journey. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school and how you ended up where you are now?

TINA MAHARAJ: I was born and raised in Pietermaritzburg. I went to a government school and I was one of those individuals who thrived for academics. I was the type of person who seized every opportunity that came my way. When I was 17, my dad got a transfer with his work to Johannesburg. So after matric, I moved to Johannesburg and I started university at what was then called RAU. It wasn’t easy because I was this girl from a little town, coming to this big city. We had no friends, no family, so it was quite difficult, but somehow you adapt, and you thrive, and that’s exactly what I did. After university, I started articles at a small firm called Fordham & [unclear], I did a year of articles there and the learning was diverse. I picked up a whole range of skills and then transferred my articles to Ernst & Young, and the three-and-a-half years that I spent at EY taught me so much. I think it really was the foundation for who I am today and instilled a work ethic in me that I’ll carry for the rest of my life. I had a chance to audit in various sectors and it gave me broad knowledge and understanding of the various industries. I also got an opportunity to go on a secondment to EY Jersey in the Channel Islands and that honestly, I think both personally and professionally, was one of the best experiences and the best things that I could have done in my life. When I came back, I stayed on as an assistant manager for a few months. I was one of those crazy people who loved auditing. I really didn’t mind working the 18-hour days, I just had a passion for it, but I also wanted to see what else was out there. You always hear about the corporate world outside the comfort of the auditing environment. So an opportunity came about at International SOS and I joined there for a while and it was really my first job outside the world of auditing. I did a bit of work on tax there and then for the most part, I was employed as the regional financial reporting manager and we reported to Singapore. Again, the learning was steep for me, being my first real job outside of articles, and so important to my journey. After International SOS, I joined DBSA and I think that’s where I spent the bulk of my career, I was there for eight years. I joined as a newbie management accountant, where I had to set up a management accounting function, develop reports, and my career progressed and evolved, and by the time I left, I was the manager of financial strategy. My time at the DBSA was truly remarkable, I got to head up various strategic projects and initiatives, I created a team that was admired in the organisation and I was given opportunities to learn and grow in various fields, which I grasped with both hands. In addition to growth and learning in core competencies, I did leadership academies, innovation academies, and the opportunities were really endless. In 2017 I got an opportunity to progress my career further at the SABS when the GM finance role became available. I thought, why not take on a new challenge. The CFO really needed support to turn the finance team around and there were a lot of financial challenges in the organisation. So I thought, okay, it’s time for the change. Six months after joining the SABS, the CFO who was there at the time, left to join another CFO role. So I was put in an acting position and I think it was six months later that I was appointed as the permanent CFO. So that’s how I ended up where I am today. The SABS comes with a whole host of challenges, but it’s something I thrive on, trying to make a difference every day, trying to change things and rebuild the organisation. So it’s a very exciting role for me.

CIARAN RYAN: It’s a big team as well, 113 people does take quite a bit of organisation on your part.

TINA MAHARAJ: It does. In addition to managing the finance function, I also look after facilities, strategy and asset management in the organisation. So it’s given me an opportunity to learn a whole new host of skills. The SABS runs a plant room and runs highly technical equipment, so the facility space has just broadened my skillset. I’ve learned so much more than just the finance sphere in the organisation. Maybe just to touch on your point regarding the CFO (SA) designation, as much as you have technical competencies, it’s also about building a network and building relationships and learning about what other CFOs and what other organisations are doing out there. I thought this designation would just add to my career, add to my learning and my growth and development. I think some of the best learning is the learning that you get from other individuals who have gone through similar experiences, taking their knowledge and putting it together with yours and see what you can achieve. So that was the primary reason for that, I’m enjoying just engaging with new people and learning new things.

‘It doesn’t surprise me that CFOs come from all sorts of backgrounds today.’

CIARAN RYAN: I notice that a lot of CFOs these days coming from a non-traditional or a non-accounting background or if they have come from an accounting background, they broaden their knowledge by doing maybe an MBA or some master’s degree at university. One of the things that’s come to our attention recently is that the majority of European CFOs do not come from an accounting background. What do you think about that? Many, for example, have got engineering backgrounds or they come from academic backgrounds, how do you think that fits in with the role of the accountant? It’s a bit unusual for a South African accountant, but what’s your take on this?

TINA MAHARAJ: Yes, it is a bit unusual, but my view is that a CFO needs to have a balanced set of skills. A CFO needs to have financial acumen to ensure that the fundamentals are in place, but should also be able to lead and drive strategy to support business. I think the role of the CFO has really evolved over the years, and it’s moved from a technical CFO to a CFO who is required to have a strong business acumen. There’s a drive for innovation and digitisation, and all of these things are becoming increasingly important. I believe that you need a well-rounded CFO, accounting teaches you one element, but there’s so much more to running and leading and supporting a business. So it doesn’t surprise me that CFOs come from all sorts of backgrounds today. I think that the future of the CFO is completely different to where it was 10, 15, 20 years ago. There’s a whole lot of value that CFOs are now able to add than the traditional technocrat that we were seen as before.

CIARAN RYAN: I’m also interested to find out about you, you said you actually enjoyed audit. Now, I find that a bit unusual because a lot of people can’t wait to get out of audit. What was it that you liked about auditing?

TINA MAHARAJ: I just loved meeting the different people at the different organisations, learning about the different industries, to me that was exciting. Just getting out there and doing something different every day. I think auditing is pretty standard, there’s checklists, there’s methodology, there’s a standard you need to adhere to. But I thrived, I didn’t mind it, I thought we were helping entities achieve clean audit status and really making a difference in our own way.

CIARAN RYAN: Also, your time at Ernst & Young in Jersey, you said that was one of the most exciting times. Was it the same thing, just getting to meet people from an entirely different sort of cultural and business background?

TINA MAHARAJ: Yes, I also audited large mining clients when I was in Jersey and I got to travel quite a bit. You don’t realise, it’s such a small island, but there are so many ex-pats living there and the culture is so different. What was good for me was to see, we engaged with a lot of people from Ernst & Young across various countries, and to see that Ernst & Young culture was consistent across the world, that was good for me. Also, just auditing in a different environment, meeting different people, learning different things, all of that was really exciting for me.

CIARAN RYAN: A couple of final questions here now, tell us what you do when you’re not at work, what do you do with your downtime?

TINA MAHARAJ: I enjoy reading quite a bit, spending time with the family, just relaxing, sometimes binge-watching Netflix series. But my passion is traveling, so I try and travel whenever I can but with Covid-19 it’s been a little bit difficult. But, yes, those are the things I enjoy.

CIARAN RYAN: And you have family?

TINA MAHARAJ: It’s just my husband and I.

CIARAN RYAN: Travel is on pause but, as you probably know, the pent-up demand for travel is huge around the world. I was reading a story recently about that British Airways has advanced bookings for years to some of these exotic locations, which have just been off the menu now for a while. So I suppose you’ve also been planning that, as soon as you can, where you’re going to go to and that kind of thing, making your travel plans?

TINA MAHARAJ: Definitely, yes, there were so many plans that had to be cancelled. There’s so much of the world to explore, so we’re definitely looking forward to when things open up and we can receive our vaccines and do some exciting stuff again.

CIARAN RYAN: Final question, are there any books that you would recommend, and they don’t have to be technical or accounting books or business books.

TINA MAHARAJ: Yes, one of my favourite books of all time is Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open. I think it was such a brilliant, read, it just kept you hooked on the book the entire time. I loved reading Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, just understanding what Bombay was like at the time and the slums, and you could actually vividly picture what was going on. From a business perspective, at the moment I have just picked up a book that I read a few years ago, it’s called Leadership Pure and Simple: How Transformative Leaders Create Winning Organisations by David Wilkins and Greg Carolin. I think it’s just apt in the time that we are going through at the SABS, we go back to basics, and the book unpacks leadership and focuses on the fundamental skills of leadership. I think this is so critical to reinforce in an organisation that’s going through a turnaround.  So really just looking at and reading practical guides at this point in time on how take an organisation forward in these difficult times.

CIARAN RYAN: I’m totally with you on that book, Shantaram, it’s really one of the finest books I have read in a long, long while, very beautifully written, a huge emotional impact and very descriptive of the underworld of Bombay and Calcutta. He even ventures off into, I think Afghanistan, he joins a terrorist or a rebel group, whatever you want to call it. It’s just a very interesting life story. It’s well worth a read. Great, okay, I think that brings us to the end of this wonderful interview. Thank you very much. That’s Tina Maharaj. Tina, let’s stay in touch, I’m really keen to see how things pan out in the course of this year at the SABS and how your turnaround strategy goes. Maybe we can check back in with you in a few months and get an update.

TINA MAHARAJ: Definitely, Ciaran, I would love that and thank you very much for having me.

CIARAN RYAN: You’re most welcome and have a great day.

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