Chief Financial Officer – Ozow
Caron Bramwell is CFO at Ozow, a South African app providing instant bank-to-bank payment solutions
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CIARAN RYAN: This is CFO Talks and today I am delighted to be joined by Caron Bramwell, she is the chief financial officer at a company called Ozow, we’re going to come to that in a minute and find out exactly what Ozow does. Caron has quite a CV, it’s very impressive, prefect and first team hockey at Hyde Park High School in Johannesburg, a scholarship for excellence at Wits University in Johannesburg, she qualified as a chartered accountant and she was Top 10 in the IRBA board exam, IRBA sets the exams to qualify the chartered accountants. Then Caron was a recipient of the Allan Gray Orbis Fellowship and was nominated third in the Financial Mail’s Top Young Analyst Award in 2017. You were general manager for financial planning and analysis at Nando’s for a year. Nando’s is quite a well-known South African brand, which has gone international. Before that you were a sell-side analyst at Deutsche Securities, and before that even you were in corporate finance at One Capital. Welcome, Caron.
CARON BRAMWELL: Thank you so much, thank you for having me today.
CIARAN RYAN: It’s a pretty intimidating CV, tell us a bit about yourself, your schooling and how you arrived at where you are now, clearly you are from Joburg, right?
CARON BRAMWELL: I’m a Joburg girl, born and bred, so I did my schooling in Joburg, matriculated at Hyde Park High School, which is a fantastic school, one of the last few government schools left that still rights the IEB exams.
CIARAN RYAN: What exams?
CARON BRAMWELL: The Independent Education Board, so the private school exams at a government school. I then studied at Wits, got a great foundation there and then did my articles at EY in Joburg after graduating. I was lucky enough after graduating as a chartered accountant to do a short stint in the New York office with EY on secondment. Then after that most of my post-articles qualification time has been spent in the banking space, so a little bit in the structured lending environment, a bit of M&A in corporate finance and also as a sell-side equity analyst. More recently, in the last four months, I have joined Ozow in the position as CFO and it’s a really exciting opportunity.
CIARAN RYAN: So you’ve left banking and you’ve left the financial sector in a sense, not entirely because Ozow, as I understand it, is an online payments company. Now, that doesn’t mean a lot to me at the moment, what made you move from the rarefied air of Deutsche Securities to Ozow and tell us a bit about the company?
CARON BRAMWELL: Deutsche, like many of the big global banks, has gone through a tough time in the equity space, so a lot of the brokers are really struggling to make profits out of cash equities and it has resulted in a lot of largescale restructurings, the industry is not in a great space from a profit perspective. So we’ve seen a lot of restructuring and retrenchments happening in equities specifically, and not just in South Africa, that’s been global and it’s been going on for quite a few years now. More recently, Deutsche’s South African office has been impacted. So that for me was a good opportunity to look for something new with great growth prospects, move out of an industry that’s almost facing a structural long-term decline, and look for a space that is actually experiencing growth, and in today’s economy there aren’t many opportunities like that. But fintech is the buzzword that gets thrown around a lot and there’s good reason for that because it is a huge growth opportunity, we’re very much just starting to see the beginning of the fintech revolution. It’s exciting, it’s innovative, it uses technology in a way that traditional businesses hadn’t thought about it before. So for me it’s a great space to be in and there are massive growth prospects to come.
“We validate instantly that an EFT payment has happened”
CIARAN RYAN: Online payment is something we are familiar with, you have a bank account, you do an EFT transfer, that’s pretty much understood. So what is it that you’re doing that is innovative?
CARON BRAMWELL: What Ozow offers is an instant EFT payment solution, and how that differs from a traditional EFT is that we have software that acts as an intermediary between a merchant and a bank, and we can tell the merchant that the transaction has gone through. So we validate instantly that an EFT payment has happened. Whereas traditional old school EFT you have got to download a proof of payment, there’s a lot of fraud that happens in that space because those POPs can be edited, manipulated, falsified. So what normally happens is a company waits for a payment to clear in their account before they treat something as a sale. That can take up to five days, by that stage inventory may not be in stock anymore, it can become difficult to allocate payments if you haven’t used the right reference numbers. So traditional EFT as a mechanism for sales is quite slow and it’s quite cumbersome, what we enable merchants to do is use that banking system but treat it as an instant payment confirmation. On the same side, our platform is open to anyone with a bank account, so you don’t have to have a credit card or debit card, as long as you’ve got a cell phone, a smartphone and you’ve got a bank account, you can pay with Ozow. So it is a lot more inclusive for the South African economy in general.
CIARAN RYAN: Is it aimed only at South Africa or has it got international appeal?
CARON BRAMWELL: No, this absolutely has got international appeal. We are targeting our expansion over the next five years into the African continent. There are some players that do what we do in Europe and that’s not really our target area but in Africa a large percentage of consumers don’t have access to credit cards, debits cards, so this solution really is relevant on our continent.
CIARAN RYAN: One of the big growth industries in South Africa is money transfer, there are companies like Western Union that do this kind of thing. Are you into that space? People doing transfers from South Africa to Mozambique and places like that?
CARON BRAMWELL: At the moment we don’t play in the international transfer space, but it is one of the innovation areas that we are looking at and there is definitely a big demand and appetite for it. It’s more complicated because it’s regulated from an exchange control perspective but the current options that consumers have when it comes to swift payments and the like, it’s super expensive and quite a clumsy process, so there is a massive opportunity to simplify that process and make it more affordable for everyone.
CIARAN RYAN: Who are your customers at the moment, are they businesses or are they mostly private individuals?
CARON BRAMWELL: The way the business model works is that we earn our revenues from merchants, it might be an online merchant like Takealot, where their customers shop online and then choose to pay with Ozow. But it doesn’t have to be online only, we have done integrations into point of sale systems, where let’s say someone is shopping in Pick n Pay and they don’t have their card with them, they can get sent a link on their phone, click on the link, do the payment with Ozow, quick, simple and easy. Our fee structure is also a lot more affordable than the traditional credit card guys, so it makes sense for the merchants not to have to pay so much to receive payments. We also offer benefits to charities and small SMEs. We don’t charge charities to receive payments from Ozow, so if you are an NGO you can process your payments for free through our platform. If you’re a startup company we come from a startup environment we know how tough it can be to pay all your bills, so we give startups 12 months’ free processing up to R1 million a month.
Using banking technology in a smarter way
CIARAN RYAN: Are you challenging the banks, are you going for their market?
CARON BRAMWELL: No, we simply make use of technology that the banks already have but use it in a smarter way so that it’s not as cumbersome as it has been traditionally.
CIARAN RYAN: One of the things that has been said about the growth of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology is that the banks are a threatened species because with blockchain technology you can validate a transaction of the type that you’ve just been talking about. So if I don’t know you, and you are on the other side of the world, we can still transact in safety using blockchain technology, and what is a cryptocurrency in effect, you can store that on a flash drive, you can become a bank, you can then distribute and make payments from your flash drive or from your laptop. You are starting to see a lot of companies nibling at the traditional banking market and that’s kind of what I see from what you’ve been describing.
CARON BRAMWELL: I think banks are becoming aware of it and, going forward, I think we’ll see a lot more partnerships between fintech companies and banks. It’s generally being encouraged. Standard Bank acquired SnapScan, you are going to see these types of partnerships forming. If banks don’t want to have their big traditional markets disrupted by fintech, they need to find ways to partner with them.
CIARAN RYAN: Let’s talk about the accounting profession because that’s who we are talking to, the finance executives and the accountants. There was recently an article that I wrote for Moneyweb about why published financial statements can’t really be trusted and there’s been a fair amount of research on this, I say can’t really be trusted but it just depends on to what extent the auditors are using estimates of figures. For example, revenue, you’ve got all of these IFRS standards, when exactly do you recognise revenue, what type of revenue and now you’ve got IFRS 16, which has got to do with leases and bringing them on balance sheet. What’s your take on this, is the accounting profession in need of a bit of a shakeup, we are really talking here about who are the users of financial statements, so you as an analyst would have an understanding of that, in effect as an analyst you would be reconstructing statements to make more sense for your particular market. It would be the same with a banker, bankers for years would have been taking leases that for years were off balance sheet and putting them on balance sheet. Is the accounting profession meeting the standards that users require of them?
CARON BRAMWELL: I think you are exactly right in that it’s becoming very complicated and if you think about the users of financial statements, it’s quite broad, the application. Not everyone who needs to use financials understands all of the technicalities, the complications and the nature of the estimates that go into it. So it is becoming increasingly important to have almost an analyst lens on numbers any time you look at them, how do you form a normalised view of a company’s earnings, what do you strip out to make things comparable, how do you make use of peer benchmarking exercises, so that you don’t just look at a set of results and an analyst presentation and take what management tells you at face value. Interrogate that a little bit further, how do you benchmark the company against their global competitors and understand whether what they are telling you actually is a good performance or whether it can be significantly better.
CIARAN RYAN: Do you think the accounting profession is going through a crisis at the moment, given that so many financial officers, CFOs, CAs have been involved in some of the corporate scandals we have seen in South Africa?
CARON BRAMWELL: It does feel that way unfortunately, there have been so many of them and it’s quite devastating because the industry in South Africa used to be highly regarded, and now we have had so many scandals in such quick succession. I think the one good thing that’s come out of it is there is really heighted awareness around ethics now. I think auditors are more nervous now than they have ever been. It’s a tough industry to be in at the moment, there’s a lot of risk involved. But people have been made so much more aware of their obligations and I feel like they are being a lot more careful. SAICA, which is the regulatory board here for chartered accountants, have taken some steps themselves, so they’ve enhanced their code of conduct to make it an obligation on any of their members who become aware of any unethical behaviour to report it. Everyone had to sign up to that, if you become aware of anything and you don’t report it, you are implicated. But I think what we definitely need to see out of these scandals is a lot more prosecution because once there are implications for not conforming that’s when people start to change their behaviour.
“Gone are the days of bean counters who just sit behind their computers and use Excel”
CIARAN RYAN: Let’s talk for a minute about the chief financial officer role, that’s what you’re doing at Ozow, is it becoming more of a people-type role, where you are managing a team, you are having to deal with individuals with egos, the normal kind of thing that would go on in an office environment. Certainly, the sense that we get here at CFO Talks is that is the case, so you’d be involved in strategy, you’d be intimately involved in management. Not only that, you’ve got to make sure that the company remains solvent, so you’ve got to find out where the cash to make payroll, for example, is coming from. Just talk around that for a minute.
CARON BRAMWELL: Yes, I think people skills are becoming increasingly important in the role. Gone are the days of bean counters who just sit behind their computers and use Excel. CEOs traditionally are quite strong-willed individuals who can be difficult to influence. So the subtle art of being able to influence is a really important role for a CFO, you’ve got to bring structure into a business, you need to bring controls, those are not the type of things that sales and chief executives are prioritising but really important for the business overall. You also need to form relationships with the shareholders, you’ve got to be able to help a company, especially in a startup environment like we are in, to capital raise, you’ve got to have networks outside of the business that you can leverage on. But there’s also a huge role to play in leading the business in general to achieve the key financial strategic objectives, you have to become a mentor to every department almost to guide them through that process, otherwise everything is misaligned.
CIARAN RYAN: Ozow is a fintech company, so I imagine it’s quite tech heavy in terms of the skills that you have there, you bring a little bit of the grounding that’s required from a CA point of view or from a chief financial officer point of view. So it’s quite a new company and it’s South African, it originated in South Africa, what’s the growth trajectory, what do you foresee there?
CARON BRAMWELL: We have experienced phenomenal growth over the last three years, which is really when the company has been operational and that is not slowing down any time soon. Our penetration in terms of online payments, the EFT industry in general, is tiny, we represent less than 1%. So the opportunity is massive. We’ve grown phenomenally but there is so much more growth to be had.
CIARAN RYAN: So when you hit 1% of market share that will be a milestone event and everyone will crack open the champagne.
CARON BRAMWELL: Yes, absolutely.
CIARAN RYAN: And then it will be 2% and so on. So there’s huge space to grow into.
CARON BRAMWELL: Huge and at the rate that we are growing there is a really pivotal role for a CFO to play because if you don’t scale with the right processes in place, the right structures, the right controls, you can see how quickly that can get away from you.
CIARAN RYAN: How many years old is Ozow?
CARON BRAMWELL: The business is five years old.
CIARAN RYAN: Is it still burning cash or is it cash positive?
CARON BRAMWELL: We reinvest everything back into growth, we are at this stage still burning cash.
CIARAN RYAN: Who owns the company?
CARON BRAMWELL: It’s a combination of venture capital and seed capital funds, and the three founders have a large stake in the business as well.
CIARAN RYAN: And the shareholders are happy to fund the company’s growth as it’s going, it’s a bit of an Uber-type model, where they project that up until 2022 we’re just going to be burning cash but by that time we’re going to own the taxi business worldwide. Is that kind of the attitude that you’ve taken?
CARON BRAMWELL: Absolutely, with fintech, and technology companies in general, it’s really key to be first to market, to be the most aggressive about getting the most customers onboard, beating your competitors out to the growth because everyone is chasing the growth at the moment. For us, there is huge interest, so there’s no shortage of companies that want to invest in the fintech space, so there’s definitely interest, there’s cash available, so we haven’t found that to be a prohibitor.
Finance teams of the future
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, let’s cast your mind into the future if we can for a minute, what is the role of the CFO going to be five to ten years from now and how will it be different from the present, is it going to be substantially different?
CARON BRAMWELL: I think the finance function in general is what’s going to shift a lot, the responsibilities of a CFO won’t change that much. I think we are going to see a lot more automation coming through, so a lot of the tasks that you currently have a lot of headcount for in today’s finance functions can be done by computer programmes. So we can get rid of that type of repetitive work that doesn’t really add value to a company. We can have much smaller finance teams that are a lot smarter, that focus a lot more on things like business intelligence, analytics, how do we quickly adapt to what’s influencing the company and respond.
CIARAN RYAN: Do you have systems like that, do you use an enterprise software, for example?
CARON BRAMWELL: Our inhouse development team have built the system that we use from scratch and because our biggest department, obviously we’re a tech company, is the development and IT department, whenever we find a way to optimise a process, we can always pull them into it. So can you guys help us build an automation element here so that we don’t have to manually sit and calculate these things, let’s use the system to do it. So constantly optimising processes and automating wherever we can.
CIARAN RYAN: So rudimentary bookkeeping stuff, for example, once you’ve created your journals you can automate that and your entries just get posted to those different journals. I agree with you, I think that automation is going to change, it’s going to give people like you, I would imagine, a lot more time to focus on things where you can have much more impact and then also assisting your development team in building analytics to say where are we making most of our money, where are we losing money, where are we inefficient, where are we most efficient and just kind of tailoring and panel beating that into some kind of shape, would you agree with that?
CARON BRAMWELL: Absolutely, so the focus becomes a lot more commercial, strategic, how do we optimise, how do we pick up on trends that are working really well and how do we roll that out everywhere else. Where things aren’t going well, how do we pick those trends up and respond to them.
CIARAN RYAN: Final couple of questions, are you reading any good books?
CARON BRAMWELL: A very relevant book for our company at the moment is a book called Scaling Up: How a Few Companies Make It… and Why the Rest Don’t, written by Verne Harnish.
CIARAN RYAN: What impresses you about that?
CARON BRAMWELL: It’s more like a textbook, a how to guide, so it focuses on four key areas for businesses that are scaling up and what’s most important to put in place to build a successful business. Those key areas are people, strategy, execution and the number one, which is cash, which is crucially important for us.
CIARAN RYAN: So it’s more of a textbook rather than a light read?
CARON BRAMWELL: Exactly, yes.
CIARAN RYAN: Any other books?
CARON BRAMWELL: Not that much else at the moment, we are crazy busy with all sorts of things.
Inspired by the life and generosity of Allan Gray
CIARAN RYAN: Who do you admire as a leader or who has influenced you in your career progress?
CARON BRAMWELL: For me a really inspirational leader is Allan Gray, I think everyone has heard the news of his passing recently. He was an amazing entrepreneur, he built South Africa’s and Africa’s biggest asset manager, and everyone knows him for that, he’s an investment genius, an amazing entrepreneur. Not everybody knew how much Allan Gray did for the country, which is what makes him inspirational to me.
CIARAN RYAN: What did he do for the country? Did I miss something?
CARON BRAMWELL: I was lucky enough to be recipient of a scholarship from the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, he established that foundation in around 2007, put together an endowment of over R1 billion, which was the biggest African charitable donation at that stage.
CIARAN RYAN: R1 billion, out of his personal…?
CARON BRAMWELL: With shares from his company, he’s got Orbis in the US and then Allan Gray in South Africa, and he donated portions of those companies to the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation to establish mainly an educational trust and foundation. So his vision for the country was to build many entrepreneurs like himself. So start at the educational grassroots level, pay for schooling, pay for post-grad, pay for universities, build strong leaders in South Africa and help to turn the economy around. So I was lucky enough to receive that scholarship and it has had a great impact on me.
CIARAN RYAN: Where did you go and get educated using that scholarship?
CARON BRAMWELL: My year was the first year that received the scholarship, I was already enrolled at Wits University at the time and they approached Wits and UCT for the first round of intake, and that scholarship then paid for the rest of my degree. There are also post-grad opportunities. So Allan Gray himself got an MBA from Harvard, if one of the fellows in the foundation feels like that would have a profound impact on their journey and their ability to shape the economy in South Africa, then that’s a lifelong opportunity that you can pursue, if you decide to do it when you’re 40 and you could see the impact it could have, there’s an opportunity. But later on he also donated his entire stake in Allan Gray to charity. He was a very private individual.
CIARAN RYAN: Did he have family? They would want to get their hands on some of that.
CARON BRAMWELL: He does have family, he’s got kids, so I am sure they’re not too happy about it.
CIARAN RYAN: He was in the Caribbean when he passed away, so he lived there?
CARON BRAMWELL: He lived in Bermuda, that’s right.
CIARAN RYAN: He’s an interesting guy, I think he was 81 when he passed away.
CARON BRAMWELL: Yes, in his 80s.
CIARAN RYAN: And built quite a business with a great reputation, still to this day I think it’s fairly undiminished, the quality of the research and their performance. What do you do for fun outside of work?
CARON BRAMWELL: I like to try and keep fit, at Ozow all the employees have a gym benefit, so we can go to pilates at the gym at lunchtime with colleagues, spinning with my husband after work, park run on Saturday morning. But I don’t do enough of that.
CIARAN RYAN: Our production guy, Hezekiel, is a Comrades Marathon runner, he’s done it 14 times, he can almost do it in his sleep.
CARON BRAMWELL: That’s much more impressive than a five-kilometer park run, half walking, half running.
CIARAN RYAN: So you keep fit, you run…?
CARON BRAMWELL: Yes, but generally I just love spending time with my friends and family. I like to travel, I like to try new food, good wine.
CIARAN RYAN: Have you been to a lot of countries?
CARON BRAMWELL: Yes, I have, I have travelled the US, I have been to some unique places like Hawaii, Mexico, the Philippines, I’ve been around Asia a bit, Europe, which I love, the UK, Australia.
CIARAN RYAN: And Africa?
CARON BRAMWELL: Africa, yes.
CIARAN RYAN: Caron, we are going to leave it there. Thanks very much for coming in. I found that fascinating and I look forward to hearing more about the progress of Ozow in the future, we’re going to have to get you back again and maybe in six months or a year come back and tell us how it’s doing.
CARON BRAMWELL: Absolutely, thank you for having me, it was a pleasure.