Founder and CEO: Finatex
From small startups to Fortune 500 companies, Michael Hinton has gained a wealth of experience that he now draws on as a consultant to the finance industry.
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This is CFO Talks and today I am talking to Michael Hinton, the founder and CEO of Finatex, and we’re going to find out a little bit more about that in a minute. Michael is a chartered accountant with 22 years’ experience in finance, audit and assurance. He has also worked in the telecoms, IT, banking and management consulting sectors. Welcome, Michael.
MICHAEL HINTON: Thank you very much, it’s nice to be here.
CIARAN RYAN: You’ve worked across a large spectrum of companies, from small startups to Fortune 500 companies, including all of the big five banks in South Africa, it used to be the big four and now it’s the big five. You’ve trained a number of blue-chip companies in Africa, the Middle East and Australia. So I think we need to find out a little bit about you, you seem like you have done a lot. First of all, what is Finatex?
MICHAEL HINTON: Finatex is a holding company but it’s actually not a company, it was founded by me personally, it’s a sole proprietorship. Originally when I left my previous organisation I wanted to see was it possible to actually not form a company and still do this whole sole proprietor thing. So Finatex is just a brand that I use, and I do all my consulting, all my training, within Finatex.
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, give us a bit about your career path, you are a chartered accountant in Johannesburg.
MICHAEL HINTON: I am a chartered accountant, born and bred in Johannesburg, I lived overseas for a bit…
CIARAN RYAN: Are you north of the ‘boerewors curtain’ or south?
MICHAEL HINTON: I am south, I was a proud Parktown boy, I have lived in Parktown, Melville, Sandton…
Finding a niche in consulting and training
CIARAN RYAN: It’s a good school.
MICHAEL HINTON: It’s a great school. So after school I went overseas and did a bit of a gap year. When I came back I was not sure what I wanted to do and my brother did articles at a small firm in Parktown North and he said why don’t you do the same. So I actually studied at night, I did night school through Unisa and through the colleges involved with Unisa, and I worked through the day. So that’s how I progressed, I did my degree and then I thought that auditing wasn’t for me. I really enjoyed getting to know the companies around it and that kind of aspect, I got to engage with a lot of the CEOs and the CFOs of these small organisations, I really just enjoyed talking to them and consulting with them but I wasn’t at their level just yet. So I needed to get there, so I needed some more life experience. Judging by the array of things that I have done, I would say I am probably a little bit schizophrenic because I do love a little bit of everything, I really enjoy the consulting field, I enjoyed the part about auditing that I did do but I didn’t want to be an auditor and now I believe I have found my niche in consulting and training in the finance environment.
CIARAN RYAN: Let’s talk about that, you’ve worked with Fortune 500 companies and the major banks, so, in your opinion, how does South Africa rate in terms of financial management relative to other countries?
MICHAEL HINTON: I would say that we are right up there actually, Ciaran. When I was at this Fortune 500 company, I was reporting into ex-patriots who were on a much larger salary than I was and who weren’t as well trained as I was. There were also very unique aspects about South Africa that people believe being in an international, in America, in Europe, in Australia you can just cut and paste it and apply it to South Africa, which is definitely not the case. We do have some extraordinary skills over here and we’ve got some unique challenges. So I think that puts us well ahead. You’ll see that when South Africans go overseas, we tend to do really well. Sometimes when ex-patriots come to South Africa they don’t perform as well.
CIARAN RYAN: Why is that, is there a difference in training, is there a difference in work ethic?
MICHAEL HINTON: I don’t know if it’s training or work ethic, I think it’s a cultural thing. I think it takes quite a unique person to understand the South African work environment, the culture, the realities of life in South Africa. Ja, I do think that it’s a great question that you pose, where do we stand from an international point of view. I know that South African accountants are very highly rated overseas, and if overseas accountants want to come to South Africa there’s normally some conversion courses that they need to do.
CIARAN RYAN: I think the chartered accounting profession has been up there in South Africa, top of the world basically, it has slipped, there is no question that it has slipped, you cannot maintain a position like that when you have had ten years of state capture and you had sign-offs by all of the big four auditing firms and expect to retain your top status, it’s not going to happen.
MICHAEL HINTON: I agree with you. Having said that, there are very good people who work in those organisations and it’s a lesson for all South Africans that it only takes one or two, or five, of the board members to ruin the reputation of a very reputable organisation. So I think the corruption has been uncovered or is being uncovered, I don’t think it’s worse today than it was ten years ago, I just think we are finding things out. But you are quite right, we are certainly not at the same standard that we were. According to the World Economic Forum, South Africa had the number one auditing profession standards/practice in the world for five years leading up to 2017, I think today we sit at number 33.
CIARAN RYAN: Wow, that’s a drop.
MICHAEL HINTON: It is a drop and we have got some reputation to repair, as does the whole of South Africa and the business world.
CIARAN RYAN: Ja, okay, just in terms of the accounting and auditing profession – I guess it’s some years now since you articled – the profession, just from a technical point of view has progressed immeasurably, has it not, you really have to be quite skilled in data analytics and computers in order to be a practicing accountant these days.
MICHAEL HINTON: Very much so, you asked about the chartered accountant in South Africa, and I think one of the reasons why they are quite highly thought of is because in South Africa we literally specialise in four areas, we specialise in financial accounting, management accounting, tax and auditing. Whereas I think in other parts of the world you get specialised management accountants and specialised tax analysts, and within each of those different streams obviously there’s changes in tax all the time, there are changes in auditing from a computer auditing point of view, the International Financial Reporting Standards, IFRS, and the IAS are changing all the time, sometimes it leads to very baffling results, which I don’t always agree with in how they change it. So there are some fundamentals that shouldn’t be changing that do change every year.
CIARAN RYAN: So let’s talk about that, which standards do you object to? Revenue recognition, leases, IFRS 16, IFRS 9?
MICHAEL HINTON: I would focus on IFRS 16 at the moment, I heard a scary thing that one of the retailers has gone from having debt of R2 billion to having debt of R16 billion just by a change of IFRS 16. So this whole kind of recognise the liability and then create the asset and then write off the liability from a depreciation point of view, maybe it’s right but I think it’s just complicating things. The question we have got to ask is, is this really adding value to a client, and I don’t believe that companies today are seeing some of that value, I think it’s a blurry line.
CIARAN RYAN: Well, in truth, if you look at IFRS 16 as an example, the users of financial information, being primarily the banks and to some extent funders and shareholders, they would do their own adjustments, they’ve known for years that a lease has to be treated in a certain way, so they have always made these adjustments anyway.
MICHAEL HINTON: They have, so I don’t know, the question is where is it going to go, is this the final…? Surely, we thought that we were good at these standards ten years ago, now they’re introducing standards all the time and it’s not in new areas, we’ve had leases forever, so why the necessity to change, I think that’s what we’ve got to ask ourselves.
Goodwill and intangible assets are a murky field
CIARAN RYAN: I think maybe a bigger one is revenue recognition, which if I am not mistaken, is IFRS 9?
MICHAEL HINTON: I think you might be right, I’m not a technical specialist.
CIARAN RYAN: That came up recently in the case of Tongaat Hulett, where land sales, which is one of their big assets, they were selling off land. But as you know, selling land can be a complicated thing and it’s not something like, well, you know, the deal was closed on the ninth of the month and the money was banked on the tenth. There are certain milestones and so on that have to be achieved before you can recognise revenue. There’s a big debate in the accounting community, even about goodwill, is it right if you are a Coca-Cola should you be writing off your goodwill on a straight line basis over 20 years when that is, in fact, your primary asset.
MICHAEL HINTON: It’s interesting, Ciaran, I was studying the financial statements of British American Tobacco and looking at their balance sheet, their intangible assets are huge, they absolutely dwarf anything else, it’s the same with AB InBev. The problem is how do we treat that goodwill, how do we value it, is it market value because these are gargantuan numbers that we are talking about here. Is it supposed to be written off straight line, they might argue. If you tell them to do that, they could sometime be in a negative equity situation, so they might argue that it is, and someone might say that it’s not. So I agree, the intangible assets, the goodwill side of things, wow, I think it’s a murky field out there.
CIARAN RYAN: Particularly when you’ve got companies like Naspers, which has been on an acquisition spree, the definition of goodwill is – from an analyst point of view anyway – is what you paid over and above the asset value of the company in an acquisition. I think there is some research which has been done, which shows that these companies that are acquisitive and they are holding that goodwill on the balance sheet, it actually is an unfair accounting of that particular line item.
MICHAEL HINTON: How would they like to do it?
CIARAN RYAN: That’s the question for debate, how do you do it? I think accounting is a very fluid profession.
MICHAEL HINTON: Sure, and you mentioned Tongaat, you might even argue that new IAS standards could have aided the fraud in Tongaat. So not only is it not being more fairly presented, maybe it’s giving us the opportunity to skew those numbers unfairly. I know Warren Buffett had a lot to say about it in the last Berkshire Hathaway AGM, so it’s going to be interesting to see what’s next.
CIARAN RYAN: Yes and EBITDA, earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation, there’s also debate about that and how useful is that. That was introduced to assist people to get a better picture of a company with some of these distortions removed but they have added their own.
MICHAEL HINTON: I totally disagree with that, I think EBITDA adds very little value and I will tell you why. Here’s an example, Edgars years ago when it was delisted, it had a whole bunch of debt put onto its balance sheet, R25 billion I think it was. Now, if you look at EBITDA before and after from an Edgars acquisition point of view, they were the same but suddenly Edgars went from making a profit of, say, R4 billion to having interest of R4.5 billion. So from an EBITDA level if you are incentivising the managers on EBITDA you are all getting bonuses but the bottom line is that the earnings are negative…
CIARAN RYAN: So almost encouraging them to go hugely into debt.
MICHAEL HINTON: It does and it also, again, can skew the numbers, so you’d rather have some things on balance sheet than off because it would affect some certain areas and I understand why they do it because there are some things out of their control but I think people’s obsession with EBITDA is wrong, I think it really should be bottom line.
CIARAN RYAN: Which is why a lot of people then look at the cash flow statements, which should give you a little bit more detail, but you have problems there too.
MICHAEL HINTON: You do, that was always the infallible one, but we saw in Steinhoff there were also some issues with the cash flow statement.
CIARAN RYAN: You need to be a forensic investigator sometimes, to understand what you are looking at with a company.
MICHAEL HINTON: I think you do and even then, as we’ve just mentioned, the change of a statement can skew the numbers dramatically.
‘It’s always been a passion of mine to want people to have a better financial education’
CIARAN RYAN: You are also a lecturer at GIBS, which is the Gordon Institute of Business Science here in Johannesburg, what do you lecture on and how did that come about?
MICHAEL HINTON: Ciaran, it’s always been a passion of mine to want people to have a better financial education and better personal finance. I don’t know if you know this but in South Africa today there are ten million people who are either blacklisted or behind on their debt repayments?
CIARAN RYAN: I do, it’s four out of ten people who qualify for credit.
MICHAEL HINTON: It’s 40%, correct. So people say okay, ten million out of a population of
57 million. No, no, that’s out of 25 million or 27 million economically active South Africans, which is 40%, and it’s not because people are stupid, I really believe they get taken advantage of by loan sharks and from a higher purchase point of view, and that they don’t have their finances in place. So it’s really a passion of mine to try and sort that out, so that led me to GIBS where I do a little bit of personal finance lecturing but I also take companies’ non-financial managers through their financial statements. So we personalise it, we do some comparisons, we look at working capital management, we look at the cash flow, we look at how the income statement meets the balance sheet and have some innovative ways of doing that. I really believe that finance has been taught badly in our schools and in our universities and I think there’s a better way to do it, we can make it fun, we can make it interesting. So that’s what I do, I will add a personal aspect to it, so I will say, Ciaran, when was the last time you went to Dischem and you’ll say this morning, then I will say let’s pull out Dischem’s financial statement, do you know what margin they are making, do you know what turnover there was, let’s look at how many stores they have, what is their turnover per store, let’s look at the stock and how they are converting that over. So I can make it personal and practical to you and then we can compare it to a Clicks or a Pick n Pay. So I believe we can make finance a lot more interesting and allow people to understand it from a business point of view and have a look at how that feeds into their personal finances.
CIARAN RYAN: Ja, I think one of the big things that I certainly come across in South Africa – you are right, there’s a lack of education about finances – but people are not saving.
MICHAEL HINTON: No, they are not.
CIARAN RYAN: You have to position it slightly differently, it’s reserves, and I have written a few stories on this, when you use things like saving for retirement, get out of here, who the hell is going to get excited about that when you’re 25. So what you’re saving for is that trek to the Himalayas that you’ve been dreaming about or that around the world yacht cruise, you might want to avoid that with coronavirus at the moment. But part of it is the language and the way it’s been communicated, it’s these old fuddy-duddies, the actuaries…
MICHAEL HINTON: The actuaries yes…[laughing].
CIARAN RYAN: Oh my word, get them onto a subject like that. Okay, so how do you approach it then from a personal finance point of view, what is the emphasis?
MICHAEL HINTON: My emphasis really is the reason why you have to save…so we’ll take your personal budget and we’ll say this is what you got in every month and from that you have to stick away 15% or 20% from a gross point of view, and it’s not for you, it’s for your future self. So I don’t talk about long-term savings, you are right, I don’t talk about retirement planning or anything else like that. I say that it’s not yours, it doesn’t belong to you. So we treat it almost from the get-go as a mindset. It’s like the banks, I think it’s FNB that offers you the option to top up on a payment. So I am going to the shops and I have got something for R18 and they say do you want to top it up, make it R20, stick R2 away. You won’t miss that R2, so it’s a huge psychological thing, whereas if I asked you to go into a bank and actually pay it out, then you think that you are losing something, rather than I never had it. So there’s a whole psychology around that.
CIARAN RYAN: Yes, yes and when you make it as painless as possible. But when people do start on that savings journey, they get quite into it, and they say, wow, I’ve got a few thousand saved up here, and then they start getting interest and they think how do I make that grow a bit more. Then they start asking the right questions.
MICHAEL HINTON: Exactly and that leads you into investments and what do I do now. It’s interesting, I often ask my classes if I gave you R1 million right now what would you invest in. Nine out of ten people still say property and I say why, what kind of return is property going to give you. So they start thinking and they say, well property goes up. I always say have you lived in Johannesburg in the last five years because certainly I have got a few properties and they have actually gone down. So it’s to get them thinking about different asset classes that we actually do have. While living in Johannesburg right now you can invest in property in Singapore, you can invest in gold in Dubai, you can invest in Brazilian real, so it’s opening up a different world and allowing them to understand that there’s the risk and there’s the reward. So are you investing for yourself or are you investing for your 80-year-old grandmother, two very different things and what those would look like. Then we start talking about Bitcoin and we start understanding the different aspects.
CIARAN RYAN: Are you keen on crypto assets?
MICHAEL HINTON: I have played around with it through another company that I am involved with and I think it’s like going to Montecasino, if you are going to do it then take that money and go red or black at Montecasino. So I am a little dubious about it, being a good accountant I’m struggling to see the underlying value like you would in normal things, how can you just create something out of a mining…
CIARAN RYAN: I hear you, there’s a debate both ways, Peter Schiff has been hammering on Bitcoin but he’s been wrong, as are so many people who predicted…so many people said this thing won’t last a year, and that was a decade ago. Well, I am sorry, you read that one wrong.
MICHAEL HINTON: Absolutely.
CIARAN RYAN: I think it would be safer to predict the demise of Fiat, we are heading into very interesting times right now and crypto is definitely going to have a role in the future.
MICHAEL HINTON: It is, I suppose the reason why it hasn’t gone beserk is because of the foreign governments like the Chinese, like the South Koreans, even the Americans to an extent, maybe it’s out of their control so they don’t understand it…I’m sure they understand it but they don’t like it because it doesn’t go through the Fed and they can’t track it and that kind of thing. So if you took that away I am sure it would go crazy.
‘I think business is very mistrusting of government’
CIARAN RYAN: Let’s just talk about if you were president of South Africa what would you do to fix it?
MICHAEL HINTON: The first thing I would do is I would scrap my presidential term, so I would make myself president for life [laughing].
CIARAN RYAN: That’s a good idea and the restart the nuclear bomb.
MICHAEL HINTON: [Laughing] It’s a good question, I would think that from a business point of view I think there needs to be a close alignment between government and business. I think business is very mistrusting of government because of all the regulations. So it’s been spoken about before, make it easier for hiring and firing, take away the red tape. We claim to be able to start and open companies easily, it’s not so easy, I have done a few recently…
CIARAN RYAN: Have you used the BizPortal platform?
MICHAEL HINTON: I haven’t used BizPortal.
CIARAN RYAN: It’s R175, it will take you a few minutes.
MICHAEL HINTON: I haven’t used BizPortal.
CIARAN RYAN: It’s magnificent, you’ve got to try it out.
MICHAEL HINTON: Great, thank you, that’s good news. President Cyril Ramaphosa has said the right things about it, I think there needs to be more of a trust relationship maybe from a unions point of view, maybe they are coming around and maybe we can trust each other more. From businesses’ point of view, though, I think there needs to be a lot more liquidity in the country. I was thinking about how I would do this and I don’t know if this would work but if you said to businesses that you made it mandatory that there can be no interest earned on business current or call accounts, what would that do. So at the moment I am a business, I can put my money in African Bank and I claim to get 13.33% per annum, which when the South African economy is growing at 0.5% I would be crazy to invest in the economy when I can stick it in there relatively.
CIARAN RYAN: So basically, you want to unleash this cash accumulation that’s been going on here.
MICHAEL HINTON: Yes, we’ve got an investment committee that goes overseas to look for international investors, we have investors here. Take what we have got here, how can we free up this liquidity in South Africa.
CIARAN RYAN: But there’s a reason why those companies are not investing in South Africa because they don’t like the risk.
MICHAEL HINTON: And there we go full circle around. So we need more certainty and, obviously, less risk, we need a more transparent government, we need trust…
CIARAN RYAN: So these are foundational…
MICHAEL HINTON: Absolutely and I would put it down to trust, I think there is this mistrust between government and business, maybe not as much as it was three years ago but we are certainly working towards it. Obviously, recession, coronavirus, these things don’t help.
CIARAN RYAN: Following on from that, when you enter a company in a consulting capacity, how do you go about this, do you sit and observe for a while, try to figure out what the lay of the land is or do you jump in and say you’re fired, you’re fired and you can stay.
MICHAEL HINTON: I am definitely the former, Ciaran, I am the observer. I do speak to people, I have a look at their systems, there are just some natural questions that I will ask and if they don’t have certain things in place that will be red and yellow flags or orange flags with regard to what this company looks like. So having a look at their systems from an accounting point of view, from their operations, it obviously depends on what kind of business it is. But I have seen a number of different kinds of businesses, there are certain blueprints that are good and others that you can flag immediately. There certainly are some people who probably should be fired initially but I am not the firing type.
CIARAN RYAN: I did some consulting work with a German guy when I was a bit younger, I learnt a tremendous amount from him, he was an absolute genius and he said that when he goes into a company he looks for the person where there is always someone in a company who when you need postage stamps or envelopes or elastic bands, there’s one person who accumulates all of these random functions and communication lines. Oh, you need to know where do you get the key for the outhouse? Oh, you go to Joe, he’s that guy. You get rid of that guy first.
MICHAEL HINTON: Oh really, that’s interesting.
CIARAN RYAN: Because he’s got no product, he’s got no measurable product and there’s this kind of semi-invisibility about people in an organisation, what is it exactly that you do.
MICHAEL HINTON: Exactly, I have worked in a few of those that will remain nameless.
Finance executives under more pressure now than ever
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, what about finance executives and chief financial officers, they certainly seem to be under a lot of stress these days?
MICHAEL HINTON: Absolutely, I think they are more than ever because of all the regulations, I think because of a changing business environment, the fact that there is so little certainty out there. I think the CEO, if they are not a finance person, normally works very closely with the finance person because so much of business does revolve around the finance angle to it. But there’s no doubt about it, I think they are under immense amounts of pressure just because it changes so quickly. We see directors and CEOs retiring earlier and earlier, and leaving earlier and earlier because I also think that maybe we’re a different generation to maybe our parents, our grandparents, so we do want some kind of balanced life. You realise that your children are growing up and you’re spending 18 hours a day at the office and you’re on your laptop all the time, and that’s another reason, I suppose, back in the day when you left your office that was it, you went home and you did your thing with your kids. Now your office follows you. I was thinking that the craziest thing we do these days is have an out-of-office on your email because you know that no one is ever out of office, no one is out of office.
CIARAN RYAN: Yes, that’s a good point.
MICHAEL HINTON: These days you have it all on your cellphone, don’t tell me I can’t get hold of you. That’s crazy.
CIARAN RYAN: Well, unless you don’t want people to get hold of you, if you’re going overseas on holiday you don’t want to be reached.
MICHAEL HINTON: Even then, come on, put your roaming on, this is urgent. So everyone does think they are urgent and there is no such thing as I can’t reach you. So I think a combination of that pressure, the longer hours, the different working environment, the recession, I think the role of the finance person has a shorter and shorter shelf life, I believe.
CIARAN RYAN: Yes, with this whole coronavirus thing happening now you can almost anticipate what you are going to be reading in the financial results for the coming year and everybody can feel happy in their misery because it’s happening to us all.
MICHAEL HINTON: And you can say at least I wasn’t as bad as XYZ, look at them.
CIARAN RYAN: Yes, we did all we possibly could to hold up our end of the bargain here.
MICHAEL HINTON: [Laughing]
CIARAN RYAN: But it is quite a frightening thing in what is happening, [coronavirus] is impacting everything, we’ve just had Deon Fredericks here, CFO from SAA, they’re still trying to assess the impact, but they are cancelling flights. Lufthansa is cancelling flights.
MICHAEL HINTON: They have to, and I don’t know what you would do, what do you do because you don’t want to lay-off people unnecessarily, you don’t know how long this thing could last. There could be a vaccine in a month’s time, who knows, then we’re all okay. We might all get it and we might be okay, maybe it mutates, maybe it becomes worse, maybe it becomes better. No one does know. So you don’t necessarily want to get rid of those people, possibly they move onto other angles and then when you want them back it’s difficult. But you can’t pay them in the meantime because you are not having the passengers, what do you do.
CIARAN RYAN: What do you do for fun?
MICHAEL HINTON: I do business for fun, I have got a few different businesses with family and with friends, so I really enjoy that business aspect. I do read a lot, not as many novels as I would like to read. Then I have got an eight-year-old and a nine-year-old, soon to be ten, so they keep me busy.
CIARAN RYAN: Are you married?
MICHAEL HINTON: I am married, yes.
CIARAN RYAN: You didn’t mention your wife.
MICHAEL HINTON: My wife is a lawyer, so yes, they keep me busy. I do a bit of running, a bit of cycling and I am a poor golfer. I’d like to play more golf.
CIARAN RYAN: So you like to read, what books would you recommend?
MICHAEL HINTON: I’ve been reading some South African books recently, the last one that I finished was Vusi Thembekwayo’s book, The Magna Carta of Exponentiality, and also his biography called Vusi: Business & Life Lessons from a Black Dragon. I also read the book by Mteto Nyati called Betting on a Darkie, which was also biographical, talking about his journey, IMB, Microsoft, MTN and Altron, where he is at the moment. He’s a very inspirational guy, I went to one of his talks recently, he’s amazing. So I like to read real life South Africa stories in a business world.
CIARAN RYAN: Michael, thank you very much for coming to the studio and, please, stay in touch.
MICHAEL HINTON: I will do so, thank you very much.
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