Chief Financial Officer – Masslift Africa
Dynamic CFO of Masslift Africa, Thembi Mazibuko remains an eternal optimist and emphasises the importance of creative strategies in these unprecedented times.
CIARAN RYAN: This is CFO Talks and this morning I am joined by Thembi Mazibuko, who is the chief financial officer at Masslift Africa. Masslift Africa is involved in the sale and distribution of forklift trucks and I have got to say that one of the greatest jobs I had as a student was driving a forklift truck in a factory. But I understand that these days you’ve got to have a license for that, and I can guarantee that I didn’t have a license when I was driving a forklift truck. So Thembi I don’t know what you think about that but first of all, welcome, how are you?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: Thank you, Ciaran, thanks for having me, I am good thanks.
CIARAN RYAN: Talk to us about the forklift business at the moment and Masslift in particular, what are the conditions like in the business?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: In terms of the forklift industry currently we are struggling due to the slowdown in the economy and the lack of capex available for most companies in 2020. So what happened when the pandemic landed on our shores was that most companies became more inward focused, so any expansion plans were put on hold, and the moment any company puts expansion plans on hold, capex is put on hold and we rely on that capex in order for us to do business. Many of our positions or restructuring, we’ve been lucky from our side that although the business is down, we are still able to operate and we have weathered the first Covid storm, as it were, and we look to continue growing our business.
CIARAN RYAN: So what are the key drivers of your business, is it correlated to the general business cycle, is it correlated to trade, what are those drivers?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: The main drivers of our business are working capital, that’s the most important because ultimately it determines how much cash we have in the bank. We need to have control over how much stock we hold, the payment terms that we have with our biggest supplier, which is our principal, Mitsubishi, and how quickly we can collect cash for services rendered and goods sold. The other driver is people, so we need our salesmen to sell our forklift trucks, we need our parts department to sell parts, and we also sell labour, so we have got field technicians who are on the road and who maintain and service our forklifts. So labour recovery is very important in terms of driving the business. We have got a short-term rental fleet and the utilisation on that needs to be high so that we can get a consistent return over the life of the forklift, and the higher the utilisation, the higher the return we generate. We need to keep our maintenance costs down because if we keep our maintenance costs down we ensure that the annuity return that we get on our maintenance contract remains high, and the culture of service excellence, we live and breathe service excellence. So those are the main drivers of our business. I think there is some relation to the general business cycle, generally if our customers are in the expansion phase, our capex is booming in terms of them buying, it increases the sale of our forklifts. When they are in the contraction phase and they are going through a trough, we tend to see an increase in our used stock, as opposed to new stock because it is much cheaper. But I think even between all those phases our short-term rental fleet is basically the option for any company that has put a freeze on capex or their capex levels are not at the level required in order for them to make new purchases and then they will rent the forklifts from us.
Increased demand for forklift rentals in lockdown
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, so working capital, that makes sense, as companies are stocking up more, they have more demand for forklift trucks, but we are hearing a lot about companies putting a freeze on capex. So you have this option now of rental fleets, are you seeing an increase in demand for rentals?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: I think that there has been a definite increase in terms of rentals, especially during the lockdown period, where there was a capex freeze, but most companies still needed to trade, especially in the essential services space. So our short-term rental fleet utilisation has been quite high and I think it’s mainly because of that. So we offer literally anything from an hour to 84 months, so you could literally use the forklift as and when you need it at a fraction of the cost and it is also maintained by us. So I think it helps to keep the cost down for most companies that are currently just trying to start up after the national lockdown.
CIARAN RYAN: I was just listening to a presentation by Transnet, they’re not particularly optimistic about 2021, we’re already expecting an 8% to 10% contraction in the South African economy and the regional economy this year. It will, of course, rebound next year but this is going to, no doubt, have an impact on all businesses. You are obviously doing projections, what are you looking to in 2021, do you see a recovery then, are you going to be able to get through this storm and come out okay next year?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: I think we are cautiously optimistic as a business, but I do think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Even in our forecast and projections we have made room for that. I think when we went into 2020 there was a lot of positivity, there was a lot of positive outlook in terms of where the country was going and the economy was going but I think subsequent to that there have been a lot of challenges. We have got electricity supply challenges, we’ve got increasing levels of unemployment, the informal sector is struggling through this pandemic, government structural reforms, there are lags in terms of that and I think we are yet to fully feel the impact of Covid-19 on the economy. But I think within the chaos there is also an opportunity and I think when it’s bad, people generally get creative about finding solutions to try and come out of it. I think there are still going to be a lot of challenges ahead but I think towards the latter part of 2021, there should be an improvement, at least that’s what we hope, and I think it’s going to be the agile, the adaptive and the innovative business that will be able to weather this difficult period. But I also think that it’s not something that is impossible. I think South Africa has proven how resilient we are, and I believe in the power of the human spirit, call me an eternal optimist.
CIARAN RYAN: Let’s drill down a bit into that, you are saying that the companies that are creative are going to survive this better, so how are you doing things differently now? You have mentioned the rental business, I presume that was something that was available anyway, but how have you changed things as a result of Covid in the way that you operate?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: I think that Covid has forced us to progress faster in terms of digitisation, there’s a lot of working from home currently, so we literally have all of our admin staff working from home and we have had to get creative about employee engagement, for instance, how do we engage with our employees effectively over Microsoft Teams, which is not a personal interaction, as it were. How do we combat digital fatigue and the like. I think in terms of our employees we have had to get creative about engaging with them, about keeping them up to date and I think in terms of the business we are looking at financing options that would be appealing in terms of our customers. So looking at how we can finance their forklifts in an affordable way in partnership with our financial services provider, so that they are still able to get the equipment that they need in order for them to generate income from their side but for us to also be able to stay in business. There is a lot of marketing that we’re doing, generally in an economy contraction, people tend to pull the budget on marketing, we’ve increased our budget on marketing. I think it’s important for people to know that we are there, we are trading, and we are there to basically come up with creative ways to help them in order for them to trade. Our short-term rental fleet has been a big, big focus for us, as well as our used stock because we understand with capex having been frozen, it’s either frozen or it’s reduced, and we still have used stock that they could buy, which is at a fraction of the cost but it’s a reliable product. That’s how we are getting creative in terms of making sure that we are sustainable but also that our customers can also be sustainable going forward.
Cost-effective marketing output
CIARAN RYAN: It’s interesting that you mention a lot of companies pulling back on their marketing budget and I agree with you 100%, I think this is a time when you actually need to increase your marketing budget. But I think a lot of companies are also doing it in quite clever and inventive ways, there are very cost-effective ways of doing marketing. Maybe you can just spell out how exactly you have gone about marketing or increasing your marketing output.
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: What we have done is a lot of social media campaigns. I think a lot of people are spending a lot of time on social media, particularly LinkedIn, the professional platform, as well as Facebook and Instagram, so we are doing quite targeted campaigns towards a certain industry, towards a certain type of customer and coming up on their timelines as sponsored materials. We also have our search engine optimisation, which is going very well with regard to customers just Googling certain search words on Google, for instance forklift, so if you Google forklift, forklift rental or forklift sales, Masslift Africa is one of the first sites that comes up in terms of where you can click. I think those have been working. I think we have done a lot of follower generation campaigns, where we are trying to grow the followers on our pages, so that more people are exposed to our material. I think the content is also important, so what we put on is always something that’s relevant, something that’s currently happening in the market or challenges that we know our customers are facing and we offer solutions thereof and say call us, we might have an option for your cashflow constraints with regard to capex, call us, let’s work on it. So that’s what we’ve done in that space.
CIARAN RYAN: As a CFO, I guess like all companies everywhere in the world, one of your key focuses at the moment is going to be on liquidity. You have to be able to make your payroll, you’ve got to be able to make your expenses. So you have already mentioned that you’ve increased your marketing budget but I guess you have also had to look at your expense line, so how have you been able to do that?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: I think we are fortunate in terms of our expenses being mostly variable, so when trading is down our expenses also contract, which helps in terms of trying to manage cost. I think initially at the beginning of lockdown there was a lot of interactions with our suppliers to say we are in this boat together, we have been a reliable customer in terms of what we’ve done, how can we work together to try and get through this difficult unknown period that we were going through. I think we have managed to package our agreements in a way that it works for us. So when it is a boom in terms of our business, our supplier also benefits but when there’s a contraction, the supplier also understands. So there was a lot of engagement with our suppliers at the beginning of lockdown in terms of how we can further enhance the working relationship that we have but also have some sort of agreements in place to make sure that when it is a bit difficult that we are able to both win from that kind of situation. So I think that has helped but in terms of our costs, they definitely are linked to trading, so when we are doing well then the costs would naturally be higher than when we’re not. So I think in terms of our business model that has helped us to navigate through this uncertain time.
CIARAN RYAN: Let’s talk about the accounting profession for a bit, you’re a chartered accountant, do you believe the CA qualification prepares you adequately for this rough and tumble world of business that we’re in at the moment? These are extraordinary times and I think everybody is having to learn, it’s not that you can get this kind of experience out of a textbook, you’re having to figure things out as we go. Do you think the qualifications and the training of accountants is adequate for the challenges that we are now facing?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: I think the qualification, for me personally, prepared me for the dynamic business environment in terms of being adaptable because I did my articles in audit and you constantly were moving from one customer to the next. I was in general audit, so you’d move from telecoms to a manufacturing company and it was completely different challenges, completely different processes that they were involved in. So I think the adaptability in terms of being able to think differently because you’re in a different environment with a different audit team, I think that helps, especially in unprecedented times because you’re not so stuck in your ways in terms of how to do something because you have learnt to be adaptable to different situations. I think doing my articles also gave me an appreciation for the challenges that businesses face because those challenges are different. But I think the main thing about business is mitigating risk in order for the company to be sustainable to continue as a going concern, and risk was drummed into us, even from university level, and I think it becomes an inherent part of who you are as a CA. So I think that helps in terms of navigating the unchartered waters because you are always thinking what could go wrong and try to come up with different strategies on how to mitigate that. But I do agree with the approach that SAICA has taken going forward regarding how board exams are structured, so that it doesn’t just become a regurgitation of information when we’re writing board exams but it’s also applying it to a real life scenario, which I guess is what we had to learn post-qualifying and going into the business world.
The pandemic has forced the role of the CFO to change
CIARAN RYAN: It’s a good point you make about risk, I think one of the things we’re all learning here is to be cautiously pessimistic about things. Do you see the role of the CFO is changing as a result of this pandemic, you’re having to focus a lot more on these risk issues that surely has thrown up some obstacles that were not there a few months ago?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: I think you are correct, Ciaran, the pandemic has actually forced the role of the CFO to change I think quite drastically. It was moving in that direction, albeit at a slower pace, but I think traditionally the role of the CFO had been mostly about a retrospective view of reporting on numbers, assessing what happened before and making decisions based on historical data trends and patterns. But now the business is different, the business has shifted completely, so you can’t rely on history to predict what’s going to happen in the future because none of us know. But I think it’s now moved to working from a zero base because past trends can’t predict what will happen and financial modelling and forecasting has become more dynamic, it’s actually moved the CFO into a fortune teller role, as it were, to use what we know and what we don’t know to predict how the company should respond to these known and unknown risks. I think the CFO is also increasingly becoming involved in the development and execution of strategy, it’s more than financial input now, and the inherent knowledge of risk provides the board with a prudent outlook on any proposed strategic objectives that the business wants to undertake. Now it becomes less about what did we do last year and how can we use that and grow, or what approach did we use last year because it’s now business unusual basically. So now what we have to do is look forward and I think as a CFO they call on you to say, what do you think, do you think we can do it like this, and you need to be that gatekeeper in terms of yes this makes sense or no, I don’t think so based on what the risk profile of that objective is.
CIARAN RYAN: Do you find that there’s a lot more reliance on you as a CFO, you’ve already mentioned dynamic forecasting, this is a term that’s coming up a lot more these days. Almost on a weekly basis you are having to revise your forecasts and people are looking to you, as you say, to be the fortune teller. It does place the CFO in a very, very important position, a very powerful position from a strategic point of view, is that not the case?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: That’s definitely the case, Ciaran. I think what’s happened now is our forecasts have changed, our cash forecast, which for me is the most important, changes on a weekly basis. We look at it on a 25-week forecast and literally based on what happened in week one could impact what happens in week 25. So we are constantly adjusting what that forecast looks like and it’s something that I look at on a weekly basis but it’s also something that I monitor on a daily basis because with these weird times that we’re in, you actually might forecast something and then something happens with that customer and then you can’t realise whatever it is that you’ve forecast. So it has become quite an integral role in terms of decision-making, especially with operations people literally just looking at operations and saying, okay, how many forklifts am I selling, how many forklifts are we servicing, and it’s important then to bring it back all the time and say, guys, what is the financial impact, have we considered how this decision will have an impact on something else. So it’s challenging times but it’s interesting times.
CIARAN RYAN: Just on that point, how are you spending your time or how are you allocating your time, are you still spending most of your time on compliance issues, is it managing people, is it strategy or is it a mix of all of these different things?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: I think at the beginning of lockdown a lot of time was spent on adapting the strategy to what was happening but we also needed to bed down compliance to ensure that our employees knew the framework within which to operate but currently I spend most of my time on strategy and this is evolving in a shorter period than before and the circumstances are changing quite rapidly. So I am constantly reviewing our position, scenario modelling has become a big thing and keeping an eye on the headlines to see what external factors can impact the internal decisions that we make on a daily basis.
‘The plan had always been to break into C-Suite’
CIARAN RYAN: Let’s talk about you for a minute, if that’s okay, tell us about yourself and your career path, where you grew up, are you from Johannesburg, where did you start?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: I’m from Pretoria originally, I was born there, although I spent most of my primary school life in different cities due to my dad’s mobility, so he kept moving jobs and he took us with. So I have lived in Limpopo, I’ve lived in Mpumalanga and eventually we came back to Pretoria. So interestingly I attended six primary schools during my basic education years, I was literally the new kid almost every year at a different school. I actually wanted to study performing arts, funnily enough, but my family wasn’t too keen on me becoming an actress [laughing]. So my parents sent me to some career assessment and aptitude tests, as to what would be best suited to me. Two options came out, chartered accountancy or actuarial science. I picked chartered accountancy and I went and studied at Wits University. I completed my articles at Deloitte when there was still an office in Pretoria because they have now merged into the office in Midrand. I then started as a management accountant at DHL Express in June 2012, six months into that role I acted as the finance manager when the FM resigned, and I was officially appointed FM four months later. So I was with DHL Express for three years and I had a lot of fun learning about the courier industry. But after that I was looking for a different challenge, so that came in the form of exposure to freight forwarding, so I joined Kapela Freight & Logistics, it was a subsidiary of Röhlig-Grindrod Logistics at the time, as the head of finance, I was there for a short time, six months, before I was headhunted for a senior finance manager role at Barloworld Logistics in their freight division. I think it was a huge learning curve in terms of the business model because I was moving from small packages to 20 and 40-foot containers, so it was a massive change. Two years later at Barloworld I was promoted to group financial controller of the supply chain management division, I was overlooking several business units and the consolidation of those numbers. In addition, I was tasked with starting a payment shared service centre for the division, which I also oversaw. So I have been exposed to all legs in the logistics value chain basically. The plan had always been to break into C-Suite and so when the opportunity presented itself, I grabbed it and I was appointed CFO at Masslift Africa from January 2019. So I think my experience in logistics set me up for success in this role. I think it closed the loop in terms of me now dealing with the manufacturer and being the end customer for a product. I am an avid reader, I’ve got a certificate in copy editing from UCT, so I edit fiction…
CIARAN RYAN: You do, okay.
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: I do I edit fiction and non-fiction manuscripts in my free time. There are actually four books that have been published that I have edited, you can find them in bookstores.
CIARAN RYAN: Give us the name of one.
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: One of them is Unspoken Truth by Pumza Shabangu, it’s a fictional novel. Two of the other poetry anthologies that I edited actually won awards at the African Authors Awards for this year in the poetry categories.
CIARAN RYAN: Is this your reentry into performing arts in a way, through maybe the side door?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: I think so, I think your passion eventually finds you and it has found me in this way, so yes you could say that.
CIARAN RYAN: Wow and do you have a love of writing yourself?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: I do, I blog, and I write fictional stories on my WordPress blog, which I have enjoyed and there are plans in the future to write a novel. There just isn’t time [laughing].
CIARAN RYAN: So tell us what is the name of your WordPress blog?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: It’s Lerato Lee, there are a number of different stories that I write in my spare time, which I haven’t had much of.
CIARAN RYAN: We’ll definitely have to check that out. What an interesting story. Okay, so you were moving all over the place, born in Pretoria, you went to Mpumalanga, Limpopo, back to Pretoria, you wanted to do performing arts and then your parents took you to a career counsellor and they did an aptitude test with you, and it was a choice between becoming an actuary and an accountant. By the way, you know that joke about what’s the definition of an actuary?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: No.
CIARAN RYAN: It’s somebody who wanted to be an accountant but couldn’t stand the excitement.
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: [Laughing]
CIARAN RYAN: So you definitely took the more exciting path.
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: Thank the Lord for that.
Is the accounting profession in trouble?
CIARAN RYAN: Just getting back to Masslift and the role of the accounting profession, just talk for a minute about the state of the accounting profession, there are a lot of scandals that you have been reading about, no doubt. Is the accounting profession in trouble and if it is, how do we fix it?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: I think that’s been the question on everybody’s lips, based on what’s happened. I think the accounting profession is not in trouble, I do think that in any profession you will find people who will adhere to keeping the profession in the right reputation but there’s also a handful of people who won’t do what is required and who will go against the ethics of that particular profession and put the profession into disrepute. I think there’s been a big focus in terms of SAICA in terms of our ethical obligations as a chartered accountant, there’s also been a huge focus in terms of compliance, I think they put through compliance in terms of laws and regulation, which wasn’t there before. So now when we declare on an annual basis, you’ll declare that you have done your professional development compliance in terms of keeping yourself abreast with what’s happening and being a relevant CA. But in addition to that, that you haven’t come across any instances of non-compliance with laws and regulation, which wasn’t there before. I think that is intended to increase the awareness in terms of compliance because if you’re not in audit, for instance, and you’re in the private space like I am, there could still be non-compliance of laws and regulation that you come across in your normal day-to-day or having heard, and you then now have a responsibility to report it. I think there’s also a huge focus in terms of ethics, in terms of driving that message forward, I think SAICA has taken a more active role in terms of holding their members accountable. They are quite transparent in terms of disciplinary hearings that they are conducting on members who haven’t adhered to the code of conduct and I think that’s also meant to deter any people who might be thinking of doing unlawful things and things that bring the profession into disrepute. So I think there is movement in terms of moving in the right direction but it’s also more a personal thing, so I think as a person you need to have certain values, live certain values and if you come into this profession it’s something that I think people now understand that you need to have a certain type of value system for you to operate in and be successful in it.
CIARAN RYAN: It’s very encouraging to hear you say that about the accounting profession, I like that. I agree that the training these days is much more focused on ethics and, of course, it’s a tough one because ethics comes down to your own personal boundaries, it’s not something that you can describe in terms of rules and regulations too much, it’s something built in you, is it not?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: Yes.
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, final question here, Thembi, it’s been great talking to you but it’s a question I ask everybody who comes on here, what books do you recommend?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: I’m mostly an African fiction reader, I read a lot of books, I was part of a book club but I think the books that have served me in good stead in terms of the professional space have been Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter by Greg McKeown and Liz Wiseman, so it speaks about multiplying yourself to your team, so that your team is able to carry out whatever strategic objectives the business has, even when you are not there. It goes into detail about the different types of people you might have in the team and how to bring that out of them. So I found that quite useful in terms of leadership. The other book is Legacide: Why Legacy Thinking Is the Silent Killer of Innovation by Richard Mulholland, and that basically speaks about challenging traditional business practices and business thinking and thinking outside the box in terms of positioning your company, your business, in an innovative way so that you are able to be sustainable. The other one is The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business by Josh Kaufman, I think sometimes as CAs we qualify and then we want to do an MBA, there are a lot of us in the market with a second qualification. I think for me, I didn’t want to go back to school, so I bought a book [laughing]…
CIARAN RYAN: [Laughing]
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: And I think it’s a good summary of what the MBA degree would give you. So those would be the books that I would recommend.
CIARAN RYAN: The Personal MBA, you found that useful?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: I found that very useful, I think it deals with all the different types of modules that you’d have in an MBA programme but it’s summarised, it’s to the point. It is a big book, it’s about 400 pages but I think it gives a good understanding of the overall MBA programme and of business because I think the CA qualification is quite technical in terms of financial technical competencies but what this does is it goes into marketing, it goes into human resources, it goes into busines operations, which I think gives a more well rounded view of what happens in business.
CIARAN RYAN: Last question, are you getting through a lot of reading during the lockdown?
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: I am and I think the weird thing that I have discovered is prior to the lockdown I used to read a lot of hard copies but now it’s actually difficult for me to sit with a hard copy and read. So I read quite a lot on the Amazon Kindle App but I have gotten through some books, yes, but not as quickly as I used to read before.
CIARAN RYAN: Thembi, let’s leave it at that, it was great to have you on, thanks for sharing those insights and giving us a little bit of a look inside Masslift, a very interesting business. I always loved forklift trucks and, as I said, one of the greatest jobs I ever had was driving a forklift truck and I got pretty good at it. I think I’m going to have to come around to your office one day and you’re going to have to let me drive one of those things [laughing]. I’m kidding, of course.
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: With a license, yes.
CIARAN RYAN: Let’s check in with you again in a short while, just to see as the year goes by how things are happening, if that’s okay. I think it would be very instructive to just see what your progress is through the end of this year and into next year, if that’s okay, we’ll check back in with you.
THEMBI MAZIBUKO: No problem, Ciaran, thanks for having me, it was great chatting to you.
CIARAN RYAN: It was great to have you. That was Thembi Mazibuko, who is the chief financial officer at Masslift Africa.