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23: Hiten Keshave

CFO: PRP Solutions
Hiten Keshave, CFO of PRP Solutions, is a contender for the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants Top 35 Under 35, and with good reason. At just 32 years of age, he has a strong entrepreneurial background and argues that the modern CFO must operate as a co-pilot to the CEO.
14 July 2019

CIARAN RYAN: This is CFO talks and today we’re delighted to be joined by Hiten Keshave, the chief financial officer with PRP Solutions, a cloud-based people management software and what is interesting about this product is it’s entirely South African developed but is distributed throughout Africa and, of course, throughout South Africa, and it’s got to do with people management. Hiten is also a contender for the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants Top 35 Under 35 and at the age of 32-years-old is a chief financial officer at PRP Solutions. Welcome, Hiten.

HITEN KESHAVE: Thanks Ciaran.

CIARAN RYAN: Tell us a little bit about PRP Solutions, what is it, how did it come about and who developed it?

HITEN KESHAVE: PRP Solutions is an in-house developed product, locally owned and it started off eleven years ago with the Kelly Group, our chairman used to be CEO for Kelly.

CIARAN RYAN: And who is that?

HITEN KESHAVE: Grenville Wilson and he wanted a time and attendance solution. So PRP stands for people resource planning and the name evolved in 2012 when it was initially called K-log and we changed it to PRP. The reason being that we saw the gap in the market for a need for people planning, so that’s how the whole niche of ERP, enterprise resource planning systems, and we said PRP, people resource planning. So it’s unlocking organisational intelligence from a people management perspective, so we look to improve efficiencies and productivity within your business so that you better understand how to use your staff complement and, also, cost savings.  

CIARAN RYAN: Are there competitors to this in the market?

HITEN KESHAVE: There are perceived competitors from a time and attendance perspective but none of them provide the niche and the full package that we provide from an explosion of time and attendance. 

CIARAN RYAN: So just explain to me how I would, as a client of yours, save money if I was using your product?

HITEN KESHAVE: PRP is a management enabling tool, so it’s based around understanding the staff complement that you have, how do I now improve on the efficiencies and the productivities of that staff complement and where is it that I’m going to be missing out on currently from a workforce perspective that I can improve on. A typical example I will give you is if you have a contractual requirement of providing ten labour staff at a site every day but you have a staff pool of 20 and those 20 individuals work at different sites, some of them may have worked excessive hours, others have worked under hours. So from a planning perspective PRP will tell you, using its intelligence, to say these are individuals who you can now utilise at this site, rather than having them utilised at another site. So it’s basically business intelligence around people.  

CIARAN RYAN: So this is a South African-developed product and it is fairly unique in terms of the extent of the intelligence that you can provide to a management team, is that right?

HITEN KESHAVE: Yes.

 

From driven entrepreneur to CFO 

CIARAN RYAN: Okay, now, let’s talk about you, you’re 32-years-old and you’re a chief financial officer at PRP Solutions, how did that happen?

HITEN KESHAVE: So post-articles my folks, grandparents, uncles, they’ve all been in business, so I refused to go the traditional route of working for someone. I thought let me be like them and throw myself in the deep end of the sea, so I started a few businesses of my own. 

CIARAN RYAN: Tell us about that.

HITEN KESHAVE: Those were two businesses called House of Consultants, which was financial consulting for smaller businesses and another business called Africa’s Energy World, which focused on renewable energy, when there was a big need at that time between 2013 and 2015 with the drive to go green with Eskom. I moved to Johannesburg in 2016, I met my wife, and I think based on my pure drive as an entrepreneur I was able to show the skills and competencies of a young individual as a CFO. So that’s how I got into it.

CIARAN RYAN: How does that tie in with your wife, you jumped from your wife to where you are now, does she own the company? 

HITEN KESHAVE: No, no, no, my wife supported me throughout my career and I moved to Johannesburg because she and I are both CA’s and for her to move back to East London, where I am originally from, didn’t really make sense from a career perspective. So I said let me make the career move to Johannesburg.

CIARAN RYAN: How is Joburg treating you?

HITEN KESHAVE: I’m used to it now, I’ve been here for four years. 

CIARAN RYAN: What about your journey as a CA, you said you come from a family who have been involved in business before but you chose a different route, you demonstrated some entrepreneurial skills, no doubt, you decided that you’re going to be a professional accountant and a chief financial officer, what was the motivation behind that?

HITEN KESHAVE: Just by chance. Initially my thoughts were to be a medical doctor and I didn’t get the initial acceptance until I was in first week of orientation in university and when the acceptance letter came for medical school, I told my parents I am quite happy here at Rhodes University.

CIARAN RYAN: Oh goodness, so you were accepted to be a doctor or a medical student and then you decided no, I’m going to be an accountant. 

HITEN KESHAVE: Yes. That’s how it evolved and I’ve utilised the knowledge that I gained from a technical perspective to help me to become more commercially acute, so I wouldn’t say I’m your traditional accountant. 

CIARAN RYAN: So it was really your desire to be closer to the heartbeat of business, is that right, rather than being the heartbeat of a human being.

HITEN KESHAVE: Yes. 

 

Today’s CFO needs to show business acumen and versatility 

 

CIARAN RYAN: Let’s talk about the role of the chief financial officer, you’re fairly young, so how do you view the role of the chief financial officer, your understanding of it, are you more involved in people issues or is it regulatory issues or is it figures, what is it? 

HITEN KESHAVE: The modern CFO is more around the business and being the co-pilot to your CEO. You’ve got to be a value creator in your business, so the days of numbers only are long gone. The introduction of artificial intelligence, technology, allows information to be readily available in your hands. So the days of sitting behind your laptop and going through Excel sheets that’s no more. Today a CFO has to be able to show business acumen and work with those who are non-financially acute to help them understand from a financial perspective these are the decisions we are required to make and these are the reasons why we make them, not just that you can’t make this decision, you’ve got to be astute with how you deal with individuals. So people’s soft skills, EQ, is very important in this day, especially going forward, I’m a big believer of it as well.

CIARAN RYAN: How much of your time is spent with people, just people issues?

HITEN KESHAVE: I wouldn’t say people issues but I enjoy my time with my people themselves in terms of making sure that they are mentored and that they grow in their career. I always view people as those who are going to deliver what I need to deliver to the top.

CIARAN RYAN: I imagine that you’ve got people underneath you who are older than you, does that create any tension?

HITEN KESHAVE: No, there’s a principle I call CART, it stands for commitment, appreciation, respect and trust, if you can build those four values around everyone then you are set to go forward, if you lose one of them then you start crippling.

CIARAN RYAN: How much of your time is spent looking at liquidity issues? In other words, the company has enough to make the payroll at the end of the month and then we can survive this month, yay. 

HITEN KESHAVE: It’s very important, part of your role as a CFO is to ensure liquidity in the business and that the business is sustainable and cash flow is a big aspect of it, that’s one of the key responsibilities. So, for me, it’s a prime driver and I make sure that the business is financially stable with the decision-making that happens. Financially stables involves a lot of stakeholders in the business and that’s why I mentioned earlier that the business acumen of a CFO is very much needed.

 

PRP’s software mitigates labour relations risks

 

CIARAN RYAN: Labour is a very regulated sector, you’ve got the Labour Relations Act, you’ve got the conditions of employment, you’ve got all of these different regulations that you have to abide by, does that feature at all as a complexity in your business?

HITEN KESHAVE: It doesn’t because that’s where our skills lie. Our product is based around people, so our management consultants and strategic account managers are skillsets to be able to consult to a client when they implement PRP Solutions and these are the labour regulations around your business and this is how PRP can help you from a business aspect in terms of improving your business processes. 

CIARAN RYAN: What happens when an employee ends up in a dispute with a company and takes it to the CCMA or the labour court, does your software cater for that?

HITEN KESHAVE: The data from our software does cater for that type of information. So a typical example is that organisations want to understand legal aspects around the management of their business, for example, a forklift driver is meant to have a medical clearance or is supposed to have a breathalyser test, so when they come in for work, one of your business rules is to conduct a medical test. So if that test is not conducted you get a real-time exception report to say the forklift driver at site A has come on site but he hasn’t done the medical test, you have a risk here. So that’s how we then mitigate that risk for the business itself. So from a CCMA issue, in that instance say a driver has got a medical clearance certificate that’s expired, you’ve given notification to the driver, you know you need to get your updated medical clearance certificate and the driver comes to work on site and he doesn’t have that medical clearance certificate there’s proof and evidence from PRP’s aspect to support the organisation.

CIARAN RYAN: So from a company point of view they would have a pretty good documentary trail of their engagement with the employee and if it ever did arise that there was a dispute that would certainly assist them in court. The trade unions are also trying to build a fairly good documentary trail themselves because this is a lot of what they deal with, they’re having to defend their own members in this adversarial-type relationship or can end up in an adversarial relationship. 

HITEN KESHAVE: Yes, definitely, that’s why we are there to make sure that we bring value to our customers and our clients, that’s the whole key differentiator around PRP itself, it’s about creating value for our clients.

CIARAN RYAN: What do you think the future of the chief financial officer is going to be in the future, if we look ten years from now when you’re 42-years-old and you’re doing what you are doing, what’s your role going to be?

HITEN KESHAVE: It’s already changing right now, the role is very much focused now on the value creation, numbers that are there are now going to be delivered by automation immediately. It’s more around having that commercial sense and soft skills elements to help businesses create value internally and externally. So the CFO’s role is not longer going to be internally focused but it will also be externally focused with different stakeholders, so your clients, suppliers, shareholders, CSR aspects of it, I think the CFO’s role is going to be a lot more broader.

 

CFO’s need strategic operational focus, not just financial skills

 

CIARAN RYAN: So you see it more strategic and you’ve already said that he’s kind of a co-pilot to the chief executive officer and the perception of the chief financial officer is that they typically operate in the shadows of the chief executive officer. You see them going out into the sunlight a little bit more. 

HITEN KESHAVE: Definitely, it’s going to be required and, as you can see, the academic transcripts of SAICA and CIMA, they’re all changing, they’re driving a lot more need for strategic operational focus, together with leadership focus and not only the financial skills focus now. 

CIARAN RYAN: I see that you’ve got an MBA, where did you get that?

HITEN KESHAVE: Rhodes University. 

CIARAN RYAN: Rhodes University, my goodness, okay, why did you do the MBA?

HITEN KESHAVE: I looked at it more from a softer skills element and to gain some knowledge and background, how is it that one can learn from an academic perspective, what has happened in the past, proven and done. A typical example that came through from the learnings was Jack Welch, his leadership skills when he was the chairman of General Electric and he said you promote 80% of your top ten and you demote the bottom 20%. So that’s cycle and churn, not to say that that’s what I apply but those are the types of things that put a lightbulb in your eyes to say does this really work in life or is there a different approach to this. So that was my main reasoning behind it.

CIARAN RYAN: In your current role what are your key performance indicators, what are you measuring yourself on?

HITEN KESHAVE: Definitely the financial sustainability of the business.

CIARAN RYAN: How do you define that?

HITEN KESHAVE: Well, cash flow liquidity, needing to make sure that our business is liquid and on sufficient cash surplus to allow for growth in the future because if there’s no liquidity on that basis, being a technology company, development and R&D is very much a key focus in our staying ahead of the curve. So that’s where my role comes in to make sure that we allow for that so that our return on investment is sufficient for the future going forward.

CIARAN RYAN: How many R&D people do you employ in the company?

HITEN KESHAVE: We have a development team and that has about 12 individuals…

CIARAN RYAN: That’s quite substantial. 

HITEN KESHAVE: In that development team we have a mixed bunch of individuals who focus on R&D and focus on support and maintenance and then who focus on development of new features.

CIARAN RYAN: What new features are coming?

HITEN KESHAVE: Right now we’re busy releasing our productivity-based rostering, so moving away from the time and attendance modules and now going more into productivity-based rostering. So that helps you measure input versus output.

CIARAN RYAN: Can you give me a practical example of that?

HITEN KESHAVE: A typical example is in the hospitality industry there are needs around catering an event, so if you have 100 people who you are going to cater for, our system has the intelligence to say you need five waiters, three barmen, one manager, so that’s the intelligence around it. 

CIARAN RYAN: You mentioned Jack Welch, have you got any particular books or icons or models that have guided you in your career path?

HITEN KESHAVE: I haven’t got any particular book, per se, but icon-wise it’s Tiger Woods, he’s very much a big icon in my life.

CIARAN RYAN: He was beaten up for about 15 years, he’s come back again. 

HITEN KESHAVE: Yes and when you relate yourself to Tiger Woods, the first thing generally people think about is his personal scandal in 2009. Everyone goes through their ups and downs, it’s what you do with yourself afterwards that then makes who you are.

CIARAN RYAN: It’s quite an amazing comeback that he’s had. I, like a lot of people, really thought he was finished, and he won the Masters again. 

HITEN KESHAVE: Exactly, it’s basically ups and downs in life, it’s what you want to do and how you want to come back in life.

 

Adapting to change, keeping the CA curriculum relevant 

 

CIARAN RYAN: Do you think the curriculum for the chartered accountancy profession is relevant to today’s business world?

HITEN KESHAVE: Currently no but I do see SAICA busy with their turnaround strategy on it, they’ve got a programme called CA2025, where there will be a lot more introduction of IT and soft skills element. So it’s going to have to stay more relevant if it’s going to remain competitive and eye-catching in the future.

CIARAN RYAN: What about the softer skills, we know that SAICA is very good on the technical skills, what about the softer skills like communication and leadership?

HITEN KESHAVE: From a learnings aspect I think that’s going to have to start from the roots and that’s from university, that’s where it’s all going to start. You’ll only gain practical experience once you start working but, like I said, the reason for the MBA was because when I studied in university we didn’t have any of those teachings and lessons around soft elements and getting an understanding of practical experience. 

CIARAN RYAN: We’re going to have to start wrapping it up, but I do want to ask you this question, what was the last book that you read?

CF Grow, it gives you a picture and an idea as to how you can become a more modern CFO and what it is that you, as an individual, can do to challenge the status quo.

CIARAN RYAN: So what did you learn from that?

HITEN KESHAVE: Well, basically your career is like a Ferrari, free, valuable and it’s how you want to drive it. So do you get someone else to drive your career or do you drive your career yourself. 

CIARAN RYAN: Okay, so let’s follow on from that, where do you see yourself ten years from now?

HITEN KESHAVE: My ambition and my goal right now is to work towards a CEO and MD level. 

CIARAN RYAN: Does your boss know this?

HITEN KESHAVE: Yes, he’s quite well aware of it.

CIARAN RYAN: And he’s happy with that?

HITEN KESHAVE: Yes.

CIARAN RYAN: I have another question for you, what do you do in your spare time?

HITEN KESHAVE: I play a lot of golf. 

CIARAN RYAN: Have you got a decent handicap?

HITEN KESHAVE: Fourteen. 

CIARAN RYAN: Not bad.

HITEN KESHAVE: I play golf, I play cricket and then I am married, so I spend a lot of time with my wife. 

CIARAN RYAN: Have you got children?

HITEN KESHAVE: Not yet.

CIARAN RYAN: Wow, okay, congratulations, Hiten, it’s been a pleasure talking to you and I wish you the very best of luck. You’ve got many years ahead of you to grow. Thanks so much for coming in. 

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