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56: Avashnee Ramdial

Chief Financial Officer - Stanlib  
A bold decision to graduate as the first CA in her family has led Avashnee Ramdial on a journey to become the CFO of one of the largest asset managers in the country.
7 August 2020

CFO(SA) designation

Here I want to give a quick shout-out for the Certified Financial Officer CFO (SA) designation from SA Institute of Business Accountants (Saiba).

This really is the Formula 1 of accounting designations and is available only from the SA Institute of Business Accountants. The CFO designation is internationally recognised and validates the years of toil and ingenuity it takes to reach to the top of your field. You’ll be part of an exclusive and powerful network of CFOs and finance executives.

As a CFO (SA) you get to share in a wide range of benefits. You gain status as an international finance executive and achieve your listing in the official CFO Directory. You will receive exclusive invitations to the CFO Talks events and get a chance to connect with knowledgeable thought leaders within the CFO community.

For more information go to: https://saiba.org.za/designations/

 

CIARAN RYAN: Today I am talking to Avashnee Ramdial, who is the chief financial officer at Stanlib. Avashnee joined Stanlib in October 2018 as chief financial officer with overall responsibility for Stanlib’s financial function. She was previously at Absa as chief financial officer for wealth and investment management. She completed her articles at Deloitte, spending more than ten years with the firm, where she gained local and international experience and facilitated technical and leadership training programmes. Avashnee has also worked at Standard Bank in a number of roles, including credit, models, validation, governance and personal and business banking for the rest of Africa. First of all, welcome, Avashnee, how are you?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Thank you Ciaran, I am good, thank you.

CIARAN RYAN: Great, you are also, of course, a chartered accountant and you completed your BCom accounting at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, so you’ve got a lot of experience with banking and financial services. What motivated you to go to Stanlib, was this an upward move in your career, obviously it was.

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: I think the opportunity that presented itself was really…Stanlib is on a turnaround strategy, which they got into about 3 years ago, so getting into Stanlib was a great opportunity to go into something that was very different and Stanlib is one of the largest asset managers in the country, which is also very interesting. So it really gives you a totally different perspective on asset management, which was growing on my previous role from Absa, where I was doing wealth and asset management but obviously on a much smaller scale compared to Stanlib.

CIARAN RYAN: The wealth and investment space is quite an interesting space to be at the moment, particularly as a chief financial officer, what are the business conditions like at the moment?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: If you look at early March, I think it was a lot more volatile but from a markets perspective we are finding that things are settling, so the market performance has definitely improved. However, you are finding investors being very cautious in terms of going into riskier portfolios, so the appetite is very suppressed at the moment, and you can understand why, the economy is not great at the moment. There are a lot of people without jobs and cash is really king at this point. So we are finding from a Stanlib perspective that we have got a great money market and fixed income proposition and we are finding that the demand for those products has really increased during this time.

 

Stanlib’s business model

 

CIARAN RYAN: That’s interesting and for those who don’t know, can you briefly describe what is the business model at Stanlib and what are the chief sources of revenue.

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Yes, Stanlib is an asset manager and to put that into simple terms, it is investing people’s money, so people come to us with their savings and funds that they want invested. Stanlib’s objective is really to ensure that we are growing the assets for people and ensuring that they get the best return for the money that they have invested with us.

CIARAN RYAN: You say that the conditions were a little bit rough in March but they have started to improve, I would imagine that a lot of people who may have suffered a cut in income or perhaps some people who have lost their jobs that there would have been a drop off maybe in some clients, has that been the case?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: As I said, our portfolios, we’ve got a very good fixed income and money market proposition and we are finding that people who do have the excess cash are going into those portfolios. So we actually haven’t seen a significant drop off compared to the other asset managers in the industry, we’ve actually seen inflows, where people are moving out of riskier portfolios and going into secure and more stable portfolios, which is fixed income and money market. So we’ve actually seen proper growth in our portfolios.

CIARAN RYAN: Have you started up pretty much as normal, where you were previously operating from home, I guess you were during lockdown and now are you back operating in the office environment?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: No, we are fully at home, everyone at Stanlib is remote. I think we had great leadership from our CEO, Derrick Msibi, and we actually went on lockdown one week before the country went on lockdown, just to ensure that people were safe and we didn’t have as many people in the building. That phased approach…and then we went onto the full technology drive ensuring that everyone had remote access, laptops, 3G cards, we’ve given people data to ensure that there’s no issues. We’ve done exceptionally well through this. From a leadership perspective we’ve had a lot of guidance in terms of people speaking to us about how we manage in terms of the remote working. So I think we have done very well considering the circumstances and we are very reluctant to send people back into the office because of the risk that it does pose. So we want to say that once the pandemic really starts to get to a point where the numbers are reducing that’s the only time we’ll actually get back into the office.

CIARAN RYAN: Right, you’re based out of Melrose Arch, is that where your head office is?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Yes.

CIARAN RYAN: So is it a bit of an empty mortuary at the moment, nobody there?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Yes, no one there. We’ve given permits to people where there are problems at home where they can’t work from home, where electricity is an issue and so on. So there are people who can go into the office if necessary but really speaking that’s only on the exception rather than the rule.

 

Unique aspects of managing finance in wealth management

 

CIARAN RYAN: You spent most of your career in financial services, can you spell out some of the unique aspects of managing finances in a financial firm or a wealth management firm as opposed to, say, a manufacturing plant, how do they differ?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: I think the big thing is that the stakeholders from financial services, being the public really, puts a great amount of responsibility on the regulatory requirements. So from the South African Reserve Bank, the FSCA and so on, they have to ensure that the bank is able - because they are protecting people’s money – they are capable and they are well capitalised and operating effectively to manage the money of all the people in the country. So there’s a lot more in terms of regulatory requirements that we’ve got to comply with. We have to ensure at all times that the financial soundness of the business is there, so for manufacturing, from a stakeholder perspective I don’t think it’s that onerous from that perspective in terms of the regulatory requirements, especially since the financial crisis in 2008 there have been a lot more stringent requirements from a financial services perspective.

CIARAN RYAN: Just to get a sense, what’s the size of the assets under management at Stanlib?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: We are almost R600 billion in assets under management.

CIARAN RYAN: That’s pretty huge.

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: It’s huge, I think we have just taken over Coronation as the second biggest after Allan Gray now in terms of the market.

CIARAN RYAN: So you would be number two after Allan Gray?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Yes.

CIARAN RYAN: And the number of people who are involved in the business, can you give us a sense of that?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: We have around 600 people, that’s excluding some of the contractors, so we are around 600 to 700 people including contractors.

CIARAN RYAN: Wow, okay, from your position, people or figures, what takes up most of your time and by that I mean are you more involved in people management or is it the compliance issues?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: I think as you grow into your position the people management does take up most of the time, so I think it’s almost a 70/30 spilt in terms of really ensuring that your team is motivated, that they’re getting the right level of development. So I believe really in growing people, in keeping people motivated and ensuring that everyone feels like they are contributing something. I think that’s very important. In terms of my role it’s the wider influence as well, we are a subsidiary of Liberty Holdings Limited and also in terms of Standard Bank ultimately. So there’s a lot of stakeholder engagement and people who you have got to engage with and ensure that everyone is happy. So the people element is massive in terms of my role.

CIARAN RYAN: Give us a sense of your team, how many people are working with you?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: I look after both the finance and the procurement area, so it’s around 28 people.

CIARAN RYAN: That’s a lot of people to look after.

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Yes.

CIARAN RYAN: You mentioned training, so there’s a lot of people development going on in the finance department, what kind of training would that involve?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: The technical training we take as given, so there are obviously the changes in accounting standards, which people would then have to go onto. But definitely more I think the softer side, so for me it’s about how you build a finance team who are really business partners to the business areas and not just producing numbers, that’s quite key for me. That’s where the softer side comes in, communication is quite important, collaboration across teams and ensuring that we get the best outcome. So how the team actually works together, and I have invested a lot of time in bringing in external partners to help us in terms of how we get those synergies across the finance area.

 

The changing role of the CFO

 

CIARAN RYAN: If you look at the role of chief financial officer, and you have occupied this role in different financial institutions, have you noticed a change in the expectation of the CFO over the years, how is that role changing?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: I think it’s changing fundamentally, so I think the CFO has gone from just the person who produces the numbers to being a lot more involved in the business, looking for how we can influence the strategy of the business and how we can influence the numbers of the business. So it’s really to say from a competitor landscape and the amount of data that’s out there right now, it’s how you get to do things more efficiently and really be a proper business partner to the CEO and to the rest of the business heads. I think that’s becoming far more key right now, compared to just spending almost 80% of your time doing numbers, I think it’s a lot more around 30% on the numbers and then more of the analysis and really changing the strategic direction of the business.

CIARAN RYAN: So involved in the strategy of the business and, therefore, I think the whole wealth management industry has gone through a fairly fundamental change, can you just talk about that for a minute, what kind of changes are happening there?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: It’s a changing space and if you look at it, it’s quite a difficult space to be in. If you look across all the banks and so on there are a lot of people who are getting into asset management and wealth management. It’s a demanding space because the customer is actually more difficult to please. It’s also now looking at whether you stay within the country or also the offshore element. So how you grow your offshore portfolios because there’s a lot of demand, a lot of people are emigrating and so on, and from that point of view you are seeing that people do want to diversify portfolios. So you’ve got to have an option for clients to actually also have an offshore element. I think from a Stanlib perspective we do have offshore portfolios, we have got an operation in Jersey, so it does help us to provide a diversified portfolio to clients because people do want more now, they are a lot more engaged in terms of what’s happening in the markets, they’re a lot more engaged with what’s happening in the world and they want to make sure that they are linked across the globe, not just from a South Africa portfolio perspective.

CIARAN RYAN: It’s quite interesting that you mentioned people emigrating, I would imagine South Africans have a very limited universe in terms of investment opportunities here, so of course you want to be exposed to the international markets. But is that something that you’re seeing, people wanting to emigrate, I would imagine that during Covid that’s really off the table but I guess you are talking about trends that would have been a bit longer term than that, running over the last few years.

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Yes, with the challenges that the country has been facing pre-Covid but people still want to diversify portfolios, so you just don’t want to be in a South African…it doesn’t mean…the one component is when you actually move overseas, the other component is where you have your investments and you’re also not just investing in South African portfolios but you’re going into global portfolios, so you have an offshore element in terms of currency and so on.

CIARAN RYAN: In terms of investment trends, what can you tell us about that, is there a move into less risky type of investments?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Definitely, especially now with Covid we have seen across the market how people are a lot more conservative in terms of risk, and the markets are very volatile. So while we have seen a recovery, the US elections or something that happens overseas can spark the market at any point because the South Africa market is very prone to what is happening around the world, it’s not just from a South African perspective. It’s not a new phenomenon, even over the past two years people are going a lot more in terms of stable, fixed income or money market portfolios compared to going into equities. That’s definitely been a trend.

CIARAN RYAN: Just staying with that trend about emigration, are these people who are going overseas for career advancement and planning to come back or are they people who are leaving for good, what’s your take on that?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Personally, I think the trend in the past few months now is completely different but if you look at pre-Covid I think people have lost a bit of confidence in the country. I think the people who are leaving would only come back if there’s something quite significant that changes in the country and there’s a lot more stability in the country. So I would say it’s a permanent move for now. There are a lot of friends and family who I know of who have emigrated and there’s no talk of them returning any time soon.

CIARAN RYAN: What are the favourite countries?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: People have gone to Australia, interestingly enough, I have a few friends who have decided to go to Australia. I think Australia because it’s from the perspective of similarity in terms of the climate, culture and so on. They are settling in quite well, so I think from that perspective they are enjoying Australia and there don’t seem to be any regrets at this point from moving from South Africa.

 

CAs are always in demand globally

 

CIARAN RYAN: Just from the point of view of finance professionals and finance executives, if one looks at the recruitment market there was a lot of mobility over the last number of years, people upskilling, people specialising and that kind of thing, do you get the sense that people will become a little bit more glued to their jobs, they’re probably quite grateful that they do have jobs at the moment or do you just see this as a temporary blip and those kinds of mobility trends will return at some point?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: I think the finance professional, especially the CA brand is so much in demand globally, you really have the world as your oyster if you are a CA. So from that perspective I think people right now are quite conservative, it’s very difficult to travel or to even think of that at this point. But definitely going into the future and especially the younger generation, so you find those who have just qualified, the outside world just seems very demanding, most of the newly qualified CAs do want to go and do an overseas stint on a permanent basis or temporary basis, they wait and see but they do want to see what’s out there in the world, compared to a few years ago when the newly qualified CAs wanted to stay in the country. If you want to recruit newly qualifieds now, which I found earlier this year and even last year, there’s a lot of demand to go overseas.

CIARAN RYAN: That, of course, also enhances your own CV, so of course people want to work abroad and get that experience.

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Agreed.

CIARAN RYAN: What kind of legacy do you hope to leave as a chief financial officer at Stanlib, I’m not suggesting that you are only there for a short stint, I am sure you are there on some kind of a programme to build this organisation into something.

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Yes, I think really for me it’s to get Stanlib to where it was a few years ago and I think we are really on that path to recovery and we’re doing very well at the moment in terms of not only the investment performance but also in terms of the financial results. So I think it’s how we sustain that. When I joined it was a very broken finance function, which didn’t have much credibility in the business. But for me it’s really leaving a legacy in terms of having a finance function, which you can not only rely on to produce credible and accurate numbers but also to drive the business growth and to give insights to management to things that they cannot see. So I believe a truly great financial professional is someone who looks at the numbers and is able to tell a story around the numbers and tell you what you don’t know about the numbers. So that’s critical but it’s really to have trusted business advisors, that’s how I would like to see the finance function.

CIARAN RYAN: I imagine that it’s the speed of gathering that information and then putting it into a format that you can then offer some intelligent advice, right?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Agreed, it’s the efficiency, so it’s really saying we’re not spending ten to 12 days putting the numbers together and analysing the numbers, but how do you put the numbers together quicker, so that you spend more time analysing the numbers and sitting with the business, going through the numbers, understanding their numbers and going through their strategies and how do you influence their strategies. That’s more important, to be with the business, rather than just sitting there producing a number to the business.

CIARAN RYAN: Can you just talk about that a little bit further, the kind of intelligence that you’ve been able to glean from pulling all of this information together. You obviously cut and dice the data, this kind of big data concept, and you’d be able to pick up certain trends and you’d be able to point management and your peers in a certain direction, have you been able to do that to any extent and in what way?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: What’s very important for us, one of our challenges that we have at Stanlib is really our cost-to-income ratio. So we are outside benchmark in terms of what the analysts out there believe our cost-to-income ratio should be. So we’ve been doing a lot of work on saying what is our cost base, how does our cost base compare to our competitors and how do we get efficient around that. So just the basics, the low hanging fruits like travel, expenses and so on, but really looking at the efficiency of our back office operations and so on. That’s quite critical from an asset management perspective is that you are being the most efficient in doing what you need to do, as well as being the most reliable, so you can’t actually have anything that goes wrong because if something goes wrong then you are actually putting someone’s money at risk. So you have to keep that balance right.

CIARAN RYAN: Cost-to-income, of course, in any financial services company is a key ratio that you look at. I would imagine that in your personnel you have got some highly paid people, it’s a very highly skilled profession, so you’ve got a big salary bill that you’ve got to meet every month.

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Yes, our biggest fixed cost is our staff cost number and that is quite significant, it’s about 60% of our total cost base and that’s an important number for us because we do want to ensure that we retain our investment professionals, it’s the key component of an asset manager. So you only have the other 40% and that’s where it comes into the back office functions and so on, and ensuring that you’ve got the right systems in place and you’re getting the best efficiency of costs in those areas. That’s quite critical.

CIARAN RYAN: So are there technological solutions that you can bring into help that?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Yes, I think that’s where my role comes in, in ensuring that we’re getting the right software and we’re test checking the business cases to ensure that we’re getting the right efficiencies from a cost-to-income ratio going into the future.

CIARAN RYAN: Right, so that ties back then to this whole strategic direction, you have to be intimately involved in that, decisions like what technology to use.

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Yes, because things like online technology is critical at this point. So a customer wants to be able to go onto an app, make an investment and then be able to see their investment, see how it’s growing or not growing and then make decisions around that. So those kinds of functions we absolutely have to have as a business. So how you get yourself ahead of the rest of the competitors is quite important, especially at this time.

 

Experience at Absa

 

CIARAN RYAN: You were previously at Absa and Absa itself is going through a fairly radical change at the moment, they rebranded, they have also adopted a very aggressive technological programme, were you involved with that at Absa as well?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: So while I was at Absa yes, I was also involved in the stockbrokers business as well. There as well it was seeing what systems you implement to ensure that people can get their money when they disinvest and all those things are quite important with the stock exchange and so on. So very much so and also in terms of at that point it was the disinvestment from Barclay’s. When I joined the Barclay’s disinvestment happened a few months later, so there was a lot happening at Absa. When I left Absa, one of the reasons was really around the uncertainty that was there, so it was really in this kind of thinking phase and not knowing where we’re going. If you look at all the companies right now, technology is a big component, so I think you are constantly thinking about your IT project budget and what is it that can differentiate you from the rest of the market.

CIARAN RYAN: Stanlib has a fairly well-established brand, it’s been around forever, it seems. Is the reputational element, the strength of the brand, is that something that you are busy involved in to help to shape and to grow?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Absolutely, I think the brand went through a bit of a tough time a few years ago but I think where we are now, we are really getting back what we lost in terms of market credibility. But I think at the same time that Stanlib has always been a strong brand in the market, it’s really recognised as one of the top asset managers in the country. I think once you provide the investment performance, which we are definitely getting now, then you attract more and more people to it, which is what we are seeing from a trend perspective.

CIARAN RYAN: We’re running out of time here but just a couple of quick questions, tell us a little bit about yourself, where you grew up, where you went to school and how your career path took the path that it did.

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: I was born in Durban and I spent most of my life in Durban, I only moved to Johannesburg in 2004. I think from an early age…my dad is a doctor and there was a lot of pressure for me to go into the medical profession. At that time when I did accounting at school I just enjoyed the accounting concept and how things came together. So I went into a field that no one in my family had ever gone into and really not knowing what a chartered accountant did, to be quite honest. At that time, especially in the Indian community, there were not many chartered accountants. So I went through varsity and it was only when I joined Deloitte that I really started to love the auditing profession, I enjoyed the variety and meeting different people, seeing different businesses. It’s interesting that throughout my career I didn’t do financial services, so I was always in manufacturing and all the other components. Deloitte gave me a full spectrum of different industries, I wasn’t just limited to one industry, which is what I enjoyed. For a long time I really thought that I wanted to be a partner and it’s interesting that after ten years – and I also moved – I was a manager in the Durban office after my articles, I also went on a secondment to New York at the end of my articles, so at the beginning of my management time at Deloitte. Then I spent three years in the Durban office before getting a secondment opportunity to Johannesburg, which was really a big unknown for me but I felt like I needed something different because the Durban environment, the level of companies and listed industries that you get exposure to was very limited. It was initially a secondment opportunity but when I came to Johannesburg I really enjoyed the different experience levels, the people, it was just a totally different world. They offered to move me to Johannesburg, which I think was one of the biggest decisions I have made in my life, it was quite an uncomfortable one because I am very close to my family but it was leaving everything I knew to come to a completely different city without any family or support here and start up. It was so interesting when you come from Durban and how you are viewed by the Johannesburg colleagues, as someone who is really inferior, and you’ve got to prove yourself [laughing]. So it was a challenge but I managed to prove it and I think it was a great learning experience for me, I got exposure to the listed companies, I got exposure to the CEOs in some of the senior areas in Johannesburg, which was wonderful, it’s really the financial hub of South Africa. I haven’t really looked back on that decision, so I think I’ve really grown. Then the partner opportunity was just a wait-and-see thing and I just felt that at that point in my life I couldn’t do that anymore, I wasn’t learning anything and I really believe that you’ve got to be out of your depth to some degree and you’ve got to be continually developing yourself. So I decided to leave Deloitte but I actually didn’t know where I wanted to go, so whether it was the auditing, where I had spent so many years of my life or whether it was something new. During my search there was a role at Standard Bank in the credit area and I initially turned it down but they didn’t take no for an answer. So I was persuaded into going to Standard Bank, which I think is one of the best decisions I have made in my life because I think Standard Bank was a great place for me, I was exposed to so many different areas of the bank. I started off in credit, which is one of the most important areas of the bank and then I could go into anything I wanted to do. So I really learnt a lot in Standard Bank. It’s interesting now that I am back in the group in terms of Stanlib, which was initially a joint venture with Standard Bank. Then from the Standard Bank perspective I was doing different roles, but the rest of Africa space just didn’t give me that component where I was really with the business. I felt it was too far away because you are not in the country and you are not seeing the day-to-day. The Absa role was a great opportunity because it brought me into a totally different perspective in terms of asset management, which is something that I didn’t have exposure to and it still kept the wealth element, which I also enjoyed. Absa was wonderful, I enjoyed the people at Absa and the people who I built relationships with at Absa was great. That’s why when the Stanlib opportunity came up I was a bit hesitant to leave Absa because of the relationships that I had built there, it was a great working environment from that perspective. It really brought me very close to the business, so actually going on roadshows to the wealth offices across the country, interacting with wealth clients across the country, going to a wine farm at one point, we visited a client at a wine farm. There were lots of highlights and it really gave me what I didn’t get at Standard Bank, which was really being involved in the business, how the business decisions are made and going through all those kinds of things where it doesn’t become just about the numbers, so you’re not just producing numbers, you are really involved in what shapes the business. It was a good learning experience at Absa.

 

‘You’ve got to spend time with your children as much as you can’

 

CIARAN RYAN: What an interesting career and when you were with Stanlib, of course, you were involved with Stanlib’s Africa portfolio, were you travelling a lot?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Yes, so that was another thing, I had my second child at that point, and it was just the demand of going into countries all the time, which didn’t make sense for me. So I think one of the key things for me, and one of my important things, is that you’ve got to spend time with your children as much as you can because they grow up so quickly and you can never get that time back. I believe that from a career perspective you can always get that back but time with your children once gone is gone forever.

CIARAN RYAN: How many children have you got?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: I’ve got two, a son who is nine and a daughter who is six.

CIARAN RYAN: That’s a busy life.

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: It is a busy life and I am also a single mom, so I manage it all by myself. I had some great advice when I first had my son, from Arina McDonald, who I am sure you have heard of, and she gave me the advice that you have got to be thick-skinned and you have got to tell people what you want. You’ll be amazed that once you deliver, nobody questions what time you’re in, what you are doing and so on. I have actually done that for the past nine years and it’s worked well. People and all the CEOs who I have worked with have been so understanding, and they really do worry about just the delivery, and you can actually spend that time with the children that you do want to spend.

CIARAN RYAN: Just changing the subject, that’s a fascinating personal story, but just talking about the fact that you said you loved auditing, I wanted to find out very briefly from you what it is you loved about auditing but I wanted to Segway from that to an article that came out last week from Open Secrets, which was really putting the audit profession under the spotlight for some of these terrible incidents, if we can put it that way, that have happened in South Africa, which have involved auditors. What’s your view on that but just start off and tell me what it is that you love about auditing?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: For me auditing was just different in that you actually go from client to client, so every month is not the same, you are meeting different people, you’re engaging with different people, you’re working with different teams, so every year you bring in a new group of first-year trainees. So you are developing them, you are growing their careers and you see how they grow. So there are a lot of benefits to auditing but if you asked me now if I could go back to it I don’t think I could and I don’t think I would want to because I think what is quite sad is where the industry is right now. I have to say that independence and how you apply that independence…sometimes the client relationship does get blurred in some instances and also the pressure on auditors and how you keep that independence with that pressure I think is sometimes difficult to manage.

CIARAN RYAN: Did you find that your independence would be challenged at times because you do get too close to the clients, you get friendly with them…

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Yes, it’s how you put that black and white line down in the sand. Unfortunately, not everybody is as strong willed and is influenced. I don’t have an issue managing bad news and giving direct feedback to people but not everyone is…they don’t like conflict, so it’s easy sometimes to get into that blurred space.

CIARAN RYAN: There is this code of ethics where you are encouraged, not encouraged, you’re obliged to be sceptical, so you kind of have to sign onto that and say…and I know it’s often a personality thing, you get a person who’s a bit of a gentle soul and they just cannot handle conflict.

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Yes, the reality is that the auditing profession is a black and white profession, there’s very little [leeway] and especially with the way the accounting standards have gone, there’s very little grey in terms of having a debate over something. I think a few years ago there may have been a few grey areas but right now it’s very black and white. But it’s difficult to manage that with clients and when I look at some of these things that have happened, I personally cannot understand how it’s happened because of the black and white nature of an auditor in terms of there’s very little judgement that you can apply and when there’s judgement you actually qualify on that judgement. So unfortunately, people have actually succumbed to other pressures.

 

Recommended motivational books

 

CIARAN RYAN: Okay, here’s a final question, have you got any books that influenced you or that you would recommend to people?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: I have always enjoyed Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People; I have used it throughout my career.

CIARAN RYAN: And what particularly about that have you used?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: There are just different things, so the seven habits are being proactive, putting things first, always going for a win-win situation, those are the basics but it’s important to apply it in life, even though it seems simple it’s not always simple to actually be able to do it. The one that I do struggle with in the seven habits is really about seek first to understand and then to be understood. It’s so important in every aspect of your world but it’s how you make that pause in terms of really understanding the other perspective. But I really think that in so many ways as a leader applying the seven habits is really so critical and does help your world in being a better leader. It also helps you in terms of getting the results that you want, getting to the hard things first and sometimes you don’t want to get to certain things but also being proactive and seeing where you are going is very important, compared to just being in a puddle. Sometimes you are in a puddle but it’s also to say what is the end point. So that’s a book that’s really influenced by entire career.

CIARAN RYAN: Do you do quite a bit of reading?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: I get very little time for reading, I have to say, other than the business news and so on. Even during the lockdown I haven’t had much time for reading, I just found that the work environment during lockdown has been even more difficult and we are spending more time working compared to when we’re in the office because you’re able to separate when you’re in the office. Whereas now when you have the two worlds together, I just find that getting that balance has been difficult. I enjoy reading when I can, but I haven’t been able to recently.

CIARAN RYAN: How do you stay in touch with your team, do you muster everybody together in the morning at a certain time, how does that go?

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Yes, so we are predominantly using Microsoft Teams at Stanlib and we obviously have catch-ups, so there’s a lot of communication that’s been going on remotely. I have a weekly catch-up with the entire finance team, just in terms of a check in perspective to be able to give them a sense of what’s happening, what’s to worry about but really to ensure from a wellness perspective because the one thing we are finding from a Stanlib perspective – and I am sure everyone – is the mental wellbeing of people is a challenge because of this constant online meeting environment, you’re not really seeing people. So even at Stanlib we have given people wellness days, we actually gave them a long weekend where we said from a total Stanlib perspective we are shutting down so that people can actually take that personal time and recover to a degree, and take away that mental fatigue. It’s not just the work environment, it’s also the whole Covid issue and that external stress, which people are battling with, especially people who are working alone and living alone, it is difficult at times. So it’s how you support your teams in those times. So I do spend a lot of time around that in terms of ensuring that you’re getting that right balance, that you are taking a lunch break, that you are cutting off at a certain point, so that you can switch off mentally.

CIARAN RYAN: Avashnee, let’s leave it at that, that’s a fascinating discussion and thanks so much for coming on and talking to us today. I wish you the very best on your journey and let’s check in again with you in a short while and see how things are going.

AVASHNEE RAMDIAL: Thank you very much, appreciate it.

CIARAN RYAN: That was Avashnee Ramdia

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