December 15, 2017

Cool thinking in volatile times

Christine Ramon, chief financial officer of AngloGold Ashanti

Christine Ramon, chief financial officer of AngloGold Ashanti, favours a bold but considered approach to change. She heeds the advice of a Buddhist monk, ‘for every action, there is a reaction’. In other words, actions have consequences. She shares her views on responsible leadership.

 Many leaders in South Africa have this in common: they grew up in a close-knit family with limited finances. Their fierce will to succeed was a deciding factor in setting them apart.

All the more credit to her, Christine Ramon, executive director at the third largest gold mining producer in the world, had few privileges growing up in Port Elizabeth as a young Indian woman in apartheid era South Africa.

Raised by a single parent, Ramon went out to work at the age of 17.

“I am one of five children and a twin,” says Ramon. “We’re very close. We even live in the same suburb today!” Four of the siblings are chartered accountants [CAs(SA)], while Ramon’s younger sister is a medical doctor.

Ramon studied part-time, qualifying as a CA(SA) after five years of study. Achieving this qualification was challenging as a part-time student, even for fulltime students its difficult, due to the sheer volume and complexity of the course material and traineeship.

She began her career with Coopers & Lybrand before securing a secondment to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) for the 1994 general election. This experience inspired her to enter commerce in post-apartheid South Africa.

A dynamic goal setter, she joined Johnnic Holdings as finance director and was later appointed CEO. But it wasn’t an easy time career wise.

“There was a hostile takeover of the company. I learned a lot about people in the process. In hind sight I became closer to the board and to shareholders and improved my credibility.”

Ramon was then headhunted by Sasol to become their CFO, and has worked very hard for everything she has achieved. “With leadership there is responsibility,” she reflects.

A member of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA), Ramon is making a conscious effort to be seen as a role model for other female executives.

Ramon has no qualms in driving the point home, that statistically speaking, women make better board members. “Research has proven that companies with women board members generally achieve better long term financial results and are more sustainable.“

“It takes hard work and resilience to be appointed to the executive,” she confides. “But becoming an executive director enables you to make changes in an organisation at policy level and influence transformation.”

Then there is the unwritten rule: earning your peers respect. “New board members input can be overlooked,” says Ramon. “You’ve got to stand up for what you believe in.”

She is currently deputy chairperson of the Financial Reporting Standards Council of South Africa and chairperson of the CFO Forum.  And when the occasion calls for it, this CA(SA) is unashamedly outspoken.

The CFO Forum was among other influential organisations representing corporate South Africa and the financial services industry, who communicated their concerns at the implementation of mandatory audit firm rotation (MAFR). Despite a call to re-consider, on 3 June, the Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors (IRBA) announced its decision to proceed with the implementation of MAFR.

Ramon is worried about the negative impact that implementation of MAFR is likely to have on South Africa and investor confidence.

“The introduction of MAFR comes at a massive cost to the country,” cautions Ramon. “The EU estimates that the implementation of MAFR cost €16 billion, but the private sector believes it is at least double that.

“The cost in South Africa is conservatively estimated at R10 billion over 10 years; effectively R1 billion a year.”

Significance as a leader and mother

 Ramon is married to an Italian, which has helped her respect the importance of being tolerant towards other cultures. She is also mom to two daughters.

This powerful woman proclaims motherhood as her greatest achievement.

“I see myself as an ordinary person and a mom,” says Ramon. This admission is surprising in the light of the recognition she has been given as a leader, both locally and globally.

In 2007 Ramon was nominated young global leader by the World Economic Forum.

“Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, established a group of fairly seasoned leaders who were under 40 years.  Besides being exposed to different streams of thinking by other global leaders, the recognition afforded me the opportunity of building networks with many managing directors across Africa.”

Ramon remains in contact with the Alumni group; whose alumni include Nicky Newton-King, now the CEO of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

 No overnight success

 Ramon suggests that some rising stars in the CA(SA) profession could learn patience. “Young CAs(SA) want to move faster than what they are ready for,” she observes. “They need to consolidate their experience, build credibility over time and mature emotionally.”

While the universities are providing the technical skills, Ramon would like to see courses giving more emphasis (and this includes traineeship) to decision-making and the practical side of being a CA(SA).

“Beyond technical skills, CAs(SA) must be good communicators, have the ability to strategise and instil confidence in financial markets: the value-add side of things.

“Leadership itself is quite different from 10 years ago,” observes Ramon. “Leadership has evolved. It requires adaptability, versatility and being in tune with what’s going on.”

In its “CA2025” project, the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA), together with the Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors (IRBA), is addressing this issue of rapid change, and has commissioned research into the expected competencies of CAs(SA) and Registered Auditors (RAs) in the future.

Ramon’s ability to deal with challenges is being tested to the hilt with AngloGold Ashanti indicating that the company is going ahead with the retrenchment of 8500 miners at three mines in the Free State and Gauteng.

Ramon says, “Job losses have always been the last resort however the affected mines, being the older mines, were facing a number of systemic challenges resulting in unsustainable losses, therefore the need to restructure these operations to ensure the sustainability of the rump of our South African business and the jobs that go with it.”

“I am used to volatility,” she says. “As CFO I have to take a fact-based approach whilst also applying judgement. Being in touch with the current socio- economic environment gives me confidence in my decision-making.”

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