Maverick Life


‘Masters of Money’: Lessons on success from South African CFOs

‘Masters of Money’: Lessons on success from South African CFOs
Image: Cindy Ellis/Composite: The Reading List

In Masters of Money, chartered accountant and entrepreneur KC Rottok Chesaina interviews 31 CFOs from South Africa’s top companies, most JSE-listed, to uncover their strategies for success.

Masters of Money goes behind the scenes into the lives of these finance leaders, giving readers the inside track to make it in the world of business, as well as showing the human face behind the number cruncher, giving readers a glimpse of the X-factor needed to rise to the top.

In this excerpt, Chesaina speaks to Harry Kellan, Group CFO at FirstRand Bank – a man he describes as “somewhat of a mystery”, given he does so few media interviews. In fact, Kellan’s opening line is: “I hope this interview is not going to be about building my profile …” 

Chesaina describes him as “a leader who is always looking for opportunities to share his knowledge”, although he adds: “but don’t ask an introvert to talk about himself!”

In the interview, Kellan talks about his early life, struggling with a science degree at university and ultimately “wasting” an academic year when he decided to switch from a medicine track to Commerce – much to the disappointment of his family. He was then faced with the dual challenges of being an introvert and a student of colour, struggling to get vacation work at one of the big audit firms despite being in the top 10 percent of his class. 

A few years later, however, after time at Arthur Andersen overseas and then HSBC back home, then-35-year-old Kellan became one of the youngest CFOs of a major retail bank, FNB, in 2005. Then came the global financial crisis …


Soon after Harry had taken up the role, the global financial crisis hit. It was a period of extreme uncertainty in financial markets and the banking industry. To an extent, the South African banking system was insulated from the crisis by strong exchange control regulations. However, the South African economy went into recession for the first time in 17 years, which directly impacted the performance of the banking sector.

‘It was unbelievably tough because there was a sudden decline in credit quality in the big lending books of the banks, particularly in home and vehicle loans. I’m grateful for that period, because you learn the most in the hardest of times. I learnt not to go into crisis mode – where the only two options are fight or flight. It’s better to press the pause button and reflect on the permutations in order to find the best long-term solution.’

FNB changed their business model to focus on their transactional relationship with customers, investing in innovation to develop different ways of meeting customer needs. They further adopted ‘the first loss is best loss’ philosophy by working with their distressed customers to dis- pose of their encumbered properties early enough to avoid even greater losses from increased debt.

‘Yet, sometimes you think you’ve been through the worst, when it was really just preparing you for even harder times to come,’ Harry reflects when I ask him about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. ‘From an economic-profit-generation perspective, this is the first time since the global financial crisis that the group has produced a return on equity below the cost of equity, which represents an economic loss,’ Harry wrote in his CFO report for the year ending June 2020. 

‘However, FirstRand still delivered normalised earnings of R17.3 billion and grew shareholder net asset value, so the business is in resilient shape despite the challenging environment.’

The bank has had to deal with multiple issues, including loss of revenue from lockdowns, defaults in loan balances, providing relief to customers and recognising higher provisions for expected losses in future.

‘I think we’ve done extremely well in dealing with these issues. Although I’ve played my part as group CFO, credit must go to the wider leadership team for how well we have performed. Are there things we could have done differently? Sure. But even if we had done some things differently, I don’t believe it would have changed the outcomes materially. We can be proud of the actions we took to respond to the negative effects of the pandemic.’


Given the success of FirstRand’s strategy in handling the Covid-19 pandemic and the crisis that our country and economy are facing, I ask Harry what he considers to be at the core of their approach.

‘The key part of a strategy is understanding what you’re trying to achieve. Most people will express their need to achieve growth in earnings or a certain return profile. Those are certainly outcomes or measures of a strategy, but ultimately your strategy must align with your purpose as a business. So, if you say you’re here to serve society or to address customer needs, that should be the core of the strategy from which you develop key performance indicators such as, for instance, earnings.’

Harry observes that many organisations make the mistake of changing strategy too often.

‘For a strategy to be embedded, you can’t change it every year. People try one thing and if it doesn’t work, they decide to try something else. That’s tactical. Strategy does not lend itself to tactics; it must be allowed the opportunity to live and its execution needs to exceed a mere year or two. You can tweak bits and pieces as you go along, but ultimately delivering on strategy is a long-term achievement.’

Taking part in formulating and implementing an effective strategy is a central part of Harry’s position as group CFO of FirstRand. Given the size of the organisation, this role is a critical one.

The FirstRand group is the largest financial institution by market capitalisation on the African continent. It has a portfolio of integrated financial services businesses, including well-known local brands such as FNB, Wesbank, Rand Merchant Bank, Direct Axis and Ashburton Investments. It also has a challenger bank in the United Kingdom (Aldermore).

I ask Harry which appointment he considers his biggest achievement.

‘Becoming a father three times over,’ he declares without missing a beat. ‘Our kids help me become a better person because I need to set a good example for them. As for professional achievements, my appointment to the group CFO role and FirstRand becoming Africa’s largest bank by market capitalisation are certainly highlights. That said, we do not measure ourselves by the size of our market capitalisation, but by how well we deliver value to our shareholders and customers.’

In his engagement with employees, Harry has an open-door policy. ‘Reporting lines are there for administrative purposes. But in reality people don’t work for me, we work together. I’m a firm believer in the idea that if you work to build people, you build yourself. I also have the confidence to hire people that are smarter than me because I will learn from them and build a better team that way. We’ll achieve our outcomes much more effectively with a smart team of individuals who have a common vision.’


When it comes to lessons learnt so far, Harry advises career starters to embrace disappointments as their significance often becomes apparent only later.

‘I was addressing trainee accountants last year and I used an extreme analogy to illustrate this lesson. Consider the question of who you wish to marry versus the person who you choose to marry. You may set out with the idea of marrying option A, like an A-list actress, but this option is only achievable by a select number of people. So, to achieve option B doesn’t constitute failure and you should not view it as second best, because that option is likely to be the absolute best choice for you. The universe always has plans for you. Always.’

Harry further explains that he often sees job applicants who become very disappointed when they are turned down for the specific position, thinking that they are failures for not securing it. ‘This is not always the right conclusion, because the process itself has meaning. By applying for a position in an organisation, especially an internal one, you make the decision-makers aware of your skill set, which may result in your securing a different position in the future – often better suited to you than the one you had applied for before.’

Another piece of advice Harry has for novices is patience. ‘Youngsters of today view life as a fast-moving train that they need to jump on as quickly as possible to avoid being left behind. The ability to press pause is quite difficult for them! Darn, it is actually quite difficult for me! Even now that I’m on the brink of turning 50! But I have the ability now to remind myself from time to time to press pause, which is something I wasn’t able to do as a 25-year-old.’ Missing one train is not the be all and end all, he continues, because another train will come later, and the universe has multiple paths to success.

‘The third piece of advice I would give a 25-year-old today is that they should understand that it’s not all about them. Sometimes it is simply about luck … being in the right place at the right time. 

‘Certainly, in my case, that is what happened. The lesson there is that the universe may open the doors of luck to you once or even twice. And when it does, you should be ready to seize the opportunity and produce the goods.’

There will always be opportunities to learn from, and entrants into the job market should embrace a willingness to grasp that which they didn’t understand the day before.

‘I’m not only talking about technical matters, but also the softer skills that come from everyday experiences. Young people should learn that it’s okay to make mistakes. And it is perfectly fine to admit that you don’t know something when asked. Do not assume that because you’re being asked, you’re expected to know the answer. Have the confidence to admit that you don’t have the knowledge and afterwards be willing to retreat and research the answer.’

Harry concludes by sharing his recipe for a successful career starting small, always looking to improve and consistently fostering innovation. DM/ ML

Masters of Money: Strategies for Success from the CFOs of South Africa’s Biggest Companies by KC Rottok Chesaina is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers (R280). Visit The Reading List for South African book news – including excerpts! – daily.


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