Behind the scenes with TFG CFO and Executive Director Bongiwe Ntuli
If it feels as though you blinked in January and suddenly it’s October, you’re not alone – life is hurtling towards 2020 at breakneck speed and frankly, it’s terrifying. If everything starts to feel too hectic, close your eyes and just imagine what executive Bongiwe Ntuli’s day, week and month look like… Newly appointed as Chief Financial Officer and Executive Director of The Foschini Group (TFG) in January, Bongiwe, 42, has had the kind of year that makes ‘busy’ seem like an underwhelming adjective. Being CFO of the TFG international group is no mean feat to tackle – TFG’s impressive footprint in SA is 20 brands and 2 450 stores, with eight additional international brands and stores in the UK, Australia, and in-store concessions in multiple countries worldwide.
It all seems a far cry from the bubbly laugh and calm demeanour that greets us in Sea Point on a misty Monday morning. We’re welcomed into Bongiwe’s penthouse home with the comforting citrus scent of her favourite candles and barely make it inside before she’s offering us all coffee. Her love of fashion is littered throughout her immaculately decorated space. From the floor-to-ceiling handbag collection to the incredible array of shoes in the main bedroom, it soon becomes clear that Bongiwe’s appointment as CFO of SA’s largest retail group is a perfect match. The move to TFG began with a relocation from Bongiwe’s childhood home in Durban, where she has spent the previous seven years as CFO and then four years as CEO of the largest division, Grindrod Freight Services, and a board member at freight and logistics international giant Grindrod Ltd, to Cape Town – although she’s hardly what you would call rooted in the city. ‘We (the TFG board) travel extensively worldwide, so when I am in the Cape Town office, there’s a queue outside my door,’ she says, with her signature warm smile. ‘Typically when I’m here, I’ll catch up with my finance teams and our analysts, and attend our operating board meetings and committee meetings. I also try to make time for campus walkabouts – I believe in visible leadership, so when I find time, I visit different parts of our business and engage with our people.’ Leading from the front comes naturally to Bongiwe. Throughout her career, she has served as a role model both to her peers in the industry and for the next generation of businesswomen.
A chartered accountant, Bongiwe has worked in freight, logistics, and the mining and financial-services sectors, locally and internationally. She began her career shortly after completing her articles at the age of 21, holding various positions in finance, treasury and risk-management at Anglo American PLC, including subsidiaries in Europe, Canada and the UK. Prior to taking up the mantle of CFO of TFG, she had the challenging task as CEO of Freight Services, Grindrod Limited, and Grindrod Group Executive Board member. She currently sits on a number of external TFG Boards and is the Independent Audit Chairperson and Non-Executive Director of South African software company AdaptIT Holdings LTD. Bongiwe is also Chairperson of Caprisa, a non-profit S21 HIV/Tuberculosis research company. Caprisa’s research focuses on four main scientific programmes: HIV Pathogenesis and Vaccines, HIV and TB Treatment, Microbicides, and Prevention and Epidemiology. Another area of research is conducted on the prevention of mother-to-child transmission, which is done in partnership with other centres. Were there challenges along the way? ‘Too many to count!’ says Bongiwe. ‘However, my optimism and positive thinking (faith) help me to overcome and move on from any difficult situation.’
STARTING AT HOME
In the business world, there’s no shortage of examples of high-flying executives – but less so of those who started as a child with modest resources, driven by focus, hard work, continued learning and a desire to succeed. Bongiwe’s path is like a blueprint for good, old-fashioned, hard-won success. This is no rags-to-riches tale; rather an archetype of one generation investing in the next. Passing matric at the tender age of 15 years, and completing her first four-year university degree by 19 years old, Bongiwe’s goal to be ahead of the game was immediately visible. ‘Growing up, although we didn’t have much, my parents did everything to ensure we were comfortable, healthy and content, and had access to the best education they could afford,’ says Bongiwe. ‘A lot of my inspiration comes from my family. My parents instilled excellence in us. They taught us that if you are going to do anything, you should do it well.’ That ‘us’ refers to Bongiwe and her siblings. ‘I am a middle child – I have one older sister and one younger brother. I was born after my parents had struggled for seven years to have a second child, hence my name: Bongiwe means “We are thankful”. My brother came exactly one year after me, and we have remained close to this day. We have guided each other throughout life and are brutally honest with each other.’
LEARN SOMETHING NEW EVERY DECADE
Given Bongiwe’s affinity for the business sector, it may come as a surprise that ‘CFO’ wasn’t originally on her vision board for her future. ‘Growing up, I wanted to be a doctor,’ she says. ‘This may be because both my parents worked at a government hospital, and because doctors were always the most recognised people in our community.’ Of course the plan changed when Bongiwe was offered a scholarship by Anglo American to study a commerce degree at any SA University. At that stage, there were only a handful of black female chartered accountants in the country, and though med school didn’t materialise, a degree in accounting and finance from the University of KwaZulu-Natal did, and Bongiwe qualified as a CA in 1998. But the learning curve did not stop there. While a certain amount of on-the-job learning may be a given while speeding up the corporate ladder, Bongiwe reinvests in herself by continuing to further her education. In 2007, a decade after graduating from UKZN, she took on the London Business School’s Management Development Programme, in Finance and Financial Management Services. Eleven years later, 2018 saw her completing the Advanced Management Program at the prestigious Harvard Business School. When asked to compare her experiences of tertiary education in South Africa with those abroad, Bongiwe says, ‘I enjoyed being exposed to the greatest minds around the world, and the experiences were very similar (campus, lectures). However, Harvard instilled the onus at my level to ‘contribute to making the world a better place – and perhaps the way giving, authenticity and humility are accentuated [overseas].’
It’s no secret that the retail sector in South Africa has been struggling of late, a challenge that Bongiwe readily admits. ‘Consumers are under enormous pressure’. Business Day reports a retrenchment programme, closure or curtailment of operation almost daily, in almost every industry. ‘The South African official unemployment rate is at 29%, with 54% of that number being youth.’ Despite this, under the watchful eyes of Bongiwe and her predecessor and now group CEO Anthony Thunström, TFG is doing more than staying afloat. ‘We had a good 2019, with turnover growing in double digits when most of our competitors reported single-digit growth, and some even negative growth,’ says Bongiwe. She believes this is because of a careful diversification and localisation strategy. ‘Our diversified and niche portfolio of brands and countries of operations has served us well. Through having our own local manufacturing, we are able to respond to consumer demand more quickly than the competition, while increasing employment in SA.’ Following on from this growth, Bongiwe has concrete plans for the legacy she wants to contribute to in her time with the group. ‘I want to contribute to TFG continuing to be the leading retailer in Africa and an international brand, and continue to grow market share in all our countries of operation. Digital transformation is a big thing for us – not just in terms of online platforms, but in transforming our whole organisation, from the store environment to our head offices – to ensure we deliver an even greater satisfying experience for our customers. We are currently running several programmes to optimise process technology at store level and at our back-office operations and processes through digital transformation. It’s a massive and exciting investment and period for TFG as we continue to gain market share.’
WOMEN IN BUSINESS
According to the latest Grant Thornton ‘Women in Business’ report, 94% of businesses in Africa have at least one woman in senior management, but women still account for only 31% of senior roles overall. Being part of that minority, we asked Bongiwe what she thought could be done to create better parity on the continent. ‘It’s complicated,’ she says. ‘There is no silver bullet to fix the disparity. And it’s a worldwide phenomenon. The Fortune Global 500 control more than $32 trillion in revenue, or one-third of the entire world’s GDP. Of those 500 companies, only 15 are led by female chief executives (as of September this year, when Julie Sweet took over as global CEO of Accenture). ‘However, that count is up from 12 last year. I think great strides have been taken – by corporates and our male counterparts – to improve these stats over the past two decades. I think we will see even greater advances in the coming decade, as our male counterparts acknowledge our contribution, companies evolve, a new wave of jobs and corporates emerge, shareholders demand greater diversity in the boardroom and, in parallel, as the talent pool of women grows exponentially.’ In the meantime, as we strive towards a more equal future, Bongiwe has advice for what any woman hoping to follow in her footsteps should bring to the table: ‘Authenticity, innovation, empathy and passion – love what you do and do it well.’
Subscribe to Balanced Life, to receive your monthly source of fashion, beauty and lifestyle.