Mint Group CFO, Yvonne Dias, invited to share her thoughts on empowering clients in the digital age with CFO Talks
Mint Group CFO, Yvonne Dias
CIARAN RYAN: This is CFO Talks and what a pleasure it is today to be joined by Yvonne Dias, she is the CFO at Mint Management Technologies, which is a provider of enterprise software solutions, and interestingly, a winner of multiple awards from Microsoft, including for consulting services, artificial intelligence, and various other awards. She’s a Chartered Accountant and she has an MBA, which she passed cum laude, and she represents part of a new wave of CFOs focused on using technology to raise the level of intelligence available to businesses. So, first of all, welcome, Yvonne, how are you this morning?
YVONNE DIAS: Hi, thanks very much for having me today, I really appreciate it, I’m doing fantastic. I’m really excited to be spending this time with you and just sharing my views on finance and a little bit about Mint and the role of the future CFO.
CIARAN RYAN: Beautiful, okay, let’s start on that point and tell us a little bit about the Mint Group and what it does differently from other groups operating in the tech space.
YVONNE DIAS: Mint is a global IT systems integrator with a focus on the Microsoft stack. As a gold partner, we are a recognised in the top 1% of business application integrators worldwide. As you mentioned, we are very proud, we won four Microsoft awards off the last award ceremonies. What’s really cool is we’ve won the D365 Partner of the Year for the fourth year running, and we won the artificial intelligence for the second year running. So we’re really proud of our team and what we’ve managed to accomplish. So what does Mint actually do, we build solutions on Microsoft’s three clouds and craft solutions and needs that enable our clients to become digitally empowered, and we want them to have better businesses by being digitally led through what we call, customer-centricity and optimised solutions enhancing the modern workplace and smarter systems on Azure. We also deliver this with intelligent insights and cognitive services. So that sounds like a lot of IT words but let me just tell you in simple terms what we actually do. So if you look at our first cloud, that’s about business application and cloud services. So what we offer there is the dynamics, customer and finance, which is your traditional CRM and ERP systems, and what’s really great about the Microsoft stack is that because of the common data platform, is that you have a 360-degree view of your client from your leads to opportunities and how you’re selling to your clients, straight into your invoicing and your full ERP system. You can put Power BI Dashboards on that, and it allows you to do fantastic sales trends, full integrations and do some trend and analytical work.
The second cloud is your modern worker, which is taking your employees and transforming them into modern workers, and you’re looking at making them efficient through Power Apps, Teams, and it’s just about making their lives simpler by taking manual work away from them and automating items. The third cloud is Azure, and that’s just about creating a secure way to digitally transform yourself into the cloud and giving you a roadmap. The most exciting space for me is our artificial intelligence and there we look at machine learning, facial recognition and we’ve got some really cool products that we’ve done around student security on campus, queue management, to shorten the queues in the health sector and some cutting edge predictive models in the banking sector. So what do we do differently and I think it’s just because we’re guided by our higher purpose, we really believe we want to guide each person to reach their full potential, and we believe in our vision of creating tomorrow. What really differentiates us is we really live our vision, mission and values, and we subscribe to it from our leadership team to our junior staff, and we call ourselves Minties, and that encapsulates our culture.
CIARAN RYAN: Now, just to get a little bit more practical on this, I spoke to Amer Kamal from Microsoft, literally about a week ago and he mentioned some of these products and some of these stacks that you’ve just been talking about particularly with reference to the mining industry. So I said, okay, so how does that actually change the mining industry, and he was talking about tracking assets and tracking people, which in a large mining organisation with thousands of people who are all in different parts of the organisation, some are underground, some are on surface. So it gives you this, if I understand it correctly, it gives you this tremendous view of what is actually happening in real time in your organisation. Is that a fair way to explain maybe for practical purposes how this works?
YVONNE DIAS: One hundred percent correct. By combining the different offerings, so we, if you look at our ERP business, they focus on mining, so you can have the full accounting system, and if you put on the AI component where you can do facial recognition, the tracking of the assets, you then have a full view of where your assets are, how they are and it’s recorded in your system. So, absolutely. Customers are focused on trying to create efficiencies
CIARAN RYAN: It was quite a fascinating range of products coming out of Microsoft. What has happened as a result of the lockdown, has this sort of trend been accelerated, are you finding that there’s more reach and more demand from customers for this?
YVONNE DIAS: Absolutely, I think with lockdown, customers are really focused on trying to create efficiencies, cost saving, and I think technology naturally brings that to a business. So we’re definitely having more conversations with businesses on how to transform their business, how to save costs, reduce manual overheads, create efficiencies, reduce loss of stock, so that all encompasses in digital transformation. Azure also helps with consumption, so you can take servers and you only pay for what you use. So traditionally when you have hardware, you have to pay for the hardware, full uptime, redundancy and it can become quite cost intensive. Whereas with Azure, you pay for what you use. So if you’re going to have a server that’s going to be down for a month, you just shut it down and when you’re ready to use it up, you ramp it up again. That does really result in massive cost saving.
CIARAN RYAN: Okay and Mint Group is actually based in the United States, is that correct?
YVONNE DIAS: No, it’s actually a South African company and we do have a company in the US, so we do work in the US but it’s a proudly South African-owned company.
CIARAN RYAN: My goodness. So tell us a little bit about your global presence then.
YVONNE DIAS: In the group we have quite a few companies and we’re predominantly all working in South Africa, but we do have a business that focuses within Africa. So we do a lot of work in Nigeria, Angola and Swaziland. We do have a company that is focused on the US and that’s based in Texas. The rest, like I said, is in South Africa.
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, very good. That’s quite an extraordinary story of a proudly South African company spreading its wings around the world. Let’s talk about the role of the CFO, you’re part of a new movement of CFOs, from what I can see, and you’re involved in strategy, you’re involved in business planning, team management, the HR function. My question to you is this, is the modern CFO expected to shadow the CEO with an expectation perhaps of one day stepping into the CEO’s shoes?
YVONNE DIAS: If we look at the trend over the last couple of years, every finance and technology seminar had the same theme that with technology there’s going to be a whole bunch of jobs that aren’t going to exist, and it was all processing jobs, accounting jobs, lawyers and they actually mentioned CFOs. I thought to myself are CFO’s going to be redundant, am I going to be looking for a new job. I did have vlogger on my list for traveling, so my midlife crisis was to become a vlogger, but true to my nerdy finance nature, I did a lot of research and what I concluded was, ironically, is people often underestimate the human link and the cognitive contribution of another human being.
So with that I really concluded that a CFO will never disappear. But our role has to adapt and has to evolve and has to shift from producing the numbers to understanding and driving the application of data-driven insights and trends. So if I look at my own role, it’s not about producing the numbers, I’m part-owner of the strategy I’ve helped create it, I’ve helped drive it.
CIARAN RYAN: We’re also joined by Nicolaas van Wyk, who is the Chief Executive Officer of the South African Institute of Business Accountants. Nicolaas, do you have a question on this, on the evolving role of the CFO?
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: It is exactly as Yvonne has said, as the business environment has changed, well, even before the lockdown, but more pronounced now, that the CFO is a crucial strategist within the board and support for the CEO. I looked at Yvonne’s LinkedIn profile and it’s interesting to see the development of your career towards the CFO, from doing your articles, as laying the foundation, which I think is so important to joining a professional body. Then moving from there where you purely do finance or accounting, into adding operations, adding IT, understanding different aspects of the business and then progressing towards a FD and then finally becoming a group CFO. So it’s quite a dynamic field. What we see from our side is there’s a bit of a lack of education or qualifications for CFOs, it’s like the CFOs self-develop into their skills areas. So what we’re trying to do as SAIBA is to work with universities and see if we can develop a qualification that guides a person from their BCom into this new role as a CFO. What we’ve seen and heard when we do these interviews is that’s exactly the case. CFO is quite a unique job function now, they’re no longer accountants, they’re part of the board, part of the management. So it has been really interesting to hear that from Yvonne. I just wanted to get Yvonne’s view on that, would it be useful for academia to develop a CFO programme?
YVONNE DIAS: I think it would be phenomenal and I absolutely agree, I think we are so technically oriented that when you get into a role, the expectation is not technical, technical is now a given and if there is a programme that could help people develop the analytical, the driver, the understanding the business, I think it will be fantastic, I absolutely think it’s needed.
CIARAN RYAN: There are a wealth of studies that are showing that CFOs are not academically prepared for the role they’re expected to perform. Nicolaas, maybe you can just point out, I think there was a study out of Canada, at Queen’s University in Toronto, which was called from CA to CFO. Maybe just expand on that a little bit and what is expected of the modern CFO.
MBAs allow CFOs to better understand a client’s business
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Research was done to try and map from these conversations that we are now having with Yvonne, and studies and the research done with CFOs, how they move from the CA designation right into their CFO role. They then map this development and identified the areas of business. But I think that’s also why…Yvonne studied for an MBA, I think to add that business element to her competencies. So SAIBA then registered a designation called CFO (SA), where we try to reflect these new competency areas that the CFO needs. It’s also a development international, so we are linking it internationally, linking it in Africa. But I want to just also ask Yvonne a question about the MBA, how useful was that because there are a lot of accountants now doing MBAs, did that add any value?
YVONNE DIAS: I think it was very useful in the sense that it gives you enough knowledge in the different areas to have conversations and understand those areas. So you go through marketing, operations, and you can then come back to the office and you have enough information to have conversations with those owners and understand their business. You can speak their language, you can understand their strategies, it gives you a good basic to build on. Whereas before you might not necessarily know the terminology, why they do the items that they do, whereas the MBA because it gives you marketing year one, plus marketing year two and between that you know the terminology, and they put a lot of work on you, so you do a lot of research and you do your assignments, you have to build a marketing plan. So it gives you a day in the life of a marketing manager. So when you are speaking to them, you understand their world, you understand their terminology. So I think it’s a fantastic thing to build your knowledge and base and gain some experience.
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: I think what we also found, and you mentioned it previously, you said something about the culture at Mint and how dynamic that is, and how you are like a group family moving into the same direction. We see that with the CFOs, how they start acting like mentors and teachers for their junior staff and they have a very focused interest in developing them. How do see your role as a teacher, mentor within your finance department?
YVONNE DIAS: I think it’s beyond the finance department. I think you have to be empowering your staff, you have to be teaching them, but as much as you’re learning from others, you have to be teaching people about finance, understand the numbers, understand the strategy, and you’re almost transforming the business to be a financially led business. That they understand what you’re doing and how critical the numbers are and how critical the strategy is, it’s empowering your staff and your peers to understand finance to become a financially led business. It’s critical that it works both ways. CIARAN RYAN: One thing I’m interested to find out is some of these skills that we’re talking about here, the strategy building, that sort of thing, does the MBA actually equip you for that? Are these things that you acquire on the job more than through the university and through education?
YVONNE DIAS: I think there’s a combination of factors when you’re acquiring skills, it’s a combination of factors that empower you. It’s a combination of data, people and technology. So experience comes from on job experience, but it’s also done through reading, like why must you learn a mistake somebody else has done. So reading business books, TED Talks, business podcasts, those are all a critical component to gaining experience. But then there’s also soft skills around gaining a mentor, sitting with that mentor and saying, well, this is what the situation is, this is how I handled this, and that person saying, well, why don’t you think about this, why don’t you think about that. But then it’s also through knowledge and understanding your other business areas and putting the puzzle pieces together and then also using technology to empower you. So I think it is a combination of items to get you there.
CIARAN RYAN: Nicolaas, did you want to add anything there?
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: There are two questions that came up and that is, I would love to understand from Yvonne a day in the life of Yvonne. Is it still true that the towards month end, CFOs are particularly busy with, with their reports, and what’s the hours that one would put in as a CFO? Then secondly, what support structures are there for CFOs and how important is it for CFOs to be part of a network and is that sufficiently addressed?
YVONNE DIAS: Month end is still busy but a lot of it’s automated, so reports are automated. It’s more that you’re spending time…and because I have operations and finance, we report on both. So we do project profitability, we give the top four projects that are likely to burn, that people need to do something about it, we give the top performing projects. So there’s so much information, we’re giving people levers to look at, if you do this, this is what’s going to happen to your business, if you do that. So we are spending a lot of time at month end but it’s more around the interpretation and what you need to do with your business as opposed to creating reports. So there’s still a bit of time around month end to compile our new version of reporting, and then we link that back up to strategy and the strategy pillars in everyone’s business plan. So in our world, everyone has a business plan and we track that and we see how you’re progressing around that. So it’s hours but I wouldn’t say massive that you need to work 24/7. It’s about interpretation as opposed to creation.
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: That makes sense, and the networking element, how do you make time for networking and how important would it be to have a network in Africa or internationally?
YVONNE DIAS: I think networking is very important and we’ve created our own networks. We are a strong believer in women empowerment. So we at Mint have created what we call WIIT, which is Women in IT, and it’s not necessarily about only including women, everyone is welcome, but we meet every six weeks, and there’s a theme too. We’ve had developers present to us, there’s normally a theme, like this week’s theme is about your health. We’ve had people do cash management, financial management, and there’s a fantastic network that we’ve created there. So that’s one way of doing it, you’ve just created your own network. Then through the Microsoft channels because we regularly see people, there’s another network that we’ve created there, and that’s also into Microsoft in the US. So I think it’s really important to tap into those networks, chatting to those networks, bouncing ideas and you form a relationship with those people. So I think it is quite critical.
‘Where we did struggle a little bit was the virtual world of selling’
CIARAN RYAN: The question I wanted to ask Yvonne was about the lockdown and the impact of that on your business. You’re talking about networks, and we’re reading so much about how well Microsoft Teams are doing and Zoom and so on. How has it impacted your business? Has it been good or bad?
YVONNE DIAS: I actually think it’s been good. Covid really gave us an opportunity to stress test our strategy and it really strengthened our team. We were fortunate that we didn’t have to look at retrenchments, and we carried on with contracts, we do have long-term contracts with clients. I think where we did struggle a little bit was the virtual world of selling. The sales team was very used to getting in their cars and going to see clients. So trying to establish a virtual selling world was quite tough but they’ve done a phenomenal job and they’ve gotten quite quickly over this hurdle. Where we have felt a little bit of pain is now that the borders have opened up, we’ve lost quite a few staff to emigration. But I think it was just through planning, we had a very clear communication plan to our staff, to our clients, and we spent a lot of time on just keeping everyone updated. I think we didn’t lose any major contracts, we didn’t lose any staff, so we were quite lucky in that regard.
CIARAN RYAN: Interesting point, there were two things that you mentioned there, throwaway remarks that I want to pick up on. One is that you were going to be a blogger and two is the emigration point. Tell me, what were you going to blog about?
YVONNE DIAS: I was going to actually be a vlogger, I was going to travel the world and tell everyone about my interesting sights and where you need to go and visit.
CIARAN RYAN: Oh, sorry, were you saying a blogger or a vlogger?
YVONNE DIAS: A vlogger.
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, a video blogger, yes, all right. So you were going to travel the world and tell everybody where you were.
YVONNE DIAS: Yes, I have an aspiration to visit as many countries as I can and just experience cultures.
CIARAN RYAN: I see, and you put that on hold, I guess?
YVONNE DIAS: Yes, apparently CFOs aren’t redundant just quite yet.
CIARAN RYAN: [Laughing] Okay, the other thing you mentioned was about emigration, with borders opening up, tell us a little bit about that because we’re reading some fairly alarming stories about that at the moment.
YVONNE DIAS: I think before lockdown last year, we saw an increase in staff leaving for emigration and we lost quite a few staff to Canada, the Netherlands and Australia. Through Covid it obviously stopped but now that the borders have opened again, we’ve seen that uptake again. Staff have been very honest with us, so we’ve been notified of a couple of other people that have put their application in, wanting to leave the country.
CIARAN RYAN: It’s a bit alarming but there you go. People will always move, I guess, and see opportunities elsewhere. Maybe, hopefully, some of them come back again, we don’t know. I just want to talk to you about the state of the accounting profession generally, given the growing number of scandals involving accountants, what’s your view of that? Is the accounting profession in a crisis? Is there something that can be done to improve it? How do we handle that?
YVONNE DIAS: I think with an industry that commands so much respect, and we’ve done so much to create transparency in reporting, we’ve evolved to have apps with integrated reporting. These scandals are a dark cloud over the profession and they really take away from some of the amazing work that’s been done around auditing, AI, the investment into blockchain, and there’s some really amazing stuff being done around the automation of audit work to reduce costs. But with all these problems you need to come down to the root cause and it’s normally incentives, it’s opportunities or unethical behaviour. I think we’ve just got to look at the penalties for wrongdoing. I think for an industry with such high standards, maybe we should look at higher penalties for breaking it. But again, we must look at the education around our degree level, start there at looking at a softer skill, ethics training. I remember my ethics training, it was a once-off semester course, it was all theory-based, and I think if we can just change that training at that level already, it will make a massive impact. But having said that, I think it’s just a few bad apples making the profession look really bad and I don’t think it’s a true reflection on the whole profession.
‘Give me an Excel spreadsheet and a highlighter and I’m in my element’
CIARAN RYAN: I agree with you, I think that there are a few bad apples and it goes back to the ethics is at the core of the accounting profession and just be reminded of that continuously. Can we switch now to yourself, tell us a bit about your career journey, what got you excited about accounting and got you to where you are today?
YVONNE DIAS: I have a love for numbers, give me an Excel spreadsheet and a highlighter and I’m in my element. I just loved accounting and business management at school, it just completely filled me with joy. So I don’t think there was much decision into what I was doing. I actually had a choice between that and virology, but accounting won. I went to Potchefstroom [North-West University] and did my degree there, and then went to do my articles at Mazars, then Moores Rowland. I stayed on a couple of months as an audit manager and couldn’t really see myself as an audit manager for a long period of time. So I decided to see what was out there and got offered a job at Mint, then Adcheck, and joined them as the financial manager. We’ve had various MDs, so in my view, we’ve had a couple of changes. I’ve had different roles within Mint, so I’ve had a very good career, I’ve been FM, at one stage I did head up the products business, I’ve been FD, I’ve been group FD, so it’s been a very exciting career, and I love the technology.
CIARAN RYAN: Okay and you like the technology side of it too. Are you from Johannesburg?
YVONNE DIAS: No, I’m from a little town called Nigel, and everyone always asks where is Nigel. If you know where Springs is in Gauteng, that’s where the small town of Nigel is.
CIARAN RYAN: A small mining town. Final question, you’ve already mentioned that you do a lot of reading and a lot of the insights that you gain are from just panning out the skills level that maybe you didn’t get in your academic studies, what books would you recommend then? By the way, they don’t have to be technical books, they can be fun.
YVONNE DIAS: Books, how much time do we have, the list I have…No, from a business perspective, the books that I’ve recently read, I read both Leaders Eat Last and The Infinite Game by Simon Sinek, I love both of them. I think it was just great in how it just follows on the growth mindset approach. I read the Starbucks Story by James Simmons, and it’s a really different read, and I loved his struggle between the passion he had for what he was doing, versus what the customers wanted and his lessons learned there I think were just fantastic. But I love reading, my top favourite book is I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. River God by Wilbur Smith is amazing. I love a good thriller, crime novel. My favourite authors are Tim Weaver, Camilla Läckberg and Chris Carter. Give me a Scandinavian author any day and I am in my element.
CIARAN RYAN: So you like those bleak, snowy landscapes with a murder.
YVONNE DIAS: I’m never going to visit them, I’ve decided that there is way too much…little bit too scary, but their books are brilliant.
CIARAN RYAN: That’s rather like Fargo, the series on Netflix, where all of these murders are happening up in this very snowy landscape, it does make for a rather bleak view of life. What an interesting list of books though, so there’s a bit of light reading there, a bit of heavy reading and a bit of technical reading, by the sounds of it.
YVONNE DIAS: Yes, I think some days you just want an easy read where after a rough day, you can sit and quickly knock out a couple of pages, and then some days you want something more intense and you’re trying to figure out who the killer is.
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, here’s my final question, are you optimistic for the future and if so, why?
YVONNE DIAS: I am optimistic for the future and maybe it’s my nature. I am a very positive, I will always look for the best in people, look for the best in a situation and try to find a solution. I believe that you are the master of your destiny, and if we are going to stay here, you’ve got to make your contribution to make a change. Each day it’s about getting up, enjoying what we do and continuously trying to drive your own change. You can’t moan about something and not do something about it. So I choose to be optimistic about my situation and what I can contribute and what I do about it.
CIARAN RYAN: What a great answer, Yvonne, we’re going to leave it at that, but thank you so much for coming and talking to us at CFO Talks. Nicolaas, thank you very much as well. Is there anything you want to say finally, Nicolaas?
NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Thank you Yvonne, that was quite inspiring. I’m also impressed with those books that you read. I’m feeling quite bad now, I’m struggling with one now for months, but yes, maybe I’ll put more effort in. Thank you very much for sharing that.
YVONNE DIAS: No, thank you very much, it was fantastic spending time with you guys.