CFO Aarti Takoordeen – Overcame poverty to become SA’s youngest listed company CFO

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CFO Aarti Takoordeen – Overcame poverty to become SA’s youngest listed company CFO

Dec 24, 2023 | Interviews

There are probably very few, if any, chief financial officers of South Africa’s top companies who have ever had to go to bed hungry. Aarti Takoordeen may be a former CFO of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) and AECI Limited, but she still has vivid memories of the hunger she experienced growing up in Ladysmith in a family of four with a single parent.

Achievements

At 32, Aarti was the youngest appointed CFO of a main board JSE listed entity in 2013. The JSE is a securities exchange that provides a primary market, secondary market and post-trade services, market data and technology services. The JSE also regulates markets. A year later she was recognised by CFO South Africa as the Young CFO of the Year.

Aarti’s mother worked as an office receptionist at Chisa Welding in Ladysmith and struggled to make ends meet on her modest salary. Whilst she and her siblings grew up in a loving home, there were days when there wasn’t enough food for all of them and Aarti knew her mother would never be able to afford to send her to university.

Motivated to lift herself and her family out of poverty, Aarti enrolled for accounting studies at UNISA in 1998. She paid for her studies through working through a training contract with a small size audit firm in town. She graduated with a Bachelor of Accounting Science degree in 2002 and completed her honours in the same discipline a year later.  She wrote the board examinations and qualified as a chartered accountant in 2004.

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Looking back, Aarti wishes she had extended her people-focus beyond the individuals she works with. Today she knows it is also important to develop deep connections with people both at work and in your private life. ‘The full circle of life means that the people you encounter are likely to come back into your life at some point later and therefore how you treat them today has a direct impact on your future.’

Best version

Aarti encourages young professionals to continually strive to be the best version of themselves. To achieve that, you should establish what your value system is at the start of your career, and it should guide you throughout. Young professionals should hold themselves to account in both their words and their actions.

When recruiting and promoting employees, Aarti places a bigger premium on attitude than on academics. ‘You can teach people technical information, but you cannot really teach a constructive attitude.’

She also admires individuals who exhibit resilience and courage. However, ambition should be combined with a good dose of empathy to avoid individuals bulldozing their way through an organisation. It doesn’t help if you can get the job done but you lack in the softer metrics.

As a young woman of Indian ethnicity, Aarti has experienced bias around her age, her religion, her race and her gender. However, she has decided not to waste too much time or energy on such incidents. ‘I play my own game and put my head down to deliver. The solution for discrimination is to prove your competence.’

That said, she did take the transformation battle at the JSE to heart as this had repercussions for others in the organisation. It was an emotional struggle because she believes as a country, we should have made greater progress in this regard than we have.

‘Early on when I joined the institution, there were certain inflection points when, as leaders, we had to stop a meeting to question whether or not we are treating people equally. It is important in my view to have the courage to call out bias. It is an energy-sapping exercise because these are difficult conversations that have the potential to drive you to tears, but you need to have them because that is the only way you will effect change.’

Crisis management

The job of Finance Director can be quite stressful and Aarti is thankful that the JSE is a fitness focussed organisation. She runs and does yoga with people who work at the institution and meditation sessions are scheduled in everyone’s diaries. ‘It is important to find ways to relieve ourselves of the pressures of the organisation. No two days are the same here; one day the systems could be down and, on another day, a downgrade announcement can cause an adverse reaction on the exchange.’

When it comes to managing a crisis, Aarti has solid advice: don’t panic! This only leads to decisions that have not been thought through properly. One should be calm enough to step back and think about different options and possible consequences they could have.

‘I read about a CEO who sent a note to the organisation when a crisis hit,’ Aarti says. ‘It was a very well written memo drafted spontaneously, but the CEO did not consider the fact that the email could be forwarded to people outside the organisation and have far reaching consequences for the company. It resulted in a colossal tumble of the company’s share price that the company is yet to recover from. I therefore think it is important to always test your thinking with others around the table and thereby uncover ideas that you may not have thought about.’

In a crisis, it is so easy to give in to the flight or fight response that will usually make you want to fix the problem as quickly as possible. Rather than running, Aarti advises, rather stand still for a moment and think before you act. This has been a difficult lesson to learn even for her, because by her own admission, she has the kind of personality that seeks to get control back as quickly as possible when a crisis strikes.

This article is an extract from the book Masters of Money – Strategies for Success from the CFOs of South Africa’s Biggest Companies available here – https://www.takealot.com/masters-of-money/PLID90121297?gad_source=1&gclid=CjwKCAiAyp-sBhBSEiwAWWzTnmLGsW3EWthrsEzrN69lcPhFqkxkQjPsxSF6CHoP2oj6-XRBtDB5gBoCfA8QAvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds

 

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