CFO Mark Stirton recalls his shift from booksmart to streetsmart

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CFO Mark Stirton recalls his shift from booksmart to streetsmart

Dec 29, 2023 | Strategy & Leadership

]CFO Mark Stirton might be a trained chartered accountant, but he has always had entrepreneurial flair. As former Group CFO of Mr Price Group, Mark will be heading to New Zealand to take the reigns as Group CFO of The Warehouse Group, boasting a turnover of $3 billion.

Here is a man who believes in the power of technology to execute strategies and improve company efficiencies, who isn’t afraid to think differently and for whom the word “average” simply isn’t part of his lexicon.

After completing his three-year articles at PwC in Durban in early 2005, Mark briskly headed for the exit door. He quickly realised auditing was not his dream job and he has never looked back.

Streetsmarts

He joined Eurotap South Africa; an investment company owned by Doug Lumley that has various business interests in KwaZulu-Natal. His time at Eurotap reminds Mark of the third season of the reality TV series The Apprentice where highly educated graduates dubbed ‘the booksmarts’ teamed up against less academic business-minded operators called ‘the streetsmarts’.

‘I think the move from PwC to Eurotap shifted me from the former to the latter,’ he says.

Doug taught him a valuable lesson about always being in touch with what happens on the ground in a company. To this day, he shares this lesson with his mentees. “One night, Doug called me and instructed me to meet him at the company’s injection moulding factory the following day. He told me to wear shorts which I found quite strange. When I got there, I found him packing a truck all by himself. Doug explained that he had been looking at supplier invoices and was not convinced we were getting value for money so he was packing the truck to establish the exact volume of goods each vehicle could carry.”

The experience taught Mark to always ‘pack the truck’ himself regardless of how high up the corporate ladder he finds himself. ‘There is immense value in taking a walk through the ground level of operations and understanding the business,’ he says.

Strategy

I ask Mark what makes a successful strategy.

‘You need to have a vision of what could be and what should be. You then link that vision with a purpose that transcends short-term return. You need to aim to capture the hearts and minds of people and combine that with the right business model. Strategy is then the plan one pursues to actualise the vision.’

The topic of strategy reminds Mark of the New York Times bestseller Blue Ocean Shift. ‘I learnt a lot from the book, including how to create uncontested market spaces. Renowned business strategist Michael Porter says that you either win on cost or win on differentiation, but the authors of Blue Ocean Shift talk about value innovation. They write about creating value that is so significant that you need not compete on cost or differentiation alone.’

Mark explains that this centres around creating great products that need not be priced cheaply. “That is the blue ocean where customers actually find you rather than you having to seek them out through the red ocean where it is the race to the bottom with companies undercutting each other on price.”

He also believes in using technology to execute a strategy. Mark point to the increased use of smart devices on the continent which he believes is indicative of a coming digital revolution. The Global System for Mobile Association (GSMA) projects that 475 million people on the African continent will be mobile internet users by 2025.

The strength of Yuppiechef’s e-commerce platform was therefore a key consideration when Mr Price looked at acquiring the company.

Digital transformation

‘You can be average in repetitive transactional activities because those are not the things that you win on,’ Mark says, ‘but you must be brilliant at the activities that are pivotal to success, which include strategic thinking and execution.’

Mark’s passion for digital transformation has led him to pursue an executive MBA in Global Digital Business.

“I am a crusader for deployment of technology because systems can propel you to do more strategic and catalytic work. The traditional CFO gets boxed in the stewardship mindset to maintain the business and work for the system. As a result, 85% of their time is spent working under the system reporting the numbers while 15% of their time is left to understand the numbers.”

Mark is attempting to flip the script on the time balance by getting finance leaders within the group to spend more than two-thirds of their time on transformation and forward-thinking processes thereby turning them into what he calls strategic catalysts. ‘The finance leader should be a thinker of such a kind that when the MD or commercial leader comes along with an idea, the CFO must be ready to assist in actualising it. The CFO should be ready to ut meat on the bone and catalyse corporate action.’

Does he have any concerns that an emphasis on technological interventions will lead to job losses?

‘Henry Ford once said “If I asked the people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”,’ he quotes. ‘The horse industry was concerned that the invention of the car would render people like blacksmiths redundant, yet it resulted in plenty more manufacturing and related jobs. Innovation will often lead to the birth of new job opportunities.’

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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