CFO Sean Capazorio – Tsunami survivor taking on corporate storms

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CFO Sean Capazorio – Tsunami survivor taking on corporate storms

Jan 1, 2024 | Strategy & Leadership

An earthquake takes place near or on the ocean floor, causing a ripple effect. Imagine seeing the violent waves that are the result of the earthquake approaching as you scramble to get away from the unforgiving force of the dark harsh water.  You need to save yourself and you need to save your wife. And as if the situation is not dire enough, she is three months pregnant!

That was the experience of the Aspen Pharmacare Group CFO Sean Capazorio in 2004 on Thailand’s Phi Phi island when the devastating and deadly tsunami hit. Journalist Clifford Coonan described it as a scene from the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now, saying it was as if “a village had been picked up by an angry giant”. Over 4,000 people are estimated to have died.

On that fateful day, Sean and his wife Lindsay were enjoying a stroll down a scenic street when the water swept them within seconds of making landfall. Unable to breath and unable to speak, they held onto each other for as long as they could until the force of the waves cast them asunder.

The water briskly ferried Sean like he was a helpless raft in a raging river. He first grabbed onto a telephone pole then later swapped it for the top of a coconut tree. Once the waves subsided, he faced the longest ten minutes of his life running around shouting Lindsay’s name like a lost child, the sight of dead bodies lying on the streets fuelling his worst fears.

Handling crisis

Thankfully, she had managed to grab onto the roof of a wooden shop where she held on tightly until some local men got to her and pulled her above the mayhem. Their joy was unconfined when they were reunited.

Sean was quite ill afterwards suffering from leptospirosis having swallowed rodent infested water during the ordeal. He made a full recovery and six months after leaving the island, the couple celebrated the birth of a bouncing baby boy.

“The experience is pivotal to my approach in the corporate environment,” Sean, says. “When faced with crisis, I always ask myself if it is worse than a near drowning experience in a tsunami. It never is. And if I survived that, I can survive pretty much anything.”

“It is important to attend to the key challenges first; you should break down the problem into small pieces. It is an approach I have learnt from my outdoor activities, particularly cycling. (Sean has completed the 109 kilometre Cape Town Argus Cycle Tour twenty-one times). When going up Chapmans Peak, I break it down into a number of hills and focus on completing each small hill. This helps keep me calm as opposed to getting stressed thinking about the how far the ultimate peak is.”

“My attention to detail is quite high. Thanks to my extensive experience, I have good insight into how things should work. That said, I am not an autocratic type of leader; I expect people to manage themselves and my role is to coach, mentor and guide them.”

Lessons

“I am also quite emphatic about integrity; I tell my guys that without integrity, the numbers mean absolutely nothing.”

One of Sean’s key lessons over the years has been to use the people around him as much as possible. “Sometimes we all take on too much and one of the best ways to handle key problems is to delegate so that everybody is sharing in the quest for a solution and not just the person at the top.”

In terms of managing a team, another important aspect for Sean is early detection.

“I do not like late surprises. I always tell my team they should not be shy about telling me something I do not want to hear. I would rather know about a problem early so that we can flag it quickly and get it dealt with. It is actually a cultural aspect of Aspen where we have a flat structure that enables everyone to have accountability and responsibility. We also try and be proactive in anticipating problems so that solutions are devised way in advance.”

He advises younger professionals to be captains of their own ship. “You should not wait for people to give you things to do. Furthermore, do not only focus on finance. Broaden your horizons, keep your finance core while expanding your knowledge base.

‘The way I learnt over the years was getting involved in other areas of the business, going down to the manufacturing floor, understanding the supply chain, taking an interest in legal contracts … that is how you understand the business as a whole.”

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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