October 2015

'Good business and financial practices are important'

Behram Sabawala, a chartered accountant with more than three decades of experience in audit, banking, treasury, finance and accountancy, is the CFO of Tata International's (TIL) distribution vertical at Tata Africa, Johannesburg.

Behram's work with the Tata Business Excellence Model (TBEM) has assisted his professional development. He also enjoys researching topics such as positive thinking, people development, team building and effective personal leadership and makes regular presentations.

What are your core responsibilities?
As CFO of the distribution vertical of TIL, my core responsibilities straddle processes, systems and people, more particularly ensuring that the finance and accounts function is a true partner to the businesses and doesn't put up barricades and road blocks to the ultimate objective of driving profitable, sustainable growth across all our business verticals in Africa.

TIL, through Tata Africa Holdings, has been the flag bearer of the Tata group in Africa since 1977. How has the company's role evolved today?
We have historically distributed Tata Motors' vehicles across Africa. However, as a conscious measure to de-risk our operations, we have broad-based our structures to also include distributorships for Jaguar Land Rover in Ghana and Zambia, for John Deere (farm equipment manufacturers) in Kenya and Nigeria and also some OEMs for ICE (infrastructure and construction equipment) across Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia and Uganda.

Additional measures to diversify have led to exciting forays in chemicals, pharma (healthcare division), agricultural commodities, glass and general trading, which we believe have significant upsides across Africa.

What challenges does TIL face in Africa?
It would perhaps have been easier to answer "what challenges do we not face"? We operate in a huge continent, where we are present across 12 geographies, each vastly different from the other. We are building a team that is singularly focused on profitable, sustainable growth, working capital management and most critically, managing the risks of currency volatility that has been exacerbated in recent months with the strengthening of the US Dollar.

How do you feel about working in Africa?
On the personal front, it is difficult, considering I'm on my own here. Professionally, it has been a revelation. It has been very fulfilling and rewarding.

What efforts have you made to make yourself at home in your host country?
Everything short of cooking my own meals. I'm called bhikshuk (beggar) by my team, as I'm always hungry, especially for home-cooked meals. Many expats across Africa unfortunately believe they cannot possibly work well with local resources, whereas what we're now driving is the realisation that we are guests in the countries we now live in and must integrate seamlessly into the local environment. There's a very negative perception of safety and security across Africa, which needs to be set aside considering the vast opportunities available here.

You have a passion for positive thinking, team building, people development and effective personal leadership. How have these elements helped you as an individual and as a leader?
To a great extent. I cannot emphasise this enough. Consistently practicing the simple things that unfortunately appear so challenging to most of us — such as developing an attitude of gratitude, giving without expecting, treating others as you would expect to be treated, putting yourself squarely in front at all times, accepting responsibility for all that happens, etc.

Three principles that have helped me are: If it is to be, it is up to me; I and I alone am responsible; and whatever happens to me happens because of me. It's pretty simple, but somehow rare and elusive to most, which makes it even more special.

What is the role that good business and financial practices can play in a company's success?
There is nothing more important. The pride that each of us feels in being part of the finest group, stems from exactly the trust that has been earned from such good practices and consistently being open and transparent. This also places a huge responsibility on each of us, to ensure that we back that pride with consistent performances that prove that we are worthy of the trust that has been reposed in us.

This article first appeared in the September issue of Tata Sphere, the Tata group's employee magazine. Read the full issue of Tata Sphere here >>