Christine Ramon is back from her hiatus

2014-08-03 15:00

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Sasol’s former chief financial officer moves on to mining after taking a few months off to figure out what she wants to do

After 11 months without a full-time job, Christine Ramon is back.

She is doing the same job, but has swapped her office at Sasol’s head office in Rosebank for AngloGold Ashanti’s offices in the Newtown precinct.

Ramon’s resignation from the petrochemicals multinational made headlines and had market watchers scratching their heads.

“Ramon’s abrupt Sasol exit jolts analysts,” wrote Business Day. “Fuel giant executive’s resignation sparks speculation,” the Mail & Guardian followed. “Sasol: confused by loss of CFO,” Financial Mail reported.

Ramon leans forward thoughtfully. After about seven and a half years at Sasol, it was time to make a change, she says.

The lengthy gap between jobs was due to the fact that she wanted to take a break and really figure out what she wanted to do after Sasol.

During the break, she was appointed nonexecutive director of MTN, adding to her responsibilities as deputy chair of the Financial Reporting Standards Council and a couple of other engagements.

She will officially join the gold mining group in October, taking over from outgoing chief financial officer Richard Duffy, but is already spending time in Newtown getting up to speed with the business.

Sasol is yet to replace her and finance executive Paul Victor is still acting in the post she vacated last September.

Ramon started working part time for accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) in her teens, while also studying accounting sciences through Unisa.

“I worked during the day and studied at night,” she said. “I was working from the age of 17, so I had to mature quite quickly.”

She also “came from the background where we had to contribute to the household”, so she did not enjoy the partying lifestyle many students had, but did have some free time over weekends. Even then, she sometimes had to make time for studying.

“That’s where discipline comes in – not everyone can do it.”

Her family of accountants, including her twin sister, who was also studying and working part time, also kept her going. Ramon qualified as a chartered accountant at the age of 23.

She stayed with Coopers & Lybrand, climbing the ladder to senior roles in the company, which saw her posted in offices around the world, thus kicking off her globetrotting ways.

Ramon often mentions the global reach of the companies she has worked at. Sasol operates in 13 regions around the world and AngloGold is active in 10 countries.

But it was while she was back on home soil in 1994, after Coopers & Lybrand seconded her to the Independent Electoral Commission as deputy finance director during the country’s first democratic elections, that Ramon decided to move into the world of commerce, as she calls it.

She joined Johnnic Holdings, now a subsidiary of Hosken Consolidated Investments (HCI), as chief accountant.

Ramon was with Johnnic for 11 years, rising through the ranks to become its financial director in 2003 and ultimately its CEO in 2004 at the age of 36.

“Cyril [Ramaphosa] appointed me financial director and later CEO of Johnnic,” she says.

In its heyday, Johnnic – with Ramaphosa as chairperson – held media, telecommunications, hotel and gaming interests.

Her stint as CEO was short-lived, as a nasty battle with then controlling shareholder HCI, which was competing against Johnnic for control of the Tsogo Sun hotel chain, took its toll. She quit a year after taking the hot seat.

“I felt their [HCI’s] strategy was not aligned to mine.”

Four months later, she joined Sasol, where – besides overseeing a $1?billion bond issuance, helping drive the group’s Canadian expansion, and making the company a leaner, meaner machine financially – she was instrumental in the Sasol Inzalo black economic empowerment deal.

Transformation is a topic Ramon is passionate about.

Black executives help drive change in organisations as their influence then filters down to the lower levels, she says. But the problem was that, lower down, black people tended to get stuck at certain levels, making the culture of the company very important. She calls this “cultural transformation”.

“It’s pointless to let a black manager come through and then not let them get anywhere,” she says.

“It’s important to let them come through and develop them.”

She says this could be done by setting clear targets, with defined deadlines, throughout the company, not only from an employment equity perspective but from other broad-based empowerment points of view as well.

And if these were not achieved? Ramon says the board would have to make a judgement call.

“Sometimes when the economy is pulling back, like we are now, companies tend to pull back on investing in training and skills development.”

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