Winning Women – Cristina Teixeira: Taking the reins to build a giant

2013-10-07 14:00

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Cristina Teixeira, the only woman chief financial officer in the listed engineering and construction sector in South Africa, is blazing a path for other women, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

The first female chief financial officer in the history of the massive construction and engineering company, Group Five, sweeps into its seriously large boardroom and makes an immediate impact with her svelte appearance and friendly approach.

Cristina Teixeira has so many “firsts” before her name that intense curiosity burns about how this 40-year-old reached thetop in a relatively short period.

She’s the only woman chief financial officer in the listedengineering and construction sector in South Africa. She’s also the first ever woman executive director, and youngest, at Group Five.

She’s also the chairperson of Group Five’s pension and retirement funds.

Teixeira has shattered every dreary stereotype about women in male-dominated industries and has excelled at figures and financials during her meteoric career.

Yet, in spite of enjoying mathsand accountancy at St Catherine’s Dominican Convent on the West Rand, she had not targeted a career in finances.

She obtained her BCom degree from Wits University. “I wasn’t an A student or top of the class,” she says with the remarkable candour that typifies her personality.

What she was, and is to this day, is extremely hard-working and dogged about her goals.

She received her honours degree from Unisa and did her articles at Coopers and Leybrand, which subsequently became PWC.

There she worked with Paul O’Flaherty, the former chief financial officer of Eskom. He became one of her mentors and when he joined Group Five in 2002, Teixeira followed him into the construction company.

She says: “I was offered a role which was a new position for Group Five. As I am a reallyconservative person, and like an upfront plan, I surprised myself by accepting their offer.”

Within six years, the articulate and clear-minded accountant was made the company’s chief financial officer.

In 2008, she attended INSEAD, one of the largest executive education providers in the world, where she did its advanced management programme in France.

Teixeira has successfully combined career, marriage and now a baby, Dominic, who is three years old.

“I have so much respect for single mothers,” she declares.

“I am fortunate to have a support system with my husband and an extended family, and I operate from a position of strength at work in terms of my seniority.”

She’s full of praise for women in more junior positions, who have little influence in flexible working hours.

That concern is one of the reasons she sponsors the Basadi Programme, which supports and develops women in Group Five, as well as women business owners in the construction sector and young girls who need work exposure.

“I’m fortunate to have had, since 2007, a chief executive in Mike Upton, who has a high EQ (emotional quotient) and allows me full autonomy in executing my various responsibilities,” she says.

But like so many working mothers who demonstrate intense diligence and loyalty for being able to “have it all”, she often works late into the night.

“Mike once told me it worried him to receive emails from me at 3am. But he now understands that we work the same hours,” she says.

“It’s just that I start up after most have closed down for the day as I prefer to spend time with my son in the evenings.”

Teixeira’s achievements are all the more remarkable because she comes from a deeply conservative Portuguese family.

Her parents emigrated from Madeira to South Africa before she was born. Her father was a bus driver for the Joburg municipality.

“I grew up in a fiercely traditional and conservative Portuguese home, where it was the culture at the time for women not to pursue tertiary education,” she says.

Yet Teixeira’s parents were able to instill in her a deep-rooted value system while simultaneously encouraging her to aspire and to dream.

That background helped her during one of her first job interviews when she was asked about her upbringing. She talked proudly about her father’s work.

She got the distinct feeling that lineage counted and that a bus-driving parent would not help her contribute to the corporate world.

So when they offered her the job, she turned it down, opting for another one, “with a value system more aligned to my own”.

Over the years, Teixeira has won more awards than there is space to list here, including the Investment Analysts Society Award for reporting and disclosure, for six years running. The Businesswomen’s Association of SA made her this year’s Business Woman of the Year, a huge accolade.

“My colleagues doubtless see me at times as focused, even hard-assed, with my relentless drive for return on investment. But there is far more to me than that,” she says, pointing out that she focuses on equitable treatment for all and strives to improve the lives of others.

She travels to Madeira every few years, to be “reminded” of where she came from – the poverty and the hardship.

“I won’t ever forget that,” she says.

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