Meet This Chartered Accountant Who Became A CFO and COO Of a Leading Company Under The Age Of 35

  • Hi folks! Julian Johnson this side. I am a proud South African and a Chartered Accountant from SAICA (The South African Insitute of Chartered Accountants).
  • I have worked across the continent, faced failures, molded myself into different job profiles, and now… I am the CFO and COO of a leading Renewable Energy Power Producer in Africa.
  • Here’s my story How I became a CFO and COO of a Leading Company under the age of 35.

Tracing Back Roots - How I Began My Career In CA?

Born and brought up in Johannesburg, I am a proud second-generation Chinese South African.

Growing up as a minority (in the final years of apartheid) we never quite fitted on the South African ‘color spectrum’ which created a challenging dynamic of neither being ‘white enough’ nor ‘black enough’. My parents went through a lot of hardships and made many sacrifices to ensure I could have a better future.

During my 11th grade year, I undertook a job shadowing program at PwC, South Africa. At that time, I didn’t know entirely what PwC did, or what auditing was. Honestly, I didn’t even know what a Chartered Accountant was! But, this exposure to the “business world” opened my eyes to a wider world.

So, my love for mathematics and accountancy at school combined with the understanding of the practical finance world, I was encouraged to pursue Chartered Accountancy. And here started my CA journey.

Contrary to what I had expected, my CA journey was not a straight road. I failed multiple times. I had excelled academically throughout school so when I kept failing my exams I could not understand what happened or why I failed! 

And combined with the general message that “you need to clear the CA in the first attempt to have a successful career, otherwise you are doomed” my expectations from myself jostled real bad and real hard. It was very frustrating. 

Coming out of this space required some deep introspection about my life ahead - why was I failing, what I wanted to do with my life, and those existential questions, you know!

This gave me some profound answers that I was looking for. Facing failures developed a never-give-up attitude in me. Critically, it made me strive for more. I now wanted to prove to myself that “I can do it”.

In hindsight, I feel grateful that I went through these challenges early on in my career. It molded me into what I am today.

For those who have failed, this is what I advise: “Pick yourself up and give it another go. It is not the end of the world and it will, most definitely, NOT define your career.”

Making A Leap Into The Corporate World

Post articles, I moved to the Advisory division at KPMG which gave me an to a variety of clients and business issues. During this time, I realized I wanted to leap into the corporate world.

I was fortunate to secure a position at MTN Group as an Analyst. Being a part of such a big company ensured that my foundation was solid. It even prepared me for the future that followed.

After being with MTN for 6 years (at that point, I was the senior manager consolidations and group reporting at MTN), I was presented with an opportunity at BioTherm Energy as a Senior Finance Manager (by a headhunter). 

About The Company - Backed by the world’s leading emerging market investors - Actis, BioTherm Energy is actively investing in wind and solar projects across Africa with nearly 400 MW of wind and solar projects in construction in South Africa and Kenya.

This was a golden opportunity because I was:

  1. Presented a chance to be a part of a positive effort to develop our continent,
  2. Provided new challenges to improve my skills and experience,
  3. Had greater exposure to the operational side of running a Private Equity backed business.

And since I was moving from a large corporate (MTN) to a boutique business (BioTherm Energy), before accepting the opportunity, I asked myself the following questions:

  1. Is it a business and industry that I would love to be a part of?
  2. Will it allow me to develop new skills?
  3. Would those skills assist my career development and achievement of my goals?
  4. Are the assets under management significant?
  5. Could I make an impact?

FiveYes’s make for a pretty good reason to accept the opportunity. And I did just that! I joined BioTherm Energy. 

After almost 3 years at BioTherm Energy, I decided to move to another company in a transaction capital profile. However, after just a few months I rejoined BioTherm Energy as the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and the Chief Operating Officer (COO). You won’t believe but I was under 35 years of age then. “Really?” I know right! :)

I have worked across the continent which allowed me to experience the incredible diversity and the beauty of Africa. More importantly, it gave me a tremendous depth of understanding and experience - which provided me to be valuable in the work that I do today.

My Experiences As CFO and COO and Transforming into a Young Leader

I am deeply inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s phrase: “DARE GREATLY”. Aim high to go far. I did just that.

I have been immensely fortunate to have worked with (and continue to work with) some truly amazing leaders - who saw potential in me and allowed me the opportunity to test myself, stretch my abilities and demonstrate my capabilities from an early stage in my career.

This comes with trust, and trust needs to be earned. It doesn’t come easy. Can I give you the secret sauce? To build trust, rise to the occasion, meet the expectations and prove yourself by delivering value.

When I first started to lead people, I struggled to find the balance between being empathetic and wanting the job done at any cost. With time, I learned. The role of CFO and COO transformed me into a leader. This might sound cliche but people who form your team are your greatest assets and they should be treated as such. 

Part of being a good leader is TIME - time making mistakes, time observing other leaders, time to have better self-awareness, and time to learn.

If mistakes are made - own up to them and speak with people/colleagues/peers. You can always fix an error as we all make mistakes but what matters the most is - how we deal with our mistakes/errors. 

What Happens When The CFO Is A COO Too?

The role of CFO and COO is intertwined: being involved in operations and understanding the best way to support the strategy and growth of the business. It is also essential to understand the finances that drive the operations, what should be done, and what is on the fringes.

A CFO takes care of the finances. More than that, they add value to the operations of a business through understanding:

  • how the various components of a business fit together,
  • the regulatory frameworks in which it needs to operate successfully, and
  • the dollars that drive the business. (numbers matter!)

COO stands for Chief Operating Officer and is a high-level executive running the actual operations of a company. The role of COO is not traditionally defined as other C-suite roles. It generally aligns with the strengths of the individual in the position.

As the COO, you:

  • Look at various non-financial aspects of a business, and how these other areas support the overall strategy.
  • Are required to help make the CEO’s vision a reality and make them more effective and complete.
  • Be operational-focused, which allows for deeper involvement in strategy and specific business needs.
  • As a CFO you generally have corporate finance and ancillary finance functions reporting to you. While as a COO, you have Operations, HR, IT, and other functions of a business reporting to you. 

So, if you are interested in the operational side of a business, becoming a COO should be added to a CA’s career goals.

On the other hand, CEOs are in charge of "where the company is going" while COOs are in charge of "how the company will get there".

My Advice For New Leaders In Making

Over the course of my career, I have learned a lot and I continue to learn every day. I observe other leaders (good or bad) and each taught me some valuable lessons. That being said, don’t just engage with leaders but also listen to all levels of staff. Learn from other’s experiences. 

My best pieces of advice for leaders in any field would be this:

  1. Stay humble. Ego is your worst enemy. Never believe you are above anyone.
  2. Do not presume to know what a person is or is not going through. They are not just your employees. They are people, they have lives too. Be empathetic.
  3. Make decisions carefully and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Keep learning.
  4. Leaders have to make tough calls, and not everyone is going to agree with you. Let go of the fear of being unpopular and always be fair, consistent and real.
  5. Treat everyone fairly, be it the most senior or the junior Everyone has something to contribute to your company.
  6. Action always speaks louder than words so believe in doing.

Wrapping It Up...

“The only impossible journey is the one you never begin.”

This was my journey - as a CA, CFO, COO, and a leader. There were road-blocks in my journey as well. It wasn’t easy. It required work. It required dedication.

All I can say is skills can always be learnt but the most tricky part is to learn to deal with people and politics. And when in such a situation always rise above and act with honour. If you don’t face challenges, you don’t grow.

I did it. And, you can do it too.

Start somewhere. Work towards your goals. Be steadfast and seek advice when needed. Stay humble. Always be the real, authentic you.

And… Never believe that you are too senior to learn something new.

Now, It’s Your Turn!

Were you inspired by Julian Johnson's journey? Did you find the mojo to start?

We are eager to hear your story. Write to us in the comments and don’t forget to share this article with your friends :)

(Edited by Simran Doshi)

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