PROFILE: Baptism of fire for AEEI’s tough new acting chief executive
CAPE TOWN – Drawing strength from her mother, a resourceful professional who defied the patriarchal norms of her culture and time, Valentine Dzvova was promoted to the hot seat of a listed company weeks before the Covid-19 lockdown.
At a time of heightened fear and anxiety, when revenues were tanking everywhere, markets were shutting and the world became islands, Dzvova became the acting chief executive of African Equity Empowerment Investments Limited (AEEI), transitioning from bean counter to driving strategy in March.
“In February, I was offered the opportunity to be the acting chief executive of AEEI. This next level of my career wasn’t on my radar at the time, but I always say yes to great opportunities, so I wasn’t going to pass up on it. As long as I have a good support base, I’m fine,” she explains.
It was a baptism of fire for Dzvova. In the first weeks of lockdown month, the offices quietened, which helped her to settle into her new role, working closely with chief financial officer Chantelle Ah Sing, while outgoing chief executive Khalid Abdulla was still in the building.
Although the transition might seem gentle, Dzvova needed to keep it together: bills to be paid, and livelihoods protected, while businesses were crumbling the world over.
Dzvova, though, believes she has joined a resilient group that rolls with the punches and gets the job done.
“Understanding the group as an auditor and being involved in the operations are two different things. But I already knew quite a few people in the organisation, which helped with the transition.
"Lockdown has been tough, though, because I’d be juggling the phone calls, working with our little children, who need both their parents to be present, so you have to steal time here and there to attend to them.
“Luckily, we have a nanny living with us in lockdown, but there is the expectation to keep the home running and to keep everyone positive. My husband, a client relationship manager at an asset management company, is amazing: he steps right in.”
Dzvova, a chartered accountant, has close knowledge of the group: After graduating from UCT, she completed her articles from 2007 to 2010 at mid-tier accounting firm PKF. Sekunjalo Investments Limited, the precursor to AEEI, was one of their biggest clients.
“In 2010, after writing my board exams, I was promoted to audit supervisor and then manager in 2011 at PKF. I worked on the Sekunjalo Investments Limited audit during my training and as an audit manager, so I know the group very well.”
In 2014, she moved to Grant Thornton, before quitting a year later.
“I just had a baby and auditing is very pressurised, so I needed to shift focus.”
That career shift entailed a posting at Independent Media, where she was appointed group financial manager of the digital division.
“I was brought in during 2015 to head up finance for digital, at a time we were making IOL shine. We had invested in Loot and launched ANA, so I was putting together the unit from a finance perspective.”
At AEEI, she’s hitting the ground running. In August, the firm goes into the financial year-end, with new auditors.
“The plan is to grow AYO, via acquisitions, and Khalid’s experience in acquisitions will be instrumental in achieving this imperative in his new role as executive deputy chairperson at AYO, where his role will primarily be responsible for overseeing and fulfilling AYO’s medium- to long-term acquisition strategy.
“AEEI is transitioning to an investment holding company. Premier and AYO are now both listed on the JSE and have separate boards and management structures and therefore run on their own.”
Other subsidiaries within the stable are buoyant too. Marine Growers, a subsidiary of Premier Fishing, is nearing the completion of its abalone farm expansion in Gansbaai.
Once completed, the farm will not only ensure the sustainability of the abalone, but it will also put the farm in the top tier of the largest abalone farms in the country, while Kalula Communications, an AYO subsidiary in the communication and telecoms industry, is selling its products and services like hotcakes in response to a higher demand for remote working, she says.
Then there’s a lucrative e-learning contract that Sizwe, another AYO subsidiary, sealed with a provincial education department.
“We’re in a sweet spot to respond to the new norm, which will see more and more people working and socialising digitally. Our technology businesses are geared for this,” she believes.
Dzvova draws much inspiration from her mother, who passed in 2007.
“My mom worked for the Law Society as the director of communications. She was always surrounded by men; such a tiny, well-turned-out woman, but so powerful.
“I remember being in lower six (Grade 11) and she took me to the President Hotel in Cape Town, where she was presenting at a conference, and I was in awe seeing her operate with such confidence in a corporate world which I had only ever seen on TV. I realised then that if she could do it, so could I. And now, I’ve got this.”