BACK in 1989, there were perhaps few clues that Talita Ferreira, BMW Group UK Limited’s CFO, then a bright-eyed and fresh-faced law and accounting student newly enrolled at Pretoria University, would flee the sun-kissed, Jacandra-lined boulevards of South Africa’s de facto capital for a life less ordinary.
Indeed, so seductive was the allure of academia and the subtle charms of the Edwardian campus and the city’s humid, subtropical climes, that it kept Ferreira in its knowledge-filled embrace for the next five years.
On leaving university in 1994, the year of the country’s first post-Apartheid democratic general elections, Ferreira joined KPMG in South Africa where she successfully completed her articles, before stepping into the Big Four firm’s government consulting arm.
The allure of high finance then cast its spell and Ferreira duly joined Investec’s international specialist banking and asset management empire, where she gained experience in the regulatory reporting arena, specifically focusing on South African Reserve Bank Controls.
Ferreira, who qualified as an IoD chartered director in 2013, then moved to a smaller bank to broaden her exposure to deal-making and the wider workings of corporate finance, particularly listings and mergers. But when she discovered that the bank was not going to list, Ferreira embarked on her professional relationship with the upscale automotive giant, BMW, with a view to becoming a finance director.
The move was her first taste of the workings of a true multinational. It was a corporate flavour she clearly liked, and she recently notched up her 16th year with the German company. And not a bad place to start fulfilling your dream of reaching the upper echelons of a global brand. According to Brand Finance, the planet’s leading independent brand valuation and strategy consultancy, its Global 500 2016 report shows that BMW was the world’s second most lucrative automotive marque after Japanese giant, Toyota, at $35bn (£24.5bn) – up 14% on its performance the year before.
That’s ahead of Coca Cola, Facebook and Telekom. It also drubs Mercedes Benz.
Headquartered in Munich, BMW is the umbrella company that holds the much-loved Mini and the uber-prestigious Rolls Royce. The company has a brand value of €21.6bn (£17.2bn).
But it was to be the dawning of the Millennium before Talita found herself in Germany at the BMW Bavarian mothership.
In her three years there, she became country controller of two key territories, Mexico and Australia and particularly enjoyed a “nice little project on IFRS as the leading accounting system”. She also headed up the business’s data management and reporting function and managed to squeeze an extra 10 hours a week from her busy schedule to study German.
Despite the experience of learning to read Teutonic children’s books, an experience Ferreira describes as “humbling”, she was thrilled when her efforts were rewarded and she was able to speak the lingo at a competent, professional level.
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A key moment in her career came with her promotion to CFO of BMW Financial Services – essentially its capital finance arm – in the UK, where she sat on the board of directors.
This was a turning point in her career, as it was the first time she oversaw human resources and “this is where my passion for organisational development and its human capital really started”.
“For the first time I was not just controlling the purse strings but also looking at enabling the business generally and focusing my leadership on future strategic topics and innovation through people development,” Ferreira enthuses.
Having managed and overseen a £4.1bn portfolio, her role as CFO of BMW Financial Services, UK now includes the fusion of human resources, strategy, change management, leadership development and purchasing. Out of BMW’s 150 or so retailers – some of which are individually owned – BMW owns just one, albeit the prestigious Park Lane store.
“I was a finance professional before and now it’s also strategy, change, employee engagement and all the finance parts,” says Ferreira.
She classifies her professional experience as “a portfolio career” that has taken in three different countries, two industries, namely automotive and financial services, and all “from a competency base” not just as a CFO but HR and strategy to boot.
She “very consciously” put change and employee engagement outside the traditional HR ghetto and instead moved into the core strategic sphere.
In 2014, Ferreira oversaw the company’s UK move from its long-established Berkshire base in Bracknell to a newly acquired site in Farnborough, Hampshire. Its new home boasts a “campus-type feel” with three buildings on it.
She decided to move the three companies she had managed – the automotive, financial services and Alphabet, its fleet leasing company – into it. Alphabet will join in May.
While all three business cultures are very different, Ferreira is attempting to connect them by fusing innovation and change to employee engagement. Such a process is already paying dividends and is helping to create and embed a culture of employee engagement that “supports the strategic objectives of the business” based on the “three pillars of authentic, collaborative and inspirational”.
And by embarking on just such a cultural change programme that so readily encapsulate those ideals, the company can “think about how we integrate talent” in a forward-focused manner and “bring diversity of thought” in ways that enable it to “partner in new ways” to create a hotbed of “fresh ideas and creativity”.
This approach, dubbed ‘what moves you’ internally, is based on a “simpler, more emotive language when communicating internally”, while externally, the company recruits through the power of the BMW brand – the “number one in Europe last year”, says Ferreira.
And when one factors in the statistic that “it costs £34,000 to recruit someone new and train then up”, encouraging cross-disciplinary pollination and diversity from within the same overall company brings its own advantage and definitively benefits the bottom line, says Ferreira.
She says the fruits of the change programme are already being harvested with “far higher levels of collaboration when trying to solve problems”. This is partly achieved through “collaboration labs” which deliver “diversity of thought”, resulting in better “outputs” over a half-day workshop than the same meeting in an office environment.
Ferreira admits to being “totally taken” with her new and expanded role, but has “not lost that very keen analytical mind of the CFO” and that the combination “brings the value”.
Not one to miss underscoring a valid point with empirical evidence, Ferreira stresses that employee engagement “is no longer intangible” as a University of Bath study shows that when an organisation has very engaged employees, the “bottom line results are tangibly financial – they’re pound signs and that makes any CFO’s heart sing”.
Allied to this, a new policy of flexible working, where “teams come up with a contract about what they need to deliver to their customers – whether internal or external and where they will work best”, is firmly in place.
“Even an accountant needs to do bank reconciliations that are better done when they’re at home,” she says. “And what we’ve seen with flexible working is that the sick rate has really reduced. I think we’re naive as a corporation if we think that people are present on a seat for 12 hours and being effective – if you just sit in one place the whole day without moving around, without collaborating, there’s no way you can physically be productive.”
And by adopting such a flexible stance, Ferreira says BMW has improved absentee rates, saved on recruitment costs and helped encourage “a more engaged, happier workforce that offers more tangible and creative results with more discretionary effort”, which all benefit the bottom line.
Ferreira’s own cultural transformation has seen her “become more of a generalist rather than a specialist” and she can, in the future, see herself in a CEO role in the wider BMW Group.
Away from work, and when not listening to 1980s music, Ferreira enjoys reading, walking and swimming with her eight-year-old daughter as well as a de rigeur 10-minute blast of downloadable mindfulness training every morning.
March 2013 – present CFO, BMW Group UK Limited
December 2005 – February 2013 FD, BMW Group Financial Services
December 2005 – April 2011 FD, Alphabet (GB)
2000 – 2003 GM Finance, BMW SA
Talita Ferreira will be speaking at the CFO Agenda 2016, Financial Director’s annual conference for finance leaders. Ferreira will join a panel of experts to discuss how to instil effective change management culture.
The CFO Agenda takes place on 28 June at The Waldorf Hilton, London.