Elizna Read: Leading from the heart

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Elizna Read, CEO of PBT Group. (Photo by Julian Goldswain)
Elizna Read, CEO of PBT Group. (Photo by Julian Goldswain)

Elizna Read has been with the PBT Group for two decades, most recently as the woman in charge of its operations. Yet she was probably the only one who was caught by surprise when she was offered the opportunity to head up the JSE-listed tech group. This happened in April, after CEO Pierre de Wet decided to step down.

“It's not something I ever set my sights on,” Read says. “I was comfortable in the COO position and I would have been for some time to come, but then I also don’t shy away from a challenge or opportunity.”

But it says a lot about her approach to business that she sees this as ‘a new learning curve’. “I've got a lot to learn when it comes to different types of engagements with shareholders, and stakeholders. You are never too old or been with a company too long to learn something new, I guess.”

So while the country went into a hard COVID-19 lockdown and the company sent all staff to work from home – which Read says was business as usual for the data specialist – she took over the management of the group that employs 640 people, is based in Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Johannesburg, and has subsidiaries in Australia, the Netherlands and the UK.

Being a specialist data and analytics company is a good place to be, even at a time of a pandemic. “The need for data services and expertise is not going away – it’s there even if the clients have significant budgetary constraints. As the economic climate changes and clients have to adapt to the new reality, that's where we will have an important role to play in terms of data engineering and analytics.”

The IT sector has been one of the most fortunate industries, adds Read. “The impact, however, will come from our clients and their clients' clients, so it will have a ripple effect. Some clients have asked our consultants to take leave during this time. While we support paid leave in a time when emotionally it is much needed, managing clients’ stretched budgets will be harder.”

PBT's annual results

Read’s appointment as CEO happened just as PBT Group’s financial year ended and the annual results were due to be reported in June. 

For the year to March 2020, PBT Group reported revenue of R672.5 million, a 14.3% gain year-on-year as operating profit increased by 35.3% to R65.1 million. This led to a pre-tax profit of R66 million, a 30% gain. 

Amid the country’s ongoing economic woes, and companies withholding dividends to preserve cash, PBT declared a final dividend of 11c a share.

One of PBT Group’s differentiators, Read says, is its flexible service and cost model. “We try to manage long-term contracts through having competitive rates, so we don't have a massive margin to play with. We have to stay innovative and see how we can reassign, reskill and redeploy.”

Most of the demand is coming from the banking and financial services sector, where despite lockdown, PBT Group has mostly experienced stability.

As for the overseas operations, Read says it was important to establish presence, although “the timing is difficult for sales and further expansion”. While the company has landed its first own client in Europe, “staying close to what we've got at the moment and making sure everything is intact” is the current focus.

“We have a good thing going and we want to maintain that. We would have ideally set ourselves up for more growth at the beginning of the year, making appointments to add new consultants to projects [before the pandemic].”

Like a family

So, what is the first thing the new CEO would like to do differently? Not much, it turns out.

“I can't see that we need to change anything in the way we’re doing things at the moment.”

The only thing, she adds, is that they may be working too hard. “It's been such a smooth transition, and our employees have been more productive than ever. It's good for the company, but I'm worried about the people as there's no end to the working hours.”

At the time of the interview, Read was working on a COVID-19 report for shareholders, trying to predict how the next 12 months will unfold, and “trying to take an approach to maintain what we've got”.

The collective ‘we’ comes more easily to Read than the ‘I’.

“When I had my first meeting with the board after my appointment, I said the only way I can do this and be successful is if I've got the right team to work with me. I can't take this business any further by myself. Thankfully, I have complete faith that we have the right team of people on finance, HR, sales and the technical side.”

A mother of two children, an eight-year-old and a 10-year-old, Read knows all about balancing work and home life. One way of maintaining her sanity is through running. She says as soon as the restriction on exercising during the lockdown was lifted: “6am that morning, my takkies were on and I was on the road.”

In the tech sector that’s often dominated by larger-than-life personalities, Read stresses that she is focused on the finish line, not on being in the spotlight. “I’m not an industry expert, nor a thought leader, but I am a leader. I lead from the heart and try to lead by example.”

And leading from the heart is founded on the belief in the people she works with. “Most of us have been together for 10+ years, or since I have been here, which is 20 years, so we've got fantastic relationships, we feel like a family. It's a business, but there’s fun to be had in between, and we respect each other. We know the wives, the husbands and the children by their names. The lockdown situation has even increased that − we know how the baby sounds when it cries and the dogs when they bark.”

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