While her job and home life require her to find calm amidst the storms, MARA DE LIMA believes that as a woman, she’s well equipped for the challenge
As Hospitality Property Fund CEO and mother of a five-year-old daughter, Mara De Lima has two very important jobs. The challenge – for Mara and for many other working moms – lies in switching between the two. ‘When I leave the office I am consumed by my daughter,’ she says. ‘Sarah is five, and definitely a mommy’s girl. I am so not a girly girl, so handbags and make-up is hard work for me!’
Mara has been with the Tsogo Sun Group for almost 12 years now, having started as a management accountant in the Southern Sun brand. She was financial manager for Southern Sun Hotels for just over seven years, before moving across to HPF, where she’s been for almost three years.
It’s a demanding role, and Mara has a busy life. ‘When I do get a moment to myself, I like to pick up a book and read,’ she says. ‘I normally prefer fiction – magic and dragons, where I can escape my reality for a while – but at the moment I’m reading about cognitive behavioural therapy. It provides tools for coping in our fast-paced, hectic lifestyle and it teaches mindfulness, finding ways to breathe and relax
when you’re away from work, or in a stressful situation. I sometimes find it difficult to switch off and focus on being present without allowing my mind to run off on to the “what ifs”, and the to-do list. It requires continuous juggling.’
Mara’s role sees her interacting with people on a daily basis, which is something she enjoys tremendously. ‘I meet wonderful people every day, from all walks of life and from all over the world. I try to connect with my team regularly, so that we can talk about things other than work, and try to understand some of the hardships that other people face in their daily lives,’ she says, adding that the group’s values align strongly with her own. ‘It’s about teamwork, respect and integrity, and I believe in living those values every day. I like to treat everybody the same. Everybody has a story and life lessons to share, and if you can learn a life lesson from somebody else, it’s a lot easier than learning it yourself! In reality, though, it doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes you do need to bump your head before you remember, “Oh yes, somebody did once tell me I could do this differently!”’ As in any business, Mara sees her fair share of head bumping. ‘I feel like a firefighter some days,’ she laughs. ‘I tend to deal with issues right at the end, when everything has gone wrong and someone needs to come in and fix it all. It’s also quite challenging staying technically ahead of every changing legislation and accounting standard. That’s not so much fun, and when there are so many other adventures to be had, it can be difficult to keep yourself grounded and stay abreast of the technical aspects of the job.’
Like many of her colleagues, Mara spends a lot of time in training and doing continuous professional development. ‘You
have to do your CPD hours,’ she says, acknowledging that this career development has definitely had its upside.
‘I have grown,’ she says. ‘Many of the people who have walked this path with me at Tsogo Sun have supported and guided me along the way. And that’s always a nice reminder for me, of where I’ve come from and those who care.’
Her job title may point to a focus on financials, but LAURELLE McDONALD is finding many other parts of the business to explore
Laurelle loves the beach. ‘I could lie on the beach, reading a book and sipping a drink for hours,’ she says. ‘I don’t have to move, except for a quick dip in the sea when I want to cool down…’ Of course, as the newly appointed chief financial officer (CFO) of Tsogo Sun Hotels and a mother of two young children, she doesn’t have much time for beach reads these days.
‘Olivia is four and Joshua is one, and when I’m not at the office getting things done, I’m spending time with them,’ she says. ‘Fortunately my mom lives with us, so I’m lucky, and very grateful to have all the support I have at home and at work.’
Work, for Laurelle, is the not-so-small matter of being the corporate finance manager for the Tsogo Sun Group and the soon-to-be CFO of Tsogo Sun Hotels. ‘I’m involved in pretty much all of the transactional work that the group does, which includes mergers and acquisitions (M & A), investor relations, dealing with the JSE, and so on,’ she says. And in preparation for her role as CFO of the hotels’ business, Laurelle has been tasked with producing the pre-listing statement for Tsogo Sun Hotels. This is more than the usual financial reporting work one would normally associate with a CFO’s job, and Laurelle readily admits that the M & A side of it has been ‘a steep learning curve’.
‘If you come from an accounting and reporting background, it’s quite a thing to wrap your head around all the additional regulatory requirements – especially when you’re a listed company,’ she says. ‘It’s the Companies Act, it’s tax law, it’s the JSE listings requirements, and it’s a myriad of regulations involved in getting a transaction done. I’m constantly learning, and working with a variety of people. Whether the transaction is gaming- or hotel-related, there are so many people within our own business alone who I get to interact
with that I normally wouldn’t. This is such an interesting and diverse role. It’s always changing, and always exciting.’
Many of those changes are regulatory changes, since industry and government bodies tweak their rules as markets and environments change. ‘The challenge then is convincing my colleagues that I’m not intentionally being unreasonable by asking for information that wasn’t required in the past; it’s the regulations that have changed! So it’s a constant moving target,’ she says.
Laurelle says that her work often feels like project management, rather than strictly financial work. ‘Sure, there are numbers involved, but it’s about trying to get everybody with the right skills together to get something done,’ she says. ‘I also enjoy working on legal agreements,
and transaction circulars that I wouldn’t ordinarily get exposure to. Looking ahead, I’ll definitely have to brush up on integrated reporting for my new role, which I haven’t been intimately involved in since my time at Gold Reef Resorts.’
Laurelle thrives on those challenges, and loves being concerned with all aspects of the group’s business. ‘I started working at Silverstar Casino in 2007, as Assistant Financial Manager,’ she says, looking back over her career at Tsogo Sun. ‘I was actually involved in the opening of that casino. It didn’t even exist when I joined; it was just a hole in the ground! It was so interesting getting involved in the development side of things, and seeing the casino take shape.’ In 2009 she moved to head office to work as group finance manager
for what was then the Gold Reef Resorts Group. ‘I was group financial manager and company secretary when the merger with Tsogo Sun happened, which is when I took on the corporate finance role I have now,’ she says. ‘So with my new appointment, I’ve kind of come full circle. I started at a casino, and I’m now CFO for the hotels company. I’ve been very lucky to see so many sides of the business.’
Permission To Dream
If you want to hear about dreams and how they come true, pay ZIBUSISO KGANYAGO a visit. She has some stories to tell
Zibusiso Kganyago’s business card says that she’s director of development for Tsogo Sun Gaming. Though, you’ll see there’s so much more to her job – and to her. ‘I work in the built environment, and my job is to find solutions,’ she says. ‘Because of the environment I work in, those solutions are often expressed in bricks and mortar, softs, artworks and furnishings. So I’m paid to create beautiful spaces.’
This involves engaging with architects and interior designers, and taking ideas from conception through to implementation. ‘By the time guests see, feel, touch and experience the finished product or space, a lot of time, energy, planning and coordination has gone in to ensure
that the project is delivered on time and on budget,’ she explains. ‘What I love about this job is that I’m allowed to dream. I’m continually being challenged to find innovative ways of doing things – whether it’s refurbishing a hotel or renovating a bathroom. No two days or projects are the same.’ You may have heard of a few of those projects. ‘I’ve just completed a R1.2 billion development at the Suncoast Casino in Durban,’ Zibusiso says, dropping the news as if it’s just another item ticked off her to-do list.
‘The development opened in December 2018,’ she continues. ‘Being at the helm, I had to engage with various stakeholders, from the licencing authority (since I’m on the gaming board), to painstakingly driving the town-planning approval process and the building-plan approval process, to appointing the professional team, the main contractor and subcontractors. A month into construction, the project was stopped by a mafia gang in Durban for a period of six months. When construction resumed, it was all systems go.’
Her job keeps her busy, as you can imagine. ‘My children are a bit older now, though,’ she says. ‘They’re 19, 16 and 14, so they are old enough to understand that Mom’s life is hectic. I try to put time aside once in a while for us to disappear as a family for a few days, and then come back to face the world.’
If you’d asked her a year ago how she spends her time away from work, her answer would have been quite different. ‘A year ago, I would have said travelling and shopping, but this year my high school – Inanda Seminary, just outside Durban – turned 150 years old,’ she says. ‘I decided it was time to give back, so I’m spending a lot of my time with girls from the school, mentoring them and telling them that the world is open for business.’ That change was inspired by a visit to the school during its anniversary celebrations. ‘I went back there and thought, “I was here 36 years ago. I slept in these dorms.” I wanted to go back, and try to make a difference.’
Zibusiso has also been reflecting on her time at Tsogo Sun. ‘I remember my first day here,’ she says. ‘I was initially employed as development manager for Southern Sun Hotels, and when I arrived on my first day there wasn’t a desk for me, so I had to sit outside a meeting room! I’ve been here for 22 years, so I’ve got lots of stories to tell. I remember Montecasino when it was still a dog-training centre.
I remember Suncoast when it was still an animal farm. I was here when we only had about five employees… There’s so much to talk about.’ For Zibusiso, the most rewarding part of looking back on her time at Tsogo Sun is seeing what she calls ‘the realisation of a dream’. ‘When
I look at where the group is now, I’m left with a lot of emotions,’ she smiles. ‘It tells me that there’s so much potential in this country, and so much we can do if we just put our minds to it.’