Digging to the Top Finance Job: Ernest Cleave, CFO (Pt. 1)

Although now settled in a leadership position at Cline Mining (a growing exploration miner), South African born Ernest’s  journey over the past 15 years has taken him around the world to settle in Canada, from CFO to a fresh start and back again, and across multiple sectors.  

What was your life like between the times you graduated and when you left PricewaterhouseCoopers in South Africa?
Well I had graduated with a B.Com majoring in computer science and decided to keep going and get my Bachelor of Accounting Science. My father encouraged me to either work in finance or accounting due to the diversity of opportunities and he nudged me in that direction.  To be fair, there were fewer opportunities in computer science at the time and I had to assess what was going to get me further along the path to a successful career.  PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) was my first choice and I jumped at a chance to work there.

My father encouraged me to either work in finance or accounting due to the diversity of opportunities and he nudged me in that direction.  To be fair, there were fewer opportunities in computer science

During my time at PWC I was exposed to various industries and sectors and was exposed to all levels of these organizations. This was a major benefit career-wise despite more lucrative opportunities being available in entry-level financial services and general management jobs.

You end up working with some very hardworking people and you have to “pay your dues” to get the basic skills under the belt and gain practical experience.

You end up working with some very hardworking people and you have to “pay your dues” to get the basic skills under the belt and gain practical experience.

Tell me about your experience in industry starting with your time at BATA.
Well, I started as a Controller at BATA and I worked hard to try and build a career and progress quickly.  At Bata, they had a very comprehensive employee evaluation and as a result they would put you on a company developed mini-MBA program that was meant to evaluate you for an executive track.  Through this I gained exposure to senior people in the organization who then helped me develop further into the CFO role.

The people that managed you at BATA wanted you to know that they were evaluating you and that in some ways you were in a competition.

That is one good thing about big organizations, you get thrown chances to develop yourself and you should take every opportunity offered to push yourself and put yourself in a position to get noticed.

Although I love the freedom of smaller organizations, you make a trade off as they often lack the resources and time of big companies for staff development.

That is one good thing about big organizations, you get thrown chances to develop yourself and you should take every opportunity offered to push yourself and put yourself in a position to get noticed.

My time at BATA also taught me that many people are scared to take risks and yet they still want to advance.  At times you are going to be worried about how you are perceived but your ability to control the worry and push yourself to take risks will allow you to stand out.   Take on difficult projects or challenging roles and then get ready for the ups and downs.   My advice: Don’t be afraid of challenging yourself.  That fear, more than anything will hold you back from your potential.

At times you are going to be worried about how you are perceived but your ability to control the worry and push yourself to take risks will allow you to stand out.

What did working as a contractor in accounting and finance teach you?
It definitely taught me that your skills transcend the organization and are yours to keep.

You can go out as a contractor and a consultant and earn a great living and a large amount of respect for the value that you bring forth to other companies.

You realize that you have something to broker with and I think that people need to know that they shouldn’t be frightened as they do have something bigger than the organization, they have their skills.

The contract work also developed into a role as a Practice Leader with a consulting company which was meant to capitalize on the flood of work being generated by SOx and C-SOx.  Even though the work wound down after a year I had put myself on a track that  led to my current role as CFO.  Most people who find themselves in a good position in life realize that it has as much to do with luck and timing as it does with skill.

You realize that you have something to broker with and I think that people need to know that they shouldn’t be frightened as they do have something bigger than the organization, they have their skills.

To be continued…

Revisit our website on Friday for Part II: Restarting and Rebuilding in Canada