Blue-sky thinking sees CFO Andrew Ssekamwa soar

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Very few people will serve as CFO of a major bank and CFO of a national airline before the age of thirty-five. It is indeed a rarity and Andrew Ssekamwa, CFO of Uganda Airlines, is definitely an achiever for having accomplished this feat.

Very few people will serve as CFO of a major bank and CFO of a national airline before the age of thirty-five. It is indeed a rarity and Andrew Ssekamwa is definitely an achiever for having accomplished this feat.

“It is partly as a result of the drive that I developed as a teenager. I lost my dad when I was in high school and watched my mother work every day including weekends until 1am to put us through school. That instilled in me a sense of urgency and a push to get things done,” he reveals.

In addition to this drive to succeed, Andrew is a risk-taker. His colleagues at Standard Chartered Bank thought he was mad to leave the multi-national financial services conglomerate to join a family-owned business. He resigned from his role as finance manager at the bank in 2019 to serve as business development manager and later head finance at Movit Products.

“The role at Movit was actually much more than finance,” Andrew explains. “It’s a Ugandan-owned manufacturer of personal hair and skin products that was looking to expand their operations in Kenya and Africa at large. I was seconded to Nairobi to assist in growing the business there as a business development manager. We streamlined the business over a few months and significantly grew the topline.”

“The departure from Standard Chartered was driven by the need to explore more opportunities outside my comfort zone given the limited opportunities for growth then,” he adds.

Lockdown and acquisitions

While at Standard Chartered Bank Uganda, when CFO Kelvin Musana was on leave, he gave Andrew the opportunity to try on the CFO hat. “Deputising for Kelvin was great as that was the first time I got experience sitting on boards and engaging stakeholders. I also built relationships regionally as I engaged with East African managers quite often,” Andrew recalls.

Andrew’s stint at Movit ended in May 2020 when he joined Orient Bank as CFO.

“I initially refused to go for the interview for the job, but decided to give it a try after I got wind that I & M were planning to acquire it. I had never been involved in an acquisition so this was a good opportunity for me to learn. The interview was during the lockdown and I hit it off with the CEO Kumaran Pather,” he says.

The shareholders of Orient Bank were sceptical about appointing Andrew to the position of CFO because of his age. They were concerned that at only 31, he would not be able to command the respect of much older colleagues. However, Kumaran managed to convince them that Andrew was the right man for the job.

“The bank had been loss making for three consecutive years and we had a lot of work to do as a team leading the turnaround. I was involved in the recruitment of most of the members of the executive committee. In our first year, I took the view that we should be prudent in creating a base for sustainable growth. This resulted in a loss of over 20 billion Uganda shillings which left the market wondering whether we knew what we were doing,” Andrew says.

They did in fact know what they were doing because the bank reported a Ush5 billion profit the following year. Andrew got to act in an acting executive director role for 11 months, which added significant exposure to rebranding, mergers and acquisition as well as stakeholder engagement.

Testing turnaround

Then a partner at KPMG, who was familiar with Andrew’s profile, called to ask whether Andrew would be interested in helping turnaround Uganda Airlines. The national carrier had been revived in 2019 after an 18-year hiatus.

“I was appointed CFO in March 2023,” Andrew says. “I never thought I would work for government but because I had participated in turnarounds, I thought I should give it a try. The job has tested me in many ways and I have had to deploy all the skills I have learnt in various companies including stakeholder engagement, strategy, and digitalisation.”

Of the experience, Andrew says “so far, so good”. The new management team, which he joined, has managed to increase passenger loads from 50 percent to 70 percent. They have regained the confidence of suppliers and increased routes to 13, with the addition of Lagos and Dubai as destinations.

Personal fulfilment

The airline is heading in the right direction but there is still a lot to do. There are many challenges including the lack of in-country know-how of the aviation industry. Many stakeholders think of the airline as being any other business and yet it has special challenges and requires a longer and detailed roadmap to achieve success.

“Aviation is also capital intensive and therefore requires a lot of funding. We would do well with managing costs through having our own maintenance and repair facilities, an academy to train airline staff and catering facilities,” Andrew says.

An additional challenge is that of attracting the right skills in many areas including finance. There are many accounting professionals who shy away from working for the government and crew members are in high demand internationally making the cost of recruitment high.

But it is not all doom and gloom. The management team has increased cargo exports from 500 tonnes per annum to 3,000 tonnes and passenger numbers have grown from 58,000 annually to over 300,000.

"We are connecting our local manufacturers and producers to international markets. There is also tourism potential; if we had our airline parked at Heathrow Airport, it would serve as a giant billboard aimed at our target market. We are sensitising government and Uganda to the immense benefits the airline could have on our economy and I get a sense of personal fulfilment taking part in that,” Andrew concludes.

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