Nation Media CFO Richard Tobiko: From retrospective to progressive

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Despite starting his career as a graduate accountant trainee, Richard Tobiko, the chief financial officer for Nation Media Group, actually began working in operations on site.

Despite starting his career as a graduate accountant trainee, Richard Tobiko, the chief financial officer for Nation Media Group, actually began working in operations on site.

These two years in operations at that critical first job set a solid foundation for his career in finance, by teaching him the importance of understanding every aspect of a business. It was this insight that would see Richard returning to Nation Media Group in 2018, after leaving the organisation 10 years earlier.

He initially joined Nation Media Group in 2001 and held various roles including treasury accountant, newspaper and broadcasting divisional management accountant and ultimately chief accountant. In October 2018, he was headhunted by the media conglomerate for the role of group finance director (now renamed chief financial officer).

“It was not an easy decision to re-join Nation Media Group. Technology has disrupted many industries and I think media is the hardest hit. When thinking about whether I wanted to take up this onerous task, I did my research on how media houses across the world have managed to remain sustainable,” he said.

“I was particularly impressed with the New York Times which has managed to revolutionise its business by investing in a wide range of digital revenue streams. They have managed to remain a content company and to monetize their audiences in the face of stiff content competition,” he added.

The challenges in the media business landscape is succinctly explained in revenue terms.

“During my first stint at Nation, advertising space in the newspaper would be totally filled up two to three days before it went to press. That is far from the case right now. Circulation has been declining 6 percent per annum in recent years and during COVID-19 the decline went up to 22 percent (2019 vs 2020),” he said.

“It is a tough environment, but I like the challenge of turning around the fortunes of the organization through investment in digital transformation in order to remain competitive. It is not easy given that today everyone is a content creator, and the market is overly fragmented,” he added.

According to Richard, the next 24-36 months will be critical for the long-term sustainability of the business.

“Our aim is to grow digital revenues to be the dominant income earner for the group. If we cannot do that then we might as well pack up and go home,” he said.

Changing times

Richard has faced similar dire situations in his career, specifically as the group financial controller at Rift Valley Railways. This was a role he held after working at General Electric, Universal Corporation, Al Jazeera and the African Development Bank.

“I joined Rift Valley Railways in 2013. It was a tough job as there were very many issues. The company was doing Ksh8 billion topline operating at just about 30 percent capacity, the potential was immense, but the strategy and its execution were flawed,” he said.

Four years later, he took on the role of general manager responsible for Finance and Strategy at the Kenya Electricity Transmission Company (KETRACO).

“This was a great company to work for and I got to witness firsthand the power of electricity to transform communities”, he said. “I also got to understand how infrastructure project financing works in government."

Now, at Nation Media Group, Richard oversees the Finance, Technology, Production, Procurement, Legal, and Security functions. He believes that the CFO role has changed from retrospective to progressive.

“I have heads of finance for Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, who take care of accounting operations and financial reporting, so my role is not about reporting numbers. In these times, a CFO’s role is not to give reports of historic numbers; we know what the numbers are and so what. Rather, the CFO role is about the future; it is about strategy, alignment and execution. I see the CEO as the driver of the strategy with the CFO as the navigator. Being in finance gives you a bird’s eye view in turning the ship around,” he said.

“We are not a cash business and therefore debt management is an issue we consistently have to pay attention to in addition to topline growth. We have restructured sufficiently to the point that operational efficiencies are not a major issue; we were previously top heavy, today we have a fairly lean structure with collapsed decision making; the bureaucracy that existed in the past has been eliminated. The biggest challenge therefore remains diversifying and growing our topline,” he said.

Such a lean management requires a specific leadership style, with Richard noting that the heads of departments in his portfolio are fully empowered to “run their show” while his role is to provide leadership and ensure alignment.

“My approach is to work with the relevant department head to get the confidence that they know what they are doing and can be left to manage on their own. Then, they need to only escalate the difficult stuff to me,” he said.

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