Meet the Fijian CFO successfully navigating cultural differences in business

Waisale Iowane ASA, CFO of Free Bird Institute, the first foreign company to be listed on the Fiji exchange. Photo: Kama Catch Me.

Waisale Iowane, CFO of Free Bird Institute, deftly negotiates two very different cultures. While the business is based in Fiji, its parent is in Japan, where the notion of "Fiji time" carries no truck.

Fact file

Joined: November 2015
Qualifications: Bachelor of commerce
Formerly: Fiji Airways, KPMG and Aliz Pacific Chartered Accountants (formerly BDO Fiji) 
Finance and administration team: 13 people
Turnover: For the 2017 financial year, revenue of FJ$6.32 million and net profit after tax of FJ$1.1 million

The role: communicating strategy

My role is not limited to finance, but on an everyday basis I oversee the financial aspects of the business, which include financial reporting, business development and process improvements, and the strategic direction of the finance operations.

I also look after HR and administration, including global marketing. I’m on the board as well, and I communicate the strategic plan to the directors in relation to the financial administrative aspects of the business. I also provide guidance and support to our CEO and COO with respect to the overall running of the business.

Game changers: listed first overseas business in Fiji

When I was 26, I was approached by my current CEO, who is Japanese, to join the company and take on the challenge of listing this business within a year.

Prior to joining Free Bird Institute, for many years I had worked in a chartered accounting environment, which was my comfort zone. I found solace working with people of the same calibre and age; we spoke the same language. Leaving the chartered accounting environment was stepping out into an unknown space. I was used to collaborating with clients and always having someone to fact-check everything I did.

I decided to launch my career inside a corporate environment and joined Fiji Airways as an analyst, looking after tax and regulatory compliance. Four months into the role, I was approached by my current CEO to join the business.

Here in Fiji, the capital market is not as big as Australia’s, but the rules are just as stringent. Within 14 months of me joining, the company was listed on the stock exchange here in Fiji. That was the breakthrough in my career. We are the first foreign company to be listed on the stock exchange here in Fiji.

Challenge: negotiating Fiji time

My main challenge is the business environment in Fiji, which is not always conducive to the Japanese way of doing business. It’s two contrasting business worlds. One is a very advanced technological environment, and Fiji is a developing country still struggling to get on a par with the rest of the world. I play the middle man between the Japanese business culture and the Fijian business environment.

Anyone who has worked in Fiji has come across what we call Fiji time. In contrast, with the Japanese every second counts.

In preparation for our listing, I provided a strategic plan to the board. Knowing the Fiji business environment, it was important for me to manage the Japanese investors’ expectations. Every time I provided my plan I would think 10 steps ahead. I would contact the regulator who would give me their timeframe and then I would add two more weeks.

Having worked in the chartered accounting environment, where deadlines are strict, I applied that same approach to how the Japanese expect business to be conducted.

It was my job to work with the different regulators to understand the importance of time when it came to dealing with our issues in relation to listing.

I had to be proactive and engage all the stakeholders and make sure that they were on board, and understood how important this was for the Japanese investors.

Lessons learned and best advice

Be a sponge
I’m only 29, and every time I engage with people with vast experience, I listen to them talk and watch how they react to situations. Also, with my team, it’s important to understand everyone’s situation, especially when the majority of my team is much older than me.

Exercise integrity in everything you do
That’s very important. As an accountant, you’ll be faced with situations and circumstances that challenge notions of ethical behaviour. It’s important that you stand firm and always apply integrity and understand the repercussions of those decisions.

Make the most of the opportunities you are given
People often want a new role, but when they get the role they are not happy and want another job. For me it’s about making use of an opportunity and growing in the role. For instance, when I joined the business we needed to implement better corporate governance policies. This was a huge part of the process of listing and a great opportunity to build my skills in this area.

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April 2019
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