The phrase mens sana in corpore sano (‘a sound mind in a sound body’) coined by the Roman poet Juvenal is often used casually, but its meaning becomes more clear when you look at the career of someone who personifies its meaning – someone like Farouk Karreem. By Yuven Gounden
Karreem a CA(SA) and one of the youngest managing directors at KPMG in KwaZulu-Natal, became a bodybuilder when he was challenged by people close to him: ‘A colleague made fun of my skinny arms, and that prompted me to start going to the gym. A few years later, a friend said I would never get a six pack or get into Men’s Health magazine, so I took on both their challenges and hence here I am now!’
He has been a bodybuilder for the past twelve years, and Kareem says it has contributed to a positive approach to work, and a balanced lifestyle. ‘For instance, I keep to a strict eating plan, weighing every meal – and I train between seven and twelve times a week, depending on whether I’m bulking or cutting.’
FAMILY AS DRIVING FORCE
Kareem adds that ‘both my career and physical well-being are driven by my wanting to give my family a good quality of life’. This is particularly important when one considers his very modest roots, when he once lived in a single room with his family in Tongaat, wore hand-me-down clothes and walked long distances to school. Yet, coming from a poor background did not discourage him; rather it encouraged him to be successful. His determined personality also contributed to his accomplishments, and he recalls how his computer science teacher was convinced that he would amount to nothing, but how this, ironically, spurred him on to greatness.
‘Poverty can either make you or break you, and that was my motivation. My parents played a very important role in my success and I admire their qualities. However, I didn’t want the same tough life as they had.’
Hence, he also believes it is important to mentor young people, especially those who don’t have a professional person in their family: ‘I remember the first time I ate in a restaurant was at a KPMG client lunch. Seeing all of those different cutlery splendidly laid out on the table was overwhelming, and perhaps if I had had mentorship, it would have not been that overwhelming,’ recalls Karreem.
At the tender age of seven, he witnessed the tragic death of his three-year-old brother who was knocked over by a car while being distracted by being given something that is for most of us a small thing, but which was for him an annual treat only – an Appletiser. This was a life-changing moment for Karreem, who became even more determined to extricate himself and his family from a life of poverty.
The example of his father’s driving force and tenacity, as well as his constant support, defines Karreem even today. In an emotional letter to his father on the eve of his death Karreem wrote: ‘I am, without a shadow of a doubt, the man I am today because of you. All that is good, pure, virtuous, kind and admirable in me is your doing. You drilled into us the importance of fitness. I’m emotionally strong because you taught me never to give up despite the odds, never to throw in the towel. You taught me that no task was too difficult to master and no dream was too big to achieve, and that despite any obstacle I could make the impossible happen if I was determined, willing to work hard and I truly believed I could do it.’
SUCCESS FACTORS AND SOME LESSONS
At KPMG his acid test came when Karreem was in his third year as a trainee at KPMG and the then senior partner, Anthony Thunstrom (currently the CFO at Foschini in Cape Town), gave him a brotherly pat on his back for a job well done. This was the impetus that Karreem needed to grow exponentially. For instance, he says that ‘I was once a shy individual and hated delivering speeches in class. Today, I address audiences of hundreds and I enjoy the interaction.’
During his more than 17 years at KPMG, this down-to-earth high achiever climbed the corporate ladder. In 2002 he was promoted into his first management position, and in 2011, at the age of 35, he became KPMG’s youngest managing director in KZN. Currently he is one of the youngest members on KPMG’s national policy board.
KPMG has enjoyed many notable achievements post Karreem becoming MD. After three years as MD, KPMG’s revenue increased by 31% and profits by 69%. In terms of empowerment, things have also changed a lot: following his appointment, 64% of management was black, whereas currently they are at 91% black. Karreem must have played a critical role in these developments.
For someone who did not study accounting at school, this professional success is phenomenal – and even more remarkable when one hears that Karreem did not even start out studying accountancy. In his first year at university, he took engineering – but after the first semester, he decided that direction was not for him, and he decided rather to follow the CA(SA) route.
What got him to where he is today? His answer is simple, yet thought-provoking: ‘It was the hunger, desire and passion to excel in the profession. It was also rewarding knowing that, in this giant of a company, progression was not determined by age but by results … I knew that my hard work and dedication would be rewarded through career progression.’ He also says two traits helped him to achieve his phenomenal progress: ‘Seeing business in the larger picture and with a wider lens, and secondly, striving for continuous improvement in myself and in how we worked. I regularly challenged the norms.’ He again acknowledges his parents’ role ‘for instilling in me the quest for perfection. They were sticklers for detail and even today my colleagues tease me about my pedantic nature.’
On the general advantages of being a CA(SA), Karreem says it ‘has given me a lot of experience. I also travelled oversees for the first time due to my career … I was a very shy person, and through my career I have gained a lot of self-confidence.’
Integrity and giving your all are the important values Karreem lives by. ‘Giving your all is important – half measures should not be an option for anyone in either your personal or business life.’ He also does not believe in wasting time: ‘Maximising time is critical, because life is so short. I cherish every moment of my life and do a keen balancing act of juggling time among my various responsibilities: work, family, parenthood and then dividing up what is left for fun activities and of course, bodybuilding.’
Like his philosophy in life and his recipe for success, Karreem’s advice for those starting out in their careers is also simple, yet substantial: ‘Never give up on your dream, in spite of your circumstances. If you have the desire and put in the hard yards, you will make your dream into reality. You have to start by believing in yourself. Then one needs to plan: put down your goals on paper with timelines. Never, ever forget the community and use your skills to willingly give back. Pursuing the career of a chartered accountant can be tough, but nothing worth it comes easy. The career itself is very rewarding. It will open doors, take you places and broaden your horizons substantially.’
Referring again to his passion for bodybuilding, Karreem says: ‘Getting to gym is my solace. It is my temple. It does wonders for stress relief and when I get home, I am a smiley dad and my wife, who is also a CA(SA), is happy to see me in good spirits.’
Indeed, his wife Zaheera’s own CA(SA) designation means she thoroughly understands the rigours and the demands of the job ‘such as the late nights, the meetings, the concentration involved, and the stress. This helps me a lot. She plays a pivotal role with the children, and this frees up my time to pursue my career. We spend quality family time together. We love the outdoors. It is either the pool, the beach, hiking and cycling.’
In whatever free time remains, Karreem enjoys action soccer, which he played for over two decades. He also plays squash and enjoys bicycling with his family during the precious family time that he so relishes. He alternates reading fiction (preferably gripping novels) and non-fiction and is currently busy with Justice Malala’s book ‘We have begun our descent’.
The martial arts expert Bruce Lee’s words are apt to describe the life and philosophy of this accounting bodybuilder:
‘Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.’
Author l Yuven Gounden is Project Director: Communications and Marketing at SAICA