things that matter
In a series of interviews, I explore the approaches of different business leaders (all of them chartered accountants) to strategy. This month I was in conversation with Jeneen Galbraith, partner at the SMP (small-medium practices) firm of Galbraith Rushby based in Woodstock, Cape Town
The same themes usually come to the fore during these interviews, all alluding to a very formal strategic philosophy and strategy-setting process ranging from vision and goal setting and cascading down to the implementation level, including monitoring and staff buy-in. It soon became clear that Jeneen’s approach is quite different: ‘We are very different from most accounting firms, and I think that, in a way, that has been part of our success: we haven’t followed the normal mould.’
Galbraith Rushby have seen some tremendous growth over their 13-year existence, with double-digit growth in most years. Jeneen and her partner Michael Rushby started in the basement of Jeneen’s home in 2008. Jeneen is a mom of 4 children, with one being a special needs boy. They now employ 75 staff operating out of three offices in Cape Town. ‘Most of our growth has been organic, through the delivery of a good service, at the right price, while maintaining sound client relations,’ says Jeneen.
She reiterated these concepts when I asked her about the most important focus areas for an entrepreneurial business, which most SMP firms are.
Without hesitating, she replied: ‘Client service is number one, then price and quality of work, and finally looking after your staff. Along with that, in our context, is staff training and development.’ She has a personal saying which they include on work quotations: ‘Training is the foundation of good-quality work’, emphasising Galbraith Rushby’s commitment and continued growth.
This business philosophy, focusing on things that matter, is best described through examples and thoughts she shared during the interview:
Looking after your staff
For instance, the way they look at trainees is very interesting. ‘We never followed the normal mould where most accounting firms employ people, especially trainees, on a fixed-term contract and when they get to year three and finish the contract, most of the staff move on. We follow a different mould – we sign a full employment contract from the start, as we want the people to stay. We have been lucky to be able to do so because we are growing so fast that we can always find a space or let them find the space they like.’ This could inadvertently be a reason for their continued growth. She added: ‘For example, one of our team is probably the country’s expert on DTI rebates for the film industry – he has carved that space for himself and we give him the freedom to do that.’
On this topic, she continued: ‘We are sometimes less focused on the money. For example, we will invite staff on client engagements even though the budget is not necessarily there, because it will be for their development and growth.’ Jeneen added: ‘Let’s get the work done in a reasonable time, for a reasonable fee, with the right level of quality. That way we appoint the right people to the assignment.’
Added to this is a commitment to transparency. ‘We are transparent with our staff about charge-out rates and incentives − they all know their charge-out rates and do their own invoicing. She continued with a smile: ‘We are upfront with new employees – you will get lots of experience, do lots of work and have lots of opportunities for growth, but it is not a walk in the park − you are going to be working very hard!’
Her passion for training their employees showed when she reiterated: ‘Training is the foundation of good-quality work’ and then reminisced: ‘The numerous success stories of the staff make it all worthwhile.’
Client service, price and quality of work
The history of the firm says it all: ‘When we first started, we didn’t know exactly what we wanted. Looking back, we probably didn’t want to get this big in the beginning, but our growth just continued organically. My husband was in the film industry, so I started with a handful of clients and my partner, Michael, had a lot of friends in the film industry, and so we decided to form a partnership. By the end of the first month, we needed to start recruiting staff and from then it was just an explosion. Through an inherent focus on good service at a reasonable price, word of mouth spread like wildfire in the film industry.’
Another service line started in much the same way: ‘I was based in the UK and upon my return, I needed to look at international investments from a tax and structuring perspective. That then became the next natural area, foreign income, and now we get clients and enquiries from all over the world.’
She continued: ‘As a small practitioner, we had to do almost everything for everybody. If you say you are not going to do something, you are in effect introducing another service provider for the client, and that can be detrimental.’ That is how they acquired estate agents and attorneys: ‘I somehow got an invite to a conference from the Estate Agency Affairs Board. Out of curiosity I went along to listen, and during the discussions I experienced how the estate agents perceived audits. After a while I asked if I could answer a couple of their questions, and after that I had about ten new business cards in my hands. And then it is down to client service.’
She did, however, add: ‘As you get bigger, the personal touch gets harder. The challenge is to get a team that has the same level of personal touch that you have. With this in mind, we have managed to establish a solid core of people over the last ten years, people that I call “a safe pair of hands” that will carry the mantra of the firm.’
Managing continued growth
When asked about their future strategy as they continue growing, Jeneen started by touching on COVID-19: ‘We were greatly affected by the pandemic and went through a lot of stress relating to the business when the whole thing first happened: Were we going to get paid? Were we going to be able to pay our staff? These are challenges we had to overcome, and it is not just by luck that we survived − we did a lot of things consciously and it was a lot of hard work. We held many webinars for our clients with relevant topics, we kept up to date with the new legislation coming out and actively searched for grants that our clients could access. On the positive side, it is amazing to see how creative people can be. We also saw it in some of our entrepreneurial clients: how they managed, for the most part, to survive.’
She touched on partnership and firm dynamics as a changing component: ‘As we evolved, we found our niches. As part of our transition from being a small firm to a medium-sized firm we needed to evolve our firm structure, including decision-making, which is becoming more of a collective and not just partners bouncing ideas from each other. We will continue on this path.’
She concluded by quoting her partner, Michael: ‘We have to start working more on our business and not just in the business’ and elaborated: ‘We still, to this day, work in the business doing tax returns, financial statements, etc. We probably need to stop being involved in the detail, but do more of reviewing, looking at the bigger picture, as we continue our transitioning from a small business to an even bigger business.’
Christiaan Vorster CA(SA), SAICA Regional Executive