With so many negative news stories, it’s easy to forget that there are plenty of positive tales too. Earle van der Watt has built a very successful business in the heart of the agricultural sector and thrives at what he does. He describes how one of his favourite tasks is visiting the various farms …
In 2017, Earle van der Watt CA(SA) ambitiously left a ten-year career in the corporate fruit farming environment to launch EVDW Inc, an accounting and advisory firm catering exclusively for fruit, bloodstock, wine and livestock farmers. In his previous role at a large corporate farming business, Earle implemented financial management structures but had a deep desire to assist family-owned farms and agribusinesses and also to work for himself. He wanted to start his own business and it was just a matter of leveraging the knowledge he had accumulated over time.
‘One day it struck me: why don’t you take your existing skillset and make it work for yourself? I simply repackaged what I was doing and now I write my own bonus cheque,’ laughs Earle.
Earle had identified a specific gap in the market: the need for proper financial management in the fruit farming sector. He had travelled to farming regions throughout the country and seen that there was little access to these services in places like the Northern Cape, which has large table grape and raisin farms along the Orange River, but few accountants to service their business needs.
‘At EVDW Inc we take on the role of chief financial officer for our clients, most of whom own medium-sized farming operations that do not need to employ a full-time CFO,’ he says. ‘Our service offering includes monthly management accounts, budgets and forecasting. We act as a soundboard for our clients and their specific finance needs. All financial models are built – based on the orchard/vineyard data as the main source – into a 20-year plan for the business. Regular communication and feedback including farm visits enable us to truly understand the unique farming operation of each client.’
It is a sector that he loves. He talks about having learnt the ins-and-outs of farming after he left KPMG in 2008. He joined a fruit export business in the role of group financial manager, knowing not much about the industry.
‘It was a big learning curve, but I discovered that fruit farming is largely a family-run, non-corporate environment that is lovely to work in. The more you learn about it, the more appealing it becomes. My wife is envious of my work because I get to spend as much time outdoors visiting farms as I do at my desk. That combination is extremely fulfilling in terms of my career.’
‘The best advice I can offer to entrepreneurs is “do what you are good at”,’ he says.
A robust sector
The conversation inevitability turns to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sector, and on his business. Earle says he has been fortunate, for two reasons. Agriculture was exempted from lockdown and the sector proved to be quite robust. The demand for fresh fruit from Europe in 2020 was also very high, which played in the local sector’s favour. In addition to that, EVDW Inc have been doing remote financial management for the last three years and for them working outside of the office environment and having virtual meetings was pretty much business as usual.
The benefits of being a CA(SA)
There is no doubt that the CA(SA) designation carries real weight. It is a qualification that has shaped a business community spanning all industries and it gives one credibility.
Beyond that, says Van der Watt, it also provides an excellent skill set. ‘My own skills have evolved quite distinctly from traditional accounting, but I still fall back on my previous experience and the things I learnt while I was completing my articles. In my work today, the integrity that comes with the professional designation is crucial. The industry we operate in is small compared to others, making honesty and confidentiality essential.’
Earle started his business with just one accountant on board, and now employs a team of seven, including both chartered and management accountants. It has proved to be a good combination for the business because it brings different skills sets to the table.
But what has also worked in his favour is the team as a whole. The people who work in the business have all been employed because of their personalities and culture fit. It’s about having employees whose beliefs, values, and behaviours are in alignment with those of the business and its clients.
An eye on growth
Looking to the future, Van der Watt and his team are focused on growth and quality. They would like to expand their service offering throughout South Africa and Southern Africa, with Zambia high on the list. ‘We have built an excellent reputation, and that requires us to also focus on maintaining good relationships with our existing clients,’ he says.
There is no limit on the opportunities available to his team. They may be young but they are highly skilled, and he is looking at a future in which they will become shareholders in a much bigger enterprise.
Van der Watt’s leadership style has been key to the success of the business. Moving from being an employee to being the boss was not a difficult step for him to take because he had held senior positions for several years before starting EVDW Inc. ‘I have always been an enabler when it comes to managing people. I prefer to give my team a lot of responsibility and let them take the lead. I have a results-driven approach. There is no clock-watching in the business. The team is mature and results-oriented. Measurement of success has evolved from earning titles and salaries to liking what you do, maintaining physical and mental health, free time and of course, good earnings.