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A PROFESSION LESS ORDINARY

In vastly different ways, the CA(SA) qualification has given three South African business leaders the ability to choose an exciting career path in the industry of their choice. Monique Verduyn interviewed them

According to research conducted by US firm Heidrick & Struggles, about 30% of Fortune 500 CEOs spend the first few years of their careers developing a strong foundation in finance. The popularity of business leaders with a strong financial background points to the fact that people who understand a company’s financial drivers know how to create value for the company; they can also develop a strategy and understand the financial ramifications of business decisions.

Chartered accountancy is one of the most worthwhile professions today. Owing to increasing government legislation and regulations, financial analysts and chartered accountants are in high demand, in large and small businesses alike. Finance professionals are needed in almost every area of public life where capital is exchanged.

The CA(SA) qualification provides such a broad base of skills and knowledge that graduates are equipped not just to work in accounting and related fields, but also to ascend to other areas of business and to become entrepreneurial leaders too.

Monique Verduyn interviewed a technology entrepreneur, the CFO of a health insurance giant, and a business coach to find out how qualifying as chartered accountants opened doors for them in the business of their choice.

 

 

FROM CA(SA) TO TECHNOLOGY ENTREPRENEUR

A deep understanding of the financial environment led Kevin Phillips to launch a software company that develops solutions to make budgeting, forecasting, performance management and reporting tools that are simple to use

W ho better than a CA(SA) to build budgeting, forecasting and reporting solutions? That’s what Kevin Phillips, CEO of idu Software, did when he and business partner James Smith launched the company in 1998. Phillips is an entrepreneur who has built a business based on his insights into and personal experience of the finance challenges and questions business owners face.

CHOOSING TO BECOMING AN ACCOUNTING PROFESSIONAL

‘I always liked numbers, and I was good at maths,’ Phillips says. ‘It helped to have a father who was an engineer and supported the idea of me becoming a professional. My grandfather, a serial entrepreneur in the UK, was also an inspiration.’

After completing his degree at the University of the Witwatersrand, Phillips joined Coopers & Lybrand (which merged in 1998 with Price Waterhouse to become PricewaterhouseCoopers), where he did his articles and stayed on for four years. Following that, he was transferred to Coopers & Lybrand’s London office for a year. His next move was into the life insurance sector, joining Provident Mutual Life Assurance Association in the UK as a general accountant. He was promoted to senior accountant, but he was too young to be allowed to move any further up the corporate ladder, leading him to leave in 1994.

RETURNING TO SOUTH AFRICA

‘The UK had an ageist work environment back then,’ Phillips says. ‘My father was keen to have me back home. He posted to me vacancies for jobs that he had cut out from the Sunday Times. I applied for a position at Norwich Life and got the job.’

Although he had been employed in a finance role, he was soon working on systems after openly expressing his unhappiness with the company’s existing financial systems. ‘We were about to list on the stock exchange, and I knew it would be impossible with what we had in place,’ he recalls. ‘I didn’t particularly have a great interest in systems, but in the accounting world you have to rely on them.’

ADDRESSING THE BUSINESS PROBLEM

In the early 1990s, however, IT was still dictating to business instead of the other way around. At Norwich Life, the people in charge had somehow been convinced that a database was the same as a general ledger, which it certainly isn’t. Phillips couldn’t reconcile one balance sheet with the next because data was being deleted or manipulated in the database without the inherent financial controls being prevalent. That’s when he was told, ’If you think there is a problem, why don’t you fix it?’

He began by migrating the company to an ERP system called Masterpiece. The difficulty was that the appropriate skills were not readily available in South Africa, leaving him and his team to complete the rollout themselves. When Phillips and his colleague, James Smith, wrote a budgeting application for Norwich Life, replacing an old Excel/Access system, he moved into systems permanently, taking on the responsibility for many of the organisation’s business solutions.

TIME TO MOVE ON

Then Norwich Life was taken over by Fedsure. That’s when Phillips, Smith, and a former partner who has since left idu Software, started talking about launching their own business so they could take advantage of the gap in the market.

‘Fedsure offered us reasonable severance packages, making it an opportune time to go out on our own,’ says Phillips. ‘We provided a service that had been completely lacking. I knew finance and James knew IT, and within six to nine months we were running every significant Masterpiece implementation in the country.’

Like a typical IT start-up, the business was run from Phillips’ converted garage. ‘We were up to seven people when we decided the garage, the dogs and the swimming pool were perhaps not in keeping with the professional image we were portraying.’

It became a problem to deal with Masterpiece’s American owners, however, who had a strange concept of what a mutually beneficial relationship was. ‘They demanded a share of our consulting revenue, but they were unwilling to offer us anything in return. It was frustrating,’ he says.

What he did realise, however, was that many large organisations had similar problems with their budgeting process, which would often take up to six months of valuable time. What Phillips and Smith had written for Norwich Life had cut that period down to six weeks. When Eskom Enterprises asked them to develop a budgeting solution, they realised they were onto something big. They worked out exactly what was needed and wrote a system for the then financial director, Reg Naidoo, using Microsoft’s Access database.

‘We cut the subsidiary’s budget cycle in half and Reg was ecstatic,’ Phillips recalls. ‘We had kept the IP, so we packaged the application and started taking it to market as a budgeting solution, as well as developing add-ons.’

Within less than a year the consulting venture had morphed into a software development company. Having always wanted to be an entrepreneur, Phillips suddenly found himself in an uncomfortable position: he could no longer be the quiet accountant in the background – he was now required to become the face of the business, and to sell not only himself, but the new company too. ‘Being your own boss is cool in theory,’ Phillips says, ‘but what people don’t realise is that once you make decisions, you also have to live with them.’

NEEDS MUST WHEN THE DEVIL DRIVES

Since then, Smith has overseen development, Wayne Claassen joined the founders to run the consulting side of the business, and Phillips took charge of sales and marketing. ‘Back then our resources were limited, so I found myself having to put together presentations and also do cold calling, both seriously outside of my comfort zone. But having left a cushy corporate job with a great salary that was paid every month for an uncertain venture left me with no choice. If you don’t make sales, you don’t put food on the table.

‘I used to have to psych myself up each day. I was the guy who would cringe when I had to stand up and say farewell to a team member who was going on maternity leave. Public speaking scared the living daylights out of me. Now, doing presentations comes naturally. We run a conference once a year at which I address more than a 150 people at a time, and I thoroughly enjoy it.’

BUSINESS KNOW-HOW TRUMPS SALES EXPERIENCE

No matter how many courses there are on the market, Phillips says, no one can teach you how to sell. He says he simply taught himself through trial and error.

‘When we employ sales executives today, I know I can teach them all about the product, but I cannot teach them how to sell it. To get that right, you have to go out there and do it; listen to people, hear their questions to understand where they are coming from, and only then can you sell. That’s why every presentation is different. Because people and organisations have such diverse needs, every sales pitch had to be adapted and modified for the audience.

‘I don’t recruit salespeople. I’d rather recruit businesspeople. Because we sell to accountants, many of our clients would much rather deal with fellow CAs(SA) who have experienced the same issues they have. It gives me a huge advantage in this space because when my clients talk about corporate tax issues or foreign currency reserves, I can respond because I have been there.’

His clients are mainly mid to large organisations, from Old Mutual to Unisa, and from Palabora Mining Company to Cape Union Mart. The business also has clients in other African countries, and in Australia and New Zealand, but Phillips is adamant that idu Software will not invest in offices overseas. Instead, he prefers to partner with companies, to minimise risk to the business and to build the market before taking the step of opening offices.

‘We have always been risk averse,’ he says. ‘After 9/11, many deals dried up; faced with massive global uncertainty and the possibility of a third world war no-one was spending money. The nest egg James and I had in the bank kept us going for eight months while the world just stopped. When the drought broke and business started to come in again, we rebuilt our savings within two months. It was an episode in the history of the business that reinforced that we were doing the right thing by keeping our reserves as a backstop.’

In the IT sector everything changes yesterday, he adds. ‘IT never stands still. That is why we ask customers every year to list the top ten things they believe will improve our applications. We try as far as possible to incorporate these functionalities into the next release of the software.’

WHY ACCOUNTING PROFESSIONALS ARE IN HIGH DEMAND

Looking back on his career, Phillips advises that a Bachelor of Commerce degree is one of the most valuable to complete, even if you are not yet sure what you want to do with your life. It’s versatile enough to make a young person highly marketable and will give you an understanding of business for life, even if you choose not to go the CA(SA) route.

On the sore topic of articles, he says he found the experience phenomenally powerful because it gave him exposure and comprehension. ‘People besmirch auditing, but you get to work with many different clients, and it’s an opportunity to gain so much knowledge. I learnt more from doing my articles than I did from four years at university. It’s a servitude you do that no one likes, but if you take a different approach, you can use this time to see how business works and how people interact.’

STEPPING OUT FROM BEHIND THE DESK

A keen interest in leadership and strategy has seen Brett Tromp hold various positions of increasing responsibility at Discovery Health. In a company started by entrepreneurs Adrian Gore and Barry Swartzburg, he knew that an innovative approach to financial management would be valued

A t school, Brett Tromp’s first love was sport. That’s what won him a bursary to study at the University of Johannesburg. He also had a keen interest in business, which started to develop when he took accounting as a high school subject.

‘I didn’t know much about being a CA(SA), but I had parents who supported and guided me. They had a friend who was a CA(SA), and I looked up to him. I also knew that CAs(SA) got paid well, and they always seemed to go on nice holidays,’ he says with a smile.

He remembers clearly the amount of sacrifice required when he was a young student. ‘All my friends were going out on a Saturday night, but I was at home alone studying. When I look back on that period of my life now, I realise just how much it was worth it. It was a difficult time, but I put my mind to it and my faith in God kept me motivated from within.’

After completing his studies, Tromp joined KPMG, where he did his articles and built the foundation for his career. After his articles, he was seconded as one of only two people that year to KPMG in the US for a period of six months, during which he had the opportunity to work on massive accounts.

‘It was a hugely valuable experience for me,’ he says. ‘Companies like General Electric had turnover bigger than the South African economy. The ability to see the scale and work in these enormous enterprises was amazing to a newly qualified CA(SA).’

He is quick to point out that the quality of training he – and CAs(SA) in general – received in South Africa is world class. ‘In many ways our training is the best in the world, and in South Africa we are also given far more work responsibility at an earlier stage in our careers.’

DEVELOPING LEADERSHIP TALENTS

It’s that level of enthusiasm for the job that has propelled him to a top financial position at Discovery Health, the largest medical scheme administrator in South Africa, where more than R40 billion worth of premiums are collected every year, with 2,9 million lives under cover, and 4 500 employees.

Tromp joined Discovery Health in 2003 as a contractor in group finance. By 2007 he was appointed as CFO. In 2013 he added director of Discovery Third Party Recovery Services to his CV, and by 2014 he was both CFO of Discovery Health and Head of Discovery SRX Pharmacy.

Tromp says qualifying obviously is the first step and passing the exams certainly gets your foot in the door, but being an exemplary CA(SA) today requires a lot more. You need to care about society and business to make a success – he calls this the shared value concept.

‘The role of the CA(SA) has changed substantially,’ he says. ‘Today, you need to display leadership ability and an interest in broader strategic business issues if you want to move quickly up the corporate ladder. For example, I’ve learnt the power of using behavioural economics in my career – it has had a powerful effect on my decision-making and how I lead people.’

DEFINING YOUR DIFFERENCE

What has enabled Tromp’s accomplishments is an early focus on being different. ‘Because there are many CAs(SA) in the country, you need to know what differentiates you from the next one. The role of CFO is the top of the ladder for people in our profession, but we have the opportunity to bring more to it than we did in the past.’

Tromp began the process of defining his own particular set of skills by building a personal brand. Personal branding is becoming increasingly important because it allows the individual to establish a reputation and an identity while maintaining a personal level of trust and interaction, which is then afforded to their company too, if done successfully.

‘I began by getting out from behind my desk, building a solid network of people I could exchange ideas with, and learning to do things I was not good at. I always encourage other CAs to take courses on topics outside their normal frame of reference. Take an interest in areas of the business other than just the numbers. Also, learn about your business from a big picture perspective rather than just at the micro level. Importantly, building a strong personal brand also means that you can give back to your company by mentoring and helping others. It gives me great satisfaction to have people sent to me for career advice or help.’

One area in which Tromp has excelled personally is as a speaker. It has taken him years, but he has become a regular at conferences, where he talks not about accounting issues, but about management and leadership. ‘A CFO has as much of a leadership responsibility as a CEO or COO, and it’s up to the individual to leverage off one’s talents and create your unique set of skills.’

Tromp is unassuming when it comes to his career success, putting it down to a combination of hard work and luck. He says his focus remains to grow Discovery Health’s fourth bottom-line strategy, which he is pioneering in Africa. It’s a strategy that takes into account the impact of employee wellness on company performance and profit and integrates health reporting into companies’ statutory reports.

A RELATIONSHIPS MAN

The first and major responsibility of the CFO is to ensure that the numbers are correct and that the targets set by the CEO are met. ‘You cannot do that by walking into the job and dictating,’ says Tromp. ‘When I started I had coffee sessions with all the executives to get them on my side. I partnered with senior people who were more experienced and had far more institutional knowledge than I did. I formed relationships based on respect and understanding of the business. After the first three months, the job became so much easier. At my first meeting with the then CEO, Neville Koopowitz, he told me we needed to save the business R100 million. We achieved this within a year – a daunting task.’

People will test you, and then trust you, Tromp says. He also points out that as a CA(SA), you will have to make tough decisions around millions of rands. But you cannot do it alone. ‘Healthcare is a tough industry because as healthcare technology improves, so the costs go up. To provide quality healthcare at an affordable price in a regulated environment is not easy. I have been fortunate to be surrounded by great leaders like Dr Jonny Broomberg and Dr Ryan Noach, who have nurtured my career and always been there to offer advice.’

His leadership skills have helped him to build and maintain a strong financial team low on staff turnover and high on enthusiasm. ‘My team is content, and I believe that is because I don’t micro-manage them but I have always chosen to empower them,’ he says. ‘Booker T Washington once said, “Few things can help an individual more than to place responsibility on him and to let him know that you trust him.”’

On leadership, it was Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, who said: ‘Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.’

Tromp agrees. ‘When you give individuals the freedom to perform and you encourage them, they invariably do well,’ he says. ‘I have found that the ability to lead my team in a way that makes each person feel special requires me to think of myself more as a leader than a manager. A leader understands the importance of recognising the unique talents of each person on the team and has the ability to motivate them on an individual level. In addition, a leader should always give recognition where it is due. There is no need to take credit for what your team does – always give the team recognition.’

His final words of advice? ‘Hire smart people. Do not be threatened by those smarter than you. Rather surround yourself with smart people because they will excel and make your life so much easier. Secondly, treat your company like your own, if you think of it as a job you will never excel like you could if you believe it’s your own. Finally, remain true to the values and ethics that are fundamental to being a CA(SA). Whatever situation you may find yourself in during your career, never compromise these values.’

 

 

 

HELPING PEOPLE DEVELOP AN INSPIRING VISION

Stanford Payne has made a career out of enabling others to live a life that is happy and fulfilling, be successful in business, apply their unique talents, and have no regrets

There was a time when people held one job for their entire lives. Then, back in 1989, in his book The empty raincoat, Charles Handy wrote about the appearance of ‘portfolio workers’, people who exchange full-time employment for independence, reject the notion of a single, permanent job, and instead use their varied skills, interests and achievements to play a number of different roles.

With the advent of the knowledge economy, portfolio careerists have become more commonplace. One such free agent is Stanford Payne, a CA(SA) who – after several years in finance and business – turned to coaching to give him the freedom to live his life how he chose.

‘I have always wanted to help people, and I discovered that coaching is a way to assist others to get the life and business they really want,’ says Payne. ‘It helps you develop your potential and talents and discover more of your authentic self so that you can attain true fulfilment.’

What is unique in Payne’s case, is that he has a strong business background, which gives him a deep understanding of the particular challenges facing executives, business owners and entrepreneurs today. His career experience includes a track record in business, human development and finance.

A RELUCTANT STUDENT

Payne went into the accounting profession somewhat unwillingly. After school, he wanted to study filmmaking, but the fee for the first year at film school was R60 000. ‘Because I was paying for my own studies, I felt I had no other choice but to go with the accounting option, which was cheaper and I was also good at it. I almost quit four times in the first two months, not because I was struggling academically, but I was just not enjoying myself at all. It was only after I started working that I began to realise how much more enjoyable the practical implementation was of what I had learnt.’

He recalls how his classmates were all keen on doing their articles at PwC in Cape Town. It was 1995, and the Mother City was the place everyone wanted to be.

‘My marks were not superior to my peers’, but I put my CV into a bright red folder that immediately caught the eye of the HR manager, and I was offered my articles in Cape Town.’

As it happened, he did not go for it and chose instead to work for HRV Inc, an independent, smaller firm in Bloemfontein. In his second year there he was appointed audit manager for a company he helped list on the JSE, which was an invaluable learning experience for him. Payne had made it clear when he started his traineeship that he would be off to London after his three years, and that’s exactly what he did. His articles had offered him the opportunity to recognise that doing the usual CA(SA) thing was not on the cards for him.

THE LONDON EXPERIENCE

He left the firm in 2002 and moved to the UK with his then girlfriend Marlene (now his wife), also a CA(SA). There he landed a job in the film and television industry for a brief while.

After that, he helped to launch Vom Fass, a franchise that sells luxury cask-aged vinegars, oils, select wines, and spirits and liqueurs, all out of the basement that he shared with the MD of their first store in Notting Hill. ‘I remember that we had a bell on the door to let us know when a customer popped in so that one of could run upstairs to assist them – between opening new stores in Harrods and Selfridges,  managing staff and developing a franchise programme.’

What happened next was completely unexpected. He was headhunted and appointed head of finance for Stella McCartney and Gucci Group worldwide operations. ‘Fashion is a very incestuous industry, and I had no idea why they would employ an outsider, but it was a dream come true for me. I met Paul McCartney, had drinks with celebrities, walked the red carpet and enjoyed the Paris and Milan fashion weeks, but the dream was short-lived and I hated it.’

Ultimately he was still stuck in finance, this time in an environment that was fake and fickle. Seeing how unhappy he was, his wife sent him on a coaching weekend. He had no idea what coaching really was, but after 15 minutes in the lecture room he realised it was something he had been doing his entire life.

‘Back at home, I turned on my CA(SA) brain and did an enormous amount of research into the coaching sector. At that stage, we knew we were ready to leave London, but we were not sure whether we were going back home to South Africa, or to Australia. I decided to join the NeuroLeadership Institute as it was one of the few coaching organisations that had offices worldwide, which would allow me to continue training globally.’

A global research organisation and one of the first to bring neuroscience to leadership, the NeuroLeadership Institute has among its members neuroscientists, leadership researchers, and organisational practitioners whose purpose is to transform how people think, develop, and perform.

The institute provides brain-based, process-focused, and outcome-driven methodologies and frameworks that help individuals and organisations facilitate positive change and lead more effectively. Organised through three key branches, the NeuroLeadership Institute provides a customised approach to applied neuroscience. The solutions provided aim to help organisations transform their effectiveness in in three areas: performance, diversity, and learning.

‘I was ready to make a move into making coaching a career but we were unsure where we would we doing that. It was, unexpectedly, on the tarmac of O R Tambo in 2007 that I knew I was home.’

BUILDING A COMPOSITE CAREER

Payne and his wife moved to Cape Town with no jobs and no friends. He launched a coaching practice on the side and also found employment as a finance executive overseeing the strategic finances and growth of a group vested in international trade. Once again, however, he found he was not able to add the value he wanted to the job. On top of that, the coaching business would never thrive if he were only available for a few hours a week. He believed that to be a great coach you need to set a great example.

‘I was always climbing the career ladder, but always also knew the day would come to jump that ship as it was not where I wanted to be,’ says Payne. ‘That was when I applied my coaching brain to my own career and life. My family is important to me, and as someone who grew up without a father, being present and a great dad was not negotiable. I also love to travel, and I enjoy good food and wine. So my question was, “what is my life going to cost me and what do I have in my arsenal to generate the income I need so that I can live this life comfortably?”’

It’s that approach that has enabled him to grow his business into a highly successful coaching practice that helps people and organisations remove obstacles, release worry and fear, change limiting beliefs, discover their values, and develop a vision for their personal and professional lives.

Payne says his clients generally have good lives but want them to be even better. ‘To work with a coach requires a desire and determination to improve your life and career, it demands readiness and commitment, and a lot of courage. The rewards are amazing. Working with a coach improves your career and life and moves you beyond what you may ever have imagined. I assist my clients to empower themselves to live happy and fulfilling lives and build profitable businesses, and to make a meaningful contribution to their families, employers, communities and the planet.’

Payne admits that he doesn’t think like a CA(SA), which gives him freedom. ‘I don’t have a balance sheet approach to life. For me it’s about the experiences,’ he says. ‘Why would you choose to work to own a wine farm when you could experience the same renting a home on an estate? Every decision in business and life today has an opportunity cost – you have to make sure that you have considered the costs and then go for it wholeheartedly.’

Author: Monique Verduyn

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