Entertainer, educator, accountant – Mark Samowitz is helping people to speak the language of business by demystifying the jargon of accounting. Monique Verduyn spoke to him.
Accounting is not difficult – it is logical and easy to understand if taught correctly. That’s the word from Mark Samowitz, a CA(SA) who is making it his life’s work to empower people to become financially literate and develop what he calls “business acumen for life”.
A born entertainer who took a detour into accounting, Samowitz has used his passion for performing – as well as a natural talent for training – to demystify the measurement, processing and communication of financial information.
Samowitz took to the stage at the age of four, taking singing lessons from Eve Boswell, the ‘fifties British pop singer who in her retirement years ran a school for singers in South Africa, and learning to play the piano with well-known jazz pianist Len Brauer. In addition to featuring in a number of television ads, the young Samowitz starred regularly in concerts, soirées and on stage at venues like the Linder Auditorium and Gold Reef City. He also appeared in his teen years on KTV and on Zap Mag, a locally produced entertainment programme for teenagers, and was a soloist at the Victory Park Synagogue.
ACCOUNTING TRUMPED ACTUARIAL SCIENCE
After matriculating at King David Victory Park, where he was head boy, he went to the University of the Witwatersrand to study actuarial science. At the end of his first year he did some holiday work at Alexander Forbes, where he was exposed to the world of actuaries. “I realised that the science of mathematics and statistics was not for me, and that I would be stifled in that environment,” he recalls. “That was when I decided actuarial science was not for me and I carried on with a Bachelor of Accounting degree.”
He completed his BAcc while working as a cantor at the Victory Park Synagogue, leading the congregation in prayer along with the rabbi, a position that was significant because music plays a major role in Jewish prayer services. At the end of his studies, Samowitz took off a year to focus on religious studies.
“My classmates went on to do their articles, but I had always wanted to learn more about Jewish studies and I did not want to wait another three years to do so. I figured that being a year or two behind my peers would not have any impact on my career.”
It didn’t at all, and he joined Grant Thornton a year later to do his articles. He’s the first to admit that he was not an exemplary trainee, but he did bring his own brand of fun to the firm. “My colleagues thought I was a bit odd when I offered to give one of our clients a concert on the last day of their audit, but the client, which was Hyde Park Shopping Centre, loved the idea and it was very successful. It became a bit of a thing at the firm – the other trainees would say to clients, ‘Get Mark to do your audit. He’ll give you a concert at the end.’”
LEARNING, WORKING, ENTERTAINING
It was also during this first year at Grant Thornton that Samowitz teamed up with Helen Heldenmuth who, after a career in theatre, television and on stage, had returned to where she started – teaching and directing children’s drama classes. Together they invented Shooby Doob Shloimy, a character who is a cool, religious kid and a friend to children, entertaining them with his music, songs and stories. “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy him, but his character teaches children Jewish values, thinking and philosophies in a fun way. He’s like a Jewish Barney.”
Shooby Doob Shloimy quickly became popular and Samowitz was soon spending nights recording albums and rehearsing for concerts after a long day at the office. As if that was not enough to have on his plate while doing his articles, he was also recording an album of his own for adults. On top of all that, he was invited to the US and Australia to sing as a cantor in several synagogues.
A SUCCESSFUL FORAY INTO TRAINING
“The firm was understandably not too happy with all my leave requests, and it became a difficult and frustrating time for me. Looking back on it now, I wish I had been put to better use. I understand that every articled clerk has to undergo three years of training, but I believe I could have contributed more if they had put me to work on client relationships and training, for example.”
As it happens, by his third year Samowitz did have the opportunity to try his hand at training. “I wrote a course for the first-year trainees on how to get the most out of their articles. I put a positive spin on my own experience and focused on how they would benefit most by not focusing purely on the day-to-day tasks but also looking at all the opportunities to learn that were associated with the tasks. For example, we were exposed to some really impressive business leaders, giving us the chance to get a far more in-depth feel for the business world. The response to the training was phenomenal. The feedback from many of the trainees was that it changed their whole approach.”
He must have made a good impression on the firm in some way, because he was asked to perform at the birthday party of one of the founders, Julius Feinstein, just before his training came to an end.
TURNING ARTICLES INTO A MINI MBA
“It’s difficult for a creative person to do their articles,” he says. “Much of the difficulty comes from the fact that during this time most of your tasks are audit related. It’s only after you qualify that things start to become far more interesting. However, this is the time when you are truly exposed to the ins and outs of business, which is why I encourage trainees to really make the most of it. I turned my articles into my own MBA, learning as much as I could about how companies work.”
By the time he qualified, Samowitz knew that he wanted to start his own business. His music career took him to New York for three years, however, where he toured several states and carved a successful career for himself in entertainment and as a cantor who was much in demand.
But after three years, like many South Africans abroad, he found he was missing home. “I had been there for a while, but I still felt like a stranger in a strange land. I missed the people and the culture of South Africa. It was time to return.”
IDENTIFYING THE NEED FOR FINANCIAL LITERACY
Coincidentally, Samowitz had become involved in teaching accounting as a side-line while in New York. On his return to South Africa in 2008, he soon spotted an opportunity to develop something similar in the country that could help to drive sorely needed financial literacy.
“I had seen how people in the US responded to a highly visual colour-coded approach to learning accounting and I wanted to introduce a similar programme locally.”
That was the start of Accounting Made Easy, a company which offers onsite corporate courses as well as public accounting workshops.
Ask him how he found his first clients and he’ll tell you it was the result of years of experience in selling his own music. “I had developed the confidence to cold call to secure sales appointments and win new business. Cold calling is an area of selling that many sales and business people can be very uncomfortable with, but I was used to it and I knew how to get results.”
In that first year he built a significant corporate client base by offering training that makes accounting understandable and accessible to everyone.
“For non-accountants, the language of accounting can be frightening. Those who have not studied it are often left behind trying to decipher the jargon and interpret financial statements that are ‘Greek’ to them. Our Accounting Made Easy courses clarify and explain the terminology and the concepts in an audiovisual way that makes it easy for people at any level to understand journal entries, general ledgers, accrual accounting, financial statements and ratio analysis. We also tailor the training to our clients’ business, so the participants don’t just get generic training, but a customised programme that homes in on their particular situation.”
TAKING A DIFFERENT APPROACH
In the workshops, the trainers use interactive boards and coloured stands and stickers, as well as a workbook, to tell the accounting story – or what he appropriately calls “the business journey”.
“It’s a learning methodology that makes accounting accessible,” he says. “The colour-coded boards become interactive balance sheets and income statements, with the board pieces representing a set of accounts. Every journal entry is tracked in real time using coloured stickers. It’s a non-threatening, methodical approach. The learning is not lecture-based, but discovery-based. The participants learn how to transform financial statements from meaningless numbers into useful tools for business decision-making.”
Samowitz says that the startling reality in the workplace is that there are countless employees who have financial responsibilities and have no clue what they are doing. “These are people who have learnt what they had to by heart so that they could pass whatever course they signed up for.”
Accounting Made Easy competes in the “finance for non-financial managers” space, but the advantage is that its one-day courses take up far less time and offer a different approach to learning. “People expect accounting trainers to be nerdy types who will deliver boring lectures on a topic that few of them will ever come to grips with. Our facilitators have great personalities and are talented chartered accountants who love using Accounting Made Easy’s colour-coded approach to empower others to become accounting literate.
“When delegates see our materials, they immediately start to relax, knowing that there is not going to be any death by PowerPoint. That’s why our approach has been so successful.”
THE LANGUAGE OF BUSINESS
Samowitz points out that accounting fills the need for a common language of business. “Understanding costs, inventory, assets and the importance of getting paid sooner rather than later not only changes how you look at business – it changes how you look at life. To have employees who are financially illiterate is a massive liability for any company. For a business to function properly, effective methods of communication among owners, managers and investors are essential. Accounting records process financial information into an easily accessible format that can be understood by any person in the business world. It tells the story of the business.”
Today, Accounting Made Easy employs a national team of 15 CAs(SA) as trainers and offers training in all official languages. “Each of our trainers works in the accounting field, either in their own firm or as a consultant. In addition to their qualifications, I look for people who have a fantastic personality as they have to be able to engage the delegates. Entertainment is part of the learning process.”
Samowitz is proud to point out that his is a family business. His dad, Les Samowitz, a former entrepreneur in clothing manufacturing, is the company’s operations and marketing director, bringing more than 35 years of commercial experience into the business. His mother, Iona Samowitz, is the resident bookkeeper and stock controller. He also employs a team of commission-based resellers.
“Our year-on-year growth is off the charts and we are training thousands of people every year,” Samowitz says. “As an example, one of the major listed companies launched a share investment scheme to empower a huge number of employees. Because they were going to become shareholders, management brought us on board to give them financial literacy skills that would stand them in good stead in their personal lives too. Just one contract like that provides a great boost to the growth of our business.”
His vision is to see Accounting Made Easy incorporated into the high school syllabus and offered to first-year accounting students. “I see it as an alternative approach to a very necessary education, in much the same way as I used music and dance to teach young children solid values and ethics about life. In South Africa at present, financial literacy is critical. We speak about the need for entrepreneurs, yet business owners’ biggest downfall results from having no knowledge of accounting. Beyond that, accounting is a life skill – you need it to run your business, and to run your life.” ❐
Author: Monique Verduyn