“Today, I’m conscious of my public persona and as a result have adopted strong personal values, principles and views as so many eyes are on me.”
South Africa’s first black female CA(SA) trail-blazes the road to transformation
If ever a person had a pioneering role thrust upon her, it is South Africa’s first black female chartered accountant, Nonkululeko Gobodo, chairperson of SizweNtsalubaGobodo (SNG).
When Gobodo decided in the 1980s to become a CA(SA), she was unaware that no black female chartered accountants existed in the country, or that society’s then racial – and gender – prejudices might be a barrier to attaining her ever-growing goals.
Gobodo did not ever consciously set out to be a role model. “But my status thrust the role on me and to an extent has come to mould my personality ever since,” she explains.
For this reason, she has never been simply an accountant but rather a force for pioneering change in South Africa. Born, raised and schooled in Mthatha, she says she didn’t particularly have a vision for her life and, if anything, would have preferred to become a doctor.
“However, I felt no passion for a medical career. At the time, I was doing the books for my father’s auto-repair business.” Fortuitously, South Africa’s first black chartered accountant ever, Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu (who qualified in 1987), was the auditor, “and he inspired me in that direction”.
Nonkululeko was determined to follow in her father’s footsteps but even while writing the final board exams had no idea that she would be the first black female to pass. She was stunned when the media descended on her after her graduation. She was thrust unwillingly into the limelight, while an excited profession celebrated her accomplishment.
“It seemed I was expected to play role model to other aspiring young black females, when all I’d really set out to achieve was personal fulfilment. It is something I have come to cherish, as I came to understand what my accomplishment meant for other women. What makes it worthwhile is the number of women who have since approached me to describe how I was their inspiration to return to university and upgrade from BCom to CA, as well as many school kids who went on to become CAs(SA), as a result of [attending] my speaking engagements,” says Gobodo.
“Today, I’m conscious of my public persona and as a result have adopted strong personal values, principles and views as so many eyes are on me. These have been the driving force behind everything I have done and achieved.” It also meant she had no option but to succeed in business.
Gobodo was immediately offered a partnership at KPMG, where she had completed her articles, but declined the offer as she ultimately wanted to establish her own firm.
After lecturing at the University of Transkei and a stint with the Transkei Development Corporation as a senior financial manager, in 1996 she formed and chaired Gobodo Inc. However, her ambition was no less than to change the landscape of the accounting and auditing profession in South Africa by consolidating all the black-owned firms into one medium-sized firm that could take its place among the ‘Big Four’ firms.
In order to obtain enough work from both public and private sectors, including work on an international level, the company needed to be large enough to have serious clout.
This dream took a lot longer than anticipated and involved more than one detour before, in 2011, Gobodo played a key role as one of the leaders in the successful merger of Gobodo and SizweNtsaluba VSP to create SizweNtsalubaGobodo.
The firm is now the fifth largest in South Africa, with 55 partners and a staff complement of more than 1 000.
“I’m very passionate about economic transformation as well as empowerment of women, and this makes others very comfortable to join our firm,” says Gobodo. Twenty per cent of the company is owned by women.
The firm realises it cannot simply rely on empowerment laws requiring businesses to procure services from black-owned or black-managed entities. The way for a medium-sized firm to challenge an established oligopoly in a mature business is through innovation, says Gobodo, and she has personally taken on that mantle.
“I’m the innovation champion and it’s a core focus of our firm, though it’s not a single person’s responsibility. We may have a considerable amount of public sector work, but we’ve had to compete for it against better-established firms by doing things differently. We have established an ‘Innovation Zone’ where we have been able to position ourselves as public sector specialists. This has become a competitive advantage and enabled us to win larger clients through deeper expertise,” she explains.
Contracts with government-owned corporations and entities ensured the firm gained a foothold. Today, its public sector division provides the bulk of revenue base, with a growth plan centred on increasing the firm’s private sector component. About 80% of clients are in the public sector, but the private sector includes MTN, Stanlib and First Rand as clients.
Last year, SNG won its most substantial contract yet, a R450-million multiyear deal to audit Transnet’s books.
Acquiring the Transnet audit involved a huge process of bulking up and ‘corporatising’. To achieve this Gobodo established a Corporate Academy to shift its people, both intellectually and culturally, into a ‘Big Five’ mentality. This set the roadmap for bigger things to come, she says.
Though SNG is technically a mid-tier firm, it has positioned itself as the most direct competitor to the Big Four and is widely seen as a threat within its niche.
“Today, there is a lot of respect for us from the entire profession but initially there were doubts that a mid-tier firm would achieve very much. We did, and went on to strengthen our internal processes by using our managers more than usual in a traditional firm. They run strategic projects and involved themselves in strategic formulation. As a result, they grow faster.”
Gobodo’s visionary and charismatic leadership is exactly what the firm needs and contributes to the transformation of the entire profession. No longer the young firebrand, she says she has been happy to slow down and adopt a more inclusive leadership style.
She finds issues of leading either from the back or the front irrelevant, as the only style of leadership appropriate to the modern world, and especially among fellow professionals, is a collaborative style.
“There’s little point in having a big strategic vision unless you can take the firm with you. Today, I’m more willing to slow down and move when I have my team’s buy-in. It works,” she says.
She works hand-in-hand with CEO Victor Sekese; two leaders who perfectly complement each other. Gobodo claims neither to be a natural technical person nor even a people’s person (though she learned to become one), but rather an intuitive and visionary strategist. Each step of her career and indeed the formation of the current firm have been at exactly the most fortuitous moment.
“Lacking a natural affinity for people, I set about acquiring that attribute to the extent that today I’m proud to be embraced as mother of the organisation. For me personally, this has involved enormous growth. It is about making the effort. To this day it requires a conscious effort to show care, by affirming rather than criticising,” she explains.
As a visionary, she lists one of her biggest responsibilities as having the persistence to deliver on that vision. “It becomes something you cannot wander from or abandon – even if you attract personal criticism and attack. For this reason, I tend to treat my public persona as a separate entity, one that I focus on almost as a business. I believe only in this manner can one ensure the journey through life is a good experience.”
As to the future? “Transformation of the profession cannot yet be ticked off.”
Author: Eamonn Ryan is a Business Journalist.