BR Whitaker & Co is a small accounting business based in East London that celebrates its 90th anniversary on 1 March. The business was established back in 1933 by Bernard Rolfe Whitaker, and for four generations the eldest son has gone onto become a CA(SA) and work for the family business.
4 Generations of CAs(SA) – 90 years of accounting
BERNARD ROLFE WHITAKER
Bernard was born on 4 April 1907. He matriculated at St Aidan’s, Grahamstown, and after working for an accounting firm, Whiting and Griffin (eventually KPMG), for about nine years, Bernard decided to start his own practice, BR Whitaker & Co. He also opened a practice in Idutywa and served the Transkei area. He is described as being somewhat of a tax expert with some of his tax cases being published. At the time of his retirement in 1994, he was believed to be the oldest practising chartered accountant in South Africa. He passed away at the age of 90 in 1997. ‘I think it’s fair to say that in those days you did not specialise in a particular field and he was an accountant, auditor, tax specialist and executor of many estates,’ says Andrew Whitaker, who joined the family business in 1981.
It goes without saying that a lot has changed over the last 90 years. The advancement in technology is the first thing that comes to mind. Another thing is that a lot more clients are able to do things in-house, reducing the scope for our service offerings. ‘On the other hand, a lot of things have remained the same,’ says John Whitaker who joined the family business last year. ‘We are still committed to professional excellence – offering a very good service at a fair price. Our core values of honesty, reliability and loyalty have also not changed over our 90-year history. ’When John Whitaker started his articles in Johannesburg, he made an exciting discovery. His grandmother (Patrick’s wife) gave him a desk to use that his grandfather and great-grandfather had used whilst completing their articles. The one drawer had been locked for about 80 years, and one day he managed to pry it open and uncover some of Bernard Whitaker’s old papers, including his final board exam that he wrote in 1930.
Patrick Rolfe Whitaker
Patrick was the oldest son of Bernard and was born on 22 October 1934. Like his father, Patrick also completed his schooling at St Aidan’s, Grahamstown, going on to qualify as a CA in 1967.
Described as somewhat of a visionary, Patrick saw the use of computers as the future of accounting, and in 1980, BR Whitaker & Co was the first accounting practice in East London to acquire a computer − a huge Olivetti about the size of a desk, with a built-in dot matrix printer. This enabled the practice to offer the service of processing debtors and printing statements as well as processing cashbooks, although they still had to be reconciled manually.
An astute businessman, he added fraud investigations to the firm’s repertoire as well. He retired in 1988, some six years before his father, to concentrate on running a hotel that he had purchased, together with his middle son. He passed away in 2002.
Andrew Rolfe Whitaker
Andrew is the oldest son of Patrick and was born on 23 November 1960. Andrew matriculated at Christian Brothers College, Kimberley, in 1978 and then completed two years’ national service at 1SAI and 61 Mechanised Battalion. He started articles with the firm in 1981, studying a BCompt and BCompt (Hons) through Unisa and passing the board exam in 1987.
Andrew spent a few years out of the profession, returning on 1 March 1990. 33 years later, he is still at BR Whitaker & Co.
‘Obviously there have been huge changes − computers everywhere, special software developed and improved over recent years and the introduction of VAT in 1991, had a huge impact of the services that we have provided. Where for most of the earlier years a big portion of the work performed was writing up and reconciling cashbooks, posting to general ledgers, etc, etc, in-house computing evolved the practice to far more of a consulting nature, although I have continued with fraud/theft examinations and giving expert evidence in court cases involving financial matters. We are fortunate to have retained a client base, a big portion of which dates back a couple of generations.’
John Rolfe Whitaker
John was born on 18 March 1990 He went on to matriculate at St Andrew’s School, Bloemfontein, in 2008. He first completed a BComm (Economic Sciences) at Stellenbosch University, then commenced working as a financial manager for a small manufacturing entity whilst studying accounting part-time. He qualified in 2018 while doing the TOPP programme for a Johannesburg-based company. Before joining BR Whitaker & Co, he worked as the group financial manager for a property management company as well as a residential housing developer.
‘A part of me always wanted to be part of the business. I must have been six when I joined my father on my first stock take. The highlight for me before I got to primary school was to go away with him for a work trip to some small Eastern Cape town.’
‘I think the main change that I will be implementing is around the marketing component. Historically, chartered accountants didn’t really advertise, and it was not really required. The ethos was more focused on doing the work and that the rest will follow. Historically, our competition was other chartered accountants, and everyone was pretty much prohibited from advertising. Our nature is such that we don’t like to draw too much attention to ourselves and believe that the work we do should speak for itself, which can sometimes feel like an obstacle to getting new business.’
Each generation has been unique in what they have brought to the business, and whilst in some ways, a lot of things have changed over the last 90 years, the important things, such as ethics and integrity, have remained the same.
When asked where he sees the business in 10 years’ time, John Whitaker says his hopes are high that they will still be going strong − they’ve stuck it out for 90 years – and that it can only go from strength to strength.