As a Grade 1 pupil, at the age of 6, Erick Liebenberg was sent to school with R1,50 to buy something sweet from the tuck shop. He returned with a can of Coke, two bags of sweets and R2,75 in his pocket … An entrepreneur at that stage? Probably not. Creative? Most definitely! And today, Erick is MD of The Core Group, an association of legally independent professionals
Erick started his career in 1996 as an article clerk in a medium-sized firm, Havenga Rossouw Viljoen Incorporated (HRV), in Bloemfontein. He became a partner in 2001, only to realise that having a CA(SA) and articles behind his name and even being a partner did not make him a business advisor or specialist.
‘In the past, the path presented to students to become chartered accountants was limiting in some ways. Yes, the path programmed us with so much technical information and skills, but I wish it taught us more soft skills like typing or speaking in front of people. Of course, as I gained experience, I picked up skills like presenting myself and my services, how to develop entrepreneurial characteristics and time management, but it could have been easier.
‘I’m excited about new initiatives by SAICA such as CA2025 relooking at the curriculum for students in the CA(SA) stream and new partnerships with institutions such as the University of Johannesburg, offering our members skills around topics such as the Fourth Industrial Revolution,’ says Erick.
What are some of the challenges SMPs face?
The one thing I learned during my more than 20 years in public practice and my involvement in local small and medium-sized practitioner forums is that small and medium-sized practices struggle with the same issues:
- How to get and keep good employees
- Keeping up to date regarding their technical skills and knowledge
- Implementing the latest technology
- Training their employees
- Time management
- Staying ahead and being profitable in a heavily regulated environment
In my opinion, based on regular discussions with more than two hundred practitioners over the last five years, the average accountant spends more than 70% of their time with meetings, employees, planning, training, struggling with technology and consulting and advising clients free of charge by way of an email.
Very little time is available to focus on their clients and even less time is billable. A successful day is when you attend to more than 50% of that never-ending Inbox.
What was the inspiration behind The Core Group association, and how did you address these challenges?
The challenges presented an opportunity to develop a combined solution for small and medium practices. And for most entrepreneurs, an opportunity creates inspiration.
What do clients need?
Our first step was to go back to the root of every firm’s existence − THE CLIENT!
Clients expect, amongst many other things, guidance, technical skills and knowledge, quality products and services at below reasonable prices, in their prescribed timeframe and in all aspects of their financial world, but all under one roof.
The client needs one access point. Not the first-year article clerk or even the manager. The partner! The one with whom they have a personal relationship and who they trust.
Your solution and the services you offer?
Being over-optimistic and somewhat of an entrepreneur with one foot in public practice and the other in software development as a hobby, I imagined the solution to be as apparent as creating two legs of assistance to small and medium practices.
On the one hand, creating eighteen core service companies, each being a master in their particular world of expertise, and working behind the scenes assisting firms in servicing their clients at a high technical level in all aspects of the clients’ financial needs. And on the other hand, providing firms with supportive services included in their membership such as their branding, website development, social media, newsletters, communication platforms with clients, training at a fraction of the standard cost, software systems, and many more. (Interestingly, one of the first service companies added to the solution was a branding company.)
That all these services are being done on behalf of the firm enables partners to spend more time on their clients and do what they do best.
Our member firms’ communication with the outside world, and with their clients, needs to be done in a professional way − and also in a creative and intuitive format using all interactive technology-driven platforms available.
We need to move away from the perception that accountants are boring individuals in grey suits without imagination, initiative and creativity, who only keep themselves busy with all that is in the past.
The Core service companies include all areas of the financial and non-financial sector, specialising in services relating to a standard client’s business and finance-related personal needs. The services include branding, corporate identity, financial and investment solutions, trusts, estates, assurance, risk management, valuations, business development, BEE services, cloud solutions, IT support, finance, training, specialised tax, and labour-related services, to name a few.
This complete suite of services offered to clients under one roof and the way our members present themselves and communicate to the outside world is what differentiates them from the norm.
The Core concept is far from perfect, but addresses most issues experienced by small and medium-sized practices. Most importantly, it creates time for practitioners to do what they do best.
In a fast-changing world driven by technology, social media and an information overflow, the world is offering products, services and solutions, which is overwhelming and results in impulsive buying behaviour.
Clients know that they need to slow down from time to time before buying by getting advice from their trusted business advisors, the partner of their local accounting firm!
Taking it one step back, what is happening? Clients buy what the firm (supported by Core) offers from the person they trust, adding value to the client, the firm, and our Core business.
What, do you believe, is key to the success of any business?
You need the right product that fits your target market. Also, you need the right people managing and driving the business − people who believe in the product and are passionate about what they are offering. Things like professional communication, effective technology-driven processes, a digital presence and scalability are necessary in today’s world.
Employees play a huge role in the success of any business. How do you choose the best employees?
People are our biggest asset, and we determine our company’s strength by the quality of the people we employ.
We only appoint self-motivated, positive and proactive people with a balance between work, family and other personal interests. We focus on individuals with exceptional skills in their various professions who take personal responsibility to satisfy clients’ needs and are focused on creating long-term business relationships.
How do you feel about collaboration and teamwork?
We build our business through various partnerships between our specialists, member firms, clients and service providers. As a result, we have developed a digital workspace where all stakeholders can effectively collaborate on one platform, promoting teamwork in our organisation.
What are some of the challenges you have faced and how did you overcome them?
Growing a relatively new business presents new challenges every single day. Being adaptable and solution-driven helps a lot.
Getting members and clients to adopt new ways of doing may be our most significant challenge, but we create more early adopters over time through proper communication and training.
What have you learnt as an entrepreneur that can benefit other entrepreneurs?
There are so many valuable initiatives and ideas that remain just that. Plan and start proper processes. The rest will follow.
Be creative, believe in yourself and never give up.
Values you wish to impart to your staff?
The values of our directors and employees direct all interactions in our association. Our values entail honesty, efficiency, mutual respect and accountability.
To be practical:
- We are the owners of our actions and decisions.
- We share our views and ideas openly.
- We operate with a sense of urgency and discipline.
- We are team players in everything we do, and we do the right thing all the time.
Some of the business highlights since the association started?
Over the last five years, Core members have grown to more than 80 branches, expanding to all provinces and being represented by more than a thousand employees and more than two hundred professionals. Member growth exceeded 50% in 2021, which is exceptional.
What do you do to relax?
I commit myself to relaxation by way of various time-consuming hobbies.
Having four children is a hobby on its own. I enjoy kart racing with the two boys and horse riding with the two girls. As a private pilot, I am fortunate to enjoy my me-time in another dimension. We enjoy living on the river, water sports, and camping as a family.
How does being a pilot benefit your business?
Our member firms are located all over South Africa. Face-to face visits from time to time are essential and driving more than 100 000 kilometres per year was stealing valuable time. Being able to fly from an informal airstrip to most locations saves a lot of time and promotes more regular visits.
What is your take on health and wellness?
Have you ever tried to be creative, excited, productive, positive, inspired and proactive while you are not feeling well? A healthy body houses a healthy mind, and a healthy mind is needed to do what we do best. I try to be active, exercise and eat healthily, but I struggle with (don’t eat) vegetables.
Any concluding thoughts?
In the past five years, I had the privilege to learn, and am still learning, from experienced practitioners every day.
As a so-called entrepreneur, I realised that identifying opportunities resulting from existing struggles and frustrations was the easiest part of the process.
Learning to be flexible, committed, independent, realistic, and resilient in putting together a solution was a bit more complicated where drive and confidence sometimes exceeded talent and capabilities, but it was still manageable.
The most challenging part of the process was working towards a solution while applying a perfect balance between resources, partnerships, taking advice, using my own resources, using technology, relying on experience, listening, ignoring and the scarcest commodity of all that we are working towards, namely time.
The perfect balance of allocating time between working to stay alive and living, while being passionate about what we do, is the Core of the solution!