For Heinrich Swanepoel, it is important to keep challenging himself and therefore he will never let setbacks get him down for too long!
As a little boy growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Pretoria, Heinrich Swanepoel always knew he wanted to be a CA(SA). His grandmother lit the fire for numbers in him from a young age and he was determined to follow his dream.
However, due to a devastating diagnosis, Heinrich had to learn to adapt his dream and make the most of the hand life has dealt him.
‘Growing up, I didn’t care what other people thought of me. I lived on the wrong side of the track and had red hair, so I was teased quite a bit. I also had to grow up pretty quickly because my parents struggled financially.’
Heinrich’s father was a hardworking mortician and his mom was a payroll specialist. ‘My parents taught me the importance of doing a job well, of always doing your best and never giving up.’
As a child, Heinrich did his best to excel at school. In 12 years, he never missed a day! After school, he registered at UNISA to start his journey to becoming a CA(SA). He completed his five-year articles whilst completing his degree and was offered a position at Logista.
When Heinrich started his honours degree and his STA, he started struggling. During this time, UNISA changed their honours degree to a postgraduate diploma course. ‘It was very disappointing. However, I completed it within five years.’
Life was a constant struggling juggle between work and studying for Heinrich. Physically, he was also taking the strain. ‘I started feeling progressively worse. I was in constant pain and was always uncomfortable. There was nothing wrong with my brain, but my body was battling. I had no energy and my determination started waning. Everybody wrote it off as exhaustion due to the pressure I was under.’
Initially doctors thought Heinrich has built up insulin resistance due to, among other things, lack of exercise. However, he knew something else was wrong with his body.
‘I was officially diagnosed with facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD) in 2013. It is an extremely rare autoimmune disease. Its prevalence is between four and ten per 100 000 people (or 0,00001%),’ he explains.
FSHD is characterised by muscle weakness atrophy, particularly in the face, around the shoulder blades and in the upper arms. Other arm and leg muscles are frequently eventually affected in the course of the disease. Symptoms usually appear before the age of 20, but can begin in infancy or later in adulthood.
About two years before Heinrich’s diagnosis, he struggled to perform at his peak and to work a full eight-hour day became increasingly harder. He also had to give up his dream of becoming a CA(SA) because his body just didn’t allow him to complete it.
‘Initially, my diminishing performance was attributed to being overstressed or burned out, as so often happens to be the case due to the nature of the work we as accountants do,’ says Heinrich.
However, after countless tests and examinations, Heinrich was diagnosed with the dreaded FSHD. ‘Being diagnosed with a debilitating disease has destroyed my dream of becoming a chartered accountant. I was unable to continue with my studies while running a practice and being in constant pain made it a real struggle to prepare myself physically and mentally to write and sit down for the time required for the qualifying exams. I was more upset that I knew I had the skills in me of a chartered accountant, I just could not prove it in an examination environment. Mentally, that broke me more than the diagnosis,’ Heinrich admits.
In February of 2014, his suffering reached a pinnacle and Heinrich decided to resign from his position as senior audit manager and quality control advisor. ‘30 April 2014, my last day at work, I still had no plan of what I would do to sustain myself financially. I had no other income and the guarantee of a monthly pay stub was gone. Medical bills were piling up. Medication for managing the pain and fatigue due to FSHD is not cheap,’ he explains.
However, Heinrich’s years of dedication and good work ethic did not go unseen. ‘On the 2nd of May I got a call from someone that got my number through a friend. This person needed some accounting work done in Harare. When I got back after two weeks, the phone rang again and again I got more work through another reference.’
An idea, a new dream started to form in Heinrich’s heart. Being a CA(SA) may not be part of his journey, but maybe he can start his own business. ‘I realised I could start my own little work-from-home one-man-show practice. At least this way, I was able to determine my working hours and work when I could, although this still didn’t guarantee a fixed income.’
Swanepoel & Partners was born. ‘I may be a one-man show, but my clients are my partners,’ he explains. The business grew steadily and after two years, Heinrich needed offices and personnel. ‘I was not advertising – I was just a word-of-mouth business.’
Heinrich specialises in tax efficiency and restructuring company and group structures to optimise tax benefits, tax advisory and dispute resolutions, business and management consulting services, independent reviews, preparation of annual financial statements based on IFRS and IFRS for SMEs (including consolidations), income taxation and accounting.
He obtained his associate general accountant (SA), independent reviewer (SA), professional accountant (SA), professional tax practitioner (SA) and registered tax practitioner qualifications.
Initially, Heinrich admits he was not upfront with his clients about his health. ‘I was too ashamed and thought that they would think less of me. I was afraid that they would think of me as a broken part and unable to assist. During client visits, they would notice I walked funny or would see me struggling to climb steps. I always answered, “don’t worry, I just hurt my knee.”’
As time passed and Heinrich started accepting his condition, he realised it is nothing to hide or be ashamed of. In fact, his perseverance and determination, combined with his skill and work ethic, is something to be proud of. Something that sets him apart from the rest.
‘I am no longer ashamed about my health. I am open about it. I am not a broken part! Nothing is wrong with my brain or my thinking abilities. I am still good at what I do and have so much more to offer.’
He explains the moment he started being honest with himself, he got his zest for life back. ‘Yes, every day is still a struggle and I have my good and bad days. I know the outcome of my diagnosis and the possibilities of where my body could be movement-wise. However, I can still choose to live each day to its fullest and I choose to be positive. Your thoughts control your emotions. It’s not easy to think positive and to stay positive – but it is still a choice.’
For Heinrich, it is important to have great relationships with his clients. Communication is key for building your brand and reputation. As is quality work and service delivery at all times. ‘Don’t neglect smaller clients. It’s those guys who recommend you to their friends at braais and other social gatherings. Word-of-mouth is how I built my business,” is his advice. Furthermore, Heinrich looks at his clients’ businesses in a holistic way, not only to help them but to create more business opportunities for himself.
After seven years of pouring his entire being into his business, Heinrich’s team has grown through the support of clients and family cheering them on. ‘We prepare a schedule for each day of what needs to get done. This helps us stay motivated and, most importantly, helps us to meet the requirements of our clients. I am supported by staff members that I like to call the “Wenspan” (winning team). Without them, I would not have gotten this far. They keep me going and help run the firm, especially when my body physically cannot meet the demand.’
Heinrich also credits his rock, best friend and wife, Elrien Swanepoel, for his successes. ‘We’ve been married for just over four years. Without her continuous support and encouragement, I doubt I would have been where I am today.’
Heinrich’s mission and vision for life, and for business, is to provide excellent and professional service to all his clients. ‘As a firm, we are large enough to offer a full range of independent and objective advising services, yet small enough to attend to a client’s specific needs by providing the personalised attention they require through highly trained, skilled and motivated professionals. The fulfilment of our client’s needs ensures that Swanepoel & Partners will go from strength to strength in the future and through our mission statement, we are positioned to be an excellent practice.’
Heinrich’s advice for starting your own business
- Have a one-on-one relationship with your clients. Work together as partners.
- Your reputation and your brand are imperative. It is important to build relationships and deliver quality work at all times.
- Communication with clients is key.
- Don’t neglect ‘small’ clients. They are the ones who will refer others to you. Word-of-mouth is priceless.
- Look holistically at your client’s business to see where you can assist.
- Get at least a 50% deposit before you start working to avoid not getting paid.
- Never give up!