In September 2018, accounting and advisory firm Mazars South Africa elected to split its Chief Executive Officer position into two, to be jointly occupied by Michelle Olckers and Anoop Ninan. The selection was made collectively by all the partners at the firm, after candidates for the job indicated their vision for Mazars going forth.
A year later, SAprofessionals.com had the opportunity to speak to Anoop Ninan about his role. He holds a degree in Accounting, from the University of Witwatersrand. He began his career at Big Four accounting and advisory firm PwC, and rose through the ranks to Assistant Manager by the end of his three-year spell at the firm. He then joined PwC’s Big Four rival EY, where he spent nearly six years.
Ninan ended his tenure at EY as an Associate Director, and immediately joined Mazars to start up the corporate finance division in Johannesburg. Since 2012, Ninan has been the Managing Partner of Mazars’ Gauteng office, alongside being a member of the National Mazars Board of Partners, and the National Executive Committee.
What does it mean to you that your colleagues have entrusted you with the position of Co-CEO?
It was a moment of immense pride to be elected as CO-CEO. Mazars leadership selection is based on election; we are a single global partnership with that structure. The position gives the partnership a voice. The CO-CEO role allows us to focus on the relative strengths of each party and at the same time enable us to be agile in our decision making process.
What would you like to have achieved by the end of your term?
I believe Mazars is getting to be known as the best kept secret among accounting firms. I am looking to change that by getting our profile out there. I think the world needs to know that we are big on quality and have great credentials to handle any assignment. We are big on values and big on culture. A good example is our recent win of the Goldman Sachs audit in Europe. It resulted from a mandatory requirement from European regulators for the bank to consider mid-tier auditors and we came out as the best firm. It was a difficult process which was quite intense being the investment banking space with case study tests and we proved that we have the required technical ability to take up the job.
How would you describe your management and leadership styles?
We are in the age of innovation and transformation. Disruptive ideas can come from anywhere and therefore I see my role as supporting the breeding of those ideas. I will be the first to admit that I do not have all the answers and in this age of disruption, we can’t remain where we are, and therefore as leaders we need to establish the processes and environment where people can nurture new ideas. That is the beauty of being in a mid-size firm. I subscribe to Richard Branson’s philosophy; ‘clients do not come first, employees come first because if you take care of your employees, they will take care of your clients’.
What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night with respect to your position as CEO?
I am always looking for better ways to evolve. I am kept up by disruption because I believe we will either be part of it or left behind. Things will not be the same in five years’ time and whereas technology will take over certain processes, I believe people will always require a human element that they will be able to speak to. As such I have a big focus on communication and I think we need to focus on coaching our staff to communicate effectively. Unlike many CEOs, I do not stress about fees because my view is that if we lose a client because of fees then they are unlikely to be the kind of client we want given that our selling point is quality rather than price.
How has the firm fared in terms of achieving its business growth objectives?
We have met our growth objectives, growing at double digit growth % year on year. We have increased on all parameters significantly over the past few years. Our staff complement now sits at 1100 people and we have also been able to get better quality clients. For instance, we were appointed the auditors of Sygnia Group which is arguably the largest asset management company in South Africa. We have also been nominated to be auditors of Steinhoff subject to an approval process in the Netherlands.
How do you take part in mentoring others?
Mentorship and transformation is our number one strategic objective. It is one that I take on personally; not only for the profession but also for the country. In 2017, we entered into a Youth Empowerment Initiative where we took youth and put them through a training programme that involved computer literacy, interview skills and other related courses. We then went out to place them at our clients and also absorbed some of them into our organisation. We managed to place 120 of them in jobs of a permanent nature and over 80% of them are still in those positions two years later.
If you had to relate a couple of experiences, what would be the highs and what would be the lows of your working career?
The aforementioned Youth Empowerment Initiative is definitely a significant high for me. When we conceptualised it, I did not know how successful it would be given that we implemented it at a time that the economy is struggling and many companies are looking to cut costs rather than increase their staff complement. It is a high for me seeing the impact the programme has had on the youth. It has also been an eye opener; we always hear of these 6 million youth who are unemployed but not many of us have got to interact with them and understand their needs. When you speak to them, you realise that for many, the issue is simply a lack of access to opportunities which once given opens them up to shine.
A low that I have experienced and continue to experience are the situations where we get shortlisted for large company assignments where we know we are the best contender but we lose out because the audit committee comprises Big 4 alumni who decide to favour their own. I set personal growth targets at the start of the year which include securing large listed clients and I consider it a low when those targets are not met.
Tell us about your newly launched Financial Services sector, what has gone into rolling out this offering and what realistic prospects do you have of growing your revenues within this market?
This is a sector that is dominated by the Big 4 accounting firms. It is an industry we have been looking at for years and have made approaches in the past without any tangible progress. I began the conversation with our international colleagues two years ago. We have the relevant credentials because if you look at the top ten banks in Africa, they include three in Morocco and we are the auditors of all three. We also have banking clients in 16 African countries.
We met with the SA Reserve Bank and shown them our credentials which they have been determined to be up to scratch. We have since recruited industry veterans, Riaan Eksteen and George Ellis who were previously with Deloitte and our objective is to provide consulting skills into the major banks. We currently audit State Bank of India locally and we have a lot in the pipeline. We aim to secure a mid tier bank audit within the next 2 years.Our target is to have 50 consultants active in this area by 2021 and 150 consultants two years later.
What accolades have you and your organisation received recently?
We have been the Top Employer of Choice for a few years and have been highly ranked as Reporting Accountants at the Dealmaker Awards each year. Last year we received the French South Africa Best Business Collaboration Award from the French consulate. Because of our French roots, we have taken part in attracting French businesses to South Africa. For instance, I have been a speaker on the topic of Doing Business in South Africa to the Top CEOs in France at a workshop in Paris.
Through what means does the organisation ensure that the firm maintains high level of ethics and integrity?
The values we live by date back to our founding fathers and have never stopped guiding us. They represent the core of the principles we apply every day, with our people, our clients and wider society. They have been the key to our development for more than 70 years and we are convinced that they will continue to be the foundation for our sustainable growth in the years and decades to come. Beyond words, our values reflect our determination to go above mere compliance with laws and regulations. They are the pillars of the ethical firm we aspire to be. These values are integrity, responsibility, diversity and respect, technical excellence, independence and stewardship.
Our values determine our behaviours which are documented in our One Team Behaviour Charter. We keep each other accountable and that helps me sleep at night. We have a big number of leaders given that there are 90 partners and directors therefore staff have access to a senior member on ethical issues. We have an independent quality and risk management team and the staff have direct access to this team in case of any ethical issues.
Is transformation considered a key objective at the firm, and if so, how is it attended to?
It is a process that we are committed and work hard on every year to improve. We are looking at ways of achieving sustainable transformation recognising the challenges we face not only from corporate South Africa taking our best black staff but also accounting professionals choosing to emigrate. We have a strong group of managers and at Board level 33% of our partners and directors are transformed. We are not near the right demographics particularly with females but it is something we have a plan to address beginning with increasing the pipeline of transformed staff who can rise to leadership and ownership positions.
Kindly highlight some recent contributions by the firm to the community and to the relevant professions your professionals are a part of.
Other than the Youth Empowerment Initiative, we have an initiative with local artists. You will notice our reception area has a lot of artwork from artists that we support with a stipend and providing a platform for sale of the art. In fact, recently we held a big event for 600 people where over 30 pieces were sold.
Our contribution to the profession includes acting as auditors for SAICA, taking part in the Senior Partners Forum and IFRS committees. We are involved with the SA Audit Profession Trust Initiative which is a committee developed by the audit profession to restore trust in the profession. We are also supporters of SAICA’s Thuthuka Initiative which seeks to increase the number of Chartered Accountants from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. Other CSR projects revolve around supporting education programmes, be it supporting, creches, schools or tertiary institutions.
How does the firm ensure that professionalism and good customer service are upheld?
I personally spend time with many of our clients to ensure that they are happy with the level of service we are providing. In addition, we issue client service questionnaires where we obtain feedback from clients. Internally we have 360 degree evaluations where staff members evaluate each other. Our behaviour charter is key to how we run the business and this translates to professional conduct.
What do you do when you are not at work?
I spend time with family; my wife and two kids We enjoy going out to experience nature in places like the Pilanesberg. Books also take up my time; I am currently reading 21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari