Bashier Adam is one of the founders and CEO of Nexia SAB&T. It is a firm that has been providing accounting, audit and consulting services since the birth of South Africa’s democracy in 1994. Over the years the firm has established ten offices in nine provinces with a total staff compliment of approximately 400 people. In March 1998, SAB&T became one of the first black firms in South Africa to join an international association, SC International, which merged with Nexia International in 2006 to become Nexia International. This year, 2016, marks the dawn of a new era for Nexia International as it is the 25th anniversary for the organisation. The network now has more than 230 member firms in over 110 countries.
Bashier spoke to SAprofessionals.com in the winter of 2016.
What does it mean to you that your colleagues have entrusted you with the role of CEO?
A lot of people take for granted the role of running a business. Even the easy part of it takes a lot. It means a lot to me that I have been entrusted with this responsibility, and it’s a role I take very seriously. The nature of the role becomes bigger the more regulated the profession becomes. It becomes more complex and you need to have a handle on it, and manage the business from that perspective for the sake of all stakeholders. This includes our staff; you need to be in touch with all aspects of what is happening in the world around you. For instance, we are based in Centurion and at the moment there is unrest in Tshwane, which affects a number of them. As Chief Executive you can’t divorce yourself from that reality. You need to have a good picture of what has an impact on your peoples’ lives.
How long have you been in the position?
I have been in the position since day one; since the inception of the firm. We have had various changes in the composition of the partnership and periods when I have rotated off. I think we are now in a stable position. We have kept an eye on succession in recent years and on that front we have some very good candidates. We have done things differently as a firm; our average partner age at the moment is on the right side of 35. When we recognize potential, we accelerate the individual and that seems to be working for us.
Tell us a bit about how you went about forming SAB&T and bringing it to the size it is today.
After my articles, I lectured part time at The University of Pretoria which not only gave me an income to cover the early overheads but also the flexibility to take a stab at entrepreneurship, resulting in the birth of the firm. My partner and I started off in a leaky garage doing bookkeeping; that part of the business is still very much part of the operation today. Along the way we became the first professional practice to list an offshoot, SAB&T Ubuntu Holdings, on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Many of the larger firms have at some point approached us to merge with them, in some form or the other, but we have resisted that temptation. Without sounding arrogant, I think we are the best mid-tier firm because all the other firms out there had the benefit of a 100-year history and the connections that came with that, which we have had to build from scratch.
How would you describe your growth trajectory?
We have grown significantly from the leaky garage and along the way we have had different key partners and of course the challenges that came with that. As mentioned, we at some point split out the professional practice and listed a consulting business. I think that alone is proof enough that we are the most entrepreneurial firm, and not afraid of trying new things. We have had opportunities to merge and be part of a number of firms larger than ourselves in South Africa. But what we don’t have in size we more than make up for in quality. I have benchmarked our quality and our systems against the other firms and I can tell you that we rank favourably with most of our peers.
What would you like to have accomplished when your time is up at Nexia SAB&T?
I think we are going to leave behind a legacy for future generations. If we look at what we have done historically, we have been game-changers at every turn. When I first qualified, I said we are going to promote young auditors. When we formed the firm, I said we are going to knock directly at the door of the auditor general and other arms of government for work. We were one of the first black firms to do that directly, not under the auspices of collective institutions of black professionals. We were the first to list on the JSE out of a professional practice when many of our colleagues were of the opinion that this could not be done. We were the first black firm to be part of an international network. I always say when asked about our de-listing, tongue in cheek, “we did it because no one had ever done it.” I think you have to set an example of breaking barriers. One of the biggest advantages of having gone through the whole listing and delisting journey in our own right is the insight we can bring to our clients who are contemplating similar journeys. Another thing we must never lose is the ability to teach and develop people; that is without doubt the single biggest comfort I have in my life. The best thing about this profession is probably the ability to watch people grow. I hope that aspect remains part of the firm when the time comes for me to go.
How do you mentor people?
We’ve got the formal mentorship programs as required by the profession but that is merely a tick-the-box situation. From my personal perspective, we genuinely know what it means to have an open door. I mean, I talk to people including the tea ladies who come in on a daily basis. I spend five hours of my day talking to our people and the other three talking to clients. At times that means I need to spend eight hours working at night. We get those who really want mentorship involved from the very beginning, accelerate their development and we push them through into management. It is part of our Nexia culture to do that. I sometimes take staff members with me to high level meetings, just to sit next to me, listen and learn. We want to grow our people in-house and that’s why over 70% of our partners come through the firm.
What is your leadership and management style?
I call it a consultative democracy. It is very considerate and at the same time simple. It is very rare for me to use my power as CEO because if you get everybody thinking in the same direction as you, you don’t really need that power. We are 38 partners each with one vote I think we have built a culture that is driven by unanimity.
What keeps you awake at night?
My wife says to me that: “you know it’s amazing when you put your head down to sleep… you sleep”. That said, there is still a lot of little things that irritate me which I think we can be better at. Don’t get me wrong; I think our systems work well. By 17 March this year, our February year-end accounts had been audited and partnership profits distributed. Another thing I didn’t mention is that after we came out of the listing situation, we set up an equity funding company that has bought all our nine offices and has built up a significant property portfolio for the benefit of all our partners. We have an interest in a number of other businesses too. We are much more than a traditional audit practice; we are entrepreneurs, who are qualified as auditors. Being a black owned firm, we take up various positions as BEE partners. We make sure we pay for everything that we are a part of and bring value to the table including ensuring good corporate governance is practiced in those businesses.
So you consider yourself entrepreneurs before professionals?
We are chartered accountants and auditors by default or by training but deep down we’re business people. And that’s probably one aspect I thought the last SAPSA Awards fell short of recognising. You could see the professionals but you couldn’t see the innovators or the entrepreneurs. But I also think that it was a success as the first time, and that the event was brilliant. Furthermore, I feel the criteria should be made clearer. We are very excited about the opportunities for firms like ourselves in South Africa – but all stakeholders need to have genuine regard for what the practicalities are on the ground.
What were your highs and lows?
One of our high’s was our listing ten years ago which I have told you about. Another high was that two years ago we celebrated our 20th anniversary. We took the whole firm for a weekend to Rustenburg, where everything at the venue was branded Nexia SAB&T. I think it was a show of pride and there was an incredible high. The low was when, subsequent to a corporate transaction, we lost control of our listed deal entity and had to de-list. The lesson there was that we need to keep our destiny in our own hands which is probably part of the reason why we didn’t go ahead with the other mergers which subsequently presented themselves.
What accolades have you won?
Since around 2008 we have always received a PMR Award as rated by the Muslim community despite the fact that Muslim partners here are a minority. Nexia International was rated the “Rising Star” International Network in 2013 after being runner up in 2012.
What is your contribution to the community?
We built a community clinic in Itireleng in 2012, which we continue to fund. We have also contributed to a number of orphanages in our region including an abandoned kids haven known as New Beginningz. In 2003, we started a football club for kids in Itireleng known as the SAB&T Pretorians. We used football as a starting point and catalyst. We made sure the kids were fit, their fees were paid and that the schools report to us on their progress. Sport is in my blood, recently I started cycling for various causes like cancer. I also took part in the CEO SleepOut last year. In addition, we give bursaries to Thuthuka in the region of R1 million plus we give support to start up entrepreneurs in free services of over R1 million per year. Over the last 20 years, we have built four houses for people. In 2011, we decided to construct one for the oldest voter in South Africa on a piece of land donated by the Mpumalanga government. I think the individual initiatives undertaken to contribute to the communities are far too many to mention.
What has been your contribution to the profession?
I have been instrumental in the re-launch of the Association of Black Accountants of South Africa (ABASA) and we also pioneered the Black Chartered Accountants Practitioners Forum, where I remain a board member. I used to sit on the SAICA Public Sector committee and I am still an active member on the sub-committee between the Auditor General and SAICA. I also sit on the University of Pretoria’s Chartered Accountants Council. We have partners who are active at SAICA and the local chambers of commerce.
What has been your contribution to transformation?
We are a level 2 BEE company with 80% of the ownership comprising black people as defined by the scorecard. From a gender perspective women make up about 52% of our staff and 37% of our ownership comprises black women.