Sindi Zilwa has enjoyed some outstanding achievements in her time. She qualified as the second black woman to become a chartered accountant in South Africa in 1990 at age 23, and also became co-founder and CEO of Nkonki, one of the country’s leading indigenous firms of chartered accountants since 1993.
Sindi spoke to SA professionals.com in the winter of 2016.
What does it mean to you that your colleagues have entrusted you with the position of CEO?
As one of the founders of the firm, it has been a daunting task sitting on your shoulders from the very beginning when we were looking for office space and buying basics like a kettle and teaspoons. Twenty-three years later, I can say I am pleased to look around and see what my brother and I founded is now an organisation with more than 400 people and 40 partners and directors.
What would you like to have achieved by the end of your term as CEO?
What matters is the leadership pipeline behind you or as they call it in soccer – the reserves who are sitting on the bench waiting to take to the field when you exit. The more I see the bench filling up, the more I have comfort in letting go. For instance, last year I was invited to speak at a conference in London and I was happy to send one of my partners Thuto Masasa who I know was capable to fill my shoes. We have people now who are capable of running a firm which is a very difficult task because every day you are challenged and on certain days you may even be tempted to quit. Christo Wiese was quoted in the newspaper saying that “you have to have staying power if you want to be on this (African) continent”. I fully agree with that view and hence we are working towards having reserves who have the emotional strength and mental capability to hang on when things get tough in this business.
What do you consider the highs and lows that you have experienced running the firm?
I can categorise our highs into three. First the opportunities we have been granted, secondly delivering on those opportunities and lastly fulfilling our purpose of increasing the number of black chartered accountants and the number of black professionals in South Africa. An opportunity that comes to mind is securing the audit of Transnet in 1995. That moved us from auditing attorney trust accounts and close corporations to being part of a team that audits a large organisation with complex IT systems. Another high which some firms take for granted is having enough cash to meet your obligations as they would arise. The low would be the contrary i.e. those moments when your cash flow is strained. Other lows include times when you feel an assignment could have been handled differently by your team. The biggest low is experienced when you get a big contract and an unexpected person finds a way of cutting that short, or reducing its size. It is a tough world where sometimes the high risk is not matched with high reward. The reward then becomes the intangibles like the previously disadvantaged people who have qualified as CA’s through the firm and remain to add value to the firm or go on to be successful in the corporate world. Looking back, I wouldn’t change the experience I have had. When I started, it was about creating a job for myself like others have done. But it turned out to be like driving a small car which keeps jerking and even at times it is not moving forward without you pushing it with all your internal and physical strength. Irrespective of the attractive offers out there to abandon the car and take over an efficiently moving bus, we always chose to create a trusted brand, no matter how hard it takes. When a brand is trusted, a mistake will not end the brand as the market will perceive the mistake as isolated. We are working hard to maintain a trusted brand through our work and effective marketing. This is also reflected in our training where we ensure our staff know that they are our brand ambassadors. Last year we came up with I5 which are the five traits of our brand personality – we must always be Ingenious, Inspirational, Insightful, Impactful and acting with utmost Integrity.
As a woman have you experienced any particular challenges in the professional environment that you can attribute to your gender?
I think the challenges are more about the nature of the game than the people. If you decide to go to rugby and you get injured, it is not because you are a woman but because you are a rugby player and there is an inherent risk of playing that game. The prejudice I have experienced is more because I am black than because I am a woman. If you look at white-owned firms of our size, it is difficult to compete because for them it is business as usual. They have had this opportunity for over 100 years. If I was in a similar position, I would have inherited this business from my father but these opportunities only opened up in 1994. So for us it is not easy to break into the market because the medium sector doesn’t have a sizeable number of black businesses as yet. We are growing a tree whose shade can only be enjoyed by the next generation. I recall making the point in 1998 after I won the business woman of the year award that it is hard to get people to do business with you when no one knows you. I made a speech the following year giving the example of a company with a turnover of R90 billion and profit of R1 billion. We are concerned about ownership, about how the R1 billion is shared but how about the R89 billion? If only the ones fortunate enough amongst us can find a way of influencing the transformation agenda of the companies they have bought into and not only focus on the R1 billion as that is small change compared to the R89 billion that does not go into previously disadvantaged hands. The scorecard is now dealing with that but unfortunately I don’t think it will make a significant difference for medium size professional services firms as our service are not viewed as “black services” in most quarters. There is immediate readiness to support such services as catering, cleaning and security but the moment you are a black professional no one is empathetic to your lack of support in the private sector.
What is your leadership style?
It depends on what’s at hand. If there is a crisis I am one person and if things are going smoothly then I am another person. When I have time I can be a nurturing leader who does some coaching but when there is a crisis I don’t have the same luxury. I guess you can call me a chameleon, changing colour depending on the circumstances. I am also a leader that gets things done herself. There are times when one has to be firm because a task has to be done. There is a quote I love that says “never be intimidated by the distance between your dreams and your reality”. For instance, we could be organizing a conference for 200 and we only have ten people registered. I am not intimidated by the significant distance between those two numbers; you get down to action and close the gap. So in times like those I have to step in and tell people to move out of my way. Other times, I take a back seat in order to grow future leadership because the succession plan involves giving people exposure to various situations.
Do you take part in mentorship?
I do because if there is a big task that I have to give it to someone, she may be scared because she has not done it before. I walk hand in hand to make sure that it gets accomplished. What I don’t do is general mentoring because I don’t think it has worked even with the people who have mentored me. I look at a person and say, that person is an excellent speaker; how can I learn to speak like them. So my mentorship ambitions were specific and self-driven and that is what I expect of the people who seek mentorship from me.
What keeps you awake at night?
Four deliverables keep me awake at night – adequate opportunities, excellent delivery on the ground, intellectual capital enhancement and cash in the bank. Running your business is like climbing a staircase that never ends. You will find that you have two or three of the deliverables at a given time but not all four so you have to keep working on the one that is missing. I think there is no school that can teach you to be resilient and brave. Those are things I learnt from my mother; that is why in 2005 when I received the Eastern Cape Achiever’s Award in the Finance category, I said that it doesn’t belong to me but to her and I publicly handed it over to her at the age of 80. I thank God that she was alive then and able to come onto the stage to collect it as she died two years later. I believe she was a happy and successful mother who was given first class treatment by all her kids.
What awards have you and your firm won?
There have been quite a number including top female emerging company of the year. Awards are good but they are not of such importance because the following day you go back to life as it was. I remember the SAPSA Award we won quite fondly because it was for our stance in the qualification we issued in the audit of SA Express. So many people criticized us for our decision to stand by that opinion. The following year the Auditor General took over and had the same finding and nobody said anything. The IRBA is purposefully focused on telling us we were unfair and we do not understand the basis for that. Why is that? Life is just full of surprises.
How do you maintain ethics and integrity?
First of all, we’ve got our quality control system to ensure that our opinions are supported by facts and professional standards. I think that helps because you will not have a situation where someone issues an opinion that is not backed up by anything. We also have training modules around integrity and around what people must do; how they should act and how they should tackle problems. The main brand personality for Nkonki is ‘Integrity’ and our screen savers were focusing on making sure that our people act with utmost integrity at all times. I come back to the SA Express example where we even obtained opinions from external parties who found that we were right. We were under significant pressure from shareholders and directors but we stood by our position as we were supported by facts. When the SAPSA Award came, we were pleased to see that someone was finally recognising us for our stance which was driven by integrity rather than business considerations.
How have you fared in terms of business growth?
I see our turnover is going up but the client mix is not yet what I am looking for. You want to work had to win a client and to retain them without worrying that someone would take them away because of a change in leadership or just difference in thinking. An example is the audits we have that the Auditor General have a clear strategy of taking back from us. It is a difficult space to be in because black firms have to depend on the public sector because as I said, the private sector has a long history of dealing with firms that are familiar to them. Previously the Auditor General’s office has been the pillar of support for black firms and now a new risk for all the black firms is the “take back the audit” strategy they are aggressively pursuing. We have put in significant effort in wooing JSE listed firms but it is still not easy to break through so we appreciate every opportunity we get from them and more focused approach on internal audit and consulting from the public sector rather than external audit.
How has your firm fared in terms of maintaining its transformation objectives?
We are a 100% black owned firm with 51% female ownership. That said we would bring in people with the skills and expertise that we are looking for who are not equity candidates. Skills are a priority but not at the expense of protecting our black ownership status. Each year, we increase the number of black CA’s into the profession and we burst with pride.
What is your contribution to the community?
We do offer bursaries and enterprise development. We spend a lot on education because we believe it is the only thing that will free up this country. Our community programmes are aimed at teaching people to catch fish rather than catching fish for them. This includes supporting certain suppliers. What we don’t do is make donations for the sake of taking nice pictures. Like my 17 year old daughter had a fund raising effort for an old age home. She went there to find out their needs and promised to be back in two weeks. They were surprised; they said they thought she would promise to come back on Mandela Day. You cannot leave people with leaking roofs which will only be fixed on one day in July. Where is the empathy in that?
What is your contribution to the accounting profession?
We have had a significant contribution through our thought leadership initiatives in addition to increasing the number of black chartered accountants, certified internal auditors, certified Information Systems Auditors among other professionals. We are now in the 6th year of our Integrated Reporting Awards which recognises companies for the quality of their integrated financial reports both as State Owned Companies and the Top 100 Listed Companies. Our flagship remains the Audit Committee conferences and this again is the 6th year. We host these conference for the Listed Companies, Public Sector Companies and Retirement Funds. We have an information service for key stakeholders through the Audit Committee alerts and the CFO alerts. Our partners also contribute their time to the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) and to the Independent Regulatory Board for Auditors (IRBA). In addition, I have written two books: Creating Effective Boards and Committees and The Ace Model – Winning formula for Audit Committees. We are therefore confident of the value we add to the knowledge base of the auditing and accounting profession.
How do you know that Nkonki is providing good customer service?
There are a number of things that we do including calling our clients to obtain feedback and now we are stepping up to engage with our clients to check if they are indeed experiencing ingenuity with us.