By Mzukona Mantshontsho
EY is a global leader in professional services, delivering exceptional client services across four service lines: Assurance, Tax, Advisory and Transaction Advisory Services.
The South African Professional Services Academy (SAPSA) spoke to Ajen Sita, Africa Managing Partner at EY, about his personal, professional and entrepreneurial journey thus far.
Tell us your brief history; academic, personal professional growth to your role TODAY
I am a product of the public schooling system in South Africa, and my tertiary studies were completed at the University of Witwatersrand. After graduation, I joined EY as a trainee accountant in 1993. Although it seems as if I spent my career at one firm, my personal experience was akin to having worked for different companies. After I was made Partner in 1999 I held several leadership positions in the firm – including Head of Entrepreneurial Services; Lead Audit Partner on Telkom; and Head of Assurance – before becoming Chief Executive Officer of EY Africa on 1 October 2010. In addition to this role I’m also part of the EMEIA (Europe, Middle East, India and Africa) Board and Global Emerging Markets Forum of EY.
What does it mean to you that your colleagues have entrusted you with the position of Africa Managing Partner?
It is a tremendous responsibility I must say, as it means delivering against the firm’s strategic goals at a time of uncertainty and ever-changing operating landscape – particularly since the audit profession has come under the spotlight in recent times in South Africa. I am always asking myself and my team how we can continue to uphold the EY reputation and brand while making life better for our clients, our employees and the communities we serve. Since Africa has the youngest population on the globe, we are lucky at EY to have a diverse workforce that includes a large number of graduates from universities from across the continent who are dynamic and are eager to be part of Africa’s growth story. Conversations with these bright young minds challenge me to keep current, relevant and certainly looking forward to creating a work environment that allows them to give expression to their personal ambitions and aspirations.
What would you like to have achieved by the end of your term?
The role is a performance-based position and that means helping EY compete better. It means helping EY transform digitally in the 4th Industrial Revolution. The profession has recently been struggling with negative trust sentiments and being under public scrutiny, mine is to bring that confidence back to the market.
In 2008 EY set a new standard in the professional services industry when it integrated all its country practices across Europe, Middle East, India and Africa (EMEIA). Across Africa, EY has an integrated operating model in 33 countries which enables the firm to bring a truly borderless approach to clients, as well as provide additional growth and development opportunities for all staff who are at the heart of the profession and the firm’s success. Africa is a passion and focus for me and I believe it continues to claim its position as an emerging market with significant potential. I have led the integration of EY across Africa which is today the most integrated professional services firm in Africa.
As a strong believer in Africa’s potential, in 2011, I commissioned EY’s first highly acclaimed Africa Attractiveness Survey which seeks to understand the trends, FDi and the relative attractiveness of the various African markets. This annual survey has since become a benchmark in the industry. To this end, I’m a regular commentator at conferences and in the media on investing in Africa.
How would you describe your management and leadership styles?
My philosophy is that it all starts with having a purpose beyond what you do in the short term, so that all your efforts are focused in that direction. I encourage staff to be present and give their best today, with this approach the results will take care of themselves. EY’s purpose is about building a better working world, and to do that we need to be cognizant of the need to learn from the wisdom of the older people while listening to the millennials to gain insights about preparing for a future that does not look anything like today. I’m therefore open to new ideas from everyone in our firm. I am also an advocate for our staff investing in personal development. My mission is to share the EY vision in a way that compels action so that people may realise their own personal goals while understanding the individual contribution that they are making to EY.
What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night with respect to your position?
I am excited about our business as we have experienced tremendous growth over the years. I am inspired by developing and delivering on our mandate of building a better working world for all. I am passionate about investing in new solutions that will allow us to continue to transform our clients’ businesses and leading them into the 4th Industrial Revolution.
How do you take part in mentoring others?
We have formal and informal mentorship programmes at EY. I enjoy creating learning and coaching opportunities for our staff at every opportunity I get through our daily interactions. I am a firm believer in using practical experiences to bring everybody on board and promoting the EY culture. I am big on our staff creating their own career plans. We have created a new technology platform that allows for quarterly goal-setting for each employee, and that also allows the employee to see how they are tracking against all the goals they set themselves. This is a powerful tool for enabling employees to take charge of their careers at EY and enabling them to proactively develop plans to build on their capabilities and skills.
If you had to relate a couple of experiences, what would be the highs and what would be the lows of your working career?
I have seen happy days at EY and some less happier ones. The lows would be the negative behavior we have seen from some in the profession that has sadly affected everyone else in the profession. The highs for me would be EY taking this as an opportunity to do well to counter these negative sentiments.
What accolades have you and your organisation received recently?
EY won the SAPSA Firm of the Year in 2017.
We have done exceptionally well at the Gender Mainstream Awards with 32% women ownership at EY and 40% women in leadership.
In my time as CEO, EY Africa was awarded the prestigious ‘Top Employer’ recognition in eight countries, namely: Botswana, Kenya, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe. EY South Africa also took 2nd position in overall Top 10 rankings for Top Employers South Africa, while taking 1st position in industry ranking for the Professional Services category.
How has the firm fared in terms of achieving its business growth objectives?
We have doubled our growth rates; we have beat our competitors in our target segments. We have 25 countries that have been fully integrated into a single business.
Through what means does the organisation ensure that the firm maintains high level of ethics and integrity?
Our organisation is founded on ethics and integrity. We have systems and policies in place that enforce independence, ethical behaviour and high-quality work. Outside of the rules and policies, we have created a culture of doing things right. We have a culture of walking away from business relationships that do not serve the firm or threaten to put the firm’s reputation at risk. We have an EY Transparency Report that details what we are doing and how we are governed.
Is transformation considered a key objective at the firm, and if so, how is it attended to?
My other passion lies in the transformation of the accounting and auditing profession. This is demonstrated through my role as Chairman of the Thuthuka Education Upliftment Fund which is the body driving the race and gender transformation of the accounting profession in South Africa. In my time as Head of Assurance, EY achieved the number one position in the final qualifying exam for Chartered Accountants in South Africa for four out of five years. During this period, the gap between the pass rates of white and black candidates was substantially minimised.
Kindly highlight some recent contributions by the firm to the community and to the relevant professions your professionals are a part of.
- We assist learners who have to write supplementary examinations to enrol for their B.Com degrees
- We have awarded R10 million worth of bursaries, followed by employment at EY after graduation.
- We identify women-owned businesses with revenues of R2 – 5 million that have been in existence for 2 – 3 years that we offer coaching, and business enterprise support to for a period of 18 months. Over 400 businesses have benefitted from our Entrepreneurial Winning Women programme to date.
- We have the EY NextGen programme where we identify high school learners from previously disadvantaged backgrounds to be exposed to the EY culture and activities that provide life and leadership skills. These girls receive support from grade 10 to 12 and become part of the NextGen alumni after high school, which facilitates ongoing interaction with and support from the NextGen community as they prepare to enter the world of work.
How does the firm ensure that professionalism and good customer service are upheld?
We have a robust review mechanism where we track our professionalism and customer service against our clients’ identified expectations. At the time of the final assessment, we assess how we have been rated and, where necessary, conduct an independent brand assessment to ensure that there are no gaps.
When you not at home, what do you get up to including family life, where can people follow you online?
I love spending time my wife and two children (13 and 17 years old). We subscribe to the Vedanta Philosophy, a philosophy that teaches one to live a better life. We visit the university in India as a family to continuously learn more about the philosophy. I look forward to my daughter spending time there in the near future. I am active on Twitter and LinkedIn as Ajen Sita.