It was not narcissism that saw Papa Kwesi Nduom name his company after himself. It was that desire to put his reputation on the line when it came to business; that strong belief, born of a brass neck and a steel backbone, to be accountable for his work.
Today, Groupe Nduom sits atop of a business made up of tourism, investment advisory and management, financial services, technology, media, management consulting, cross border trade and sports.
It is a modus operandi born in Nduom 47 years ago, when the first opportunity knocked.
“There are certain stages in life that you get to know things. I had the privilege of getting a scholarship and spending one year in the United States in 1970. Prior to that, I wanted to be a medical doctor. I went to the United States and was introduced to other things. Through that I got to know that you could also be in business. In just that one year I took so many different classes outside medicine which broadened my view in life and all sorts of opportunities became possible,” he says.
His uncanny ability to spot opportunities led to the formation of a business empire, based in Ghana, with 60 companies in its portfolio. When we meet at the Coconut Grove Hotel, on a warm Saturday afternoon in Accra, Nduom has a spring in his step, a broad smile and an energetic “good afternoon” for everyone as he ushers us into his inner office in the sprawling resort.
The final episode of the first season of My Worst Day with Peace Hyde features Ghanaian serial entrepreneur Dr. Papa Kwesi Nduom – who shares his memories of the day he lost $2 million worth of business that threatened to end his consultancy business.
At 64, Nduom’s attention to detail is slightly intimidating; his demeanor is composed and authoritative. His gaze is attentive as he reminds us politely he is flying out later that evening to the United States to complete the acquisition of a new bank. Nduom’s intuitive timing has served him well over the years. That skill was born of the transition from medicine to business.
“I ended up at the University of Wisconsin and that is where I did the Bachelor of Economics and PhD in service delivery systems. It is there that I actually went off course. I wanted to be a medical doctor and I took all the admission tests and everything and got to a point where I needed a lot of money to continue if I wanted to get into a high-quality medical school. But I found out that I could take some different courses and take a degree in economics and get to work quickly, so I took that path so I could finish and get to work and make some money.”
“I had to fend for myself. Some of the things I do to make a living today, like finding opportunities, comes from the fact that I had to do those things myself and scrape along to survive. I had to pay my own fees, pay for my rent and go to school at the same time,” says Nduom.
In those lean days, he packed canned beans in a factory; toiled for two weeks on a construction site, in the cold winter; and spent long hours as a parking lot attendant.
“I would do the third shift at work which was at midnight and when you come back there would just be enough time to take a shower and go to school. If they said a semester was 15 credits, I wanted to take 20 because I calculated how many credits I needed to take to get out of school early because it was money I had to pay.”
The search for new opportunities to make money taught Nduom two key business principles: the first was how to negotiate.
“One job I really liked was working second shift at a meat factory. It paid well per hour and you learned how to cut meat, and you were also able to take some of the off cuts home. So you had food. So the people I shared my apartment with at that time were two Somalis who loved meat, so I used the meat to trade for other necessities which I couldn’t afford myself.”
Second lesson: the power of perseverance.
“Right after university, my first job was with Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance in Milwaukee. I went there and applied with my Ghanaian name and the lady looked at the name Papa Kwesi Nduom and started asking all sorts of other questions. I got to a point where I couldn’t answer all the questions so I failed the interview.”
“I went back to the university and I carried a different identification because my passport had two names in it. So I went and changed my clothes and came back as Joseph Hubster Yorke Junior, which was my other name. The lady didn’t notice that it was the same person. So now, with my new name, she asked me completely different questions, which I answered and she gave me the job and I became a life insurance underwriter,” says Nduom.
Then, Nduom worked at the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wisconsin, a health insurance company, and then the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District, a county government institution. Here a rare life-changing experience, in an unlikely place, unfolded through a chance meeting.
“You never know where and when opportunity will make itself available so you should always be ready. I was on the fourth floor of my work building but on the seventh floor was a nice men’s room, which was big and had marble floors, which was really nice. So I would go and use the men’s room on that floor instead of going to the one on the fourth floor,” says Nduom.
“One day I was washing my hands and a guy comes also washing his hands and we strike a conversation. He asked if I would be interested in a job opportunity. He happened to be a recruiter who worked in the building and was looking for people that Touche Ross might be interested in. So we spoke and he set up the interview for me with the partner at Touche Ross and that is how I got the job. It was just an accidental meeting in the men’s room.”
Touche Ross later became Deloitte Touche, one of the ‘Big Four’ accounting firms with revenues of $36.8 billion, according to research company, Gartner. Nduom worked his way up to become a partner in the firm where he would learn his most important business skill, the art of selling.
“Every year they had a book that had all the partners in the US and in that book every partner’s production was there. In it were also the points that you earn as a bonus, so you see the entire top performing partners. So you knew where you were and what your business was supposed to do. So it is important for you to deliver. So you learn how to sell, you learn how to provide service and you learn how to satisfy the need of your customer.”
Nduom became a partner at Deloitte in 1986; with that the pressure to deliver increased. Ronald Reagan was president, Wall Street was booming and business was opening up around the world. Deloitte was in the thick of it.
“When you become a partner in the firm, you are a shareholder in the firm and basically you work for your own account. What you earn is strictly based on the business you bring in. The minimum amount you had to bring in terms of consulting fees was $1 million a year.”
Nduom moved to Washington when the firm merged the Milwaukee and Chicago offices. That put him in contact with the international division at Deloitte; another opportunity Nduom quickly took advantage of.
“One day, over Thanksgiving dinner I told my wife that I wanted to go to Ghana to see what it was like to work there because I had never worked in Ghana before. So I bought a ticket, came to Ghana and I wanted to spend about a month or so to look around,” he says.
It was this conviction to understand the Ghanaian market that lent Nduom his next big entrepreneurial break. Initially, he sought to offer his services for free to get a feel for the consulting market in Ghana. At the time, Deloitte had representation, with Haskins & Sells, in Accra as well as an association with Akintola Williams in Nigeria. Nduom looked for another opportunity and his instinct paid off, yet again.
“One of the partners said Ashanti Goldfields was their client and it was time to go do an audit, so maybe I should go with them to do an information systems audit. I traveled with them to Obuasi and spent a week, did the analysis of their systems, wrote a report and spoke to the man in charge of the whole area. He said he liked what I was suggesting which was something they might like to do but I should go talk to the managing director of Ashanti Goldfields, which was Sam Jonah, but then he was based at Diamond House in Accra.”
This principle of perseverance, which Nduom had learned a lifetime ago, when he secured his first job as a life insurance underwriter, was to serve him well – just as well, as a frustrating time was ahead.
“So I tried to talk to Sam Jonah several times in Accra and it didn’t work. I went back to Obuasi and somehow somebody there accused me of messing up with their computer systems so they ordered me off the mine. So I left the mine but sat by the supervisor’s door all day and convinced them to let me in because I wanted to talk to him about what can be done to improve their systems. He let me in and I left with an agreement to come back and organize their information systems,” says Nduom.
The contract was for a complete systems overhaul of the gold mine, involving the change of computers, accounting systems as well as payroll. Nduom enlisted the help of Deloitte to deliver the projects. After this, Nduom delivered more projects, including overseeing the merger of Touche Ross and Deloitte Haskins & Sells, forming Deloitte & Touche.
“When they merged they didn’t have a management consulting section and that is what gave me the opportunity to set up Deloitte and Touche Consulting West Africa and brought some other people from the US and hired them to join the team,” says Nduom.
The team had nearly 100 people in Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe. Ever the opportunist, Nduom spotted yet another gap in the market.
“While we were here, we realized that nobody was doing consulting work. So I took my own money because the firm said you are a partner in the US and not a partner in Ghana or Africa. They had no interest in setting up a branch of Deloitte USA in Ghana. Deloitte is set up as member firms. So they said we will give you two years after which you will get Africa out of your system and come back to the US.”
The two years taught him resilience. The new West African consulting business was inundated with work. Nduom secured major contracts with Texaco and Elf Oil in Nigeria, the African Development Bank and Malawi Oil. He was also responsible for setting up the computer software for Zimbabwe’s social security system.
“Eventually I became the coordinator for consulting for the African region for Deloitte and the time came for me to go back and I said there was enough work to do here so we set it up as a member firm of Deloitte. So when senior partners will get together every year to have their annual meeting, I would go as the senior partner for the West African consulting practise,” says Nduom.
Nduom became the chairman for the African region for Deloitte and held that position until the end of 2000. His says his success is down to focusing on long-term objectives, while staying flexible enough to solve day-to-day problems.
“We would look for a place to relax or do some work, we couldn’t find anything and so we set up Coconut Grove. We were looking for people to do some software work for us and we couldn’t find anyone, so we took a bus to Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology and recruited some students, gave them computers, gave them software to tear apart and build again and then we started a software company. Out of that we set up a software company called TSS, then a hardware company called IBS, and out of that came corporate finance which became Gold Coast,” says Nduom.
The slogan of Groupe Nduom grew beyond expectation and owns a string of companies, from hospitality to entertainment. It has hotels, a football club and an artist management business. In media, it has newspapers, television, radio and advertising; it also owns primary and secondary schools and a university.
Nduom’s intuitive timing helped elbow out competition across his empire; a shrewd strategy that led to his worst day in business.
“I try to forget the date. It was 1995. It is the day I traveled from Ghana to Wharton to speak to graduate business school students about investments in Africa. I was one of the keynote speakers so I traveled from Ghana to Washington and my brother met me with faxes from Ghana, which said number one, I was on the Ghana Airways board at the time and I have been sacked from the board. I had consulting business with Ghana Telecom and it had been canceled. I was doing some consulting business with State Enterprise Commission and it said I was under investigation and in one day I lost over $2 million worth of consulting business,” says Nduom.
He believes this was an attempt by the government of the day to block his businesses for reasons he never found out. The event prompted a passion to be a part of the political system to prevent this injustice from happening to anyone else.
“I didn’t want anybody in Ghana to go through that experience where a government will just get up and, for whatever reason, decide that somebody should not be in business and that they should cancel their contract and just try to move him off the earth. There was a plan to do away with my businesses and everything I was doing in Ghana. They said they would smoke me out and get me to go back to where I came from. This was elevated to an extent that it became a row between the government of Ghana and the US,” says Nduom.
Nduom turned lemons into lemonade and expanded across Africa, leaving trading in Ghana until the impasse was resolved. It was, and 40 years on the business is riding high on its acquisition of Illinois Service Federal (ISF) Bank in Chicago, US. Nduom is older, wiser, with a clear eye for new horizons.
“Working here is like working in our own republic. We are governed by our own rules. You have to send a daily report, monthly report, quarterly report, a mid-year report and a yearly report. The idea is if something was to happen to you, anybody is supposed to look at your business and pick up where you left,” says Richmond Keelson, General Manager of Groupe Nduom Corporate Affairs.
What a journey – from packing canned beans in the United States to owning a bank there – a first for Ghana. The next couple of years will be spent trying to help the bank – the newest entrant into the group – find its feet in the business of its faraway owners.
Nduom is driven by the passion to have a business set up, thrive and succeed beyond Ghana.
That is the legacy Nduom is building; one opportunity at a time.
Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa
Mastercard knows only too well that technology can drive inclusive financial growth with simpler and more efficient ways to do business and life. And Raghu Malhotra, the man spearheading this trajectory in Africa, is also focused on social progress.
In many ways, Raghu Malhotra is like the brand he works for, leaving his footprints in different parts of the world, and in some cases, the most unlikely corners.
On a scorching summer’s day in June 2016, Malhotra traveled 100km east of Jordan’s capital city Amman, to a camp with white tents named Azraq built for the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.
In the desert terrain and hot, windy conditions, people had to queue for hours on end for plates of food handed out of visiting trucks. But some of them, displaced and homeless overnight, expressed their gratitude to Malhotra, President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa (MEA).
Mastercard, a technology company that engages in the global payments industry, had distributed e-cards, as part of a global collaboration with the World Food Programme, to the refugees that they could now use to purchase food and other supplies from local shops.
“I spoke to the people myself and saw what their lives were… Even those who were doctors with their families and were displaced… They said to me ‘you have restored dignity to our lives; you have no idea how demeaning it is to queue up to be given food’… We actually digitized how that subsidy for food was given. Some of these things go beyond economics,” says Malhotra.
That very simply sums up Malhotra’s mandate for Africa as well.
The New York-headquartered Mastercard, ranked No. 43 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands, with a market cap of $247 billion, which connects consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments and business, is fostering key partnerships across the African continent to help drive inclusive economic growth.
The idea, Malhotra says, “is to get our global skill-set to operate in its most efficient form in every local economy, at the same time, we must do good, and it must be sustainable.”
He calls Africa the next bastion of growth for various industries.
“As a company, we have stated we are going to get 500 million new consumers globally. And Africa plays a big part of that whole story… We want to be an integral part of various economies here,” says the man responsible for driving Mastercard’s global strategy across 69 markets.
“It probably took us over 20 years to get the first 50 million new consumers, in my part of the world, which is the Middle East and Africa (MEA). It took us probably five years to get the next 50 million, and last year alone, we put over 50 million consumers [in the formal economy] in MEA. That is part of our whole African story, so this is just not rhetoric; we are actually building our business on that basis.”
Home to four of the world’s top five fastest-growing economies, Africa has the fastest urbanization rate in the world, the youngest population, and a rapidly expanding middle class predicted to increase business and consumer spending.
It’s a continent of opportunity for global players like Mastercard with an eye on the potential of a booming consumer base and small and medium entrepreneurs, most of whom are still not a part of the formal economy. A large proportion of Africa is still unbanked. There is enough business opportunity in offering people digital tools so they can lead respectable financial lives.
But it is in knowing that financial inclusion is not just about technology, but more about solving bigger problems, as the World Bank says in its overview for Africa: “Achieving higher inclusive growth and reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend will require going beyond a business as usual approach to development for Africa. Going forward, it is imperative that the region undertakes the following four actions, concurrently: invest more and better in its people; leapfrog into the 21st century digital and high-tech economy; harness private finance and know-how to fill the infrastructure gap; and build resilience to fragility and conflict and climate change.”
And in order to enable financial access, Mastercard has a balanced strategy in place, with the right partnerships for inclusive growth on the continent, Malhotra tells FORBES AFRICA.
“Every emerging market has different segments of people and you need to get the right product for the right segment. What we do is a balanced growth strategy across the continent based on timing, opportunity etc… Of course, because the bottom of the pyramid is much bigger, I think what we need is to adapt things differently; that is where the inclusive growth story comes from. That is where the opportunity is, but there is a second part to it…” And that, he summarizes, is advancing sustainable growth, doing good and bringing more transparency and efficiency.
The new pragmatic dispensation of governments in Africa towards ideas, technology and innovation has surely helped open up the stage to newer segment-driven products, especially as Africa already has such global laurels as Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and micro-financing service M-Pesa that took financial access to a whole new level. Also, sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world.
Malhotra says he finds African governments consistent in how they are rolling out their digital vision, and in trying to collaborate towards creating better ecosystems for their economies, though each is unique with its own dossier of problems.
“When I speak to various governments around Africa, I see a commonality of what their needs are and I also see a commonality in how they are trying to respond. So I think a lot of them realize running cash economies is a very inefficient way of doing things… Also, the consumer base is much more open to new technology because there is no bedded infrastructure or legacy infrastructure. I think where governments need to start thinking a bit more is how much do they want to do completely on their own.”
Part of this transformation on the path to financial progress is alleviating the burden of cash. Cash still accounts for most consumer payments in Africa. Mastercard, which started out as synonymous with credit cards, continues its efforts to convert consumers from cash to electronic transactions, and move beyond plastic.
Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died
The cover of the August (Women’s Month) edition of Forbes Africa beautifully captures the essence of the woman I interviewed only a few weeks ago. Gracious, soft-spoken, brimming with life and energy. Dr Thandi Ndlovu impressed the entire Forbes crew on that afternoon cover shoot with her broad smile, and open yet powerful demeanor.
It is with great sadness that Forbes Africa heard of the accident that took her life on Saturday the 24 August 2019.
READ MORE |COVER: Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo
She had given so much to South Africa and its people – through the apartheid years and during the 25 years of democracy, literally building a better future, first through her medical practice at Orange Farm and then through her company, Motheo Construction Group and the scholarships for tertiary education granted by her Motheo Children’s Foundation.
That sunny winter’s afternoon, I asked her if she, at the age of 65, was considering retirement, and she laughed. A lively, amiable laugh. She told me she was healthy and strong and easily worked 12 to 13 hour days.
She loved hiking, and has climbed Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camps of Mount Everest and Annapurna in Nepal. At the time of the interview, she was training to climb Machu Picchu, the famed ruins in Peru’s mountains.
One of her biggest passions was to make a difference in people’s lives and to motivate people to achieve the best they could. The other was to redress the racial tensions that still remained in South Africa.
Dr Thandi Ndlovu, South Africa is poorer for your passing.
-Jill De Villiers
Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo
Thandi Ndlovu and Nonkululeko Gobodo, moulded by South Africa’s apartheid past, tore their way into male-dominated sectors , leading them boldly through a quarter century of democracy. Failure was never an option.
On a sunny winter’s afternoon in a quiet suburb of Randburg in greater Johannesburg, a second white Mercedes-Benz pulls up in the driveway of a photographic studio, and finds a shady spot to park.
Already seated next to a pool glinting blue in the sunlight, an elegant woman dressed in black and white sips green tea and talks about her early life growing up in the former Bantustan of Transkei in South Africa.
Absorbed in recounting her story, she looks up as a tall, slender woman, also in a chic black and white ensemble, walks towards her. The two women beam in recognition. They are here to be photographed by FORBES AFRICA and to share their unique stories as businesswomen in two traditionally white male-dominated sectors – auditing and construction.
This year, South Africa celebrates 25 years of democracy. As the country started shaking off the shackles of oppression in the 1990s, both these women embarked on their paths to greatness. Both had been moulded by the harsh final years of apartheid, gaining the strength and conviction to fight for what they believed in.
In the process, they built successful businesses, changed perceptions and became role models.
And as with all stories of achievement, their journeys came with times of adversity.
Nonkululeko Gobodo: The visionary in auditing
As a young girl, Nonkululeko Gobodo had very low self-esteem. She was shy and quiet and as the middle child in a family of five children, she felt overshadowed by her very outgoing older siblings. Her mother made it clear that she thought Gobodo wasn’t “going to amount to anything”.
Yet, there were factors in her upbringing, at home and in her community, which shaped her and prepared her for a future as a captain of industry.
Her mother was very hard on her. “I’m someone who needs affirmation and she did the opposite of what I needed. Fortunately, my father was doing that, he was doing the affirmative things.”
As an educator, her father was excited when she achieved “goodish” results at school, even slaughtering a sheep in celebration.
“When my parents were running shops, I used to be the one who would help in running the shops during the holidays. And I was quite young to be given the responsibility. My mother was literally taking a holiday, and I would run the shop perfectly, no shortage or anything like that. So, in spite of the fact that she was too hard on me, she must have thought she was nurturing this talent and making me strong.”
Growing up in the then independent Transkei (now the Eastern Cape province of South Africa), Gobodo was largely sheltered from the impact of apartheid in other parts of the country.
“I lived in this world where you were sort of cushioned from what was happening in South Africa. So you were socialized to be a fighter, to be strong. My parents used to say that we should never allow anybody to tell us there were things we cannot do,” she elucidates.
It was an everyday thing to see black people running a variety of formal businesses like hotels, garages and wholesalers.
“I suppose I was very fortunate in that I was raised by these parents who were in business, who were working very hard during those times and with very strong personalities, both of them. Within the Xhosa tribe itself, although there is patriarchy and all that, Xhosa women are very strong and they are sort of equal partners with their husbands.”
Still very young, Gobodo fell pregnant. Her parents insisted on marriage. The marriage would end several years later, after the birth of three children, when she was 34 years old.
While taking a gap year working at her father’s panel-beating shop in Mthatha (then Umtata), during her first pregnancy, Gobodo discovered her calling. While her parents thought she would be well-suited to a career in medicine, she found joy in accountancy.
The gap year also revealed her innate strength to stand up for what she believed in. For the first time, she encountered racism. White managers remained in place when her father bought the business from the Transkei Development Corporation (TDC).
“They were really so upset by these black people who had taken over this business, and they were just bullying everyone. So I was able to stand up to them and then I realized I’m actually smart, I’m actually not this thing that my mother was saying, that I’m not just smart, but I’m strong, I’m tough, I can stand up to these men during apartheid years and it was not because my father owned the shop, but it was this thing of suddenly discovering who you are for the first time and just waking up to who you are and suddenly knowing what you wanted to do. Oh wow, accountancy, I didn’t know about that,” she smiles.
She was also inspired by the fact that black auditors did the books for her father’s business. They were WL Nkuhlu & Co, owned by Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu. Her father supported her decision to study BCom and she enrolled at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University).
Gobodo became a star performer at university and her confidence grew. After qualifying, the university offered her a junior lectureship. While there was no racism in the academic environment, it was here that she had her first taste of gender discrimination. A male colleague instructed her to do filing. She thought this was ridiculous considering her position, and she refused. He treated her as an equal from then on.
“I made a decision to fight the system differently,” she says. “I was sure there was no system that would determine who I am and how far I can go. I used to say this mantra to myself: ‘Your opinions of me do not define me. You don’t even know who I am’. So I never allowed those things to get to me.”
Early on, she already had a vision to have her own practice, so she was not distracted by her peers complaining while doing their articles. She was determined to take advantage of the opportunity to get the best training she could get. “Those guys never became chartered accountants, so it was a wise thing not to join them,” she smiles.
In 1987, she made history when she became South Africa’s first black female chartered accountant.
Working at KPMG, she grew to rapidly build her own portfolio of challenging assignments.
“It was my driving force right through life to prove to myself and others that there was nothing I couldn’t do. And for me, being black really gave me purpose. I can imagine that if I was living in a world that was readymade for me, life would have been very boring,” she says.
She was offered a partnership eight months after her articles. She would be the first black partner, and the first woman. It was very tempting. But she remembered her vision to start her own practice and taking the partnership would be “the easy way out”.
So she moved on to the TDC, where at the age of 29, she was promoted from internal audit manager to Chief Financial Officer within three months. Again in 1992, she decided to break “the golden chains” of the TDC to pursue her destiny. But first, she restructured her department and empowered five managers; thoroughly enjoying the work of developing leaders, and setting the tone for the business she runs now – Nkululeko Leadership Consulting.
At the time, her father questioned her decision to leave such a lucrative position to take the risk of starting a business. “Everybody was so scared for me and was discouraging me. I realized these people were expressing their own fears. I have no such fears. And it’s not saying I’m not fearful of the step I am taking, but I’m going into this business to succeed.”
The best way to do that was to step into the void without a safety net. So, no part-time lecturing job to distract her from her vision. “If I had listened to them, how would I have known that I could take my business this far?”
She describes herself as a natural entrepreneur. Yet, the responsibility of leading a business is not a joke.
“It sobers you up,” she says. “You realize you have to make this work, otherwise you’re going to fail a whole lot of people. But when you have the courage to pursue your dream, things sort of work out. Things fall into place.”
Eighteen months into the practice, she took on a partner and felt an “agitation for growth”. It came with a “massive job” from the Transkei Auditor General, and things changed overnight. With only four people in their office, they now needed 30 to complete the assignment and they hired second and third year students who attended night lectures at the university.
“At that time, as a black and a woman, you had to define your own image of yourself, and have the right attitude to fight for your place in the sun. And I can’t take for granted the way I was socialized and raised by my parents. My father was such a fighter. And he shared all his stories at the dinner table. He used to say in Xhosa: ‘who can stand in front of a bus?’, so you just have those pictures of yourself as a bus. Who can stand in front of me and my ambitions in life,” she laughs.
This self-confidence, belief in herself, direction, purpose and her clear vision steered her ever further.
“Unfortunately, I had a fallout with my partner Sindi Zilwa [co-founder of Nkonki Inc, a registered firm of auditors, consultants and advisors], and that was a hard one, a very difficult one. I used to say it was more difficult than my divorce, because that happened almost at the same time. First, the divorce started and a few months later, I divorced with my partner,” she says.
“It was a lonely time. It is amazing that out of hardship, we find an opportunity to grow and move to the next level.”
She went on a five -week program with Merrill Lynch in New York in 1994. On her return, she saw herself being cut out of negotiations to establish a medium-sized black accounting firm. While these plans were scuppered now, her vision still survived and no one could take that away from her.
She approached young professionals who were managers at the big accounting firms in Johannesburg to join her. “But you can imagine, they were young, they were fearful. It took about eight months to persuade and convince them.”
Gobodo understood their fears as she herself had to overcome her doubts about moving from a small community in the Transkei to the big city. But the visit to New York had helped her overcome her fear. If she could make it there, she could make it anywhere.
Gobodo Incorporated was established in 1996. It was the third medium-sized black accounting firm.
The others were Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba and KMMT Brey.
She believes that providence has always sent “angels” to her at the right time in her life. Peter Moyo, a partner at Ernst & Young at the time, gave his time and invaluable experience leading to the establishment of Gobodo Incorporated. Chris Stephens, who was the former head of consulting for KPMG, facilitated bringing a fully-fledged forensics unit to the firm. They took up a whole floor at their new Parktown, Johannesburg offices instead of the planned half-floor.
From a small practice in Mthatha, Gobodo Inc. grew to a medium-sized company with 10 partners, 200 staff and three offices – in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. It was an exciting time.
Gobodo firmly believes that visions are not static. Once a summit is conquered, there will always be another one waiting for you.
The next summit beckoned her 15 years later. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), a program launched by the South African government to redress the inequalities of apartheid, was firmly established and accounting firms were compliant, and Gobodo Inc. started losing out on opportunities as previous joint-audits done in partnership with the big accounting firms fell away.
She started talks with Victor Sekese of Sizwe Ntsaluba to merge the two medium-sized firms.
Again, people questioned the wisdom of the move. What if the market was not ready for a large black accounting firm?
There was somewhat of a culture clash when the “somewhat older, disciplined, bottom-line” Gobodo Inc. and the “younger, more creative” Sizwe Ntsaluba teams came together. A new culture combining the best of both emerged. Ironically, while no people were lost during the merger, some were uncomfortable with the culture change and left.
In the beginning, “a lot of sacrifices had to be made to make this thing work. Like the name. My partners were saying Nonkululeko’s name should be in front because she’s the only remaining founder,” explains Gobodo.
Sizwe Ntsaluba wanted their name up front, and it was a deal-breaker. She decided the vision was bigger than her and she wouldn’t allow anything to jeopardize it. The company name was agreed on: SizweNtsalubaGobodo. The business grew to 55 partners and over 1,000 staff.
“I think we underestimated how hard it would be,” she says. “Mergers are difficult in themselves, around 70% of mergers fail. People were laughing at us saying ‘ah, black people, they’re going to fight amongst each other and fail’, so we were determined not to fail. Failure was not an option.”
When they did their first sole tender, “you could smell the fear in the passages. There was so much fear”. Then the call came from the chair of the audit committee of Transnet to say the board had decided to appoint SizweNtsalubaGobodo as the sole auditors.
Gobodo had led the way to the establishment of the fifth largest accounting firm in South Africa. Her vision had been realized.
“It was just so fulfilling, really so fulfilling,” says the grandmother-of-three. “So it was time to move this thing forward.”
She was the Executive Chairperson and Sekese was the CEO. She commissioned partners to find the best governance structure for the firm. Their recommendation was for one leader to lead the firm forward, and a non-executive chair.
“That was going to be boring for me. If I was not going to be part of driving this vision forward, it was time for me to leave,” Gobodo says. “There comes a time that the founders must leave and hand over to the next generation.”
Although she had achieved her dream, it was not easy to let go. The separation took three months.
“I learned a lot about letting go at that time. We have to let go layer by layer. I had to accept that they would do what they had to with the legacy. And here they are now, having merged with Grant Thornton. The dream was to be a true international firm, and now with SNG Grant Thornton, it is still basically a black firm going into the continent. The dream does not die. This is still a black firm taking over an international brand.”
Gobodo now heads Nkululeko Leadership Consulting, a boutique, black-owned and managed leadership consulting firm. Here, she can live her passion for developing leaders. She also sits on the boards of PPC and Clicks. The future awaits her with more promise.
Side bar: ‘The World Is Not Kind To Strong Women Leaders’
What were the greatest challenges she faced during her career?
“Making a success of your life in the South Africa of the past. As a black person, you always started from a place of being dismissed, as a woman, you always started from a place of being dismissed. So you had to be true to yourself and find yourself for you to be able to succeed. And that was hard. I don’t want to make it as if it was easy.
“The second thing was being a strong woman leader. The world is not kind to strong women leaders. And for me, being a strong woman leader was the hardest thing because both men and women don’t accept a strong woman leader. So you have this big vision, you are driven, you have to move things forward and if you’re a strong man, you’re accepted.
“But if you’re a strong woman, you are not. So you had to grow up and mature and try to find that balance of still moving people forward to achieve your vision, because I realized early that I would not get to the finish line without them. I could not leave them behind. So I always had to find that balance and sometimes, I didn’t do it well.
“Because there was this urgency of moving forward and you have to drag people with you. And they didn’t take kindly to that. Do I regret it? No, not really. I don’t think I would have achieved what I had. I had been given these gifts as a strong woman for a reason. I just feel sorry for strong women leaders, because it is still not easy for them today.”
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