Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo is a rare accounting firm built on small township businesses with sweat and hard work under apartheid. This year, it celebrates 30 years, and is the fifth largest firm in Southern Africa. It also works in West Africa. Eighteen years ago, it was rocked by uncertainty and despair. This was Victor Sekese’s worst day.
Sekese is living proof you don’t have to be eccentric to run this business, but it helps.
“Am I properly dressed for this interview? By the way, thank you for being late, while you were getting lost on your way here I had to catch up on something,” says Sekese, as he strides into the boardroom neatly dressed in a black suit and tie, before breaking into raucous laughter.
If it takes one man to change the world, Sekese could be that man. He has been the chief with the company since 1994, and chief executive for 18 years. You could say he is a rock of a company worth $60 million.
The foundation of this rock was laid in the turbulent townships of 1980s as South Africa burned.
“We were operating at grassroots level. We were literarily getting our hands dirty helping all sorts of township entrepreneurs, largely focusing on professional people running law firms, medical practitioners and non-governmental organization work. We helped them with books and tax matters. That’s the type of portfolio I was working on,” recalls Sekese.
In 1995, international funding for NGOs was dried up and the company had to help to close down many organizations. This was lost revenue. So, they started to knock on the doors of government parastatals and private companies.
In 1998, they got nice contracts from telecommunications and services companies. Right at this zenith, the company was shaken to its core. Sizwe Nxasana, the founder of Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo (then Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba) left his younger colleagues for a government job.
“Nxasana was appointed CEO for Telkom, a lifetime opportunity for him. Now the founder, the pillar, the icon of the firm is leaving. We were very young, we had enthusiasm, we had energy, we had vision, but we were still building ourselves in the marketplace. One thing I have learned in life, there’s no substitute for experience. When we leave these Ivy League institutions, we leave with confidence only. That is not enough,” says Sekese.
Nxasana left Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo bereft. There was uncertainty and clients cast doubt on the young team. Sekese, who was a manager at the time, says services firms, in their early days, are linked to founders and personalities.
“Our key clients were getting jittery about Nxasana leaving. Now we needed to be quick on public relations, we stepped up quickly without the luxury of time. We tried to emphasize the success of the firm was not premised in an individual,” he says.
It was also felt that Sizwe Ntsaluba, another founder and second in command to Nxasana, was in his shadow. In this crisis, the company took a deep breath and put its confidence in Sekese, in his early 30s, appointing him chief executive.
“This never occurred in my mind but we needed to do things and do them quickly. One is being asked to take the lead in a situation where there’s a lack of confidence in the market. I saw myself as a person to leverage the team and the philosophy was that this firm was not about personalities.”
The team rallied behind Sekese and he was sent to Harvard for a short course in leadership. This gave him confidence.
Sekese says the experience forced the company to rebrand as Sizwe Ntsaluba VSP and appoint a marketing team to change its image.
In 2011, Sizwe Ntsaluba merged with Gobodo Incorporated and renamed itself Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo. The new partner, Nonkululeko Gobodo, was the first black female chartered accountant in South Africa. She sold out and left in 2014.
In the past three years, Sizwe Ntsaluba Gobodo received a 5-year multimillion-rand contract from Transnet and announced plans to expand into the continent. Transnet and MTN are major clients.
Sekese says they are not comfortable as the fifth behind Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PwC.
“We are working on our Africa strategy, extending our footprint across the continent and acquiring other firms to increase our capacity,” he says.
Sekese, a chartered accountant and University of the Witwatersrand University alumnus, was an entrepreneur in his own right but believes in the power of partnership. A few years after completing articles in 1991, he started Sekese Associates in Pretoria.
“I wanted to create something big on my own but I realized that if I am alone it was going to take longer and be even more difficult. I believe in not reinventing the wheel. Sango Nxasana, my old colleague at ABASA, an association for the advancement of black accountants, approached me to join him. It was a no-brainer for me. I collapsed my little firm and got into a system that was already moving,” says Sekese.
Behind the spontaneous laughter and carefree demeanour of the father of two, lies an activist. Sekese, raised in Mamelodi township, east of Pretoria, cut his teeth in social activism at KwaZulu Natal University in his first year of a BCom degree. The university closed down because of the black students’ political activism. Sekese continued with his activism at Wits and later ABASA, where he met with Sango (meaning door in Xhosa) Ntsaluba, who became his mentor.
“He really lived up to his name. He opened doors for many,” he says.
You could argue Sekese is also a dab hand at battening down the hatches.