Running the ball, while running your books

Chris van Zyl, Stormers rugby player, keeps himself busy off the field by running an accounting practice.

Chris van Zyl’s father didn’t have the opportunity to study and his mother did a degree in industrial psychology. When they were counselling their three sons on the best academic route to follow, they said that their friends who had done accountancy degrees were the wealthiest and had the most financial freedom and choices of career. 

“It obviously struck a chord with us, because all three of us ended up becoming accountants,” says Chris, who was the youngest. 

He went to Stellenbosch University, and started playing rugby there as well. “I was a late developer. My school rugby was nothing to write home about, but as I grew, I started to play more and more – I played in the Varsity Cup, which is the university’s flagship tournament and got a taste of the professional environment. As soon as I had a taste of that, I knew it was something I really enjoyed.” 

He was due to start his articles in Johannesburg the next year, but realised he wanted to be a professional rugby player as well. He broke it to his parents, who were supportive but also concerned about how he was going to do balance two demanding pursuits. 

“So I came up to Joburg, and continued to play very hard. I got involved in club rugby at Pirates Rugby Club I was invited to join the Golden Lions – all while trying to continue doing my articles. But Deloitte were unbelievable in supporting me. And Johan Ackerman at the Lions was also very accommodating. So between the two, I was able to do it.” 

If he had to fly out to play a game during a working day, he worked back the hours during the week or on Sunday. “Nothing changed in terms of my deliverables. And I had a great mentor in Gavin Comrie who helped me to manage the whole process. The important thing was not to drop the ball on either side, and to ensure that I was still giving the contracted time to Deloitte.” 

The pressure was intense, though. Chris woke up at five to go to gym, worked eight hours, rushed to practice and then went home to eat and get to bed as quickly as possible. “I made sacrifices, but it was all worth it,” he says. 

Then, the rugby demands intensified. His team wanted to step up his contract. So Chris decided to pause his SAICA contract, and get fully involved at the Lions. But about eight months in, he started to get anxious about his unfinished articles, so he asked Deloitte to take him back. 

“They were once again very accommodating, but they couldn’t take me in Johannesburg, but they said they had capacity down in Cape Town.” 

He made contact with John Dobson, Western Province Currie Cup coach who agreed to take him on, and in 2015, he moved down to Cape Town. In March 2016, he completed his articles at the Cape Town Deloitte office, again Chris says with the support of a great mentor, Zahid Bardien. Even so, he had new plans to keep himself busy off the field. 

“I decided that I would like to launch my own accounting and business support practice. I have so many friends in the entrepreneurial space, and everyone has great ideas and passion, but they don’t always have the governance and accounting control. So in May 2016, I registered Walworth Consulting, targeting SMEs and start-ups. We feel that there’s a massive role to play in supporting the business functions of these small companies.” 

He says that his clients appreciate the input that his team gives them – with the results showing in their day-to-day operations as well as on the bottom line. “If I don’t have the business challenges, I feel like I’m standing still. Starting a company was the right thing to do. It keeps me stimulated. I enjoy running my own company, working in business development and winning clients.” 

In the meantime, his rugby career is still going strong. He was the Western Province Captain who inspired the team to victory in the 2017 Currie Cup, and has been a starting player for the Stormers for the past two years. 

He says he doesn’t struggle to balance his two demands on his time because rugby allows for lots of recovery time, so he’s able to focus on his business. He’s certainly had the practice. “I plan my days accordingly. The most important thing is to keep a strict plan and timetable. I use a lot of techniques to ensure that I maximise my time and cover my bases as much as possible.” 

He says that there is a lot that he has learnt in rugby that he can apply in business, and vice versa. “There’s so much that coincides. A professional rugby player in today’s world needs to have massive amounts of self-discipline, and I think that in the corporate world, it’s important to be a team player. The training opportunities I’ve been getting in the rugby space have developed me as a leader and a person and I use that in the business space as well. And I am convinced that the stimulation I receive from running the business while playing rugby keeps me refreshed on both sides.” 

His clients are often surprised to discover that the Chris van Zyl that they’ve just brought in to do their books is the very same Chris van Zyl who they watched playing for their rugby side over the weekend. But he says he never uses any intimidation tactics on the business side.