Surviving and thriving in public practice

ACCA member Mwendabai Kalaluka is a renaissance man who has built a thriving private accounting practice.

There has been tremendous growth in private accounting practice in recent years, a trend that is no doubt underpinned by job market contractions and volatility. The Covid-19 pandemic on top of that has put many businesses in distress and in need of a professional accountant’s eye or a business rescue consultant. To Mwendabai Kalaluka, helping businesses in distress has long been a passion of his, and one of the main reasons he opened up his own private practice, IABC Consultants.

An ACCA family
Zambian-born Mwendabai moved to South Africa in 2003 to pursue his master’s. He already had a bachelor in accounting under his belt, and had followed the professional stream (UK board exams) qualifying via ACCA, which is the main recognised professional accounting body in Zambia.

Why accounting, I ask? It was the family profession, it seems. “I come from a large family: nine siblings. Seven of us are accountants. I was raised by my brother, who was one of the first qualified CAs in Zambia, and he pushed me towards accounting when I initially wanted to pursue something in the natural sciences, but I don’t regret it one bit,” he says.

The private path
After graduating, Mwendabai interned with Grant Thornton, before moving to Deloitte. Then in SA, he initially worked in industry with Shell, and then moved to Johannesburg, joining FNB just after the 2008 financial crash.

At the time, he says, they were offering attractive retrenchment packages, and he saw the opportunity to take the money and start his own practice – as a tax practitioner – in 2009. Since then they’ve grown and added more and more skills to the portfolio, and Mwendabai is also a registered business rescue practitioner, an ACCA fellow, and part-time lecturer and trainer.

These are some of the smart and creative ways that he says he has been able to survive two major economic crunches, and several minor ones – and it is part of the advice he would offer to others looking to move into private practice, as well as non-accounting businesses looking for survival strategies: respond to the needs of the market.

Agility and dynamism
Mwendabai says the days of “just” being a pure and limited accounting practitioner in private practice are over, or at least it is a much harder choice than it used to be.

He learnt the hard way, he says. “The professional accounting industry in SA was not as strict and structured. It was difficult to compete from a price perspective. An average client in the SME bucket can’t always afford the services they need. It can be like trying to sell a Rolls Royce to an average earner,” he says. “I had to restructure things and come up with more efficient services that catered to small and medium businesses.”

This is one of the benefits of his involvement with ACCA, he says – that they are always evolving the qualifications to current needs and industry trends. “Since I came through my early qualifications, we’ve seen this change in accounting to incorporate more thought leadership. Accountants are no longer just the people who work with numbers; they now head and lead businesses. So a practical and dynamic qualification equips you with the mental strength to deal with the challenges you will encounter in practice.

Personally resilient
There are also some people who are simply better suited – temperament-wise – to the difficulties of private practice. “For me, it was informed by my upbringing. I had an understanding of that environment, and I like the pressure and responsibility of that. At the back of my mind, I always had private practice and assisting small business as a passion and plan,” he says. “Not everyone is suited for this. It is something that we try to guide those who come to us for training. You need to be self-motivated. a fighter, someone who has plan A and plan B.”

“With Covid-19, everyone was caught out and on the back foot, but now the accountants and members of the professional bodies must rise to the challenge. Covid-19 is – naturally – a very bad thing, but our practice has actually done more business, and our revenue in 2020 was higher than the year before.”

This was because they were able to see the gaps, he argues. “For example, a lot of businesses are not proactive when it comes to compliance. So when Covid-19 happened and people had to meet specific conditions to access the government assistance that became available, then many businesses needed the services of an accountant to help them get up to scratch and compliant. We were working around the clock.”

Staying alive
The ability to think on your feet and to bounce back from setbacks like this are useful far beyond accounting, of course. For SMEs struggling during these tough times, he says, you need to be more flexible and responsive.

And it is a competitive advantage over the big corporates in some ways. “When Covid-19 hit, and we were all navigating lockdowns and business dips, the smaller guys were still able to provide their services because of their inherent flexibility. Yes, it was bad for business, but those who were agile and able to respond likely realised some positives.”

That’s how they first pivoted into training “when we realised that the accounting and tax market was relatively saturated and competition was high”. He continues: “We realised that there was a huge market for training, so we became an accredited trainer, accredited by the Institute of Certified Bookkeepers as a training provider.”

Another opportunity lies with the protection of personal information act, POPIA. Lots of firms are going to have to build new processes and reports to be compliant and demonstrate that compliance. A further option is immigration: “People applying for business permits to come here need an accountant to produce a report for their application, so we skilled up and now produce the findings that get submitted to Home Affairs.”

“Those are just a few of the options. Practitioners and small businesses need to be open-minded, see what people need, and adjust to that.”

For those in private practice, and those smaller enterprises, Mwendabai’s advice is to regularly take stock of the space and your services. “It is something that I try to do at least once a week, looking at where you are as a practice. You are only as relevant as the solutions you provide to clients and stakeholders. The interesting thing about the problems of your stakeholders is that they are never static or fixed. You must be open-minded and exhibit robustness in how you identify issues and problems, and position yourself to resolve those problems.”