Just trying to make a difference

This article was written by Stuart Arderne, like me an Old Selbornian. There is something about the school and the philosophies it instilled in us for life because I associate with all the comments in this article.  I hardly knew Stuart at school, we were in different classes taking different subject and only really got to know about him through my brother when they were Articled Clerks together. However having re-acquainted at a school reunion in 2008 I wished I had got to know him a bit bitter when we were younger, because he is the person he portrays in this article.

The comments made about the general business world are generalisations, but sadly everything is becoming so generalised in life that individuality is dying out. Nothing is judged on its merits and benefit to society; they are judged on as Stuart writes intangible factors and effective greed. Its sad. The article is also two parts as the second part is effectively a business plan to stand out from the crowd of generalised business support. Its where I pitch myself, just not as a Financial Director but more broad commercial support. I wish Stuart well in this venture.

Have a read of this article its fascinating and depressing at the same time, because its true.

I was brought up with old school values, attended a traditional, old school that entrenched those and surround myself with friends that subscribe to a similar philosophy. I believe in respect and dignity, and that no person is better than someone else, because of their station in life or material possessions. Every person is fighting their own struggles and their own demons…. I believe we should go through life touching other people’s lives and making every attempt we can to enrich and make their lives just that little bit better than it was before they knew us, even if that is done by something as simple as eliciting a smile. These are valuable life lessons my father taught me, my school taught me, and a few key business people I have met through my life’s journey thus far.

Sadly, though, this does not appear to be a sentiment commonly share by the business community today. Don’t get me wrong, I intend this as a very broad generalisation –  there are any number of good honorable businessmen out there still, but I believe these principles are being pressured and reassessed on a daily basis in order to survive, and if at possible, to thrive. Business has become about operating in the grey areas, no longer about black and white, right or wrong. A reflection of societies overarching moral decay? It seems that there is almost an underlying unwritten maxim that in order to succeed one should screw one’s customers wherever possible, screw one’s staff as best you can with inane and unbelievable hard luck stories and screw your suppliers the hardest of all.

How did we get here? When did the values of common decency take a back seat to a quick buck? When did the compassion and caring for a small business owners ability to put food on his children’s table get superseded by the need for another luxury car, or third holiday home? When did we allow cold hard numbers to replace the founding tenet of business, which was developing a trusting and long term relationship? In fact, who really cares when it went wrong, should the better question not be what can we do to make things happen the right way again? To me it all revolves around a single word: respect.

As noted above, I have met some business leaders that have shaped my commercial leanings and philosophies over my career, some in a positive way, some as an example of how I’d prefer not to do things. One of the most positive anecdotes I regularly refer back to is a gentleman who is sadly no longer with us, Mr Ian Lloyd, a businessman from Port Alfred. We regularly had golf afternoons with local businessmen while I was at Fish River Sun, and at one such event, I was teamed up with Ian, a good golfer and for some time a very senior leader of the Royal Port Alfred Golf Club. We got to talking about precisely this business ethics topic, as I had observed him invest substantial money in a venture based on a handshake agreement with our general manager, Melville Vogel, and me. My question went something along the lines of “This is a truly rare thing to observe, in today’s world, no one takes things on face value anymore, are you sure you want to invest all this money without a signed contract?”

His answer has stayed with me for almost 20 years. He said “My boy, listen to an old man. There are two ways to do business in this world. The first way is you screw over everyone in your path, step on one back to get to the next one. Make no mistake, you’ll make a lot of money, and quite quickly too. But it will be lonely, and you will stand to lose everything you’ve got, just as fast as you got it. The second way takes a lot more time. You develop relationships, you treat people with respect and trust, choose who you associate yourself with, and you’ll be just as successful, if not more. The difference is no one will begrudge you your success and you will keep it forever. I have chosen to do business with Melville and you because you are gentlemen, men of honor and integrity. I believe I can trust you, so a handshake is all I need.” I hope that message is as powerful for you, the reader, as it always has been for me.

The second observation I wanted to note came from the same era. At the time, the observation stung and I strongly disagreed, but in hindsight, it is wholly accurate, and the sum of my experiences has shown me over and over again that it is both a valid and frighteningly regular occurrence! At a financial review, our Regional General Manager, Mr. Graham Vass, once remarked that the best way to completely f… up a business was to let the accountants run it. As a newly qualified, 25 year old chartered accountant, this was a rather painful slight that I took very personally. But…. Having now spent a good 21 years in various senior financial positions across a vast bouquet of industries, owned and run by local shareholders as well as international corporates, I must accede that he was absolutely right! And I think that this is where the things going wrong I alluded to at the beginning of this diatribe started to occur.

Gone are the days of total understanding of a business, how it works and fits together as an integrated organism, both in its own right as a system unto itself, as well as how it feeds into and feeds off the environment and macro world it operates and interacts with. Gone are the days when an entrepreneur went to the bank with an idea, a passion and a dream and a relentless thirst for success, but nary two bronze coins to rub together, and the bank manager granted a start-up loan or overdraft because he believed success was a real possibility.

These days the private equity investor expects the profits to be at x value by year five so the exit strategy can be executed through sale or IPO, and heaven help management if this isn’t achieved. So management cuts the bottom out of costs, burns out the staff, ruins relationships with suppliers to make these targets – yes, they succeed, they earn big bonuses on that achievement, and exit the business, leaving a shell of its former self, with very little sustainability without fundamental and massive re-engineering and restructuring required. Direct link to the Generation Y and Millennial life philosophy of instant gratification……

These days no bank will even engage in a discussion for funding if the credit score doesn’t come out above predefined sub minimums. And that’s when the quest for numerical proof of value of the idea only begins! So, the reality that prevails is that I need money to create something, I approach a bank for assistance and they won’t loan me the required funding because I don’t have enough money. Logical? And then we wonder why our GDP growth is stagnant and unemployment is rife… The truth is that business is risky, as is life. By all means manage risk, but don’t seek to eliminate it or you will also eliminate entrepreneurial drive.

Everything is done solely on a number, what is finite, what is numerically quantifiable and very little else. Business and the underlying human relationship element has substantially died. It’s lost its soul. I find it really sad.

Which brings me to the primary reason of why I embarked on penning this piece.

The world is full of people who complain about what is wrong, but not enough people who try to make it right. My entire outlook on life, be it personal, business, self, is of positivity. I don’t know how to hate someone or something, I don’t hold grudges, I am exceedingly understanding of situations and always will do my very best to provide a balanced, rational and thought through perspective to things. I believe in honor, fairness and integrity, both in myself and in my way of dealing with others, and this premise does not change whether I stand to gain anything out of my interaction with that person or not. However, life is not fair, so I don’t always experience the same treatment in return. So be it, I will not allow it to jade who I am.

This poses an interesting dilemma…. How does a chartered accountant, a person who is driven by numbers at his very core of training, reconcile with the personal values noted above? A truly dichotomous conflict? For me, it’s a lot simpler than one would think. I have never considered myself to be a true “accountant” personality, I have a diversity of interests and ways of thinking, I have a creative side, having studied art and music, offsetting the logical side from my accounting training, I love the interactions and engagements with people that the hospitality industry afforded me, I have played sport as both a team member and as an individual athlete. And I have a wicked and downright irreverent sense of humour that allows me to engage with people of all walks of life very easily. I believe that I have fundamental flaws as do all of us, but I recognize and accept my downfalls and limitations, and work around these, never afraid to acknowledge that which I don’t know and ask for help.

Through thinking all of this through, I decided to try to make a difference, to try to be different. I want to create an environment of old school business values, and try to associate myself with those of a similar ilk. I have spent time dealing with recruiters trying to secure a new permanent corporate role and came to the realization that even an industry like that, one that has at its very heart and essence the most base of human existence viz. people, relationships and their career aspirations. Even this has fundamentally lost its most important tool of trade: talking to the people that drive their livelihood. Again, that’s a generalisation, as there are a few good people out there that still do things the “right” way, but they don’t get the high volumes of engagements that the bigger, faceless entities do, because the numbers are needed for group deals. Goes back to the premise noted above, if the numbers aren’t right, the small guy suffers, the guy that actually does things right.

And this is where my new venture arises, Integrated Advantage Management Services. The premise and business model of this is simple – I have a wealth of experience across a range of industries, and without in any way intending to appear conceited, I am very good at what I do. I’d like to offer that insight, cross functional knowledge and very different way of thinking to small and medium businesses to help them expand and grow to the next level. Basically offer the knowledge and experience of a corporate level financial director or chief financial officer on a specific engagement, contract or needs basis, rather than having to carry exorbitant costs disproportionate to the size of the business. If there is a need for a retainer type arrangement this is also available, and may allow for me to expand my vision and employ additional staff to assist me.

The obvious question that begs to be answered is how this is different to the plethora of other part time FD or contract accountant or business advisory offerings out there?

My differentiator, my USP if you will is that it’s all in the relationships and my network…. In my 21 years of management experience, I have developed numerous business contacts who I can proudly call friends, a lot of whom are small businessmen themselves. They have years and years of experience across a wide range of business arenas: IT specialists, programmers, insurers, human resources, industrial relations, health and safety, media and branding, accountants, attorneys, security experts, business analysts, cost control specialists, etc

My concept is to provide the best possible financial management and business advice to my clients, and, where there is a need for assistance outside of my area of specialization, referral to one of these business owners. In return, they will refer their clients to me for any advice required outside of their specific areas of expertise. A form of loose syndication…

The benefit is that these contacts are spread all around the country, so it offers a national coverage or referral network. A small business in Port Elizabeth, for example, would have easy access to not only financial and business management advice from a Johannesburg level CFO but also a national level industrial relations specialist. Furthermore, as a grouping we assist small and medium businesses to prosper and grow, while supporting other smaller business owners to do the same. We have all known for some time that the future of the country’s economy is in the SMME area, yet most small businesses have been focused on stealing business from one another, or setting up outsourcing rather than organically growing their own businesses. This doesn’t add any jobs, all it does is reduce corporate cost bases and bleed already struggling entry level and unskilled workers more. This is the real reason behind #feesmustfall, #outsourcingmustfall and related protests – our youth are frustrated because there simply aren’t opportunities out there, even if they have a university degree. So they spend three years at university, build up massive student debt, and then can’t find a job in order to be able to pay this back. By focusing on our model, we, as a grouping, can make very real contribution towards reducing unemployment by not only offering additional roles, but by engendering a way of thinking that may kickstart future entrepreneurs.

Who knows how successful it may be? Maybe it will remain an after hours dream, maybe it will become a multinational. But if we don’t do anything, we know absolutely nothing will happen.

The business proposition document detailing services will be completed shortly, the website and Facebook pages are currently being designed so watch this space. I would love to hear your comments or view on these thoughts, please note on the article or send me a message. For any of my contacts who would like to be part of this syndication, please contact me and let’s make something special happen.

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