The world of accounting

Imagine a career that can lead into almost any industry, where starting salaries range between R240k and R420k (for those with university qualifications) and which is minimally affected by a global economic downturn.

The skills learnt during the study phase mean you can enter the corporate world or go it on your own. Even if you decide to change careers, the qualification will stand you in good stead no matter what you do. Sounds almost unbelievable, but this describes the world of accounting.

In October 2009, the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) released statistics from independently commissioned research. A striking result was that 25% of the directors in the JSE’s top 200 companies (ranked by market capitalisation) are chartered accountants (CAs).

Other SAICA research statistics showed that more than 90% of the top 200 chief financial officers are CAs. The prominence of this profession also impacts on the greater business world.

Leading businesspeople, like Stephen Koseff of Investec and Whitey Basson of Shoprite, are also CAs. It seems that a CA is a business qualification of choice. So there you are — perhaps a soon-to-be school leaver or in the early years of tertiary studies — and you want to make it big in business and reap the financial and professional rewards.

But is being a chartered accountant the only path forward?

Pete Whitehouse, MD of national financial recruitment specialists Contract Accountants, says that while a CA is considered the most prestigious and respected within the accounting profession, there are many other career paths to consider.

“A CA would usually complete a BComm Honours of four years, write internationally-accepted board exams and then serve a minimum of three years of articles. He or she can remain in auditing — providing an opinion on a company’s financials– or move into commerce or financial services,” says Whitehouse.

“Within commerce, they could end up as a financial director. Those that enter banking could become management consultants. Within broader financial services, a CA has the opportunity to become a fund manager or analyst, or even move into mergers and acquisitions.”

There are a number of variations within studying, such as an Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) qualification and a Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) qualification. However, according to Whitehouse, none are as prestigious as a CA.

“A CIMA graduate focuses more on the future, where the company can go. There is a proactive emphasis,” says Whitehouse. “The CA, when working as an auditor, is more reactive in that the individual offers an opinion on the financials of a company.”

Whitehouse says that if an individual qualifies with a BComm or BTech, they could end up as a financial manager or director. On the other end of the scale, someone who does an accounting course could be a bookkeeper or even a financial manager at a small company. The good news is that every business in every industry needs accounting knowledge, and that accounting crosses all sectors.

Whitehouse says that individuals with accounting qualifications are always in demand. Depending on the direction an individual wants to go, they would focus on technical skills within that area. For example, a CA may be a professional auditor with a tax speciality who structures taxes for companies that want to set up in other African countries. Or if an accounting specialist went into a manufacturing industry, he or she would be focusing on cost and management.

The broadening out of the accounting profession can be attributed in part to technology. Whereas previously people were needed to manually ‘work the books’, there are now fully-integrated accounting packages. This means that accounting specialists can focus on other areas.

Now to get to the bit that starry-eyed school leavers focus on — money. Whitehouse says that a BComm graduate usually earns R240k per annum (pa) as a starting salary although this varies according to industry and location within SA. The marks achieved by the graduate also have an impact.

A CA starts at around R420k pa and a black CA can start at around R500k+ pa because they are so in demand. “At the other end of the scale, a financial director at a top company earns in the millions,” says Whitehouse. “This is usually packaged with share options and incentives.” Because the accounting profession has become so broad, it has moved away from being viewed as purely technical and analytical.

“Personality profiles usually indicate that an accountant should have strong compliance and steadiness with less of an emphasis on interaction with people. In contrast to that, many of the world’s most successful managing directors and entrepreneurs are CAs and this requires a high level of successful interaction,” says Whitehouse.

“Potential accountants should know that the rigorous qualifications demand perseverance, precision and a technical mindset.” It seems that the old joke — ‘What does an accountant use as contraception? His personality’ — no longer applies. The possibilities and rewards are endless.

Fulfilling a lifelong ambition
Willem van Ryswyck, chartered accountant, is the owner of Osprey Business Solutions, an SMME that specialises in accounting and tax services with the focus on high net worth individuals. Van Ryswyck says that while studying a BComm (Information Technology), he was offered a bursary to become a CA: “I knew that it would always be a good fallback, no matter what I ended up doing.”

After working at Deloittes for eight years he decided to fulfil a lifelong ambition — to open up his own company. Van Ryswyck says that while the financial rewards may have been less than if he had stayed in a large company, he has a lot more freedom regarding his time, focus and around decision making.

There are challenges in the SMME environment, such as ongoing administration with limited human resources and not being surrounded by other CAs who provide feedback and input.

“It’s also important to keep yourself abreast of all the accounting changes to make sure that your work is relevant and of a high quality. This ongoing education takes a lot more time than the professional requirement of 120 hours over three years,” says van Ryswyck.

“Your views change as you get older,” he adds. “In the beginning it’s all about money but now it’s about quality of life and being able to spend time with my family.”

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian newspaper as a sponsored feature

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