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August 27, 2009

Matlwa interview: Taking the reigns

Matsobane Matlwa has big shoes to fill. The new executive president of South Africa’s largest accounting body replaced Ignatius Sehoole, who led the organisation for a decade. Matlwa speaks candidly with Carolyn Canham about the challenges he’s faced in his first six months leading the membership body. Matsobane Matlwa

 

The new executive president of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) has professional and leadership experience in a number of fields. Matsobane Matlwa joined SAICA at the beginning of February from the South Africa Revenue Service (SARS), where he had been the group executive responsible for the large business centre. Other career highlights include working as general manager responsible for group finance at South African bank ABSA and as an audit partner at Ernst & Young.

Despite that experience, leading SAICA has been a steep learning curve.

“The first six months has been very challenging for various reasons. One is that I came from an organisation of 15,000 people to an organisation with 140 people,” Matlwa says.

In addition to the different staffing levels, the SARS had a much larger and more flexible budget.

“SAICA by its nature relies a lot on members’ subscriptions and that is very limiting,” Matlwa explains. “That was a constraint for me because I felt that SAICA is highly under-resourced. There is a lot of dependency on few people. A lot of people are being stretched. A concern that I have is that if anybody leaves, it is a huge risk for this organisation.”

Dealing with members was also a first for Matlwa.

“The tricky thing about members is they are your shareholders and clients at the same time,” he explains. “I came from an environment where I had the law supporting me. The issue there was if you don’t pay tax, we can take it even if it means taking you to court or jail. But here it is slightly different.

“You have to at all times make sure that you are cognisant of how you spend the subscription money because some members believe they are paying our salary.”

Another challenge for Matlwa has been the legacy of his predecessor, Ignatius Sehoole, who spent 10 years in the job.

“Taking over from someone who was there 10 years isn’t easy because they will have left a legacy in the organisation – the way it talks and the way it walks. The way they do things is different to the way I do things,” he says.

Matlwa’s mandate is also very different from his predecessor’s. While Sehoole was charged with establishing SAICA and predominantly acting as an overseer, Matlwa is more operational. He provides leadership from the ground and gives direction.

“Because of that difference of mandate, it creates problems for the staff because they are not used to anybody saying ‘where is the report’? Can we meet and discuss this, this and this, because it has never happened before.

“People tend to not like change. So I think the difficulty now is people trying to get used to how I do things. I also need to learn how to rely on them, to understand their strengths.

“Unfortunately, this process can be very painful for both of us. But I must say I am now six months into the job and it is beginning to get much better.”

Six months into the role, Matlwa has some ideas about the direction he wants to take the institute.

“One of the bigger challenges for SAICA, which is probably part of my responsibilities, is how do you change the face of the profession?” Matlwa says.

“If you look at the profession in South Africa, it does not yet reflect the demographics of the country. One of the bigger challenges is how do you make sure that black people in general are fairly represented among accountants. The numbers are still very small so that will have to proceed. Secondly, members want value for the subscription fees they are paying.”

Therefore, Matlwa is faced with the challenge of how to identify the products and services members require. A taskforce has been formed to help with this.

Matlwa has also been investigating how other professional accounting bodies around the world deal with their members. He says two practices he has observed that he would like to implement in South Africa are ensuring the institute does not become too dependent on members’ fees and introducing products that are specialised for different professional areas. In the past, SAICA’s products have been very generic.

Another challenge is ensuring SAICA operates like a normal business.

“As senior management we need to sing the same song, to be on the same page and to make sure that we concur with one another,” Matlwa says. “Like in other companies, we need to make sure staff morale is always high, make sure that people are willing to wake up and come to work.”

While this is both challenging and interesting, Matlwa concedes there have been days where he’s wondered why he took the job.

“It is a huge responsibility and my biggest fear is we are under resourced from the human point of view,” he says.

“One main challenge is how do we find a way of making sure that our dependence on membership subscription fees as a means of income is very low. SAICA needs to change to become sustainable.”

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