Winning Women – Adel du Plessis: Add?it up

2013-12-02 08:00

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Adel du Plessis survived a childhood that might have felled many of us to become an award-winning chartered accountant who is now forging ahead with her own business, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

Chartered accountant Adel du Plessis’ light bulb moment as an entrepreneur came when she was presenting her business plan to the Gordon Institute of Business Science’s 10?000 Women Certificate Programme earlier this year.

She was, at the time, a director and 50% shareholder in the Themba Thandeka Leadership Institute, where she had been working for six years.

She says: “I had seen the dynamism with which other entrepreneurs had spoken in class about their businesses.

“Then I suddenly realised my passion lay more in the financial and auditing side of our business than the leadership and education aspect of it.”

Discussions with other entrepreneurs and mentors made Du Plessis decide to open her own accounting firm.

“Market research shows a need for reliable, efficient accountants for the higher-tier SME [small and medium-sized enterprise] market. My new business serves that role.”

Du Plessis describes herself as “an outsourced CFO who provides sound financial management, and business process and governance consulting”.

This is done on a monthly retainer basis.

She’s working right now on the corporate branding and registration of her company, but is already flat-out busy with three large clients. She’s employing someone to lessen her workload.

It’s little wonder that she’s in such demand – she’s ticked all the boxes in the rigorous world of accounting.

She completed her BCom honours in accounting at the University of Johannesburg in 1998 before doing her articles in the entrepreneurial services division of Deloitte in Woodmead.

“My three years there were invaluable because I learnt so much about entrepreneurship,” says Du Plessis, whose quickness of step and abundant energy underpin her detailed and methodical approach to life.

She worked for a year in Deloitte’s corporate tax division before going on to lecture about 900 accounting students at Wits University.

“That really stretched me as we had limited staff and facilities, but it taught me to deal with challenges and how to manage projects,” she says.

Always up for something new, however, Du Plessis decided to do her master’s degree in accounting education, graduating cum laude in 2006.

She then lectured at Monash University in South Africa while also contributing to an international book on accounting standards and presenting papers at international business conferences.

The entrepreneur that had lain dormant in Du Plessis then began to surface. For a year, she explored that aspect of her personality, working variously in a cosmetic company as well as starting a small clothing manufacturing business, where she “learnt what it was to be a hawker”.

She exhales, her rapid delivery slowing for a moment, before exclaiming that nothing in life is ever wasted.

She joined Themba Thandeka in 2008, concentrating on driving the operations, finances, project management and quality assurance side of the business.

It landed some big clients, including two of South Africa’s top banks. “We also started small-scale volunteer projects. Our vision was to develop new generation leaders for SA through a [nonprofit organisation], Lead4Africa.”

That led to Du Plessis becoming, among other things, the runner-up in the Mrs United Nation SA competition in 2000 and she also received its Businesswoman of the Year award.

In 2010 and 2011, she was a finalist for the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Business woman of the Year award.

These are remarkable achievements considering the uncertain and difficult start she had to life.

Her father, a hard-working miner, had an addictive personality. “He was an absentee dad, actually, and eventually left my abused mother, my brother and I when we were small kids.”

For the next 20 years, her mother, whose parents died when she was only 30, moved her young family, “40 times as we lived with friends and relations as she tried to find jobs to support us”, she says.

Du Plessis, the “nerd in the family”, was always conscious of the sacrifices her mother was making. “And then my brother Wikus, who was born with Ehlers–Danlos syndrome, a deficient muscle condition doctors said might kill him before he reached his teens, left school to help out financially.”

He walked 30km to his job as a teller at OK Bazaars and packed goods for Woolworths before becoming a delivery boy for an IT company, Du Plessis recalls, her eyes brimming.

Today he’s a highly qualified business intelligence manager for one of South Africa’s leading IT companies.

It’s no wonder Du Plessis had her own mental as well as physical demons to contend with, for she suffered from bulimia for seven years before overcoming the disease.

But now that the scars of an unstable, frightening and peripatetic young life have healed, she’s forging ahead with her new accountancy firm.

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