Winning Women – Nonkululeko Gobodo: Adding change

2013-08-25 14:00

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SA’s first black female chartered accountant, Nonkululeko Gobodo, had a vision when she was young of one day helping change the economic landscape of this nation. She’s doing just that today, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

Many of Nonkululeko Gobodo’s contemporaries believed she was at the top of her game back in the late 1990s, as that is when the nation’s first black female accountant was the chairperson and founding member of Gobodo Inc.

It was a medium-sized, Joburg-based accounting firm with a national footprint.

Many people would have rested right there on their laurels, but not the Mthatha-born, raised and schooled, Gobodo.

This because she was, and still is, a courageous entrepreneur.

Her dream was to change the landscape of the accounting and auditing profession in South Africa and, in doing so, to usher in a new era of economic transformation here.

“I knew as the leader of a medium-sized firm that we, as black people, had to do more than just buy 5% of an established accountancy firm,” she says.

“We had to build a company so large that it would take its place among the ‘big four’ firms here.”

She realised that a medium-sized firm would “leave no legacy”. In order to obtain enough work from both the public and the private sector, including work on an international level, a company needed to be large enough to have serious clout.

According to her, at the time the private sector was saying, “we are international companies so we have to use international auditors”. This meant that merging several companies was the way to go.

But Gobodo was frustrated in her attempts to move forward, and so she left the firm that she founded to pursue other business interests. These included an investment company for young people and providing leadership development in her pastor sister’s church.

She looks back on that “detour”, as she describes it, in her career and remarks that it was a good move. “Young people need to learn that they cannot build something big overnight for it takes time, anything between 10 to 30 years. And so I suffered and in that process I grew and matured.”

In 2009, Gobodo rejoined her company as its executive chairperson and later took over as the chief executive. Older and wiser, she says, she once again began to discuss the merging of Gobodo Inc with other accounting firms.

In 2011, she played a key role as one of the leaders in the successful merger of Gobodo and SizweNtsaluba VSP to create SizweNtsalubaGobodo.

The new firm is now the fifth largest in South Africa, with 55 partners and a staff complement of more than 1?000.

Gobodo responds to a question about her name being last in the company line-up with some surprise. “An attachment to an individual’s name, his or her legacy, is undeniably strong. And when you’re dealing with 40 or so young partners, they make it clear that they want their name first.

“So as a mature person, I asked myself if I was going to allow a name to jeopardise this venture. And I concluded that the vision was bigger than my name,” she says.

Gobodo leans back in her chair in the company’s head office boardroom in Rivonia and allows herself a half-contented smile. Only half, mind you, for her restless, entrepreneurial mind is always seeking new ways of improving her beloved nation.

She dreams of a time when South Africans will adopt the mentality of being builders and not just being dependent on government hand-outs. She wants people to find projects that will sustain them.

“How long are we going to continue to play the blame game? When we as black people take responsibility for our own economic development, then we’ll be able to move into the future,” she says.

Gobodo’s strong will and resolve was evident from an early age. Although her parents, who had their own small businesses in the then Transkei, wanted her to do medicine, she decided to take a gap year to think about her future.

During this pause after matriculating, she worked as a book-keeper at her father’s panel-beating shop, and met auditor Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu.

It was an auspicious meeting. Nkuhlu was South Africa’s first black chartered accountant, qualifying in 1987, and she was determined to follow in his footsteps. She was stunned when the media descended on her after her graduation.

She told them to “back off”, but when when one journalist retorted “this is not just about you”, she understood what her accomplishment meant for other women.

Gobodo was immediately offered a partnership at KPMG but turned it down as she knew that she wanted to establish her own firm.

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