Sindi Zilwa looks as if she’s stepped off the cover of a fashion magazine as she welcomes us to Nkonki Inc, her auditing firm’s imposing office block with its towering entrance columns in Sunninghill, Johannesburg.
She has been here since 2002, “when a merger with two other accounting firms did not work out and we moved”, she explains.
Nkonki had R1.8 million in liabilities and, “at the time, our offices were too spacious for us. But we had faith that we would grow fast, that we would succeed.”
She was right. Today, Nkonki Inc has more than 400 professional staff and more than 40 partners and directors.
It has offices in the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, North West and Gauteng.
“We are a member of Kreston International, which covers more than 100 countries and is the 13th-largest accounting network in the world. This is to access global expertise for our clients,” explains Zilwa.
In July, Nkonki became a member of the American Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, which requires auditors of US public companies to be subject to external and independent oversight.
“This means that we can audit companies on the New York Stock Exchange,” says Zilwa with evident pride.
Nkonki is also the only majority female-owned auditing firm in South Africa to be accredited by the JSE to audit listed companies.
Businesses that Nkonki works with range from those involved with fuel and gas pipelines to aviation, pension funds, banking and telecommunications.
BUSINESS TIP: Never be intimidated by the gap between your dreams and reality.
MENTOR: My mother – who passed on to me her attributes of resilience, taking the pain and building something from nothing.
BOOKS: The Bible. I am a Jehovah’s Witness and every problem has an answer in that book.
INSPIRATION: My older brother, Mzi Nkonki, who guided me through my studies to become a chartered accountant, even though it meant I qualified before him. His selflessness inspired me.
WOW! MOMENT: The day I honoured my extraordinary mother by handing her my Eastern Cape Achievers Award.
“This is only the beginning,” adds Zilwa. “I am only 49 years old and I’m fearlessly climbing the ladder to the very top with Nkonki.”
However, she doesn’t want the company to rely on its “black-owned” status and she recently changed its branding to reflect this.
Zilwa grew up in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape. She started the firm with her brother Mzi Nkonki, one of 13 siblings, in 1993.
Three years later, the then public enterprises minister Stella Sigcau suggested Nkonki merge with other black firms “to create critical mass”.
“This, together with the BEE policy, created a platform for a huge leap in growth for the firm.”
Zilwa tells staff that BEE is like a coat: “We need to take it off, roll up our sleeves and work really hard once a door has been opened for us.”
Work is something from which this redoubtable personality has never shied away. Her father, who was a builder, died when she was only seven. Her undaunted mother set out to build the solid home he had planned for his family.
“She got bricks from beer halls that had been destroyed by the homeland government in 1976, and we all worked from a young age to help her.”
She built one room, rented it out and used the income to build another one until the six-room house was complete.
When she was 10, Zilwa and her siblings would knit through the night so that their mother could sell jerseys the following day.
She became a chartered accountant when she was 23. Since then, she has won many awards, including the Eastern Cape Achievers Award in the finance category.
She publicly and proudly handed it over to her beaming 80-year-old mother. Zilwa, who has been married for 22 years to Sva – they have two daughters – admits she struggles to relax.
She’s written two books and pens a motivational blog.