Meet Buchule and Sivenathi Sibaca. They are not only partners in marriage, but also in a thriving accounting business.
Buchule and Sivenathi are, respectively, chief executive officer and chief financial officer of SMTAX, which focuses on tax and accounting services for small businesses in the Western Cape, but includes the likes of Absa and Old Mutual among its clients. It employs 18 people and has 4,500 individual and business customers.
That’s not what makes the outfit remarkable. The startling feature of this business is that it has been structured to be a model accounting firm of the next decade. Even more remarkable is the fact that the couple both hail from rural areas where thoughts of the future tend to be about survival rather than blazing new trails.
Last week, they made their first trip out of the country, to attend Xerocon London 2019. This two-day conference, hosted by the world’s fastest growing accounting software maker, Xero, attracted more than 3,000 delegates from the United Kingdom, Europe Middle East and Africa. A total of 57 Xero partners and users, mostly from accounting practices or suppliers to accountants, made the trek from South Africa.
“It was really about seeing how other accountants on other continents operate in terms of how they think and where their headspace is at,” Buchule told us during Xerocon. “Also, being our first time out of the country, it was to see the culture of other small businesses outside of South Africa.
“London’s quite different in that regard, but it’s been a really great learning curve, and we were pleasantly surprised to find elements that look like South Africa, where we can say, at least you’re doing something right.
“The banking environment is quite unique, as it’s been a really good learning curve in terms of where banking might go to in the future of South Africa if they follow the same trend.”
Buchule comes from the “dusty streets” of Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape, while Sivenathi grew up on a farm in a deep rural area near Mthatha.
“I had no idea about technology or the rest of the world or how it could impact the economy in general,” she said.
The two met at the University of Cape Town, where she was studying to be an actuary, and he completed a Masters degree in tax. She decided to put actuarial science behind her, however, when the opportunity arose to join Buchule’s business. But her skills helped transform the business.
Said Buchule: “When Sivenathi came on board we did the modelling of the business, and we said that to automate the whole bookkeeping journey we would need to turn closer towards ‘x’, meaning fully automated bookkeeping. We looked at the journey of how long it will take for us to get to time ‘x’. And then we said, OK, once we get there, what then?
“It was a big realisation that when we do get to time ‘x’, the most important thing will be the human touch. That will be the differentiator. So we then spent our time developing that.”
The remarkable aspect of this journey is that it perfectly mirrored the dominant theme of Xerocon 2019. While Xero used the event to unveil new products and services, the keynote addresses focused on purpose, community and making the world a better place.
“The more technology provides, the more that human dimensions matter, the more the people connection will matter,” said Steve Vamos, global CEO of Xero.
“Even when presented with the best technology that says this is the information you need to make the best decisions for your business, most small business owners will not pay attention, because they too busy doing what they’re doing every day. It’s the human insights the accountants provide that are going to make the most difference.”
The Sibacas felt vindicated. “What was really emphasised here is that we really are on the right track,” said Buchule. “Everyone still believes what it will take to move South Africa forward and the whole profession forward is automation. And yes, that is cool and it helps efficiencies, but it’s really the human touch that makes an impact.
“It then says, that’s why we exist: to help people make better financial decisions to help them succeed. It’s a humanness that is really our passion and not to say that we exist to make bookkeeping more automated.
“Our clients don’t say ‘thank you, you’ve done that reconciliation in less than two minutes’. They say ‘thank you. You’ve helped us make a better decision today that will create more sustainability tomorrow’.”
Steve Vamos offered the exact same perspective. “You have accountants and accounting firms who adopt cloud because they’re motivated to make their practice more efficient. Then, beyond that, you’ve got accountants who go further in that they see the opportunity then to help small business customers get more value from the fact that there are 800 applications connected to the accounting platform.
“Ten or 20 years from now, I cannot imagine there will be significant accounting firms that don’t have cloud fully deployed. I always say change happens slowly quickly, in that in the moment, it’s very slow. But then you look back a few years out and look back at what’s happening and say, well, that was quick. So it’s kind of slow and it’s quick.
“As long as I’ve been in the tech industry, the fear of job losses and not having sufficient work for humans has been around constantly. And there’s no doubt that, in sectors of the economy there have been pain points, there have been people who’ve been displaced, and it hasn’t been easy for them.
“Every person that is affected in that way is worthy of reflection and support and consideration. But, at a macro level, we are pretty good at creating new jobs and inventing professions. I think humans will be just as good inventing new jobs as technology will be in changing the nature of many jobs.”
For SMTAX, the process of reinvention is part of the fabric of the business, said Sivenathi: “Our growth prospects were aligned with finding small efficiencies within all kinds of processes, to be able to perform a bit better, and price ourselves a bit lower for our client base. They are typically startups, emerging companies or growing companies.
“We’ve been inspired that Xero is putting a lot of effort into improving the technology and automating further, for example, the tax process and the filing process that we currently do part manually. But I got really inspired here by the talk of the human touch. Our vision feeds really well into the whole Xero vision around supporting small businesses and people are core there.
“We need to support our people, our bookkeepers and accountants, tax specialists that work for us so they realise their potential. I’m really inspired to go back and try, from a people’s point of view, to drive that kind of energy and change within the company.”
The Sibacas firmly believe that both the structure of accounting firms and the education of accountants must change to take account of a new skill set.
Said Buchule: “I value the student more who can talk to clients than the one telling us they are about doing debits and credits.
Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee