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An Introduction.

I was born and raised in South Africa and trained as a management accountant. I started my working career in Johannesburg as an auditor in 1998, shortly after the abolition of Apartheid. Over the next ten years I was in a position to observe the impact of a wide variety of changes that were unfolding on the businesses I audited. The government and economy were in a constant state of flux as trade unions grew in power and businesses had to deal with continuing shifts in government policy aimed at promoting racial integration within the workplace. At that time, the South African economy was driven by its large natural resource deposits of gold, platinum, and diamonds. As the trade unions grew in power, they promoted extensive strikes causing long periods of no production that in turn had an impact on the commodity prices, weakening the currency, and fuelling inflation. President Nelson Mandela had done much to smooth the transition from Apartheid to Democracy between 1994-1998, but a lack of strong leadership in his political party after his retirement led to increasing volatility within the ruling political party, the African National Congress (ANC). Added to this an emerging and pervasive culture of corruption, runaway tribal and poverty-motivated violence across the country, and the growing strain on overall infrastructure due to high levels of unemployment and poor town planning as the government began to address the enormous need to provide housing and basic utilities to more than half of the country’s previously disadvantaged population. Of particular concern was the growing pressure on the state-owned power company, Eskom, which was poorly maintained, riddled with corruption, and increasingly struggling with the growing demand for electricity, leaving the country at the mercy of rolling blackouts. Communications and the postal service were also taking strain due to high levels of theft, most notably of cables and packages. All of this led to a reduction in foreign direct investment.

In 2008 I moved out of auditing when I was offered a position as the financial manager for two large beverage companies. By 2012 I had been promoted to Chief Operations Officer at the largest private label bottled water company in South Africa and was responsible for the day-to-day management of that business. This brought me up against the very practical implications of the many challenges at work in the South African business environment as I had to juggle a wide variety of factors to keep the business not just afloat, but profitable.

I left the water company in April 2015 and decided to move to the UK in November 2015. I had been following the Brexit debate and was aware that I may be arriving at a momentous time of transition in the UK’s history. My studies and working experience up to this point had made me acutely aware of the many forces at play within the day-to-day running of a business. I considered that should the Brexit vote be in favour of leaving the European Union (EU) then an enormous wave of changes would be likely to flood British businesses. This was of interest to me for three reasons:

  1. I planned to start out by working for several British businesses in order to gain insight into the UK working environment.

  2. I hoped to then establish one or more businesses of my own.

  3. I hoped to then reflect on what I had learnt in my working career in South Africa coupled with the new insights I would gain from working in the United Kingdom to begin advising other businesses.

In April 2021 I signed up to do an MBA and up until then I had worked in three very different British businesses – one in recruitment, one in apparel manufacturing, and one in security software development. Two of these businesses had been part-owned by American Private Equity shareholders and two traded with the EU. I had also taken over an airport transfer business in 2018, which I was running together with my brother, and I had started an accounting and consulting practice in 2019. Whereas South Africa’s challenges had been largely national, I had fast discovered that Britain’s working world was more internationally connected, and as such it was being rocked by significant local and global forces. Of particular interest were the following:

  • Brexit had taken place on 31 December 2019, and the new trade and co-operation agreement had come into effect on 31 January 2021, bringing with it increased administration due to customs checks, additional import and export costs, reduced human resources because of new immigration laws, and delays in the various supply chains caused by a combination of these factors.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic made its appearance in December 2019, and millions of lives were lost to the disease. Lockdowns, whereby it became a criminal offense to leave one’s home for unessential travel, forced sudden and significant changes in the way technology was used to communicate and do business. Political and social divisions were exacerbated by the economic and emotional pressures brought on by these conditions. A massive decentralisation of workforces occurred as people were encouraged to work from home, with many businesses placing their staff on furlough due to significantly reduced demand for services.

  • Climate change was rising significantly in importance for both government and business as global warming was becoming undeniably evident in the form of an increasing number of climate-related disasters across the world.

  • In February 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine sending shockwaves through the global economy as heavy sanctions were levied against Russia and two of the world’s largest exporters of sunflower oil, wheat, gas, and oil were suddenly unable to meet their supply obligations. Political and economic upheaval once again struck businesses and individuals across a large spectrum of UK society as transportation and energy costs began to soar, driving up inflation and sparking fresh uncertainties in supply chains and production costs.

  • Political instability within the UK surrounding the Brexit deal and various scandals led to regular shifts in leadership in the ruling Conservative party and a sense that government was often bogged down by internal disruptions. This drew its attention away from rapid changes to the economy that required far quicker reactions to minimise the repercussions for people on the ground.

  • Relations between East, particularly Russia and China, and West, particularly America and Europe, were increasingly fraught with tension.

Factors such as these have had major repercussions for the world’s various economies with a staggering number of businesses being forced into bankruptcy or finding themselves on the verge of closing. Conversely, some organisations have discovered new opportunities for growth and new businesses have been born. In the United Kingdom, many large businesses (i.e., those listed on the stock exchange) have either had sufficient internal financial and knowledge resources available to weather the storms or have been able to turn to capital markets to raise funds. However, many small and medium enterprises (SMEs – i.e. businesses with sales of less than £36 million per annum, total assets of £18 million or less, and less than 249 employees) had to be significantly assisted by Government funds through the pandemic. In the UK, businesses were able to apply for Government-backed loans, such as Bounce Back Loans, which were 100% guaranteed, or the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans, 80% guaranteed, that were offered at lower-than-normal interest rates and with repayment terms starting one year after the issue of the loan (British Business Bank, 2020) (UK Government, 2020). The UK Government also introduced the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, commonly known as the Furlough Scheme, to assist companies with retaining employees by providing them with up to 80% of an employee’s earnings as a non-repayable grant (UK Government, 2020). When this help came to an end, companies needed to find their own way forward in an environment that had been radically altered for many of them, and they have been doing so with varied success.

As I have already mentioned, SMEs do not always have the same access to financial and knowledge resources that large businesses do and many SME business owners are not qualified businessmen. Furthermore, as these changes are happening rapidly in real time, there is little in the way of existing research that can provide any concrete conclusions or proven strategies for guiding businesses towards a safe passage through this volatile period. They are therefore turning to business advisors for assistance in understanding and negotiating the changes. As an accountant, business owner, and business advisor on the South Coast of England I have been, and still am among those whose assistance is being sought.

I had intended to use my dissertation to to better understand the nature, and impact, of the changes that I and my clients had been, and are being, subjected to. I had also hoped that by doing this, I would be able to better advise my clients on how to successfully navigate the way forward.

Over the next few weeks I will be sharing some of the insights that came out this study and hope that they will be of use to you as you navigate this ever-changing economic environment.

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