How this Math teacher pivoted into finance at the age of 29 and tells us it is never too late to make a career move

  • Hi, I am Ben Merckel, a qualified Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) and a Cloud CFO at Iridium Business Solutions.
  • I started off working at a church and then studied theology for three years. I taught mathematics for 6 years and eventually pivoted into finance at the age of 29.
  • Four years and 16 CIMA exams later I qualified as an ACMA at the age of 34.
  • After figuring things out along the way and grabbing the opportunities as they came, I can safely say that it is never too late to make a career move.

Unusual career path

Most of my life has been a series of chance encounters that have opened new doors which I have been able to walk through. These encounters have led me to where I am today.

I grew up in the southern suburbs of Cape Town.

I did Accounting in High School and, although it was one of my top subjects, I always imagined the role of an accountant to be relatively mundane. So it never appealed to me.
 
By the time I finished matric, I had not yet devised a plan of action about my future.

Unlike most students, I decided to take a gap year and embark on a journey that would lead me to find the place where my passions and abilities met.

During this break, I had the opportunity to serve in a Durban-based church. At the end of the year, I was still not sure where I would end up. However, I knew that I had an interest in religious studies and philosophy. That’s when I decided to do a Bachelor’s degree in Theology.

I studied Theology for three years. After obtaining my degree, I spent a little bit of time serving in my local church.

During this time, it became clear to me that I was not yet in the field I wanted to be career-wise.

As always, I tried figuring things out as I went along and decided to take some more time off.

I went and travelled through America, and worked on the ski slopes for half a year.

After much consideration, I figured that teaching was one of the logical things that tied two of my passions together - a passion for people and another for numbers.

As luck would have it, I bumped into someone who was completing a teaching internship in my old High school. He informed me that there were programs available through which I could work, gain experience and receive funding for the furtherance of my studies.

I grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

My journey as a Mathematics teacher then began.

Pivoting to finance in my late 20's

To make my goal a reality, I had to complete two years of university Math courses and then an additional year for a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE). All of this was completed through UNISA (The University of South Africa).

One thing led to another and I kept growing in my teaching career which opened doors for me to work in some of Cape Town's most prestigious schools.

There is no doubt that I enjoyed teaching but I had started to feel the pull to pivot into finance.

During my time studying Math, I had the capacity for additional courses and filled these with B. Com subjects.

As I was completing my B.Com, I reconnected with an old friend who introduced me to CIMA (The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants).

I began researching and I discovered that CGMA (Chartered Global Management Accountant – is a globally recognised designation.

After considering its wide global recognition and flexibility around exam time, I deregistered my B.Com halfway through and started my CGMA journey.

Starting as a fresher with a 50% pay cut

By now I was studying everything – I had done half of B.Com, completed a level of CIMA – everything was going according to plan but I needed a strategy on what to do next.

I had always wondered how I would ever pivot from teaching into finance and had no clue where to start.

Around this time, I met Peter Magner, one of the directors at Iridium (Accounting, Advisory, and Automation firm). He asked me to contact him if I wanted a job in his company. This was the first opportunity that had presented itself.

I decided that if I was ever going to make the shift, now was the right time.

I joined Iridium at the age of 29. I had to take a 50% pay cut, as I was joining as a first-year articled clerk.

I felt like I was 5-6 years behind an average person starting in their role. 

It was an incredibly steep learning curve, getting dropped in the deep end.

It was a busy time learning everything from scratch, while still offering private Math tutoring on the side to help cover expenses, whilst still studying full time. I had saved up a bit of a buffer fund to carry me through the first couple of years.

I remember those early days, figuring out the difference between a balance sheet and profit and loss. I would think to myself, “What have I gotten myself into here? Am I cut out for this?"

Fortunately, because Iridium was still a young company, I was reporting directly to the other director Simon who provided great learning opportunities.

The firm was structured so that we were effectively financial managers of all the companies that we oversaw. This allowed me to develop a much broader skill set than other more corporate firms.

I quickly got up to speed.

Today, Accounting is a part of what I do but I do a lot of client-facing work, like consulting and people management. I am currently responsible for two teams serving over 70 South African SMEs.

Four years later, I finished sixteen papers of my CIMA, shifted to the role of Cloud CFO and play a strategic role as Iridium continues to grow.

When I look back, without my other experiences, my knowledge and skillsets would be limited.

Looking back it all makes sense

My journey to this point has been a mixture of both luck and effort.

From the age of 19 to 30, I studied full-time. This involved a lot of extra diligence and studying on my part and reminding myself continuously the reason behind it all. That’s what kept me on track.

Had I not been putting in the work and studies in between, I would not have been in a position to take the chances when they presented themselves.

I also believe the most important thing is putting yourself in a position where you can do it. 

In a world obsessed with specialists, there is a big gap and opportunity for multidisciplinary generalists.

Knowledge is transferable and the ability to transfer knowledge across disciplines adds a huge amount of value to the organisations that are fortunate enough to benefit from such individuals.

Today I can safely say that it is never too late to make a career move.

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