How serial innovator CA Shailesh took Haribhakti & Co, from a 20 to 1000 member team

  • Hi, I am Shailesh Haribhakti, a Chartered Accountant, Entrepreneur, Board Director, Innovator, Author, Teacher, Speaker, and Citizen of the world.
  • My dad, who is and was my hero, founded Haribhakti & Co in 1950, and in 1978 at the young age of 22, I joined the firm.
  • My passion for learning, love for auditing, and ability to think ahead of time helped me take Haribhakti & Co from a team of 20 to 1000 plus.
  • Here is my story.

Tracing back my roots: Why Chartered Accountancy

Growing up, I was a very dedicated student. I emerged as a national scholar in 1971 on passing the Indian School Certificate examination with the top rank in the country. Unfortunately, I was too young to accept the offered scholarship at Cambridge.

My dad founded Haribhakti & Co in 1950 and is a remarkably successful CA. (At 91, today he is the most tenured living practicing CA and Past President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India.)

I always looked up to him and wanted to be like him. He taught me to dream big and never to be phased by anything in life.

Fast forward, when it was time to decide on my career path, CA was an obvious choice. I believe that since birth, I was destined to be a CA.

Intending to become a CA, I started my undergrad at Sydenham College of Commerce and Economics in Mumbai (India). Here I not only excelled in my studies but was also involved in college activities.

In 1972-73, I was elected the General Secretary of the Students Union. It was here that my leadership qualities were born.

While still in college, at the age of 18, I started my articles at my dad’s firm. (Along with CA, I also pursued cost accountancy.)

My CA journey was not easy, but I gave it my best at every step. I also got married to my lovely wife Amita in 1977 while pursuing my career - Yes, I was only 21!

In 1978, I qualified as a Chartered Accountant and Cost Accountant with all India ranks… this was such a proud moment for my family: all my efforts paid off!

Forging my own path and becoming a CEO at 22 

After qualifying as a CA, I was selected by A F Ferguson Associates (a leading firm back then) in their management consulting wing. And the best part was I was going to be reporting to the most iconic Mr. P R Bhoopatkar!

I was super excited however around the same time, my dad became the President of the Indian Merchants Chamber and I had to fill in his place at his firm! I had to decline the amazing opportunity and started my career at my dad’s firm Haribhakti & Co.

But here is an unusual start to my journey - I started as a virtual CEO. Though it seemed like an exciting opportunity to be a CEO at 22, it was terrifying as I was responsible for running the entire firm, with the guidance of my dad of course!

The team size of the firm must have been below 20, but there were still many challenges.

At a small turnover, about INR 5 lakhs per annum (approx USD 10K), a whole lot of small assignments needed to be performed for demanding clients.

As the founder’s son, I had some advantages, but my dad laid down strict policies in place that we all had to adhere to. There were no hierarchies, and everyone worked as a team member. This cultural glue held all of us together.

Fortunately, with my dad’s guidance, I was able to persevere. In hindsight, the responsibility at such a young age shaped me significantly, it was a year of significant learning and growing!

Working in the US for 14 months and falling in love with auditing

While working at my dad’s firm, I was curious to learn how firms in the US would be?

So, after my dad’s term as President came to an end, he took back the reigns of the firm and I decided to apply for a short stint in the US!

I applied to Arthur Young & Co, India, and was interviewed by Mr. Pesi Narielvala and Mr. AC Chakraborty. (Well-known CAs back then!)

Luckily I was selected, and in 1979, I took up the unique opportunity to work at the Downtown Chicago office of Arthur Young & Co.

Here I got first-hand exposure to learning computer-based auditing at industry giants like McDonald’s corporation.

During my 14 months in the US, I participated in the transition to computer-driven auditing and even studied to be an internal auditor. (I was India’s first Certified Internal Auditor.)

The entire exposure transformed me and it was here that I fell in love with auditing. Since then, there has been no turning back.

First five years: Diversifying to a full-service firm

Once I came back from the US, my dad focused on tax and he allowed me to focus on audit, consulting, valuation, investment banking, governance, and digitalization. (My dad was a ‘hands-off’ inspirer and always led by example.) 

In the first five years of practice, we set out to diversify into a full-service firm through aggressive hiring. 

We provided an array of new services and reached our first significant milestone in terms of the revenue size of our practice INR 1 crore per annum (approx USD 136K).

Our clients grew significantly, and our team went from 50 to 150.

From 1981-83, I also took up a visiting professorship at the world-renowned Indian Institute of Management at Ahmedabad (IIM-A)  I simultaneously took up various professional leadership roles while expanding our firm.

My successful parents were always a force of encouragement and inspiration. They admired my hard work, and I loved their raising the bar for me.

My wonderful wife Amita and my two lovely children, Sejal and Tarun were so understanding of this phase of my life.

Amita took the entrepreneurial path too by running a successful travel agency. We enjoyed the exhilaration of twin activities, socializing, and networking.

Life was challenging, absorbing, and great!

Scaling the business and learning to delegate 

Somewhere in the year 1995 a lot of other service lines like systems and procedures documentation, ISO 9000 consulting, strategic advice, turnaround management, structuring, global sustainability, integrated reporting, and governance were evolving and sprouting up all around us.

I started thinking of taking Haribhakti to a new level altogether and in waves of innovation, we established system-based internal auditing, fraud investigation, financial planning, valuations, forensic auditing, mergers and acquisitions support, cybersecurity, and many other related services.

We had a CEO for every service to lead the innovation and we kept expanding. 

I kept learning and my extensive work earned me CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner) and CFP (Certified Financial Planner) degrees.

When all was going well, life took a turn when my health gave in and I had to undergo bypass surgery at the early age of 49.

I knew it was a warning to slow down my pace, but this challenge did not deter me.

I complied with the warnings of my family and the Almighty, delegated extensively, shed the hectic workload, and decided to focus on my health.

I must acknowledge the amazing support I got from Sunil Sharma, our overall CEO, and other service-led CEOs.

I followed a disciplined regimen of exercise, a healthy diet, yoga, meditation, and stress-free living which got me back on the rails. In hindsight, the surgery was a wake-up call.

Getting an international partner and building a team of 1000

I always sought and found new areas of practice and built my identity on the platform of innovation. Every subject I would handle would be five years ahead of its time. 

We were growing exponentially, but without an international brand, it was increasingly challenging to attract the best talent and larger clients.

There was an increase in competition and the massive investments demanded from accounting firms in terms of IT systems, people and infrastructure pushed us to have an international partner. 

Our first massive affiliation was with Moores Roland and later BDO.

We entered the first year of our affiliation with BDO at a modest turnover but grew rapidly in five years since 2010. The practice increased to over 1,000 people and 20 offices with a mix of exceptional clients. Our empowered teams accomplished all this.

A few years later, came the phase of actual divestment and the tie-up with D B Desai, who was mainly responsible for the Baker Tilly relationship. I am happy that I found Dilip Desai to take over the practice.

Today, I am fully engaged in governance, advisory, and consulting roles. I also get to spend quality time with my family and friends.

Overcoming obstacles and living with no regrets

There were many challenges, just to name a few:

  • We lost a major client and the large overheads made the going very tough. Rather than moping around, we decided to adopt the policy of non-dependence on a single client beyond 5 %; a massive infusion of technology; an equity infusion from outside, and a game-changing policy on people. Immense hard work, innovation, and faith in the Almighty got us through.
  • I faced criticism for the pace I was trying to establish and for the vast risks I took. I knew that this was also part envy and so decided to place my faith in my trusted board, my family, and my elders. I also took a lot of counsel from senior, seasoned people and learned to modulate. This was a real lesson in humility and changing course depending on the drift of the wind.
  • I handled the brickbats with humility and determination and maximized the opportunities I got. I feel that nothing ventured is nothing gained!
  • I even lost the election to the Central Council of ICAI and fell out of the political race in the profession. It wasn't easy to accept, but the strength of my family carried me through.

Complete growth timeline of my journey

1977-1990

  • The first few years were tumultuous: living in the USA, returning in 14 months, teaching at IIMA, and then lunging into fast growth!
  • Once I returned and joined the firm again, we started expanding.
  • The size of the firm was INR 5 lacs annually which rose to INR 1.5 crores annually.
  • Team size went from 20 to 200 people.
  • Largely MSME clients.

1990-2000

  • A decade of growth and innovation and the acquisition of large clients.
  • Almost all major players in the financial services space became clients.
  • Team strength grew to 500.

2000-2010

  • A decade of large-scale leadership challenges, incredible growth in networks, bypass surgery, and a new realization that delegation works.
  • Kept on the growth path and innovated with people.

2010 – 2018

  • Partnerships with three global accounting firms gave me the opportunity to chair the practices of BDO and Baker Tilly in India.
  • Also gave me the space to pursue my interest in governance and invest in a few technology ventures.
  • Our team grew to 1000 with offices in more than 20 cities.
  • In 2018, I became a published author of my first bestselling book called Audit Renaissance, which has reached 10,000 readers.

2019

  • A year of transition from professional practice into technological innovations.
  • Disruption and amazing outcomes from best practice adoption became clear.

2020

  • I am working on a book on audit disruption and sitting on the board of several companies.

Questions I get asked most often:

“If you had to start all over again, what would you do differently?”

NOTHING!

But for professionals starting out now, all I can say is - The sky is the limit as technologies converge. I am deeply immersed in re-educating myself – it’s a process of unlearning and re-learning!

My deep interest in AI-ML, Blockchain, Analytics, Cyberspace, and VR-AR keeps me up to date and engaged in reading, writing, speaking, and thinking.

All my management concepts and governance evolution have a base in my essential being as an auditor. In today’s time with so much technology, there is excellent scope in the auditing field.

“What are some of the mistakes you’ve made that young professionals can learn from?”

Do I regret anything? Of course not. To regret or diminish any past action is not part of my DNA. I build on experience and keep moving ahead. However, some lessons learned as below:

  • Too fast-paced and involved in multiple engagements. Taking life easy and steady are my big lessons.
  • Be present and spend more time with family. Time gone can never be replaced.
  • I got entangled in multiple activities. It is important to focus on what’s important and get rid of the clutter.
  • I shouldn’t have given up the attainment of the highest office in the profession. Do whatever it takes to achieve your goals.
  • Shouldn’t have invested in businesses that I didn’t fully understand. Investing in yourself will always have the highest return.

Wrapping Up…

“No challenge is large enough for a determined person.”

My CA journey was one of increasing challenges and finding a way to overcome them.

The Almighty and my wife have guided and inspired me through every tough challenge. I consider myself merely an instrument in all I do.

Be happy, be engaged, be a lifelong learner. Consistently innovate, network, travel, think wisely, exercise regularly, and keep expanding your knowledge. That is the best way to change the world and to contribute to it.

The biggest lessons I learned in my life were mastering the art of delegation and building trust - they always pay off.

Always remember that you are but an instrument of the Almighty.

Shailesh Haribhakti is a Chartered and Cost Accountant, an Internal Auditor, and a Certified Financial Planner & Fraud Examiner. He is a Board Chairman, Audit Committee Chair, and Independent Director at some of the country's most preeminent organizations. He is a well-known thought leader in the Indian Economy and Public Policy. He is an ExTech (Exponential Technologies), ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) & IR (Integrated Reporting) Evangelist.

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