How I Started a Forensic Accounting Practice in South Africa as a Young Chartered Accountant

The Finance Story

 

  • If you find yourself wondering - Can a young Chartered Accountant start a Forensic Accounting Business / Practice then this article is for YOU. 
  • In this article, Jolene shares with us her journey - Of pursuing her career in Forensic Accounting, working at PwC (South Africa) to finally starting her own Forensic Accounting Business - Prism Forensic Accounting.
  • Jolene started her career as a Trainee Accountant at PwC, South Africa before pursuing Chartered Accountancy from SAICA (The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants).
  • After qualifying as a Chartered Accountant she continued working at PwC in the Forensic Team. She later joined a start-up Forensic Accounting firm before starting her own business.
  • She has done a Bachelor in Accounting and Bachelor in Law from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa. She has also done her Honours Degree from the same University.

How I Realised 'Forensic Accounting' Is My Career Path?

I was born in Bloemfontein in the Free State, South Africa. I have wonderful parents who raised me to have an entrepreneurial aptitude. I grew up in the countryside where my parents owned a local shop for the surrounding farmers and their workers. If I wanted something in our shop, I had to buy it. If I wanted to buy something big like a horse, I had to budget and save.

My parents taught me from an early age - how to be financially savvy. I was influenced and motivated by them to understand business, self-employment, risk, and the like.

While growing up, I always dreamed about pursuing a career in Law. However, my parents wanted me to pursue a career in Accounting. As a youngster, I wanted to become a State Prosecutor. My interest in Law stemmed from a childhood interest in Criminology. Thankfully we got to know about the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa who was offering a combined course in Law and Accounting. My parents were happy and so was I!

I enrolled for a Bachelor in Accounting and Bachelor in Law (BAccLLB) and started my journey as a student. This course had a duration of 5 years.

At the end of my fourth year, I was still dead set on pursuing Law and wanted a career solely in Law. I had not even considered a career in Accounting.

Eventually, after getting enrolled to study both Law and Accounting, I was confused about the career path to take.

I knew I would need some guidance on what to choose so I approached directors of both KPMG and PwC's Forensic Departments to get their inputs for a recommended career path.

Given the combination of degrees I was studying (Accounting and Law), the directors of both firms advised me that a career in Forensic Services would be ideal.

Despite their advice to pursue a career in Forensic Services, I still approached several Law firms with the hope to secure a contract for my Law articles.

I was disappointed when all my applications for law articles were unsuccessful!

It has always been strange to me that, despite being awarded a partial bursary from a large commercial law firm based in Johannesburg, I could not secure a contract for my Law articles - not even with the firm that part-paid my studies!

One day while driving back to campus after yet another unsuccessful interview at a commercial law firm in Cape Town, I received a call from PwC. They were offering me a job opportunity as a Trainee Accountant. 

I was beyond excited to have been offered a contract at PwC especially after being unsuccessful at the various law firms.

It made me realize that I should not force open a door that is meant to remain shut, and that I should rather seize the opportunity I had been offered.

I gladly accepted the contract at PwC, knowing that all things happen for a reason.

PwC placed me in an enriching and engaging environment where I could learn a lot, and where I was coached and groomed to become the professional that I am today.

While working at PwC I decided to pursue Chartered Accountancy from SAICA.

So it was here at PwC that I discovered that Forensic Accounting is the right career for me and Chartered Accountancy is the right qualification for me. 

I spent a few months in PwC's Forensic Department while doing my accounting articles, and I truly loved what I did there.

When my accounting articles came to an end, I applied for a permanent position in PwC's Forensic Department.

I obtained my initial experience in Forensic Investigations, but after a few years, I moved to Forensic Accounting.

Forensics have taken me as far as Sierra Leone to investigate alleged irregular expenditure at a mining operation.

I've had the opportunity to work in the USA, as well as in several African countries.

International experience is worth its weight in gold, and it gives you the opportunity to travel and experience the world while earning an income.

How I Started my own Forensic Accounting Business

After qualifying as a Chartered Accountant I continued working in PwC, South Africa. However, I was looking for something more and different. I decided to leave PwC for a new career opportunity and joined a start-up forensic accounting company based in Cape Town. It was here that I gained my first valuable insight into getting a business up and running.

When the business was still in its early operational years, I acted as a General Manager. However, I found myself to be a jack of all trades, but a master of none. At that point in my career, I wanted to focus on becoming A Forensic Accounting Expert, instead of juggling several roles as a general manager. I resigned, unsure of what my next move would be.

Then the company I resigned from offered me a contract as their Head Forensic Accountant.  It was the perfect offer, with the perfect timing. I was with them on a contract basis, and it was the stepping stone I needed to get my own business started, and so, Prism Forensic Accounting was born.

From there, Prism has gone on to secure several contracts and now, 3 years later, my Forensic Accounting business is well established.

Prism works on a contract basis for other forensic firms, the State Attorney and private individuals. This requires thorough planning in order to meet all deadlines and productivity demands.

In addition to servicing a broad range of clients (private individuals and companies, both in the public and private sectors), Prism is also involved in reaching out to students, providing career advice and insights about the role of Forensic Accountants.

In January 2019, Prism hosted a 2-week programme, aimed at providing BAccLLB students exposure to various businesses in the fields of Accounting, Law, Forensic Accounting and Wealth Management.

"What are the Benefits of running a business?"

  • The best thing about having my own business is the flexibility that comes with it. This flexibility ranges from how to approach investigations, who to work with, to when and where to work from.
  • I have also learned to manage my time exceptionally well. The contracts that we work on run for a couple of weeks at a time, which makes it better for me to manage my week ahead of time, as opposed to planning day-to-day.
  • A lot of my time is spent planning to ensure all deadlines are met, as well as not having conflicts in my diary with regards to where I need to be and when.

"Do I have employees in my firm?"

I am yet to find the best time to appoint employees. I engage with subcontractors as and when needed. Using subcontractors have major advantages, but also several drawbacks.

Overall, taking this approach, I manage to provide work to other contractors, thereby increasing Prism's productive capacity and granting access to a broader range of expertise.

"Key to success in your own forensic accounting business?"

Having a network that provides you with opportunities.

Keeping an eye out for new opportunities.

Setting yourself apart as a trusted professional.

Mistakes I Made When I Started My Firm

First off, I would like to want to point out that mistakes are the best way to learn.

  • I have learned not to take any professional relationships for granted.
  • I have also learned that there are 'many clients you do not want to have' - as strange as it may sound.
  • When potential clients come around that want to take advantage, try to low-ball you for quality work, or have suspicious or questionable motives and backgrounds, be sure to show them the door.
  • I have burned my fingers trying too hard to help individuals who simply do not comprehend the technicality and value of the expertise you offer. I ended up losing productive hours and closing engagements without having resolved the issue.

How important is Networking

  • For people who want to start their own business, having a network of opportunities in place is crucial.
  • There is a lot of work out there and more than enough work for everyone who elects to become a Forensic Practitioner.
  • You need to start working on this network as early as you can. In fact, you start to establish a network as early as your first year at university.
  • Not having this network makes it rather difficult to find work, but if you actively keep your eyes open to the needs of potential clients, you should be able to secure work.

To Conclude...

Life Can Take You By Suprise

  • I would like to tell students and professionals out there to be open to changes that life presents.
  • I wanted to become a state prosecutor but ended up becoming a Chartered Accountant specializing in Forensic Accounting.
  • You should be open to changes and take advantage of the opportunities coming your way.
  • Also, it is not necessary that you need to know what you want right from the beginning. I discovered my love for Forensic Accounting much later. However, that did not stop me from succeeding.

Make Efforts To Find Out What You Want 

  • Do not beat yourself up if you are unsure or if things do not work out as planned.
  • Instead - Research, speak to people, ask questions and have an open mind - You will surely find your answers.

Find A Mentor 

  • As mentioned earlier, I was lucky to have been courageous enough to approach the Directors of Big Accounting Firms for their advice.
  • I would suggest all of you - Have guides, mentors or connect to someone who can show you the path.

Advice to Firms Training Upcoming CA's

  • Having been in forensics for several years now, I think it is important for auditing and accounting firms to emphasize basic methods and tips for articled clerks to identify potential fraud and financial irregularities.
  • Very often, an article clerk is all too happy to find any kind of document to support a transaction, without having due regard to the nature and content of the document, and its consistency has given the bigger picture in which it is being audited.
  • In 2017 and 2018, the South African corporate world was kicked in the face by several corporate scandals.
  • To this end, Prism provides training to firms, thus providing a broad understanding of why these scandals occurred and discussing specific aspects to be mindful of when conducting financial reviews and audits.

If you need any help in planning your career or have any questions, I am happy to help.

Now It's Your Turn

Do you have a similar CA / CPA story?

What do you think of a career in Forensic Accounting?

Do you have a Forensic Accounting Business?

Or do you have any questions for Jolene?

If you need any help in planning your career or have any questions I am happy to help. You can connect with me on LinkedIn at - Jolene Visser. For a quick revert comment below.

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