AUTHOR Lynn Grala, editorial coordinator at Accountancy SA, spoke to our CEO, Ryno Viljoen.
Life abounds with opportunities that generally light up when we least expect it. For Ryno Viljoen, CEO and founder of finglobal.com, the light bulb moment came at a tax seminar as part of CPD requirements.
At school, in a career guidance class, a brochure with a man dressed in a business suit disembarking from a private jet caught the eye of young Ryno Viljoen. The career assigned to the polished jet-setter was that of chartered accountant.
‘It was enough for any 17-year-old to aspire to!’ says Ryno.
Little did he know that one day as a CA(SA) he would count 64 return flights before embarking on his real career: the founding of finglobal.com.
It all began in 2008 when Ryno and his wife spent a glorious getaway weekend in Hermanus. The seaside town known for its warm summer Mediterranean climate and whale watching swept them off their feet, and they spontaneously decided to ‘semi-grate’ in the midst of the global financial crisis and to make Hermanus home.
‘We just packed up and moved. I commuted between Hermanus and my Krugersdorp audit practice, which we’ve been running for 14 years.’
A tax seminar he attended as part of his CPD requirements in 2009 would mark the turning point in his career. He learnt that South African emigrants were, in fact, able to surrender their retirement annuities before the maturity date. Since Ryno was the custodian of his expat brother’s financial affairs in South Africa, this discovery gave rise to more than a mere interest, since he knew the only asset his brother had left behind when relocating to Australia in 2000 was his retirement annuity. His research found no information on the subject but ignited the idea to establish a business that would provide a specialist expat financial service.
It took Ryno 16 months and 64 return flights to make the decision to take the next step in his career. ‘Being an accountant I kept count of time and flights,’ he adds.
On one of many late-night flights to Cape Town the name finglobal.com popped into his head: ‘I always say it’s because I was so close to heaven in a plane that this name came to me.’
Beginning of finglobal.com
‘Arguably any person’s most prized aspiration is the freedom to be and to enjoy an unencumbered lifestyle,’ says Ryno. ‘We all have a basic human right to live as and where we wish, build a home and future for our families, and enjoy the fruits of our labour – our hard-earned retirement and other financial investments. The idea of helping South Africans living abroad realise their dreams by holding their investments closer to their new homes was a challenge and aspiration to me.’
‘What followed was a dream come true. And like all great journeys, it started by taking the first step.’
Ryno left the security of his audit practice in Krugersdorp and committed to starting a new business from scratch. The experience gained during his public practice years came in very handy: he was ready to hit the ground running.
The initial business offering? To surrender expats’ retirement annuities before the maturation date.
In “the old days”, when leaving South Africa emigrants weren’t allowed to liquidate their retirement annuities and pensions before the maturation date. These assets had to stay behind – all others they could sell and move on. Amended legislation of 2008 retrospectively afforded ‘financial emigrants’ the opportunity to withdraw and transfer their unclaimed policies and retirement investments offshore before the age of 55.
South Africans living abroad however were blissfully unaware of this fact,’ Ryno points out. ‘And therein laid the uniqueness of the business idea.’
Says Ryno: ‘I maintain that founding our business was a journey of fate – from the people who crossed our path through to engaging with partners offshore, everything simply fell into place. I knew that what we are doing today was destined to serve fellow South Africans living all over the world to help resolve their finances back in South Africa.’
With the help of his colleagues, Ryno turned a unique idea into a turnkey, in-house financial migration service – from financial migration planning, to tax compliance, to bank accounts and foreign exchange services.
What started out as two employees soon grew to three. Today they are 64 people, constituting the largest white collar employer in Hermanus and still growing. In the first five years of business – with an office in Australia and a representative office in New Zealand – more than 11 500 South Africans living in 76 countries have benefited from their services.
‘South Africans are nomads,’ says Ryno. ‘There were then, and still are today, hundreds of thousands of South Africans living abroad who are unaware of the constitutional right to move their retirement and other financial investments offshore!’
Building the business
They invented the learning curve as they went along. ‘Because we had no-one’s example to follow, no role model to look up to, the learning curve was at a perfect 90° angle. Since no two clients’ situations are ever the same, our challenges were simple – we either had to find a way or make one! Growth was driven by individual clients’ needs with no one-size-fits-all solution.’
‘Looking back at where we’ve come from and at a changing local and international landscape, to deliver a world-class financial migration service constitutes a never-ending journey. The one thing we’ve learnt in the past five years? The world is small, the playing field is even, and nothing is impossible.’
While innovation may be perceived a privilege, it places more responsibility on the brand because there is no benchmark for comparing service delivery and quality of work. Ryno believes the recognition the brand enjoys in the financial services industry locally, with SARS and SARB, as well as with clients the world over, can be ascribed to the aspiration to affirm South Africans’ financial freedom.
‘Despite the marvel of technology, people still buy services and goods from other people,’ says Ryno.
Reason for success
‘But the real reason for our success can be accredited to our people. I believe in people, and I strive to provide a springboard to greatness. There’s one thing I’ve come to understand in building a business and brand: it’s all about people,’ he says.
‘If it weren’t for our people, we’d still be working in the little ‘rondavel’ office behind the Engen garage in Sandbaai, where we started out. We’ve developed the world’s leading South African online financial migration system – and who do we have to thank? Our people. Every piece of process, documentation and bright idea that make up finglobal.com today are home made in Hermanus.’
He describes his team as down-to-earth, friendly, family-oriented and accessible people and says they are one big happy family whose combined professional, technical and personal skills are invaluable. Every person understands his or her role and responsibilities and works towards delivering a world-class product, with each team member’s contribution valued in the success of the finglobal.com brand.
‘It’s uncanny, but somehow the right person arrives on our doorstep just when needed. Although our structure is well defined and every person knows their place in the organisation, there is no fixed hierarchy, and we follow an open-door policy.’
The team spirit and momentum simply accelerated. Every successful company has to cope with stress, urgency and curve balls to achieve its goals, but Ryno now knows that this is part of the fun that forms the foundation of pride of ownership.
It’s the collective passion, pride and drive of their people that brings Ryno happiness: ‘Happy is such an innocent word – yet there is nothing in the world that beats happiness.’
Greatest lessons learnt in business
Ryno reads a lot. Other peoples’ stories fascinate him and he is curious to know what made them successful.
‘Over the years I came to realise that the most successful South African businesses were established and managed by chartered accountants – Sol Kerzner, Whitey Basson, Brian Joffe, to name but a few.’ He has learnt a few lessons from reading their stories:
- Focus: To be the best in the world, you need to focus on the one thing that you are good at. Being a chartered accountant gives you access to a host of career opportunities, identify where your passion lies and transform that passion into a business. Your success rate increases exponentially when you do something you really enjoy.
- People are not commodities: To be successful, you need to surround yourself with successful people. I believe in treating people with respect and subscribe to the golden rule ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. To be a leader of people comes with great responsibility and requires a constant self-check. Just imagine how successful a business can be if you can identify and unlock each person’s best qualities and talents. We all have so much to give and should encourage a culture of freedom of expression and new ideas.
- Appoint people that are cleverer than you: This is a lesson I learnt from a client in my audit practice days. He lived by the rule to always appoint people and advisors who knew more than him about the elements he was not skilled to deal with. He would then have access to the best knowledge base and could make his own decisions after gathering and considering inputs. This, combined with being an active listener, positioned him as a formidable businessman with the advantage of being able to focus on what he was best at.
‘As chartered accountants we gain generalist knowledge across all business disciplines, but this doesn’t make you an authority in any of them. There are plenty of clever people out there who know more than you about lots of things. The secret is to own up to this fact and to go find and include these people in your team,’ Ryno points out.
Ryno says that sound business principles and disciplines are the minimum resources needed to enter a market. To be sustainable and within the customer’s arm’s length at all times is critical. ‘Know your target market and be relevant. Embrace technology and social media to promote your business – it’s affordable and will make your reach so much bigger.
‘Were it not for my training as a chartered accountant I would almost certainly have missed this opportunity and a sense of purpose – it is seldom that a career turns out to be a true blessing …’
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