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Home grown upstart holds its own against industry giants

Home grown upstart holds its own against industry giants
In the world of corporate consulting, dominated by a handful of huge international auditing and consulting firms, you would think it unlikely that a tiny local company can grow to hold its own against the giants in a difficult marketplace. But that is just what a remarkable trio of women has been doing over the past thirteen years.

Back in 2007, when Anne-Marie Pretorius, Jessica Tandy and Seugnet van den Berg did a management buy-out of the small Johannesburg-based consultancy – Bizmod for which they worked; they started off as a company of four. Since then the trio, who were finalists in the 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year® awards, a competition run by Business Partners Limited have managed to grow the Bizmod team to 41 consultants, and they have no intention of slowing its growth.

Anne-Marie, Bizmod managing director, makes no bones about it: “Our competition is the big four (international auditing/consulting firms)”. It means that they are up against a formidable dynamic that pushes against any emerging firm that tries to play in the big league. The big four firms have enormous resources, they are close to 100 years old or more, and current and former associates of theirs form vast and seamless networks throughout the corporate world.

Anne-Marie, 46, describes a relatively simple set of attributes that allows Bizmod to punch above its weight.

First, Bizmod’s cost structure is a fraction of that of the international firms. Long before COVID-19, Bizmod pursued a work-from-home model. Most of their consultants are placed at the offices of their clients where they work on projects, and the expense of having a big corporate head office was seen as a wasteful indulgence.

Second, because Bizmod does not have the huge tentacles of the big four stretching into the corporate world, every contract has to be earned through hard work and sterling performance. “We have never been given a golf-course contract,” says Anne-Marie, referring to easy contracts given by corporate managers to their former colleagues at the big four.

It has honed a culture of hard work and excellence in Bizmod. “We get our foot in the door (of a new client), work hard, build and cement the relationship, and repeat,” says Anne-Marie. It sounds simple, but it is by no means easy. Every three years or so Bizmod has seen a growth spurt, which means that the three entrepreneurs have had to scramble to adjust their systems and processes to cope with the increase of work and staff.

“It is never comfortable, but it is a lifestyle that entrepreneurs have to make peace with. You just have to compartmentalise so that your panic at two o’clock in the morning does not spill over and affect your family,” says Anne-Marie, a mother of three.

Anne-Marie was always interested in business, and remembers her school shutting down her booming fire-cracker trade that she had started on the playground. The school system did not encourage entrepreneurship as a career option in those days, and Anne-Marie found herself studying law. She experienced it as rigid and uncreative, although she recognises now that the logical, analytical nature of legal thought makes for an excellent foundation for business analysis. She has since completed an honours degree in human resource management and an MBA on a part-time basis.

In her search for a path out of law, Anne-Marie landed a job as a motor recovery clerk at the short-term insurance firm – Mutual & Federal, where she one day participated in a redesign of their department’s workflow. The moment she saw the business analysts in action, she knew that was what she wanted to do. She made it known to her managers and soon she was working as a junior business analyst in various units of the company.

On one of these projects Anne-Marie met Seugnet and Jessica, who were working for Bizmod at the time and hired by Mutual & Federal as outside consultants. It was the start of a life-long professional relationship between the three, and when Anne-Marie returned from maternity leave she joined them at Bizmod as a consultant.

Anne-Marie landed a contract for Bizmod at MTN, where she spent the next five years, consulting to MTN on various projects, which culminated in a year as acting national sales manager for MTN. This brought Anne-Marie to a crossroads in her career, in which she could choose to pursue a clearly promising rise up the corporate ladder at the telecommunications firm, or step away and continue to work for Bizmod as a consultant.

While she loved the year as national sales manager, Anne-Marie says her somewhat rebellious nature makes her ill-suited for a corporate life. She dislikes the politics, even the necessary and healthy kind needed to operate in a large organisation. And she likes the freedom and variability of being a consultant.

Her next move as a Bizmod consultant was at the life insurance company – Liberty, where she gained useful expertise in helping them adapt to the Promotion of Protection of Information Act (Popi Act).  

Meanwhile, the three co-workers at Bizmod were eager to grow the tiny consultancy, while the original founders were not so keen on taking on the inevitable pains that go with growth.

Three years ago, Anne-Marie took over as MD, allowing Seugnet to work on various internal projects aimed at strengthening Bizmod for its next phase of growth. “We are working hard on our succession planning so that the company can grow beyond us. It is something that is easily neglected, but we have been good at making ourselves uncomfortable before we actually have to get uncomfortable,” says Anne-Marie.

Things are looking up for Bizmod, which has come through the COVID-19 crisis remarkably unscathed. They started cutting expenses even before the lockdown in anticipation of a serious pandemic. “Apart from that, we just put our heads down and worked. It is all that we really had any control over,” says Anne-Marie.

The need for the financial firms and telecommunications companies to adjust to the Popi Act should keep Bizmod busy in the months ahead despite the slow economy, and as affirmative procurement is becoming increasingly important, Bizmod’s BEE Level 2 status and majority black ownership should help to boost its growth. Anne-Marie says growth for its own sake is not enough for the three entrepreneurs. “We want to build something that is truly South African, a company that represents the country as it really is. We have so much local talent. It is wonderful to be building a home for it.”

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