Abrie Collard and Jurgen van Wyk are old school buddies whose careers took very different directions as finance executives in the corporate sector in Namibia.
A twist of fate in the form of the Covid-19 lockdown brought them back together again, and now they are on a mission to save Namibia.
The lockdown has had a devastating effect on Namibia’s travel and tourism sector, which accounts for slightly more than 10% of its GDP, and perhaps double this if ancillary sectors such as retailing are counted.
Though Namibia has had less than 10,000 Covid cases and a little more than 100 deaths, the lockdown has been brutal, and has caused considerable anger among business owners and employees in the country.
“The impact of the lockdown has been particularly felt in the tourism sector, since Namibia relies heavily on overseas visitors. That stopped as soon as the lockdown was announced in March this year,” says Collard, a SA Institute of Business Accountants (Saiba) member, and a Business Accountant in Practice (BAP). Being part of the Saiba community gives them the backing of a professional organisation that clients find comforting.
Van Wyk and Collard were victims of the wave of retrenchments that spread across the country, and they suddenly found themselves having to reinvent themselves as financial guns for hire. They formed Echelon Financial Group as a financial accounting and consulting firm with a mission to save Namibia.
That may sound like an exaggeration, but Collard and van Wyk are deadly serious. “After just a few months, we realised how desperately companies are suffering and we started coming up with solutions for them. The whole country needs what we are offering, and we want to get the message out there that there are solutions, and we have proven time and again,” says Collard.
Little did they realise their new business venture would be the start of an exhilarating ride that would inject new life into dying businesses, and open new revenue opportunities for clients that were staring them in the face – but had been ignored. Van Wyk relates the story of one tourist lodge that was on the brink of throwing in the towel due to the prohibition on international travel. “We went in and had a look at the business and it became obvious that the one part of the business that could generate income was the restaurant, but instead of relying on overseas tourists, we got them to start providing meals to the local community. This saved the business and the jobs of those working there.”
Another client with a tourist lodge repurposed its technical staff – such as plumbers and mechanics – to service the local market.
“What we have been able to show clients is that there was a market in front of their faces that they never considered,” says van Wyk.
When the lockdown is eventually lifted, these businesses will potentially have a much bigger market than they had before the lockdown.
The experience has been a revelation, not just to the clients, but to Collard and van Wyk themselves. “We’ve had to think outside the box and find ways to assist clients not just to survive the lockdown, but to emerge even stronger when it is lifted,” says Collard.
In addition to the usual accounting functions such as bookkeeping, compliance, tax and preparation of financial statements, the two guns for hire are able to bring high level business intelligence to small businesses that could otherwise never afford this level of expertise.
Like most companies under lockdown, cash flow is a key concern. Collard says this can be solved by negotiating loan repayment holidays with banks, shaving costs and identifying new sources of revenue. The two are so confident of their ability to turn around struggling businesses that they have yet to find a company they could not rescue.
“The lockdown is an opportunity for companies to relook at the way they do business. Prior to the lockdown there was no urgency to think outside the box. Now there is. And we are on a mission to help them save their businesses, and in the process to save Namibia,” says van Wyk.