original interview series

Bernard Agulhas: A theoretical, practical and international career journey!

“…commitment, dedication and hard work”
Laptop on…check, Skype logged on…check and here we have to love technology, it’s fast, furious and…the number is engaged. Let’s try again, check the number, type it into Skype and engaged again! Quick inspection and I have left out a number, even double checking a telephone number can sometimes go amiss and here I am sitting in the middle of Munich dialing the man who has been tasked with keeping the Auditing profession in South Africa on track. With a blissful Munich sunshine beating down on my desk and with a third telephone number verification, I finally connect to one Bernard Agulhas, I have met Bernard a numerous amount of times and he is always in good spirits, however this time our conversation has now shifted from the subject matter of the auditing profession to his personal career.

As CEO of the Independent Regulatory Board of Auditors (IRBA) which governs the South African auditing profession, Bernard’s journey is not typical of the common accountant. Raised on the Eastern Cape of South Africa in the popular city of Port Elizabeth, Bernard from an early age believed in goals, which as he points out is never a chartered journey when trying to achieve. It was in Grahamstown at Rhodes University that Bernard faced his first career change, from a commerce degree majoring in economics, Bernard decided to change his degree and pursued accounting. He says “I saw the accounting industry as a better fit for me and it made sense to switch, however it was the technical aspects of the industry that was a motivation to help me excel”.  A purist in every sense of a career, Bernard further pursued the profession of auditing after becoming a Chartered Accountant. “Becoming a CA meant I could take the technical aspects of accounting and auditing to another level”. The career of an Auditor is so specialized and at the same time requires a logical finesse that it’s become a very important niche profession in the accounting industry. It was this nature of a technical niche that allowed Bernard to drive his career, from the outlandish South African destination of Umtata, to the crisp setting of Pretoria and then eventually moving to the quintessential business hub of Johannesburg. Becoming a sort after individual not only for his passion for the industry but also because his focus on the technical aspects of the auditing profession was an extremely rare one.
Bernard promotes “If you focus on the theoretical, practical and international aspects of a career, your career will become well rounded”. The logic behind this is simple, he focused on the technical side which was dependant on his theoretical knowledge, backed up by solid managerial growth which stemmed from his practical experience and whatever international opportunities that where available to him, he grabbed and gained as much as he could from it.  It was a strategy that eventually led him to working up the ranks at various auditing posts to his current position as CEO of IRBA. A job which is both challenging and exciting, his task is to ensure that auditing standards around South Africa are maintained and are kept in line with international standards along with making sure the skilled profession of an auditor is encouraged.
“Sure at times it’s difficult because I see myself with these various roles that I have to make sure I can uphold. Being the CEO is a managerial position of note but I can’t forget the fundamentals that guided me to this role which is what I am entrusted to make sure is kept on track” states Bernard.
From Munich to Johannesburg, our discussion develops from down the line accounting concepts to the fundamental summary that any one destination can provide good food, culture and atmosphere, his favourite being Brussels. I quietly think to myself to ask about the offerings of Umtata as a travel destination but I dispose of the idea with rapid timing and make sure I don’t drift too much in my questions. However I do jot down a quick note to contact Bernard if we ever commission an Umtata travel article.
At this stage the mood of the conversation adjusts as the sunlight from the European sky flickers over my notes, I can’t help myself but I have to redirect a question at the industry, I ask Bernard is the auditing profession a youthful one or is it a procedural career that attracts only book smart individuals. He measures his response with such authenticity that I realize his vision of the profession is not unique as earlier described in the essence of auditing being niche but rather he reverts back to his ideology of goals. “No matter the career, it’s about an individual and in this case the youth sector being able to push concepts of commitment, dedication and hard work, these are key to making a career both attractive and in this case attainable”. Bernard furthers his statement that though the career of an auditor is structured, the path to both a specialized accountant and also the position of a CEO is not predictable. “If you have dreams and goals with the ambition to pursue them then you will see your individual path is truly unique”.
It’s a remarkable career adventure, from the Eastern Cape of South Africa to the New York of Africa (Johannesburg), he now stands as a leader and an ambassador for the auditing profession. I finish our conversation with a strong feeling of inspiration and as I hang up my Skype headset, I also get a feeling of uncertainty. Bernard has confirmed my thinking that the uncertainty of a career is really an open ended question. So much so that even the so called stereotypical careers of an accountant though titled “chartered” is extremely unchartered. Its this sort of conversation though set miles apart in terms of distance still manages to bring together the concept that a career does not make an individual, rather an individual makes a career.