The South African government’s National Development Plan (NDP) identifies SMEs as primary drivers of job creation, and has set a target of 90% of new employment being created in the SME sector by 2030. Many economists agree that rapid SME growth is the only sustainable way to reduce unemployment and expand the middle class.
One would have thought that this was great news for SMEs – most South African small, medium and micro-business owners are unlikely to disagree with the policy. In practice, however, there are certain obstacles to be overcome before the majority of our SMEs will commit themselves to growth as a deliberate contribution to job creation, alongside each company’s primary aim of improved profitability.
A poll of more than 1 300 South African companies, the 2015 SME Insights Survey commissioned by the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA), revealed that 76% of the respondents employ fewer than 20 people, and 46% have fewer than five employees.
There was also a very interesting correlation between SME longevity, turnover and staff size. By and large, the 25% of SMEs that report turnover above R10-million per annum are also those who have been in business 5 years or longer, and furthermore they are the firms likely to be employing more staff. Only 1% of the sample claimed a turnover above R500-million per annum, and 1% also employ more than 1 000 people.
The implication is clear: If SMEs are to be engines of job creation, the task will be accomplished by SMEs that have survived long enough to achieve substantial annual turnovers on a sustained basis. The government is to be commended for supporting micro enterprises, but their job creation goals will need a new focus.
Barriers to SME growth
These statistics make sense. Most small and medium enterprises actually begin as micro enterprises, with just one out of two entrepreneurs forming their own company. For the first two or three years, they will be totally focussed on the challenges of creating a sustainable business: Funding, production, distribution, cash flow, and market penetration. In many cases, entrepreneurs are also breadwinners, so their immediate priority is providing for their dependants.
This is not to say that they cannot also perform a socially conscious job creation role, and be committed to the NDP vision; but the harsh economic reality is that they cannot afford to focus on providing jobs for others until they are sure that their business will be able to continue supporting them and their families. And they will not be turned into job creation machines until government provides compelling incentives for them to do this.
More than 60% of SMEs fail within their first three years. A rational conclusion from all this data is that supporting and mentoring existing SMEs who have survived three or more years, so that they can achieve the longevity and turnover that allows them to employ more staff, would be an important policy direction, and possibly a more rapid road to the achievement of the NDP goals than a concentration of funding on thousands of new micro-enterprises.
Asked to identify the biggest barrier to entry when starting a business, respondents said the three primary obstacles were government red tape, access to funding and red tape when dealing with big business. If these factors make starting a business harder, it is logical to infer that they remain a deterrent as a business grows, bringing with it more red tape and the need to fund further expansion.
It is hoped that policymakers will take the findings of the 2015 SME Insights Survey into account when trying to formulate policy that will help SMEs address these obstacles, but at the same time, SMEs themselves can take proactive steps to lessen their impact.
By engaging the services of a Chartered Accountant (South Africa) [CA(SA)], an SME owner can lighten the dual burdens of dealing with red tape and the acquisition of funding, while at the same time getting sound business advice that will increase their chances of long-term success.
Related: Getting Your Growth On
SMPs offer multiple benefits
A significant number of CAs(SA) work in small and medium practices (SMPs), providing financial and accounting services to other SMEs. But the value they can offer to these SMEs goes beyond the bookkeeping and tax consulting that most small business owners see as their primary function.
As successful South African entrepreneur Alan Knott-Craig Jr put it when asked about the value of his CA(SA) qualification: ‘There’s a lot of admin that isn’t fun when you’re setting up a business: Registering a company, getting a trademark, doing legal agreements, cash-flow management, accounting, etcetera. All of that gets taught to CAs(SA) – you get so comfortable with statutory company secretarial and regulatory accounting work. It’s something non-CAs(SA) don’t pay much attention to when they get their own small businesses off the ground. And then one day they forget to pay VAT, and SARS comes and takes out their business. A CA(SA) is not going to drop the ball in those areas.’
For many entrepreneurs, the first problem when dealing with red tape is knowing what red tape is even relevant; a consulting CA(SA) will have all that information at their fingertips, whether dealing with government or big business contracts. For example, 55% of the companies in the 2015 SME Insights Survey either do not know how they will be ranked under the latest Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) codes, or presume they will be non-compliant.
Another 12% are unsure if their status will even change. Yet under the new B-BBEE codes, any SME with a turnover less than R10-million per annum qualifies as an Exempt Micro Enterprise (EME), and as such receives an automatic B-BBEE Level 4 or better rating, allowing it to bid for contracts with government and big business. A full 75% of the businesses surveyed qualify as EMEs, and any CA(SA) would be able to tell their owners that they can achieve Level 4 status simply by submitting an affidavit about their turnover.
Business and funding assistance
Apart from the ability of CAs(SA) to deal with red tape, South Africa’s small business bankers agree they can be a great help in mentoring and advising small businesses with an outside perspective – and even in helping to prepare them to be attractive prospects for bank funding.
Thakhani Makhuvha, CEO of the Small Enterprises Finance Agency, thinks that SMEs could consider contracting SMPs to perform the functions of a non-executive director, without a formal appointment to the role. ‘It would be a significant value-add,’ he says. ‘
A small company might not be able to understand the risks that they are facing – it might be in invoicing, creditors, filing, following up with the debtors, etcetera. An audit firm that will provide that insight will definitely be adding value to the small business – if those risks are identified and mitigated, it gives us a firm degree of confidence. You don’t have to be appointed a director – just an independent person who is behaving like a director, questioning the strategy and viability of the business on an on-going basis.’
As Makhuvu’s remarks illustrate, advice and mentorship from a CA(SA) can also help SMEs overcome another barrier: Finding funding. A 2014 survey of all the major SME funders in South Africa revealed that the input of a CA(SA) was seen as a positive advantage, and that lenders felt more secure about providing finance to SME owners who were prepared to rely on qualified guidance and expert financial oversight.
‘If a lender knows you’re a CA(SA), they talk to you differently; it’s just a fact,’ says Alan Knott-Craig Jr. ‘The CA(SA) designation provides instant business credibility.’
The conclusion is readily apparent: entrepreneurs, who want to build long-running, profitable SMEs that can eventually turn into large enterprises and employ significant numbers of people, need to be able to handle red tape and applications for funding along with all the other financial and strategic minutiae of business, both on a day-to-day basis and within a long-term strategy. They would do well to consider consulting a CA(SA) to provide value advice and expertise in all these areas.
If you’re an SME and would like to participate in the 2016 SMME Insights Survey commissioned by SAICA, click here: 2016 SMME Insights Survey