Zane Stevens co-founded Protea Financial, an accounting firm focused on the wine industry, and it was remote from the beginning. He talks to John Randolph on Episode 18 of CPA Life about how this allowed him to treat employees like adults and provide flexibility in their roles. He also emphasizes the benefits of niche focus, arguing that firms that try to be everything to everyone often underdeliver. Zane notes that communication is often the biggest challenge for remote teams, requiring purposeful structures and frequent adjustments. Still, he finds that remote work allows for more precise, focused conversations and improved productivity.
Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of the CPA Life podcast where we spend time talking to firm leaders and industry insiders all over the country who are going against the grain and building more modern firms, firms that are growing, thriving and giving people amazing career options while not demanding that they sacrifice their family at the altar their job.
And today, we’re joined by Zane Stevens, who is the founding partner of Protea Financial, which is a firm that’s been kind of on the leading edge of what a lot of firms are trying to do, which is create a much more employee-centric culture. Because you guys have been doing this now for almost 10 years. Is that correct?
Yeah. Thanks, John. Thanks for having me on. Yeah, we’ve been fully remote since day one, which was, we started out in March 2014. So nine and a half years approaching our 10 year anniversary.
So you guys have probably done a lot of things, right, done a lot of things wrong, figured some stuff out along the way. And we’re going to talk about some of those things, we’re going to spend time talking about kind of where you are today, some of the things that you and your team are doing to build a firm that prioritizes people over profits, and how that impacted not just your team, but but your clients as well. But to do that, I think sometimes we need to look back and talk about how you’ve gotten to where you are today. So tell us a little bit about where you came from, how you started out down the accounting career path.
Great. So currently, I live in California, but that’s not where I started out. I am originally from South Africa, I’ve been living in the U.S. now for 10 years. So you know, typical story, in high school really good at math. And people say, well, if you’re good at math, why don’t you try this accounting thing out? I did do the subject in high school, I got pretty good marks in it as well. So you know, people forced me down that way. The idea was, well, if you become an accountant, you’ll always have a job, which is true. So I said, sure, why not?
I went off to study, and you know, my qualification, the course I entered into was accounting for chartered accountants, it was super specific, like, you’re going to become a chartered accountant, or a CPA. I had no idea what any of that meant. I had a few friends that were going to do it as well, and they said, well, okay, come along. And I went into it. And I was like, oh, this is fine. Yeah, in hindsight, right. As I said, today, I’m very happy about that decision, maybe wasn’t the happiest when I was sort of forced into it. But as it turned out, good decision.
You know, I think one of the things when you first start studying accounting, they don’t teach you a lot about people management and people skills, right? It’s just get in there, study really hard, you got to be smart, you got to know the numbers, you got to know the figures, you got to know all the legislation. And you know, they forget about the people side of it. And I think for me, when I eventually went off, you know, did my undergrad, did my postgrad, and started off at KPMG, I quickly realized there’s a big people portion of becoming an accountant as well, and being able to interact with others, interact with your team members and clients. That part of the social, more social side of it sort of pushed more into my strengths—I’m able to talk to people, I’m able to connect with people, I can really understand what they need.
So straight from college, I went to KPMG. To become a Chartered Accountant in South Africa, you have to do three years of training contract. So I signed up at KPMG for those three years, with a major focus on audit. And that’s sort of where you start out in South Africa, you’ve sort of got to do your time in order to get to get going.
So you touched on something that’s pretty interesting, and I’ve never really thought about that, and it’s, there’s so much emphasis put on the education piece of accounting that has to do with numbers and analysis and business decisions. But there really is so much of this, that is a people component to the business. And there’s not a lot of emphasis put on that coming out of college, like you said. Why do you think that is? I mean, it’s obviously there’s there’s a ton of coursework that you got to get into, and I don’t know if that plays into it or what the case may be.
Well, I think part of it is, you know, is the coursework you got to get through in South Africa as well, you know, the colleges, the universities that do have these accounting programs do get judged on their who’s the best program by their pass rate when it gets to the board examinations as well. So they’re trying to get people in and full of information so that they can get close to a 100% pass rate. So the university aren’t really rewarded for all round students, they’re rewarded for people being able to pass exams. So why would you focus on the soft skills at all right?
So a big part of it for me is that If you aren’t going to go into, and this is really for any profession, not just accountants, like you need to find opportunities to develop skills outside of the technical knowledge. You know, I did you know, Toastmasters when I was in high school, that’s a great opportunity for a lot of people. Like, if you even are nervous talking to people in general, that’s a great place to go learn how to like, stand up in front of a group, talk to people in a clear, concise way, and to sell your message.
I think there’s plenty of opportunities. Join the debate team, you know, write some poetry talk, talk to people, as much as you can get into some social, you know, groups at school, you know. When you’re applying for colleges, all of these things are important. So you might as well take advantage of them whether you can, because once you get to college, nobody really [cares] anymore, they just want you to pass the grades and get through the system.
Yeah, we’ve developed a society whether it’s, you know, in South Africa, or here in the States, we’ve, we’ve developed an education system that is teach to the test, teach to the standard of the test. This is the test, we want you to pass the test. And that’s what everybody is going to be judged on. Not, you know, are we creating a well rounded individual, like you said, that not only can do the technical aspect, but can interact with people, that can communicate with people, that can bring solutions to the table, and not just sit in a corner and figure out two and two equals four. It’s tough.
Now, the good thing is, like you said, anybody that’s willing to make that additional investment in themselves—time, energy, money, effort, whatever it may be—I think anybody that’s willing to make that investment is going to stand out early on in their career. Now, there may be a leveling the playing field as firms or companies invest in people to develop some of those skills. But if you’ve got those skills walking in the door, you’re absolutely going to stand out from amongst your peers, because there’s not a lot of people that are developing those skills in the academic world today. So how did you end up going from KPMG to being here in the States and starting Protea?
Yeah, so, you know, spent four years at KPMG, three years on my trainingship, stayed on an extra year, went from audits into advisory doing some internal audits along the way. Totally different areas. And advisory, I was very fortunate that I got a lot of experience. Though it was 2008, the world was in a global recession. And it was very hard for KPMG to offer permanent contracts. So I went out at that point to look for another job and was fortunate enough to land a job with the title of management accountant for a listed subsidiary of a technology company.
Really what I was there was a controller of my own business unit, effectively this big company with multiple business units, I got to look after that one. Was lucky enough to then be promoted into a more senior role wherever oversaw all the management accountants. During that time, though, my wife was working for a winery, in the Cape Town area, they happen to have American ownership. They really liked her. She’s a much better accountant than I’ll ever be. And they offered her a job as the CFO of their investment and consulting company out in California. After about a six to eight minute conversation, we said sure, why not? Let’s take up the opportunity. And I think it was eight weeks later, she moved to California and I followed about three months after that.
Really great opportunity for her, fun opportunity for me, because from sort of the first four months, I was in the US, I was a house husband, in the greatest physical shape of my life, I was exercising two or three times a day, even just to go buy groceries, I’d walk to the grocery store, buy the groceries, walk back with, you know, six or seven bags in my hand, why not? Eventually joined that same company in an FPGA type role. The idea is that I would have done a lot of long term forecasting for some of the projects that they were interested in investing in, sort of seeing what we’ll take from if we buy this piece of land, plant finds, build out a tasting room and start selling at what point How long will it take this money to actually turn into a situation where we can sell, we quickly realized there is a ton of work, but they also looked the same way. So it wasn’t taking huge amount of time. But what we did see that there was a very big gap is once we had these investments, and they got started going, we had nobody to do the bookkeeping and accounting.
We went to the markets, had a look what was out there. We weren’t that impressed. It was either really expensive, really bad quality, or both. So we’re sitting at my business partner’s apartment in San Francisco and came up with this bright idea of I know a lot of really smart people back in South Africa. I know a lot of them who are trying to re-enter the workforce—moms that have had kids and are looking to restart their career—let me reach out to a few of them, get them to help me out doing some bookkeeping, also to be the face on the side, push our work down to them. And we’ll work on that structure. And that’s how it was formed.
And you know, we still sort of follow the same structure from this day with a team out here and in the U.S., eight of us, based in the U.S., six in California, one in Washington, one in New Hampshire. We’re sort of a face to the client that communication points and each of us is supported by a team on each project down in South Africa, where we employ 31 people. So a total team of 39 people have over two states.
We are remote team though we do have offices. I’m at the office today, though, I don’t know if anybody from the U.S. has been to this office since 2020. So it’s pretty much just me coming out. We have an office in South Africa as well, just a little bit more we do pull the guys in there is 31 of them. So we try to bring in opportunities for them to get together, see each other talk to each other. You know, we do performance appraisals, team meetings, that type of thing in person. So it’s more in the hybrid state, but you know, they’re there at home, like 95% of the time. So it’s a very small requirement to be in the office.
I want to talk about a couple of things and kind of hang out a little bit today on, we’ll touch on a couple, two or three topics. But they’re things that I believe are significantly impacting the accounting industry and things, I think that you’d have some pretty strong opinions based on some of your content that you post on social media and things like that.
And one of those is kind of where you guys have been since the inception of the organization, and that is a remote firm. You’ve run Protea as a remote firm since the beginning. That was obviously the decision driven by your own personal desires, and not some worldwide epidemic external, you know, force that puts you down that path. It sounds like part of what drove that was your contacts of people back in South Africa. But it’s been almost 10 years, and you’re still remote. Tell me how that’s impacted your firm, how that impacts the decisions you make, things along those lines.
Yeah, I mean, a big part of it sort of coming from it was sort of twofold, right? One is, if we trust people, does it really matter where they work, right? There’s always this big focus on input, input input, right? If I see a person in their seat, they gotta be doing some work, which you know, is total garbage, there’s a lot of people that will sit at their desk for hours and hours and hours, and you asked them what they get done for the day, and they can’t really show you anything. They’re just sort of filling a seat. And I felt that, you know? I was working for this listed subsidiary, and I loved working there. But the first of every month, I pretty much sat at my desk and paid bills and went on social media and just hung out, because I couldn’t start anything till everybody else was done with their work. So there was nothing I could do.
And I wasn’t allowed to work from home, either. During that day, or, you know, just take the day off, I still had to be available. And I had to be seated, which I thought was just total, you know, it was just rubbish. And it was also one of those where like, I couldn’t just like, 4:30 leave as well, I sorta had to pretend that I’m actually putting in the hours, right? And especially, if I’d look out my window, and I see the person you see you’re capturing my AP still working like I probably shouldn’t be leaving before them, you know, you’ve got to make them feel like they’re not alone. I thought that was just absolute rubbish. Like, why should I not be able to use my time? You know, the other part of that was sort of every time I needed to go pay a bill or if I was sick, I had to go ask permission to go do that. And I thought this is the craziest thing in the world that we expect the adults to get permission to do simple things.
So the whole like weird environment, and obviously it felt it you know, it was KPMG, big, global firm working long hours and was the same environment as much as I had a little bit more freedom there. Because I was trusted, I still had to ask or tell people where I was going. So coming into this, I really wanted to provide an environment where we can treat adults like adults, like you’ve got your workload, get it done, like I don’t really care when as long as you’re not holding anybody else up, just get the work done.
The other portion of it is that I wanted to be able to work in an environment where I could do things that I want to do, you know? At that time, I was still running a lot. And I wanted to be able to get up for a run whenever I felt like it. You know, I’m not one of those people that can get up early in the morning, go for a run. I hate it. I really struggle to do it. I like to run in the afternoon. But I don’t want to go too late in the evening as well, because I am also very habit driven. And I like to eat dinner at six o’clock. So I’ve got a very small window and I want to be able to do it. So I wanted an environment where I wasn’t tied to this tighter group of people where I felt like I needed to be seen by them, I could sort of adjust my schedule as we go ahead.
So that was the big focus. It’s just treat people as like, as if they are adults trust them to get their job done. I mean, if you don’t trust them while you’re hiring them. And the other part of it is just to provide people flexibility to do what they want when they want. The flexibility side has really paid off now that I have young kids as well and allows me to have the opportunities to just disappear to school, coach their sports or whatever it is I can adjust my schedule around what I want to do during the day.
It’s so critical that you give people that space and that freedom to do things, and I think that when you do that, for the most part, people step up in situations like that, when they recognize and realize you know that you trust them, you’re not watching over their shoulder, there’s a project that needs to get out the door. There’s work that needs to be done, and they’re not trying to squeeze two and a half hours of work into eight hours of the day, if they can get it done in two and a half hours, get it done in two and a half hours.
I really saw the dynamics of that in my personal life—we homeschooled our kids. I had a youngest daughter that was up early in the morning, knocked her schoolwork out was done by nine o’clock because she wanted to go play. She ended up being a National Merit Scholar, she graduated with a 4.0 GPA with an undergrad and a master’s. So there’s evidence that if you give people the latitude to succeed in a space that is right for them, ie Hey, there’s a window this big that I want to go running in, and it’s not early in the morning, people are going to step up and they’re going to deliver for the most part. And I think that there’s always that concern of well, what about the person that takes advantage of that? How do you balance that?
Yeah, I think one of the big arguments always is that people have to earn the trust to be flexible. And you know, my big thing is, they earned the trust by going through the interview process, and me making the decision that I want to hire them, right?
Like, I decided that I really liked this person, I want to give them an opportunity. So they already have the trust, I don’t know why people feel like they need to earn it. Now, if you screw it up, and you lose the trust, well, you’re gonna get monitored a little bit more. And there are people that are going to need a little bit more help and more guidance, or really what they need is just tools to allow them to better manage their days, right? Because none of us sort of in the traditional environments are given the tools to be like “this is your day.” Everybody’s going into this, I mean, think about school, you go to school at 8:30. And you finish at 3:00, like they tell you what to do, when to do it and how it needs to be done. You go to university or college, it’s pretty much the same. Obviously, you’ve got a little bit more latitude and get to decide what subjects you want, sort of you know, they pretend you choose. But everybody’s telling you when to do things, when you’re going to write that exam, when that project is due.
We’re now you get into this inflexible environment, it’s like I have these deadlines, get there. And people don’t necessarily have the tools to do it. So you know, definitely some of our more experienced team members or team members that have been environments that are very rigid, do need some additional tools, and we’re more than happy to provide them with different options that will help them better plan their days. But I think one of the best things that we always tell our people that are struggling a little bit is just do today, what you can do today. And that means sort of if you have a two hour day, or you don’t have any deadlines, but there is stuff that’s going to be done tomorrow, that you can do today, because you have the information, you might as well do it, rather put in the time today, because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow, a one off thing can come up, you could have an IT issue, you could have a family issue that you have to go deal with. So the best way to deal with flexibility is if you’ve got the time do the work, worry about you know, the free time tomorrow.
And in the accounting environment, it’s pretty, you know, you pretty much see it, you know, we’ve got month end times which are super busy, and then at the end of the month that drops off. So if you sort of put in the hard work in the first sort of, you know, two weeks of the month, the second two weeks of the month is going to be a lot easier, so you can figure out how to get it. For the people who do try to take advantage. well, they’re probably not going to be around for very long, right? If you create a culture where we are all a team, and we’re working together, the people who are not working as a team will quickly get flushed out the system by their team members around it, because they’re going to be ostracized, because those people are going to be like you’re not playing the game, which means I’m going to be punished because they can’t just sort of punish an individual like, they’ll have to change the rules for everybody. And I don’t want to change the rules, because I really liked the environment I’m working into. So either step in line or step out.
You know, I think that that part of the challenge is there’s always—and I hate using the word always—there’s going to be bad apples. There are going to be people in every situation, whether you’re in an office or you’re working remote, there are always going to be people that are going to push the boundaries and not deliver at the level that you want them to deliver at. But, you know, I think that one of the challenges that a lot of firms face looking at a remote possibility is number one, it goes against the grain of what the individual has dealt with most of their career.
About a year and a half ago, I had a client that I had been talking to about moving their business to remote, because they weren’t in a very appealing geography to get people to go to work in. And after about a year and a half of conversation, he called me and said, Hey, I’ve given this a lot of thought. And after talking to my wife and some of my mentors I’ve come up with the only reason I can tell you that we’re not remote, and it is” I don’t want us to be remote.” And I’ve also come to the realization that that’s not a good enough reason.
But what I was gonna say is you’re always going to have people that are going to push the boundaries and and I think so many times we try to run our business by the exception and deal with the rule when it arises. When in reality, if you’ve got in your case, 30 plus employees, why should we run the business because one or two people don’t step up to the plate, when the other 30, 35 people are delivering at a level that allows us to be remote? So many times we look for that person that isn’t delivering and that’s what drives us to make the decisions. What have been some of the challenges that you face as a leader in a remote firm.
Yeah, I think the biggest challenge in a remote environment is communication. Communication is tough, right? You can’t just waltz over to somebody’s desk and have a quiet conversation with them, you can walk through a room and see if somebody’s struggling and have a conversation with them. You know, so, creating structures around communication on how people reach out for help, how people sort of ask questions, or get information, or reach out to clients, is really important. So communication, in general, in life, is really difficult, right? But when you’re in a remote environment, communication becomes extra tough, because you don’t have the nonverbal cues to give you a good sense of how that person is doing. So changing the way we communicate and what that communication looks like.
But what’s important when anybody, any sort of communication system has been set up, is remembering that it has to change, right? We, in 2020, the world shut down and we all jumped into a world of like, oh my word, we’re all in some deep trouble here. Your communication, at that point, changed a lot. We went from, you know, once a month check ins with our team members to once a week check ins, because it was important for us to talk to people then because there’s more than just work going on. There’s a bunch of really tough things in life happening at that point of view, there’s a lot more isolation, a lot more people all by themselves. So they needed, you know, interactions, communication, a bit more than then traditionally would have been needed.
So the biggest challenge with a remote environment is the communication and creating those processes. So you really have to figure out what your team needs, how often they need it, and what that communication looks like. So it’s creating structures to say, this needs to be on email, this needs to be on some instant messenger, this type of communication needs to be a call, this type of communication needs to be a video call in person. And creating those rules and structures to be able to do that, as well as creating a schedule of all the interaction points in time. And when they’re talking to various people.
Again, like we’re sort of playing around with it all the time and adjusting it. But, you know, we went from a situation to just I mean, what are we not seven, probably about 11 months ago, I was still talking to every single team member in the company, once a month. It was a great system, but obviously not a very sustainable system. You know, if you have 38 people, there’s not 38 business days in a month, right? And there’s some of the people that I had to talk to more than once. So now we’ve moved to a system where I’m not talking to everybody every month, but I’m making sure I talk to every single person in the company, so they have some of my time. So they can ask questions, raise any concerns they have, twice a year. So that structure will change.
And that, I only decided on moving to that twice a year, four months ago. I had some conversations with some team members that I hadn’t spoken to for a while I was like, you know what, these are really important, I don’t want to lose them. So we’re going to create another system to be able to do it. And when you make those adjustments, you sort of look at your team, and your team is going to change, right? As you’re hiring and people are moving on, your your age of your team is going to move, the needs of your team are going to move and then you know, the outside world environment needs are going to change as well. So you’ve got to constantly look at your team and manage and adjust communication. But communication is going to be the toughest challenge that anybody in a remote environment is going to face. Because you just aren’t used to like, not seeing people.
I moved our business to fully remote in 2018. I will contend and happily discuss with anybody that wants to discuss it, that one of the challenges, or I should say, one of the reasons why people push back on remote, is it is a whole lot easier as a manager and a leader to manage in a physical presence environment. It’s a whole lot easier. It’s less work. It’s less investment of time. You don’t measure the minutes, in my opinion, sitting in an office the way that you measure the minutes personally, working remote. Because if you don’t manage your time properly and have specific ends and starts to your day, and have boundaries around yourself, you will find yourself as a manager and a leader sitting at your desk at seven o’clock in the morning and sitting at your desk at nine o’clock at night, and trying to squeeze everything in there. And then if you don’t find a way to manage that time better, i.e. communicate with your staff more effectively, more efficiently, in a process type situation, you’re going to kill yourself really quick. And I think you’re right—I think communication is hypercritical in general. But in a situation where like you said, you can’t stick your head in somebody’s cubicle, you’re not running into each other in the kitchen, you’re not passing each other on the hallway, there’s got to be some purposeful communication and touch points in there.
One of the things that I was going to ask you about is in your remote environment, do you find it? Do you find it critical to bring people on when you bring them on, that are not afraid to raise their hand and say, hey, I need help. Because I could see in a remote environment, and I’ve experienced, if somebody is a little reticent to say, hey, I need some help here, you can blink and you’re down the road two, three, four, five days working on a project, and there’s been no communication because you assumed everything was going well.
Yeah, it is an undervalued skill in remote work, is somebody who’s not scared to ask questions. And it’s tough, right? Because you can’t really judge that in an interview process. You can ask people oh, what do you do when you struggle? And you know, the textbook answer is like, I’ll try it myself. And then I’m not sure, I’m lost, you know, everybody’s going to give you the same answer. And you’re never really going to understand how people actually deal with those situations until they’re in it. And it’s interesting, because sometimes people will stop reading well, and they’ll ask questions in the beginning when they’re stuck. But then they feel like they’ve been around for a little bit. And then also they reach this point, like, you know what, I shouldn’t be asking that question. And, you know, I’m always a big, big believer, ask as many questions as you like, you know, that old, you know, old saying, there are no stupid questions. Well, there really isn’t. And I’d rather have more communication and more questions, as long as they’re not repetitive, you’re not asking me the same every month, where do I get that file in that situation—
—those are totally acceptable. Because we’d rather get it right the first time. Yeah, I like to tell people that sometimes you just need to slow down to speed up. And the concept behind that is, if I slow down, ask the questions, make sure I know what needs to be done, and I do it as best as possible the first time around, there’ll be less review queries, and we’ll get through the process a lot quicker. Where if I run into blindly, I’m most likely going to make mistakes, or answer the wrong question altogether, we’re gonna have to start all over again, and it’s just going to put more pressure on the rest of the system, because everything else gets backed up behind it.
So on your question, I think it’s really important to find those people that are willing to ask the question, but I think it’s really important for people to understand in general, if you are going to go to an environment where you are working remote, you sort of have to put your pride in your pockets, and not be scared to ask those questions. You will be much more successful and much happier, if you work in a way that you understand that you don’t know everything, and at times, you need some guidance and some help.
Well, I think that it’s so critical in an environment like yours, and we’d messaged about this, you guys are a time and billing environment. And so I think it’s critical for any firm that has any component of their business in a time and billing model, because if someone’s not asking questions, and you’re assuming that work is getting done, you can blink again, and you’re two, three days down the road, and you’ve blown through your budget of what was put there in time, because somebody didn’t want to ask a question. And next thing you know, you’re trying to figure out how are we still gonna make money on this project, because this person wasn’t asking the questions they need to ask.
Yeah, I mean, the one advantage we do have is that we do pick it up sooner than we would if it was value pricing rights, because then we’re just caring about the outcome. So you’ll quickly be like, wait a minute, they’ve burned through 16 hours on something that should have taken four, like, something’s up over here. So it does give us the advantage that we can see when people are struggling a little bit quicker.
But yeah, it is tough, right? It’s trying to create processes. And you know, we’re asking the account managers, the U.S. based people to be cognizant, you know, keep an eye on your team members, especially if they’re on a big task, like inventory costing is probably the hardest thing we do for the wine industry clients that we have. So if they’re doing it, especially if they’re doing it for the first time, both have gone through it, and you’ve seen them struggle before, you’ve heard from another team member that they’ve sort of struggled on it is, you know, ask them questions, check in with him more frequently set up a phone call, you know, jump on a phone call, let’s talk through about what we’re going to do.
You know, I think that’s one of the things that we forget about in a remote environment is that we can have a voice conversation, like we can jump on a phone call and we can talk to each other. That is allowed. It doesn’t mean because we’re in a remote environment that everything has to be on email. So I’m always encouraging people to have conversations at the right time. And understanding when those right times are is really, really important. Because I do think when you are in an office environment, you get a lot of cooler talk or just burn time because people just having conversations for the sake of having conversations, because we’re in front of each other. We’re just going to talk about you know what I did for dinner last night, what I have going on for the weekend, and then all sudden, it’s like, oh, we’ve been talking for 45 minutes. And we still haven’t even touched the problem here. So talk to me later if you have anything going on and nothing actually happens. So with this remote environment, you can be a little bit more precise, hey, we need to talk about this inventory costing, let’s jump on a 15 minute phone call, bang, bang, bang, get it done. And it’s much more focused. It’s about delivering their final product. It’s about helping that person get through the next steps and hopefully building their confidence so that they can provide a better outcome, feel like they’ve achieved something, and again, we’ll all be happier.
I was talking to a client the other day about the concept of not having that water cooler talk and his mindset was we lose value when we’re not in the office together, and we’re not having that hanging around time kind of conversation. And I told him, I said, look, I agree with you, because I’m going to tell you right now, when I worked in an office environment, whether I was leading the firm, or I was starting my career and was an employee, I was probably one of the worst guys at that water cooler because like you said, we’re talking about what movie did you go see last night? What did you do with your family? How are your kids doing? And next thing you know, you blink, you’re 45 minutes still standing around talking. And there’s been no work done, there’s been nothing productive done. And how anybody can sit there and say that that is a significant loss, it’s detrimental to the organization. Because we’re not in the office, I will tend to argue that gladly with somebody. I don’t think that’s something that brings a ton of value when you look at the potential downside of it.
Yeah, I mean, building relationships does come from it. But I think there’s better ways to do it. And, you know, being a little bit more thoughtful with your time and being very, you know, this is my time to build relationships, this is my time to help, rather than trying to intermingle them and actually not achieving anything, I think it can be really helpful. So you know, we lose the water talk. But it gives us an opportunity to create more social events, it gives the opportunity to create more community outreach projects, there’s more opportunities for training. So you know, you’re replacing that with much more productive, specific time that really helps develop relationships, helps people grow, and helps them sort of just feel better about themselves in general.
Absolutely. The second thing that I wanted to spend a little bit of time talking about is the concept of niche focus. I’ve been a firm believer, I’ve been a part of 32 startups and turnarounds. And I’ve said for years that the consistent thread of failure in every turnaround that I worked with, or startup that I worked with, that did not launch successfully, was trying to be everything to everybody. And I will contend that as a small business owner, if you’re not willing to put a stake in the ground and say this is who we are, this is what we do, we do it as good or better than anybody else—and there’s a lot of other peripheral stuff around us, we’ll let other people go fight over that—that’s not who we are. I think unless you’re willing to do that, you’re going to end up competing with the KPMGs of the world, with the EYs of the world, the BTOs of the world, who have much deeper pockets and much larger resources to be able to go out and deliver for their customers.
So there’s some that say that you’re losing business by not being a service provider to any and all potential clients. What do you say to people in a situation like that? Because you guys have a pretty narrow niche.
Yeah, it’s an interesting one, right? Because I didn’t start this with a plan to have such a tight [focus] like we do right now. Right? We obviously started in the wine space, because that’s where we came from, you know, consulting and investment on the winery side. So we started wineries. But then we went pretty broad, you know, we sort of just helped a bunch of people that we knew—friends and family effectively—not real friends or family, but investment friends from family. And we did go a little bit wider and broader, right. But what I quickly realized as we started growing, is that if you’re trying to do every industry under the sun, it becomes really hard to standardize processes and procedures to be successful. When you’re small, it’s sort of okay to get away with it, because you can customize for each single person. But if you’re trying to scale and get a little bit larger, it becomes really hard, because once you lose the consistency, it becomes very difficult for people to generally understand what’s going on.
The other thing that we sort of niche, like a couple of ways, right? We obviously focused on the wine industry, but we’re also very specific on the type of work we do. You mentioned that sort of be everything for everyone creates, for me, that creates an environment of I’m going to over promise and under deliver where I really want to be in a space where I under promise and over deliver. So we’re very keen on focusing in on what we do very well. And that is controller level downwards. So we’re just not focusing in on one industry, but we’re also very much niching down into what the skill sets we have, and where we can be really helpful, and also the services we believe that our target clients really need.
So transactional accounting is what we want to do, because we can do it really well. And if we do it accurately, consistently, and on a timely basis, it then creates the opportunity to provide the management reporting, which allows those customers to make better business decisions. So we’re not just focusing in on an industry, but focusing on what we do, and not trying to create this massive broad spectrum of services.
You know, I’ve seen other firms where like, they’re not just doing accounting, they’re doing FP&A, and CFO. And they’re also going to help you recruit people. And like, they’ve got a thousand service levels. And I’m just like, that’s just not for me, I can’t control all of those outcomes. And it’s very unlikely that I can hire experts in all those fields. So why not just focus in on what we’re really good at, what we think our clients need, and be the best at it, and just do it better than everybody else, right? I want to help you with your transactional accounting, I’m not a firm that wants to be your CFO. So we’ll do transactional accounting as a grudge purchase. We want your books to be clean, accurate and concise. And we see the benefit of it, you know, we’ve had a lot of clients go through diligent processes, and I can guarantee you now, not a single one of them have been held up because of their accounting information. We’re able to turn records over and within minutes to tell the truth, we hold on to them a little bit longer not to set false expectations. But we’re able to get them those reports, because the work’s done.
You know, we’re focusing in closing those books in 10 business days, we’re making sure if your work needs to be touched daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, we’re doing it. And we’re doing it consistently. We’re very thankful we implemented common practice management, probably 2018, I think, and that made a very big difference to our business. But we have very good structures in place to do what we believe is important to our clients. And we do it consistently. We give them what they need. And we help them be successful.
Which I think is so critical in the world that we’re in today, and if you look back to 2020, when the pandemic hit, I think that the biggest issue that most small businesses had when they were going to pursue a PPP loan, or any other type of ideal credits, or grants or anything like that, was they didn’t have books. Some of them didn’t have books at all, or they have books that were so off and incorrect. And I think it put a huge spotlight on the importance of transactional accounting, and having books that were readily available, and quality numbers that you can work with and run a business by. I don’t think I have a single client today that has some piece of either a client accounting services, or is a focus that what they do like you guys, that their business isn’t growing tremendously, because a lot of small businesses realize how critical that was. And it was something that they weren’t focused on right now.
I mean, the proof is in the pudding, right? So with our clients, 100% success rate on PPP loan applications.
Also in that first trough, where everybody is scrambling for many 100% success rate on applications for clients who wanted to do it. We’re a small, little firm, you know, at that time, we were 20 people. But yet, we were able to get every single client in and get them all the money they wanted, no problem. And the only reason for that is that their books were up to date, their books were accurate, and we were quickly able to pull the reports. Yeah, we have a bit of a cheat code, right, we have people ten time zones away doing the work while we’re sleeping. So we’re front of the line. But that’s the structure we set up. We created an environment that allows us to move quickly. It doesn’t just help in like PPP situations, it helps in due diligence situations where they need reports quickly, it helps when they’re trying to get bank financing or the bank gets information.
Because you know what one of the big things that people forget about is a lot of these people don’t even really care about the accuracy. They just want to make sure that these books are actually up to date, and somebody has some confidence in them. Because I think anybody that’s taught in business or accounting knows that no set of books is 100% accurate. It’s physically impossible, because there’s too many variables. You want to get it really, really accurate and you get as accurate as possible. But if you’re competent, and you’re moving quickly, and things are up to date, people will feel comfortable, they’ll feel like somebody is at least paying attention. And if you can get a business that can come into your, you know, your business and support you in a way that can always be consistent, can be on time and moving at a pace that helps you run your business, I mean, businesses move quickly. There’s no point in getting, you know, a mountain close 45 days off after M&A. Like what’s the point? Why even pay for it?
Yeah, at that point, you’re working off outdated data that really isn’t going to be able to allow you to make key business decisions to affect your business today. And one of the things I wanted to ask you about that has nothing to do with remote work or a niche business is you posted something on LinkedIn recently that you cook dinner five nights a week. Is that right?
I do. Yeah. Yeah, I love cooking in general. And then part of it is just sort of part of my relaxing, like, you know what my relax and wind down process. It’s just some quiet time I, you know, I’ll either put some music on or put a podcast on the background, maybe my wife interrupts me with some conversation about the day. But it just gives me a moment to sort of settle my thoughts. I mean, I would say it’s pretty much as close as I’m gonna get to being able to sort of meditate, where I can just focus in, get the food done. I also feel like I’m actually creating something. So it’s a little bit creative. And I’m actually achieving something because there’s a final product. And then it gives me a lot of joy to be able to provide my family with a meal, which we can sit down together and have a conversation with afterwards.
The reason why that jumped out at me when I saw that the other day is, that’s kind of my space, also in the house and has been for years. My wife, we always joke and say that my wife cooks out of necessity, we have to eat, so she cooks. It’s not an event, it’s, you know, we have to eat, therefore, we’re gonna cook, get it done, get it out and move out of the way into her. It’s work to me, like you said, it’s a place that I can go in and kind of meditate.
And the other thing that’s pretty interesting is I only had daughters, I didn’t have sons. And my son in law, one day came to me while he was dating my oldest daughter and wanted to know, hey, how do you find the time to be able to just sit and listen to all these girls in your house that need to talk? And I told him, I said, how many times have you come into our house and I’ll make some type of appetizer, throw it on the counter, everybody gathers around and talks, and I’m sitting in the kitchen cooking, he said, yes. Well that’s how I do it, it’s kind of my, my play to get them to come to talk, interact with Dad hang out, I can do what I need to do. And I’ve still got some face time with my kids. So it’s, I think it’s something that if we did a little bit more of when we’re spending time at the house, there’s those bonds and those connections, like you’re talking about being able to spend time with your family is critical.
Yeah, and it’s great. I mean, sometimes, you know, my kids will just jump in and start helping, you know, they will cut something or they want to stir, or they want to, you know, mostly eat the spices rather than throw them in that, you know, it can be as simple as you know, we grilled some steaks. And while I was grilling the stakes were you know, shooting, shooting some hoops at the same time. So, you know, I’m watching the food, spending time with them, being outside, you know. For me, it’s, it’s a meditative purpose of it, there’s a creative side of it, there’s the opportunity to actually, you know, start and finish a project. But also like the idea that, you know, in the modern world, it’s the only way that I’m really providing, you know, I’m not going out there and I’m not hunting for my food or anything like that. But I’ve gone to the grocery stores, I’m putting it together makes me feel like I’m am contributing to the household. You know, we try to share talks a lot of the way but my wife does put in more than I do. You know, I work a lot longer hours than she does. And for me, it gives me that one opportunity where I’m like, okay, I’m doing something that’s really important for the family, not just be able to feed them, but it’s creating an opportunity for us to have conversations around the table.
Yeah. And then that’s, that’s something that we’ve we’ve lost a lot of in society, because mom and dad are working and going 50 different directions at 100 miles an hour and being able to come back to that table, as I call it, put fingerprints on the hearts of our kids that can’t be rubbed off, is priceless. absolutely priceless.
I love it.
Yep. You’ve obviously built a great business with Protea Financial and you’re doing it in a way that many firms are still struggling to figure out with a remote presence. People, you know, in the States, people outside of the states, how do I grow this business? How do I lead this business? If someone is wanting to learn more about how you’re doing what you’re doing? What is the best way for someone to get in touch with you or reach you?
I think the number one space is on LinkedIn, you know, I’m there on the daily, probably not very good with my inbox there. But you know, if you comment on one of my posts, I’m more than happy to follow up with it with a place to talk about. So that’s the best place to sort of reach out to me, we do touch on a lot of what we do as well on on our blog, at ProteaFinancial.com. But LinkedIn is the number one place to reach out to me. And it’s where I speak about running a firm what it means communication I spend a lot of time talking on, so LinkedIn is the best place to reach out and find me.
You guys also have a YouTube channel, correct?
We do. Yeah, it’s one of those where I like to say we’ve sort of, we’re still trying to find our feet there. There’s a bunch of content, you know, from videos for one of my team members in South Africa, just breaking down some basic accounting topics. We’ve released some segments where it’s listen and learn, like, you know, like your podcasts where it’s just the words, so you don’t have to look at a screen. It’s sort of just running through in the background. I’ve been going live I’ve done two seasons of that and I’ll be going live again in August and a lot of that is just sort of topics of the day. Let me talk about honors, you know, spend 15, 20 minutes just talking into an abyss because I have zero people watching me even though it’s live. But there’s normally some good stuff in there.
And then we’ve got a few collaborations coming out on that channel as well, where I’m gonna be speaking to two other firm owners and discussing some topics about flexibility about setting the firm, the difference between small and big firms and growth and marketing strategy. So we’re going to touch on a lot of that through these collabs series. And the first one will be releasing within probably the next week or so,
Well you guys are doing a lot of things right, because you’re obviously growing, you’re adding headcount, you’re increasing the size of the firm, you’re making an impact with your clients. And I want to thank you, Zane, for spending a little bit of time with us here today.
Hey, John, I really appreciate it. You know, at the end of the day, we’re just trying to help people. And if they like the way we’re doing it, we’re more than happy to help some more people. We can do that in a remote, flexible way that makes people happy to be accountants, I’m all for it.
Amen. Thank you guys for joining us for another episode of CPA Life. And if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve heard today, give us a like or leave a comment below. And if you don’t want to miss any of the great guests that we have coming up in the near future that are talking about some of the ways to build a more modern employee-centric accounting firm, subscribe to the podcast on the platform of your choosing, and we look forward to sharing more insights about CPA Life in the near future. Until then, have a great day.
We hope you enjoyed today’s episode. Be sure to subscribe on your favorite podcasting app, leave a five star rating and visit our website for links and show notes at CPALifePodcast.com. We’ll see you next time on CPA Life.
Zane Stevens is the Co-Founder and Director of Protea Financial. Prior to forming Protea, he was Financial Manager at Syntell, and subsidiaries, in Cape Town, South Africa. Syntell is a leading blue-chip company with revenue in excess of $38m that provides cutting edge technology-based services for Road Safety, Traffic Management and Revenue Collection.
Zane previously served as supervisor at KPMG in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, South Africa, where he led audit and financial and information technology advisory engagements.
Working with a broad host of clients, from owner-managed entities to large listed multinational companies, Zane obtained extensive experience in various sectors including automotive; public sector; food, drink, and consumer products; retail; healthcare and agriculture.
Zane is registered as a Chartered Accountant (South Africa) with the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants. He received an Honors Degree in Accounting from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, where he also completed his undergraduate degree in Accounting.