Country Lead Partner, Stransact Chartered Accountants, the RSM Correspondent firm for Nigeria, Eben Joels spoke with select journalists to discuss the unique essence of Nigeria’s economy, how SMEs can go global, the role of technology in Tax, Audit, due diligence; his firms Exclusive correspondent status, how to save the naira from free-fall, and the Federal government’s tax administration among other knotty issues. Excerpts
What do you see wrong with the SME section of the economy. What can be done to help them have a buffer in the nation’s economy?
Continuous education to orientate our SMEs on the importance of them developing the right character for business is key. Don’t go with the crowd. Every society and home is built on values. The values that the business holds, it sets out to be, to become, is the strongest thing that helps the business to succeed. Capital and every other thing is a plus. Most businesses start without identifying what their values are, so they get into other SME market because they need to survive and then they do anything and everything anybody in Nigeria would do to survive. Our values are part of things that made us attractive to RSM Global.
An SME that wants to go places, needs to identity the values it wants to be associated with in business. Those values should be based on the society or immediate environment. You cannot set out to go global and set your operations manual local- there is a mismatch in value alignment.
How does Compliance fast track the ease of doing business in Nigeria?
The thing with Nigeria is the absence of clarity in the business environment, and it’s bad for business. You can see it clearly with the APC Presidential Convention. Compliance is not the issue, but clarity on what we need to comply with, and what we need to have to be seen to have done to stay compliant. If you keep shifting the Compliance goalpost, there will be no clarity for the business owners.
What role do you think technology would play in Tax, Audit, due diligence etc?
Technology is already playing those kinds of roles. Today, you don’t need to fly everywhere. You can do almost everything online. In terms f the methodology to be used in carrying out due diligence, there are quite a handful of specialised tools available now to make the job simpler. We recognise technology as an integral part of our practice.
Analysts have said the economy is at the brink of collapse, what is your structural and critical assessment of Nigeria’s economy?
The Nigerian economy is still s rent-seeking economy where a lot of rich class became rich by collecting economic rent from others, not from doing anything intellectual or serious. In that environment, it’s only natural that, over time, the people you’re getting the economic rent from will get poorer. And those economic rent collectors not used to working, when they take over industries, will only be able to run it down. Unless something miraculous happens, the current generation will never witness another oil boom again in their lives, because the infrastructure that makes oil boom possible no longer exists.
In those days, when international Gas prices skyrocket, we make a lot of money. We still make lot of money, but today, our population is rising and our needs for gas consumption is also rising. We make a lot of money selling crude, and then use the same money importing refined petroleum products from aviation fuel, diesel to prime motor spirit. We’re even struggling to meet our bills in importation. Previously, we made surplus, but there is no more surplus. Because pricing is international, when prices go up, the cost of importing also go up.
When this government came to power, one of the things they promised us, is that they would fix the refineries in one year-short timeline. The Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) Group Managing Director (GMD) said it was possible in one year. 7 years after,the refineries are not fixed. Instead, the Government wants to acquire a stake in Dangote refinery. I don’t think the people who run the country take the issues seriously enough to understand that we need to develop our own local refining capacity, even it means empowering local small-scale modular refineries. Rather than declare them illegal, the Federal Government could work with them get them investment, standardise their processes, and create a modular refinery Chain. The more we import gas as crude oil prices rise, the more our naira falls. The political class needs to be awake.
What can be done to stabilise the habitual free fall of the naira?
The common sense approach is simple, it’s that, the naira will appreciate if production appreciates and a lot of people earn foreign exchange. A lot of people actually earn foreign exchange in Nigeria now. 8 years ago, things like monetisation of the YouTube or social media accounts for dollars to flow into our account wasn’t as ubiquitous as we have it now. That tells you that we need to free up our economy so that individuals are able to earn foreign exchange directly. The government needs to relax our exchange controls, remove export restrictions, make the naira a free market determined currency and not government imposed rate. The more we have government put their hands in things, the more problem we have. If we fix our ability to export without restrictions, and remove restrictions around the control of naira and let it find its true market value, the currency will stabilise and would be a proper measure of the strength our economy; rather a situation whereby the value of naira is tied to how much dollar is needed by politicians.
How would you describe your experience in the financial services industry, and your current role at Stransact-RSM International?
I have more than 20 years experience of providing quality and timeless financial advisory services, reviewing accounting systems, assisting businesses with the right strategy, due diligence, tax planning, tax advisory services and resolving difficult tax situations. It’s a tough environment and market, but somehow, when you have expertise, your expertise would make room for you.
So, even if the four big firms are competing against us, our dream has always been to be the alternative to the big four firms. We set out to be an alternative providing the same value and superior value where possible at an affordable cost for small businesses. I guess that led us to become practice to RSM International, a legacy firm of over 90 years, covering 127 countries and almost 51,000 employees across 860 offices. They did not have proper representation in Nigeria and were looking for a transparent and compliant firm that would represent them in Nigeria with the quality and capacity of the big firm with adequate processes and internal procedures; hence, we struck a responsive chord. It was as though our firm was purpose built for them. They looked at the consistency in the quality of our work and came to the conclusion that we fit the bill to be their correspondent firm in Nigeria. We are looking to attain full membership very soon.
In the list of “Big 6” global firms, Stransact- RSM International is a bold player offering tax, audit, and client advisory services. What is the unique essence of the Stransact- RSM International corespondent status, and what does it portend for Nigeria?
RSM is very big, and the sixth biggest firm by revenue in the world. In 2021, RSM made more than $7.5bn globally. In the United States of America which is a massive market, RSM is the 5th biggest firm. It brings healthy competition into the Nigerian market which helps to make the service providers better.
When we rebrand our firm as RSM Nigeria, one we hope to do as soon as we conclude our internal processes as RSM International, we want to offer the quality of the RSM brand. Because you cannot grow properly without the right advice, our target market sets its focus on small businesses aspiring to grow. We are providing small business that we’re hoping will change the landscape of the economy over the next few years, with quality advisory services, best practices gained from membership of and collaboration with RSM.
The Stransact-RSM International’s value Proposition, is ‘empowering you to move forward with confidence’- The Power of Being Understood. What informed this tagline, and how does that connect with your Nigerian SMEs who make up the largest market?
The power of being understood is a very important attribute for you to forge a proper alliance with anybody. As a business, we know what small businesses face. In addition to the power of being understood, we focus on the middle market firms who have potentials to get there. When we engage any time, we send a lot of time, understanding their unique situation and seeing things from their perspective. We deploy the power of empathy, so we understand what they go though and use that to build connections.
Stransact-RSM International is a network, a legacy firm of over 90 years , covering 127 countries and almost 51,000 employees across 860 offices. Tell us a little bit about your Nigeria operations. How important is this market to RSM, and how does it fits into their global vision for the world?
We, Nigerians may look down on ourselves, but RSM International sees the Nigeria market as a very important, and the rest of the world sees Nigeria as a very important country. We have the highest concentration of black people in the world in one country. In the next 25 years, Nigeria’s population is projected to exceed that of the United States of America. It means it could be one of the three most populated countries of the world, by the end of this century. If we continue with this birth rate, by 2099, we could have 800 million people after India and China. So, when a 90 year old company plans, it plans long term. RSM intends to have a proper firm in Nigeria because it’s a very important market both in terms of population size and projections for the economy if we get our political environment right.
What are your near and long term goals as Stransact- RSM International Nigeria?
Near term, we intend to transit to becoming the full RSM firm in Nigeria. This means, we will change the name of our firm. We’re hoping to do that over the next twelve months. That means the quality of our audit would become very strong, especially over the next 12 months.
A lot of Fintech startups would be able to use RSM Methodology fully to resolve their audit issues. That should enable shareholder confidence in the financial statements that we put our name to.
As a Professional services firm, we are known to provide training for fresh graduates to cut their teeth in the industry, get the needed skills, thus providing them with good foundation. Over the next we years, our modest contribution would be to provide training, internship and mentoring opportunities for 100 fresh graduates every year.
How does Stransact-RSM Nigeria plan to remain competitive in the near future considering big four firm with similar practices?
I think momentum is on our side. It’s like asking a man in his forties how he intends to be competitive in a 100m dash against a 17-year-old. We’re a very young firm. We know where we’re going, and we’re growing very fast. That is why our technology practice is a strong aspect of our practice.
For years, most of these big firms used Excel spreadsheets to run payroll for their clients. We started developing our own self-built payroll software years ago knowing that if we get it right, the payroll software would give us a competitive edge. And today, payroll software has evolved into a different company called Doftworks which we intend to use to support RSM across Africa.
It is our foresight, expertise and resolve not to rest on our oars that keeps us going. Continuous education is what makes a man. Going back to law school and becoming a lawyer in old age, and getting a license to practice in Massachusetts is all part of my continuous learning. Since I left, every partner in Stransact has earn an extra degree or Master to keep having an intellectual edge. For me, there is no competition.
Over the last six months, the Revenue Mobilisation and Fiscal Commission (RMAFC) have been at daggers drawn with the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) over certain ouster clauses in the Finance Bill which the former believes is skewed in favour of the latter and may adversely affect its constitutional mandate. What is your assessment of the situation?
When two government agencies are fighting, its always tied to control of the funds and not the issues. Otherwise, everybody knows that the Federal Inland Revenue Service that has the power by law to collect taxes from businesses, and individuals within the jurisdiction of a state on behalf of the government.
FIRS may under-collect taxes, but that’s a question of their efficiency and how organised they are. The Executive arm of Government runs executive agencies of government which include, FIRS and RMAFC. If there’s a problem with FIRS not collecting enough taxes, ideally unless RMAFC wants more, all you need to do is keep reporting, saying the agency is not being run diligently and needs to be re-organised. But it doesn’t mean they will take over the role of the agency and add it to your statutory roles.
Do you think Nigeria’s tax administration strategy and emphasis on increasing taxes, as we have seen in the last few years, is a viable strategy?
In today’s world, everybody knows that to get things done, the best way is to have the buy-in of the other person. Global Companies know that it’s a big stain on their reputation for them to be accused of evading taxes. They also want to be compliant. The approach of a wise tax man is to appeal to the sensibilities of the company to remind them that they are corporate citizens who need to be seen as such. The government do better in their approach to collecting taxes. Although the approach much better than it was seven years ago when they had all manner of people at everybody’s door claiming to be consultants for FIRS, harassing people who work very hard to keep the country’s economy afloat. They are better, but there’s still a long way to go.
Seven years ago, your firm had a battle with the FIRS over this matter. What has changed? What can be better?
They no longer have the generic approach of having consultants to audit companies. Now, they use their staff to do the work. Business data is very important and not something I should allow just anyone access to because you have a letter from FIRS. I think they got the lesson. We were one of the few firms that pushed back and said there is no legal basis for sending consultants to our clients. Some others were happy to represent their clients, but we didn’t allow the FIRS have access to our clients. We were one of the few firms that pushed back based on the law.
And you succeeded?
Yes, we did.