Making it BIG in New York - Greg Maslov
Always looking for an adventure, Greg Maslov CA(SA) decided to explore life in New York after completing his articles. ‘I grew up in Johannesburg and lived there until the age of 27. I wondered how I was going to survive in a city like New York, but I was quite ready for a different experience,’ he explains.
The idea was to challenge himself and then come back to South Africa. ‘I wanted to be in a place where I had to figure things out and overcome obstacles. That was the real intrigue.’
Soon after his arrival Greg managed to get reallocated from the work assigned to the foreign’ workers − or, as he calls it, ’vanilla’ assignments − to JP Morgan Chase & Co, one of the biggest banks in the world. ‘I realised I was one of the strongest seniors on the job and that working in a New York environment was easier than what I had experienced in South Africa. That was when the original seed dropped – that CAs(SA) are actually pretty hardcore. We are very highly skilled and hardworking.’
Greg’s respect and gratitude for his schooling and training were solidified through this experience. He did feel, however, that the traditional CA(SA) path is very regimented with the run of the mill options after articles. The profession was primed for innovation and Greg wanted to create a different path for those seeking adventure.
Even though he has not moved back to South Africa and is still living in New York, Greg still feels very connected to the country. ‘As a young, single person in New York, it’s amazing. It is such a crazy place and the energy and vibe and things happening every day are nearly impossible to keep up with. From that perspective it’s great! When I got married, it was also an incredible experience because there is so much you can do. But now, with kids, it’s been a bit tougher. We rent a nice apartment, but over here you just don’t have the space like in South Africa, the weather, the good food. So, I miss South Africa a lot, but I married a Croatian girl who worked for seven years to become a US-based doctor, so we’re kind of stuck here,’ he jokes.
Together with his friend and fellow South African Dario Grassini, Greg founded SAPRO in 2017, a company focused on building better futures for those in need of help. Since then they have become a global leader in assurance, tax, and advisory services. ‘We asked ourselves what would have been something awesome to do, coming out of articles and that’s how SAPRO was born. We knew travelling was a rite of passage for most CAs(SA) and we saw the (international) market being devoid of talented individuals who could supplement the workforce. By proving CAs(SA) are world class gives us the reputation to open up our model for many others who can benefit from the global economy.’
Most of their workforce is made up of CAs(SA). ‘SAPRO provides accountants to public accountant firms. The value proposition is to create a programme that attracts accountants coming out of articles as well as those post articles and supports personal development, mental well-being and life experiences. We've packaged this into international assignments to provide an opportunity to network abroad and enjoy a variety of cultural experiences,’ he explains.
‘I never doubted the quality and I knew that the team would do well. It was just about educating the American market about South African standards. Once that happened, we’ve been like a rocket ship in terms of the support received in the USA and internationally. We now have a phenomenal workforce that is being recognised globally more and more.’
According to Greg, the plethora of work and companies in the new digital age is just incredible. ‘Our clients have too much work and not enough qualified people, leading to life-balance struggles.’
Dario and Greg started SAPRO because they believed in a higher purpose that was not being fulfilled by the market at large. ‘We were accountants who had benefited from global work, cultural and travel experiences. But it was really hard and could have been much more rewarding … personally, professionally and also financially … if we had a guardian to take care of us along the way.’
From the start, they focused on uplifting communities and helping people: building a business was secondary. SAPRO has never been run as a business looking to generate revenue but more as a mechanism to aid in helping people and communities. ‘I always like to tell our clients and our people that SAPRO is a for-profit enterprise but we look to behave in the way a not-for-profit would. Our passion is to help people and that is how we make decisions and how we focus on our capital deployment and strategy. Our mission is to build a better future for our people, clients and global community, ensuring we leave a proud legacy. Running the business the way we do ensures we keep our mission at the forefront of our decisions.’
At the moment SAPRO has over 400 professionals in the field and employs a support team of nearly 100 people. ‘According to our projections we will be employing over a thousand people by Q1 in 2022, so we are growing amazing opportunities and attracting the best talent very rapidly,’ explains Greg.
Most of their clients have come through referrals. ‘The growth has been reputation based. We’ve found the right balance of hiring the right people, training them, supporting our clients, and finding phenomenal clients that treat our employees as their own. That is where the magic really happens.’
For SAPRO, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a lot of fast-forwarded growth. ‘Before the pandemic, our clients didn’t want to consider a virtual workforce. At the time we had massive seasonality in our business, and it was hard for us to retain our team and carry on our commitment to them once a project ended. A large percentage of the team wanted to go back to South Africa after completing their travel assignments. We wanted to allow our people and our clients to embrace a virtual system with a better cost dynamic, and thereby continue the global project opportunities.’
During COVID, SAPRO’s clients were forced into a virtual working environment with their own teams and once they realised the benefits, SAPRO started setting up virtual teams, changing their processes. ‘The clients have a demand. We have a virtual community. And that has really skyrocketed. We are expecting our model to become more of a hybrid between onsite and virtual. It’s just a matter of time as travel frees up again.’
SAPRO is predominantly focused on the South African community of accountants. ‘For us, it’s around making this available to the broader community, especially less privileged communities. I think we have different lines of privilege in South Africa and I personally think that if you were able to attain a CA, which is really difficult, you must have had a level of support, even if you have come from a less privileged background.’
Greg and SAPRO believe it is possible to have the best of both worlds and endeavour to create these types of opportunities for their clients and employees. ‘South Africans often have a “the grass is greener” mentality, which leads to an element of brain drain. It’s important to remember that each country has its own problems. However, SAPRO wants to help people experience the best of both and these days you can get international exposure and work experience but still enjoy the benefits of living in South Africa.’
When it comes to corruption and dishonesty, Greg believes that all governments have their weaknesses, but CAs have a role of being one of the first lines of defence in building trust. It happens when someone is looking at the betterment of themselves rather than their community. ‘All the aspects of our business are about collaboration and teamwork, moral and ethical judgements and good decision-making. Our focus is on taking amazing care of our employees, on treating them fairly and looking at all aspects of their needs, from personal development, lifestyle and mental wellbeing to financial needs. This is how we ensure we are good corporate citizens and help with nation-building to get the confidence back in South Africa,’ says Greg.
‘SAICA has done a tremendous job in keeping the CA standards high and making the profession very sought-after, and SAPRO wants to play our part in supporting that mission. SAICA’s goals and focus are aligned with SAPRO’s and we want to help support the growth of global recognition of the CA(SA) as a special individual,’ explains Greg.
According to Greg and Dario, South African CAs are the world champions of accounting, even though most don’t realise it. ‘I do think the South African accountant, from a global perspective, has the fundamentals and background to be successful in whatever dream they wish to pursue.’