Questions for Audit Partner Ben Frey (Interview April 2023)

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Questions for Audit Partner Ben Frey (Interview April 2023)

Nov 30, 2023 | Interviews


In 2013, PKF Johannesburg merged with Grant Thornton Johannesburg and then in 2018, Grant Thornton merged with BDO. Ben Frey was an audit partner throughout and was appointed Head of People and Culture by Grant Thornton when the merger happened. In 2022, Ben moved to RSM where he is an audit partner and training officer.

Why did you leave BDO for RSM?

It was a bitter-sweet move for me because I was very proud of the part I played in building BDO. It was an organisation in which the voices of the partners really mattered and we had really open leadership. Having studied industrial psychology, the Managing Partner recognised my interest and gave me the People and Culture department and let me run with it. It has grown to be a really big company with over a thousand staff in Johannesburg.

In my heart, I am more of a medium size company person and the firm became too big for me to put my arms around it in the areas that I wanted to. I like an organisation where if I want to organise a training session on a Friday afternoon, I do not need to go through so many levels of approvals to get it done. So when a recruiter contacted me in 2019, I decided to come and take a look at RSM and I really liked the energy and the size of it meant than I could do so much more of what I like to do.

Having ended up as an accountant with an interest in industrial psychology what advice do you have for entry level professionals?

During our induction training, I always ask the trainee accountants how many of them actually want to become chartered accountants. I find that less than half of them really want to become CAs; most of them fell into it because it felt safe or their parents encouraged them or it offers an opportunity for immigration. There is even a fewer number of them who want to become auditors. They wanted to become something else or they really did not know what they were choosing when they decided to take up accounting. They thought they would be working with numbers and now find themselves working with people.

The leadership challenge here is trying to get quality work out of people who do not really want to do what they have been employed to do. My advice is for organisations and employees to find ways of creating meaning out of roles. The good thing about accounting is that it is a flexible career and is a good building block for many different professions. Only a few people really knew what they wanted to do when they grew up, for most of us we need to figure out our space in the world. You can be many different things in your career and so you need to just mould the situation that you are in to suit your best traits.

What do you consider the highs and lows of your career?

I do not have any extreme highs neither do I have extreme lowslike say having a court case for something I have done. My highs and lows are somewhat what others would consider middle of the road stuff.

My high is the level of exposure and work I have got to do as an auditor and the people I have met in the process. I am also very proud of my academic achievements and being appointed a partner and head of people and culture.

My lows are the moments when you lose a key client and when you lose a member of staff particularly if they resign because they feel like they don’t fit in. It is really sad for someone to leave because they don’t feel welcome. I have also found moments where a regulatory review is not going my way to be a significant low point.

What lessons do you have on effective leadership?

I think it is important for leaders to check in with people. You need to consult widely and not assume that you have all the answers. You should seek and give feedback, I have seen many times leaders doing what they think is right and it backfires with dire consequences especially in a merger situation.

I think you should also be approachable; people should see you as a person they can talk to. You should have an understanding of the need to work with people in future and develop good relationships such that when you look back on your career you can see yourself as a person who is remembered in a good way.

Finally, be true to what you want to achieve.

What lessons do you have on an effective strategy?

When developing a strategy, you need to get different views from different people. You need to understand how the average worker is going to adopt the strategy in which case you probably need suggestions from them on how it will work. For a strategy to work you need the discipline to follow up on the actions that have been outlined and to check in to see if everyone is ok with the plan or if it needs to be changed. It should not just be song and dance with no follow through. You also need to provide them with the tools to execute the strategy.

Tell us one surprising thing about you.

People see me as an audit partner and think I am this person with a constant air of seriousness. They get surprised to know that I write and direct plays. Only recently did I write a play that was entered into a community theatre and acted out at Roosevelt Park Recreation Theatre. I also wrote a play called Klarinet which Kyknet turned into a movie.

Tell us your favourites

Favourite car – Any Porsche. I currently drive a Boxster but I love all Porsches because of their quirkiness – stuff like having the boot at the front is interesting to me.

Favourite restaurant – I am not a foodie; I go to restaurants for the social aspect. I would say Olives and Plates in Hyde Park is my current favourite because it isn’t pretentious plus it is next to a bookstore which is a plus for me. Otherwise the Mexican or Indian place around the corner works for me.

Favourite hobbies – I find studying to be one of my hobbies, it is something I really enjoy. I also like to put together model railways.

Favourite meal – Having grown up in Virginia, pap with some kind of meat is my kind of thing. I love braai food even if I would rate my braai skills really low. Everyone says that they don’t really care about how the braai is done, but I think they do so I only braai for myself.

Favourite holiday destination – I am torn between America and Vietnam. America because of the many activities you can do; go to an NBA game or go watch a play. Vietnam because once you go there you will come back changed. The way they live so economically, recycling a lot of stuff and not being wasteful is admirable.

Favourite app – I am not big on tech but I love the Masterclass app which has leaders in different fiels – business, drama etc – giving masterclasses around different issues.

Favourite book/movie – I watch a lot of movies but none really stands out as my favourite. The favourite book is really dependent on where I am in my life. For example Mindfulness of warriors by Padraig O’Morain was an awesome read because when I read it I was going through a lot professionally with a merger and a regulatory review that was quite stressful.

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