Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Looking for the Holy Grail (also known as Accountant)

By Farzana Rasheed

The Accountant I hired over the Christmas period disappeared mid March. This fellow was hired at the end of a very frustrating year for bookkeeping, after 2 previous failed attempts at trying to migrate to a modern accounting system.

I am beginning to think that this position is cursed. My tech team has – more or less – come together after having hired and fired and lost countless interns, senior techies (local and foreign individuals).  Our senior techie, Jonathan Barwon, has been with us since 2010. Then, Daniel Collins has been with us since 2012. We also have Emmanuel Jacobs who joined the same year. Rita Gailor is with us since 2015.

It’s the lack of having a reliable, professional, and serious Accountant that has aggravated, frustrated and stressed me out for several years now. Where can this Holy Grail be found?

Image from here.
Before 2015, I had a young lady, let’s call her Miss P, who was working as the “Admin/Finance” Assistant. I inherited her from NLTC (New Liberia Technology Company), NATC’s predecessor, in 2009. She was trained in filing, word processing, typing up official documentation and even creating invoices and receipts. I believe there was an accounting software being used for bookkeeping which the late Mr. Alex Nyaley was maintaining. After I founded a new company under a new name, I was still strained somehow to retain most of the older staff. Mr. Nyaley took a small fee from me to train the young Miss P in the accounting software. I was too busy of course to really understand this software and what impact the training had. It was clear, though, nothing was really being accomplished. Mr. Nyaley and I didn’t agree on his fee and we soon parted ways. He sadly passed away a few years ago.

From 2012 to 2013, I hired a few trainers for Miss P to teach her another accounting software, Quickbooks, which everyone in Monrovia seemed to be using. She even asked for time off in the evenings to be able to attend university classes. More or less she and I got along very well and, she could handle many tasks.  I was under the impression she was learning this software until much to my annoyance, I realised she was wasting my time and not really interested in accounting. She would act sullen and not acknowledge any requests for reports and evidence of her work in the accounts. We even switched gears and tried to engage in a barter arrangement with an accounting firm (Parker and Associates) where we would give them free IT maintenance and tech support in exchange for accounting services. That never even took off.

And, our own staff, Miss P, was not interested.

Eventually, I let her go and, had to pay her a severance, too.  After this, we maintained bookkeeping by hand, entering all transactions in a ledger and filing all documents, invoices and receipts.

We focused on growing the business, developing our tech team and refining our procedures.  In those years, I was always concerned that somehow our technical expertise was not up to the mark, that our international clients expected international-level IT engineers with degrees from MIT and Oxford. I spent much of my energy drafting adverts looking for an international head of IT which I posted in the Liberia Google Expats Group, Escape the City, our company Facebook page, my own Facebook page, and even on a US University Job Centre on a friend’s advice. 

Why was I spending time trying to find an international-level engineer that our company couldn’t even afford? Why were we letting our clients think our staff wasn’t up to the mark and, they that they could expect Western-educated, Masters degree holder to come and trouble shoot their IT problems for mere pennies? I’m referring to the time that was 2012-2014. In 2012, we had just moved to a swanky new office, literally from apartment to a loft-style space, bigger and more stylish, to match our dreams for global domination.  The drive at that point was to secure business, learn and adapt to our clients, and ensure we were meeting their needs. I was ready to internalise the more difficult clients’ critiques.

In 2014, we found a a Sierra Leonean Accountant in response to our advert. He was fantastic but he disappeared while I was stuck in Pakistan for several months due to the ebola outbreak.

Finally in 2015, we finally decided it was important to try to migrate to proper accounting software yet again. NATC had built up a large regular turnover with many diverse clients. It was time to take our bookkeeping into the 21st century.

At the beginning of the year, we were recommended to work with an accounting firm, recommended to us by one of our clients. This firm is managed by an expat and staffed with Liberian assistants. I had started working at Mercy Corps and, it was Haresh, our head of operations, who met with this company and, made the agreement. Initially, I was quite excited to know we were now working with a professional company to whom we had outsourced our bookkeeping. Surely, after all our failed efforts, we could now be sure we would finally have a modern bookkeeping system. What’s more, our premier client had trusted this fellow with their accounting needs.

This experience with this company was quite terrible. In the beginning, neither Haresh nor I looked deeply into the actual work they were doing. The head of the company, let’s call him Professional Expat Accountant, had delegated a junior staff to come in 3 times a week for filing and to fill in and print coversheets for petty cash expenses. He would come in now and then to actually post the transactions in Quickbooks himself. He would send us the Payroll every month. Professional Expat Accountant was always in such a rush and, seemed to have this air of respectability, professionalism that I imagined he was going to perform the job. A couple of times though Haresh told me he had passed some sarcastic remarks. A couple of times, he and I met to decide on some target results, to make sure we were on the track. The main thing his company was tasked to do was to migrate us to Quickbooks and, only start with the 2015 financial data. He was not expected to migrate any previous data. Ideally, we should have started from 2010, when NATC was registered and incorporated.

I asked him to produce a Profit and Loss statement for the first 6 months. He said he was working towards it but needed some receipts for some accounts. He made me a list and I went into the files and retrieved them. We have everything filed, even supermarket receipts for purchases less than $ 5.00. I was a little puzzled as to why we were paying him $ 600+ every month to do our bookkeeping and why he couldn’t go into our files. There were a few receipts and invoices (from our main supplier in the US with whom we do hundreds of thousands of dollars of business with), which took forever to get. But it was not as if there was no other corresponding records: there were e-mails, copies of foreign transfer remittance slips, Airway Bill Numbers, delivery notes, transactions related to the money we paid to FEDEX, etc. Our supplier was taking forever to send us official invoices and receipts for the goods he shipped us and for the funds he received but there was enough corresponding paperwork and evidence to still post the transactions in the system and to produce the overall summary we needed. The Professional Expat Accountant would use this as an excuse not to provide a financial statement and prove that his services were really valuable to us. I was getting quite angry at our supplier, my polite e-mails had escalated into frustrated rants. 

During this time, we left for 2 trips abroad and both the times, we asked the office assistant seconded to us by Professional Expat Accountant to act as an office manager. This lady was helpful during our absence by responding to our e-mails, following up on certain issues and, opening and closing the office. She goofed up a couple of times but did a passable job. 

In June or July, the Professional Expat Accountant told me that he was willing to second his senior staff who actually knew Quickbooks to our office so that they could more quickly finish the job at hand. He wanted to increase his monthly fee by $ 200.00. I should have put my foot down because he hadn’t really delivered anything until now. Somehow, I convinced Haresh and we entered into a new arrangement.

After this, quite cheekily, our friend asked us for office space. His company was initially working out of the client who initially recommended them. Since this client was closing down, they needed a space. 

“Synergy” is what came to my over-excited mind. I thought it would be a great working atmosphere to have another professional services company working in the same space. Also, the accounting fee was going to be reduced by a couple hundred bucks, from $ 850 to $ 650 (back where it was initially). It was clearly a win-win situation.

The Professional Expat Accountant started moving in. I was kind of surprised why he couldn’t use the same desk assigned to him previously. He insisted they wanted to move in his own desk and furniture. I told him I don’t want to spoil the aesthetics of my office and would appreciate it if they could just use the same desk. He asked “What aesthetics?” We tried to come to an agreement but he kept throwing sarcastic remarks at me. I told him, “ But I am a fussy person and don’t want my office space to get cluttered” and he retorted, “I can see you are fussy.” It was really quite shocking that he was so disrespectful and thought he would be able to throw his weight around, as if the $ 200.00 fee reduction was a favour to me. Where did he think he was going to be able to rent a space with electricity, Internet, toilet facilities, a common printer and printer and so much more for $ 200.00 in Monrovia? Following the heated discussion, which frankly left me shocked, I sent Professional Expat Accountant an e-mail to say he needs to remove his furniture and the arrangement was not going to work.

A couple days afterwards, he came in smiling and had his things removed. We never talked about it again. The pretense was about to end anyway.

Things finally fell apart when after all this time we finally decided to sit down and, look over the long-awaited Profit and Loss Statement. There were a lot of mistakes, which really aggravated us, given the already tense relationship. For instance, our equity was - $ 350,000. Our assets were less than a $ 3,000. We had hardly spent $ 1,000 on LEC, which was a gross error. And, best of all, we had made more than half a million dollars in gross profits. We blew our tops off. The junior accountant who gave us this report agreed it was a bad report. We sent an e-mail to Professional Expat Accountant and listed all the problems and asked for rectification. The boss said the report could only reflect what information was given to him. Then he promptly sent us his bill for $ 850.00. We again blew our tops and told him in e-mail that his fees could not be released unless he did his job. We met in person too but he would not agree to anything I said and, all he could hear was he was not going to be paid. He replied to my e-mail, almost insultingly and didn’t think he was at fault and deserved to be paid his fees.  We didn’t hear from him again and, that was the end of our experience of outsourcing accounting services. I still fume at our experience with Professional Expat Accountant.

Despite this rotten experience, I decided to put the word out again that NATC was looking for an Accountant. I used the old trusted medium of the Liberia Expats Google Group:
Dear folks,
NATC is looking for a qualified and experienced bookkeeper, well versed in Quickbooks, to manage our accounts. A part time arrangement is preferred. Excellent renumeration is on offer.
Please don't hit "Reply All."
I received quite a few applications including one excited phone call. This candidate sent in his CV by e-mail and came over the next day for an interview. A smart-looking young man with a surname from one of the eminent families of Liberia, he had a good CV.  His past experience included a stint as a Branch Manager in New York and Quickbooks as his skill. I asked him some basic questions and he replied confidently enough. Haresh and I interviewed him together and, although Haresh had reservations, I decided to give this fellow a shot. We hired him mid-way through the month and agreed to match his salary requirement.

After a few weeks, we realised he was actually NOT very good in Quickbooks AT ALL. He had posted the same transaction twice. He had made so many wrong entries. And, he seemed to be absent minded.  He wanted us to hire a friend of his to help him audit the books, rectify the accounts, and teach him Quickbooks. That friend of his was clearly looking for some extra bucks. As soon as he declared that his work would depend on the information we give him, we showed him the door. We had a meeting with our new Accountant and, decided to give him yet another chance.  He was going to do a bit of social media marketing for us, maintain filing and the ledger by hand, and some other random tasks. We agreed on a salary although later he cheekily adjusted it so he got what he wanted after deduction of taxes.

This new Demoted Accountant’s job was to enter transactions in the ledger, maintain it, file all paper work, prepare simple summary reports in Excel, take deposits to the Bank, interact with clients, and so on. The tasks were quite simple in my opinion and, I really wanted him to thrive in this role and make himself indispensible. He was absent-minded but extremely polite, cheerful with a friendly disposition.  I thought I needed to be patient, support and nurture him so over time I would have responsible, efficient and presentable office manager. Haresh and I are the faces that have to provide explanations, do the feedback with clients, interact with our banks and partners, so it would be nice for the company to have another face. I found myself to be patient with him and not be as tough as with my other staff. Some of his endearing goof ups included:
  1. Depositing cheques into the wrong account (over and over again)
  2. Sending the same e-mail over and over again to the same recipient
  3. Wrong filing
  4. Forwarding the wrong e-mail thread to a client
As hard as it is to believe, we kept overlooking these mistakes, giving constructive feedback and letting life be. The goal was to keep looking for an Accountant while nurturing this staff member. A company needs good people. A company needs clearly defined roles and a team to take responsibility for these roles.

My Demoted Accountant even had the chance to really put together a great event: the NATC-LivArts Technology Arts Competition. He had mentioned he was good at putting together events. Unfortunately, his efforts had as much impact as an inflated balloon. I ended up doing most of the work myself so that we would not fall behind schedule. His main contribution to the event was to make a nice speech when asked to during the Event.

Why and how did demoted Accountant leave NATC? Around the time of Christmas, when the cards were finally printed and ready for delivery, his job was to make sure they all got delivered. He simply had to organise the cards and get them delivered area by area i.e. Mamba Point, Sinkor, Bushrod Island, etc. We have a few junior staff as well as the tech team always going on site. He insisted on delivering the cards in Mamba Point himself on foot. I asked him why he wanted to walk around midday in the blistering heat. I wanted him to be at his desk and attend to more important things. He said he would be back in 15 minutes. He didn’t return until 2-3 hours later and then, took for his evening class. Oh yes, I forgot to mention he was taking classes in a subject completed unrelated to our company and was allowed to do so.

Anyway, on the following Saturday, our whole team was on site to do an Internet Services installation. Our Demoted Accountant had not shown up to work because initially, we were going to keep the office closed but we bagged this new business and asked our technical staff work on Saturday. When we arrive on site, who do we see on site? Our flustered Demoted Accountant was there, helping our new client move offices. Apparently, when delivering the Christmas card, he got some side business with our new client because he was also a Logistics guy. We were really angry that he was soliciting business with our clients, or rather hustling for work on the side while he was goofing up at work.

I was angry for a long time afterwards, at this young fellow and myself. I was angry that I had tolerated his goof ups, not thoroughly checked his references, and, instead of looking for a real Accountant, settled for a clown. I was also angry at this fellow for being so absent minded, disrespectful and thinking he could get away.

My sense of frustration peaked and, I desperately I reached out to the Sierra Leonean Accountant who had disappeared in 2014. He knew Quickbooks, was quite professional, was good at reporting, and had even conducted a professional training for a client in Microsoft Office and Microsoft Outlook. I contacted him by e-mail and we spoke on the telephone. We also exchanged messages on Whatsapp. His reasons for leaving in 2014 were kind of vague and, we agreed we would leave things behind. From his new CV it was clear he had not had any steady employment since he left us. I thought he had been too embarrassed to ask for his job back. We all agreed on his salary (same as before). He shortly arrived in Monrovia, sooner than even we expected. I reimbursed him for his fare from Freetown to Monrovia. It was Christmas time and, I invited him to my friend’s house to spend the day with us. After the holiday period, he was at his desk and quickly got to the job. He cleaned up the files, made the filing system a little simpler, and started posting the backlog of transactions into the system.

He was meant to be on probation for 3 months but we still paid his house rent in advance for a year.

Coincidentally, an opportunity to do the same kind of training he had conducted for us in 2014 came up again at a new client site. He conducted the same training. He did a great job and, we were quite happy to finally be able to get our Accounting back on track. He and I went over the 2015 Profit and Loss statement and although he had finished the backlog of transactions, there were some problems that I asked him to sort out. For instance, there were too many sub categories, which could easily be placed into one account. We agreed on some targets and he was to produce a final report before I left for Pakistan in early February. He was almost done but didn’t finish his work before I left. He finally finished something and Haresh was meant to check it in my absence. I don’t know if he did or not.

A couple of weeks before I was returning to Monrovia, Haresh told me our Accountant was MIA. Moreover, he had asked for a $ 100.00 salary advance. We tried calling him. We posted messages on the NATC Whatsapp Channel. No response until he surfaced to say he had to go back to Sierra Leone for family issues.

And that was that. I could not have been more livid, infuriated and angry at having trusted the same person twice. 

Now, I am again on the lookout for an Accountant “well versed in Quickbooks.” Can I say I am exhausted and fed up? Wish I could strangle all the Accountants in this world.

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