At 27, Ruan Van Niekerk is believed to be the youngest certified business turnaround practitioner in South Africa – a career and industry that is only starting to gain prominence in the country, although it is well-established in Europe and the United States.
“There are very few young professionals who are working as business turnaround practitioners, and the reality is that we need many more young people to enter into this industry, because there are more distressed businesses that need our help,” says Ruan, who is a consultant at a global business restructuring and turnaround firm, RTgroup. He works closely with RTgroup’s CEO Michael Dorn, one of the most respected turnaround experts in the world, who was recently appointed as Chief Restructuring Officer of Nampak.
“It’s a rare skillset that’s in high demand,” says Ruan. “In the current global economic climate, we’re seeing more businesses becoming distressed. All around the world, businesses are struggling due to higher interest rates and inflation, lower growth and in South Africa, added constraints such as loadshedding and limited access to venture capital. More businesses are in need of restructuring and that means we need more graduates to qualify and work in the field of pro-active, people-centered business turnaround.”
What is takes to become a business turnaround practitioner
Ruan believes a tertiary education in business sciences and entrepreneurship is an essential foundation for a career in business turnaround, and so is getting practical consultancy experience through internships and work experience within both distressed and flourishing businesses.
He was lucky enough to study under Professor Marius Pretorius at the University of Pretoria, who teaches the only dedicated university course in business rescue in South Africa. Here he completed his training, with distinction, to become a certified Business Rescue Analyst. In South Africa, this certification is accredited by the Companies and Intellectual Properties Commission (CIPC).
Beyond certification, Ruan also believes those entering the field of restructuring and turnaround needs to be passionate about entrepreneurship and problem-solving. On a practical level, networking is important too. “Using LinkedIn and attending industry events for young professionals are good places to start connecting with the turnaround industry. It’s important to push yourself in front of the right people to get noticed. Networking is super important.”
The value of tough work experience
Before joining the RTgroup, Ruan worked for a number of distressed businesses, and was retrenched twice by the age of 22. “This kind of work experience is invaluable because it teaches you what not to do in business as much as it teaches you how to run a business. It’s also a big learning curve to work for a business that is going into liquidation.” Having worked for various successful and unsuccessful companies, he believes people with a truly entrepreneurial mindset are the best at turning failing businesses around.
“I’ve learnt that the people who are able to turn businesses around are good at looking for their ideal target markets, new markets and developing new products, or keeping only the product lines that are successful. You have to be able to cull the loss-making product lines.”
One of the greatest reasons why businesses end up in distress is when entrepreneurs “stagnate in the managerial phase” of their business growth – and stop innovating. “You need to balance growth and management, keep good cost control and remain creative.”
Ultimately, business success – and turnaround – required a lot of creative thinking and problem-solving, says Ruan.
Why Gen Zs should become restructuring and turnaround professionals
He believes that the Gen Z generation are uniquely positioned to understand changes in the markets, how to market to younger consumers, how to connect with people with high emotional intelligence and how to think creatively about business problems. “Young people can challenge old and stale ways of thinking and help businesses to move with market shifts. They also understand the value of marketing in business turnaround which contributes to its success.”
Ruan is first to admit that a very young consultant can rarely tell an older business owner what to do. But young people are typically good at informally relating to the staff and getting “the real truth behind the story”. “Young people are also good at sharing information with staff in ways that they can understand, because their approach is less formal. Young consultants often have a way of inspiring businesses with new ideas and approaches.”
He concludes: “The beautiful thing about business turnaround, if you do it right, is that you can give people hope. Hope is not a plan, but a plan can give you hope.”