Been there, done that…got the T-shirt. This, in casual terms, sums up the sterling career of esteemed alumnus, Dr Marius Koen. After having completed his practical training at a South African auditing firm, he joined UP as lecturer and professor where he served for nearly two decades while also gaining further experience as a consultant in many capacities. He reached the pinnacle of his career at the World Bank - an appointment that took him all over the world. Join him on his remarkable career and life’s journey…
Q: Briefly summarise your studies and your professional career, with special mention of specific highlights/milestones.
A: I studied full-time at the University of Pretoria (UP) from 1975 to 1978 and passed the Final Qualifying Examination for Chartered Accountants in 1979 (one of the top 5 candidates in the country).
I obtained an Accounting master’s degree (cum laude) in 1982 and a Doctorate of Commerce in 1992 at UP, where I also worked as Professor in Accounting for 16 years. I was appointed Senior Lecturer at UP on 1 January 1984, promoted to Associate Professor in 1987 and to Full Professor in 1988.
I thoroughly enjoyed lecturing Financial Accounting at post-graduate level and received the Lecturer of the Year Award in 1989 in the School of Accountancy where I was Head of the Financial Accounting Division until 31 March 2000.
I also served on the panel of markers and examiners of the Public Accountants’ and Auditors’ Board for a period of 10 years. I am the author and co-author of more than 30 academic textbooks and numerous articles in refereed journals as well as periodicals.
I completed my articles and worked as audit manager during 1979-1983 at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), where I participated in the audits of large and medium (listed and unlisted) enterprises. These included specialist enterprises, such as stock brokers, top-secret projects in the armaments and nuclear industries.
I obtained considerable experience as a consultant in Public Financial Management (PFM), including:
Doing various consultancies for the Office of the Auditor General of South Africa;
Serving as a member of a Technical Committee for the Institute of Public Finance and Auditing of SA, tasked to develop National Public Sector Accounting Standards;
Being appointed by the Minister of Finance in 1995 on an Advisory Committee on the Reporting by Public Entities Act.
During 1998, I was employed by the World Bank as a consultant in the Europe and Central Asia Region and prepared a Guide to International Accounting Standards, which was aimed at assisting Russian banks and enterprise managers to understand modern accounting standards. Subsequent editions of this book have since been published in more than 10 languages.
On 1 April 2000 I joined the World Bank (WB) as a Senior Financial Management Specialist (FMS) in Washington DC where I worked in the Africa Region for five years and then joined the Financial Management Policy Unit for three years. In 2008, I was promoted to Lead FMS and worked in the Europe and Central Asia Region for 10 years after which I was transferred to the South Asia Region until my retirement in September 2020.
Though my primary work focused on supporting developing country clients to improve their PFM systems, during my tenure at the WB, I was also fortunate to apply my teaching skills by delivering more than 100 training sessions on the subject of Financial Management to staff and clients of the WB.
While I flew in an aeroplane for the first time in my life at the age of 28, my job at the WB allowed me to travel extensively all over the world and truly opened up the world for me. This I regard as a wonderful privilege and blessing.
Q: To what extent did your studies at UP benefit you in your career and contribute to your success?
A: The BCom (Accounting) studies provided a direct path to achieving the Chartered Accountant (CA) qualification, which is a globally recognised qualification. I fondly remember the day that the CA results were made public how my boss (Hennie Bruwer) at the auditing firm said to me: “Marius, hierdie kwalifikasie sal nog deure vir jou oopmaak.” And yes, I experienced the “opening of doors…. and perhaps even a world” over and over during my professional life.
The bottom line is that if I did not have the CA qualification, I would never have had the opportunity to pursue a fulfilling career in the development sector at the World Bank (WB). In the specific department I worked in at the WB, the CA qualification was one of the prerequisites.
Q: Can you single out a special mentor/trusted advisor who played an indispensable role in your life/studies/career?
A: My dad did the bookkeeping pro bono for the local missionary church in Sishen (Northern Cape), and I was always fascinated by these different books that he wrote up. That led me to take accounting at school and there you go! During my studies, all the way up to the CA exams, he always encouraged me with, “Just give your honest best and no-one can ask more than that”.
My accounting teacher, who was also the Head of the Christian Student Society at our high school, recognised a talent of teaching in me and encouraged me to develop this talent in future. This was the impetus for me to pursue an exceptionally fulfilling teaching career at UP in the School of Accountancy for 16 years.
Q: Given your academic experience at UP, what advice can you pass on to current students?
A: Stick to the basics - invest in yourself by putting in hard work now to be able to benefit from the fruit in abundance later on. A good qualification topped up with practical experience will open up opportunities beyond expectations.
Q: What really inspires and motivates you personally?
A: Being part of a team. I just love to work on any task where people work together. I am a people’s person and just love to rub shoulders with others, in particular when a team works with energy and enthusiasm while respecting one another’s unique talents towards achieving a common goal.
In nature, I am inspired by the awesomeness of creation, and I regard myself very fortunate to be able to experience so much of God’s glory in it through my two passions - biking and hiking.
Music is also a great motivator. I got my love for music from my mom who was crazy about pop music of the 70s and 80s. In fact, as a university student there were many times that I had to ask her to turn down the volume of our Hi-Fi set so that I could study….imagine that!
Q: What, in your opinion, is the foundation of a successful business/company/consultancy/ organisation?
A: Understanding the goals or objectives and continually investing in people to keep their motivation towards achieving these goals. Creating an environment where values of RESPECT, INTEGRITY, TEAM WORK, TRUST, INNOVATION AND EQUAL OPPORTUNITY are in fact practised (and not only aspired to).
Q: Which business/trade-related publications (magazines/newspapers/blogs, etc) do you enjoy reading?
A: I enjoy reading articles about developments in Accounting, but generally I’m not a reader-type of person. Give me a nice bunch of 70s or soft rock albums and I will groove into it.
Q: If you could have a face-to-face meeting with an inspiring person – in any domain – who sets an example in transforming the world and inspiring others to do the same, who would it be and what would you like to discuss?
A: Ms Dolly Parton. I would love to hear her life story of growing up under very poor conditions and more details about stories of her youth and how that influenced her to stay the humble person that she is. I would also like to learn much more about the motivation that drove her to invest so much of her financial resources over many years in kids’ reading programmes in her home state of Tennessee (and elsewhere in the world).
Q: Going forward, what are your professional/business/personal goals?
A: Being a retiree since October 2020, my goals have become more personal than otherwise. Here are a few:
I want to spend more time with my wife and family.
I hope to be able to travel again inside and outside the USA once the COVID-19 pandemic is over. My work at the WB has allowed me many travels, and my wife and I want to continue pursuing this joy.
I want to continue being engaged in ministries at our local church, specifically in Sunday school teaching and the Men’s Ministry.
I plan to do some adventure (hiking, biking, river rafting, 4x4) trips with my retired buddy, Johann Nel, from PwC in South Africa. Apart from 2020 (COVID-19) we have, since 2013, enjoyed one adventure together every year in pursuing the ‘making of memories’.
I plan to get more engaged in volunteer work as the American culture is very much into this aspect.
I want to get rid of one item that belongs to me every day for the rest of my life, even as small as a piece of paper, deleting an old electronic file/photo on my computer or donating items to charity.
Q: In 2020, COVID-19 turned the world upside down. What is the biggest ‘lesson’ you’ve learnt from this pandemic and to what extent did it change your mindset?
A: We were able to adapt instantly to using technology very efficiently and effectively to be able to continue moving ahead and conduct much of our work seamlessly from our homes. However, the personal fatigue that came with it owing to being disconnected from one another physically, confirms that we need that personal real contact and interaction.
I also see this in the recreational bike club that I am a member of. People need to socialise and are willing to do non-competitive casual bike rides when the temperature is down to 4° Celsius. The bottom line is that people want to hang out with one another and the “Zooms” of this world just do not do that.
Q: What are your hopes and aspirations for South Africa and its people for the rest of this decade...and beyond?
A: Even though we have lived outside the country for 21 years and have decided to pursue citizenship in the USA, we continue to visit family and friends and therefore have a strong bond with SA.
We are always happy to hear good stories when they surface and are for instance impressed by successes achieved with the COVID-19 situation. At the same time, my biggest hope and daily prayer for SA is that somehow the authorities will be able to get a handle on the continued violence that jeopardises much of the energetic potential and grassroots-level goodwill that the people possess.
The bottom line is that everyone in SA should be able to enjoy their place in the sun, simply because we only live on this earth once.