Breaking down barriers
The hurdles that used to limit the scale and success of rural practices are now a thing of the past, and there’s no reason why accountants in remote communities can’t have start-up aspirations.
Regional communities are integral to Australia’s economic future and cultural identity. Accounting practices operating in these areas have an important role to play, in both their local communities and broader markets.
Accountants have traditionally relied upon the proximity to available clients. The distribution of accounting firms therefore naturally aligns closely to major cities and metropolitan areas.
Where face to face interaction with clients is important, the needs of an accounting practice to operate and thrive in smaller communities away from city centres presents a unique set of challenges.
However, through challenges there are always unique opportunities.
Operating a professional function outside of the main CBD and servicing suburban and regional clients, Liam Shorte, director of Verante Financial Planning, has felt the stigma of being a “small town business.”
With offices 50km away from Sydney CBD, Verante services mostly clients from the Hunter Valley region and along the east coast of Australia.
Specialists in self-managed super funds (SMSFs), Verante focuses on servicing clients from small businesses to mid-level professionals, “the sort of clients you get in most rural towns and areas,” says Mr Shorte.
In regard to the perception of regional professional services, Mr Shorte says “a lot of people think they need a city lawyer because the work may be complex.”
“But often it's the rural solicitor, accountants or financial planner that understands the complexities of a farm business and the small business in the local town,” he says.
“A city accountant may not grasp the cultural problems of even putting a business up for sale and how that starts tongues wagging in the community,” he says.
Mr Shorte’s experience illustrates the tension between the expectations of professional services and the unique social fabric that exists in semi-rural and rural Australian populaces.
Entering new regional areas, Verante would hold free public information sessions on tax changes in the budget. Mr Shorte describes the early sessions held where 20-30 people would attend, but “nobody asked questions, nobody got engaged.”
“As soon as we took it down to groups of just 7-10 people, it just started clicking,” he says. “People became more interested, they were more willing to give their own experiences and get involved in the actual sessions.”
Mr Shorte’s marketing success with smaller groups demonstrates strong social values as a driving factor to building the trust required to enter a smaller market.
In building a profile within a community, professional services would have to take a more reciprocal values based exchange to their marketing. Mr Shorte advises, “rather than trying to sell your services or sell products, what you need to be doing is offering education to people.”
“A lot of small businesses and farmers, and professionals need access to information, whether it's on finance, marketing, financial planning, accounting and tax,” says Mr Shorte.
“And if you can bring those services to their attention that are available then you're seen as basically the GP, as the one to go to for the answer to get the referral.”
Talk of the town
While professional aspects and community interaction are separated in a metropolitan environment, they become intrinsically bound in a rural setting.
In regional communities, face to face contact and being “seen in the community” is integral to building a local profile and brand.
This interaction of the professional figure with the personal and social becomes problematic when dealing with sensitive, financial information.
Mr Shorte describes the unease experienced by clients using professional services in regional areas as the “fear of privacy.”
“Because they're small towns, small communities, people are often concerned about using a local professional,” he says.
“We've found a lot of clients had been going down to Maitland or Newcastle for accounting advice and financial planning advice purely because they didn't want their information known in the local area.”
To overcome this client concern, Mr Shorte’s advice is to develop the values of the business and its staff to respect trust and private information.
“We really had to develop our approach. When we were talking to clients, emphasising the fact that the national privacy principles protected them.”
In addition to, Mr Shorte says, “Also emphasising that culturally in our business that our staff understood that what's said inside our doors, stayed inside our doors.”
Mr Shorte reflects on developing the culture of trust at Verante. “It takes a few years, but you do build a profile where people come to you for advice.”
Building a solid reputation for being a nexus for information exchange and a trustworthy source for professional knowledge, Verante has become an active and important service in the local community as well as a formidable professional brand.
Mr Shorte says, “It doesn't cost a fortune, particularly in country areas, and it just comes back in spades in terms of earning a profile.”
Operating out in the Hunter Valley in NSW, Martin Heffron, co-founder and director of Heffron SMSF Solutions, employs around 80 staff members in the regional area.
The decision to establish an accountancy business away from a major city was for Mr Heffron, a lifestyle choice.
The personal story is that I didn't want to live in Sydney, and neither did my wife. I'm a country boy from the UK, I did 10 years in Sydney and that was enough for me,” Mr Heffron says.
For Mr Heffron, the Hunter Valley was a better place to live for a variety of reasons, including productivity.
“I'd rather live in the middle of nowhere like I do and to be able to engage with the process from there than fight my way through Sydney,” Mr Heffron says.
One interesting aspect about Heffron SMSF Solutions is that despite being based in a regional town, much of their clientele is dispersed away from the immediate local area.
Instead, Heffron SMSF Solutions finds clients across all states and territories, with NSW and Sydney being their primary markets.
To successfully operate an accounting firm from a regional locale, Mr Heffron has worked hard on building the business’ brand by capitalising on existing networks he garnered from working in Sydney.
“Once you've achieved brand, once your customers know who you are and what you do and value it, at that point, geographical remoteness, I believe, becomes irrelevant,” he explains.
With advice specific to accountants, Mr Heffron recommends that to brand build, accounting businesses need to move away from relying on the profile of a sole practitioner’s expertise.
“With a lot of professional practices, the brand is the individual... the only way to build the brand, because the brand is an individual, is to physically go places.”
He describes the idea of a business profile that could be scalable: “If the brand is not an individual anymore, then you can be anywhere because the brand can be discovered and found online.”
“The trick is to be able to build that brand elsewhere in order to attract work to you. Sounds obviously really, but it's not easy,” he says.
Holding on to talent
For finance and accounting businesses, another barrier to delivering services remotely is staff retention.
“You put a lot of time and effort and money into training people, and it's very hard to see them leave after two or three years when the money offered in the CBD area in the main city is so attractive to them,” says Mr Shorte.
“Especially in regional areas, you really have to identify the ones that you think will stay with you for the long term,” he says.
To improve staff retention and attract talent, Mr Shorte believes in tactics such as creating a lifestyle and family friendly culture in the workplace. These are not too dissimilar to the techniques being explored by city-based firms at the moment.
One practical suggestion is for flexible working hours for staff.
“For example, some of [our staff] won't start until 10 and finish at 3 so they can still take care of dropping kids to school,” Mr Shorte says.
“We say to staff, if you want to get involved in the local organisation or sporting group, we're flexible on our time,” he says.
“What we found is that people make up the time, because they've built loyalty with the firm,” he adds.
With four office locations, and by utilising online conferencing tools such as Skype, Mr Shorte provides further locational flexibility for his staff at Verante.
“It's all about saving time, effort and building a culture within the business that the staff won't leave.”
Mr Heffron’s experience with staff retention at Heffron SMSF Solutions is overwhelmingly positive, reporting a very low staff turnover rate.
“There tends to be a culture of more loyalty here, I would say. As far as I know, there's only one person that's ever left this organisation to go and work in the city!”
In hiring, Mr Heffron leverages the point of difference in his business’ location and niche specialisation to attract and retain staff.
“There's an employment brand that exists. If you want to live in the Hunter [Valley] and you want to work in the SMSF space, you'll phone us up,” he says.
In both businesses, what stands out as as an incentive for working away from the major cities is the lifestyle benefits, an attractive prospect for specialised staff who are disengaged with the hustle and bustle of metropolitan living.
Building clientele beyond your locale
The potential for building an accountancy brand to access broader markets is possible with the availability of online software and changing consumer behaviour.
In Mr Heffron’s day-to-day business at Heffron SMSF Solutions, he has noticed a shift in consumer communication from telephone and face-to-face interaction to a preference for online communications.
By measuring customer contact points with the business, Mr Heffron has witnessed that, “the interactions, the touches that we get from customers online is exponential, the touches by the telephone and face to face is falling away.”
“So people don't deal with our business in that face to face [setting] anymore. They don't need to, they trust the brand,” he says.
At Verante, Mr Shorte has a similar experience with using online platforms to build a profile beyond his geographical location.
Five years ago, Mr Shorte began a blog on SMSFs for Verante. From the blog, he has picked up new clients from all over the country.
In choosing to specialise the blog on a niche subject, Mr Shorte developed differentiation in the Verante brand, even though the business offers much broader finance services beyond SMSFs.
“You have to be able to do everything, but you can concentrate on little niches as far as drawing people in,” he says.
How communicating a niche service could acquire a geographically diverse range of new customers, Mr Shorte explains: “It's just about making sure that you build your profile to ensure you're seen as the go to person for that subject.”
Building a profile is all about consistency, and not that you have to come up with all the content yourselves,” he adds.
Reflecting on what’s been most successful for him, Mr Shorte suggests just keeping posts simple and regular through easy to use blogging platforms such as Wordpress, and repurposing existing content.
“Every financial planner journal has loads of information, but it's all in a technical format. So all you need to do is break it down into plain English for the public,” he says.
In developing content, Mr Shorte sees genuine value in collaborations between professional services.
“For example, I'll get a lawyer to write something on my blog, I'll get a buyer's agent for property. And again, our website becomes a focus for people to come to for information,” Mr Shorte says.
Staying in the loop
With the help of technology and online platforms, the barriers caused by distances between cities and rural communities is lowered, to open up new possibilities for accounting businesses.
Further assisting to bridge these geographical distances, Arthur Burt, Executive General Manager of the IPA advises that there are professional training services to help rural accountants stay up to date.
One such event available to rural accountants is the IPA’s annual travelling Tax Agent Guide.
A roving roadshow that visits far reaching towns from Mackay to Geraldton, the Tax Agent Guide takes professional training directly out to practitioners in both face to face and online formats.
Open to members, non-members as well as professionals in and out of the accounting industry, the Roadshow gives an opportunity to complete structured Continued Professional Development hours, as well as ample networking opportunities.
With the possibilities of mobility afforded to regional professionals, Mr Heffron is positive about the idea of decentralising accounting businesses away from the major cities.
“I think it's going to be less of an economic drive [to be city based], because you can deliver services remotely, wherever you want,” he says.
“I would encourage professional people who are not capital city based to be confident that they can distribute their expertise,” he adds.
The confidence to operate a professional services businesses away from the major cities is a notion that Mr Shorte, echoes in encouragement.
“Be proud that you can offer the services that any city practice can offer or you can bring in a specialist if you need to. So don't be afraid to hold your head up high in the rural areas.”