Surviving the storm
SMEs are a lucrative client pool for accountants, and after a roller-coaster few years on the economic and legislative front, SMEs are feeling optimistic.
Small to medium enterprises are the cornerstone of many accountants’ client bases and their outlook on business prospects has an enormous effect on accountants’ work.
With economic conditions rocky since the global financial crisis, it’s time to ask this question – has a positive sentiment returned to the SME industry?
HLB Mann Judd supervisor Charlotte Sandell believes it has, and that now is the time for accountants to capitalize on it.
Ms Sandell says there has been a noticeable shift in SMEs’ attitudes towards business prospects.
“What I’ve been observing and hearing from clients is generally positive, optimistic outlook for the year,” she says.
“There’s definitely a lot of optimism out there. With the ability to leverage off technology and digital marketing and that side of things, they feel like they are in a position to compete and start something.”
KPMG Enterprise’s national managing partner Rob Bazzani concurs.
“It’s actually a very buoyant mid-market at the moment. We’re seeing plenty of cause for optimism out in the SME market,” Mr Bazzani says.
“A lot of those SME businesses, they’re generally in good shape, they’ve got healthy balance sheets, secure contracts, and I think irrespective of what might be happening in the political scene or an economic scene globally, those businesses are fairly optimistic and in good shape.”
This uptick in sentiment could be the result of the return of readily available capital.
“What we’re also seeing is there is a fair degree of capital available across a lot of sectors for many of those businesses with solid cash flows to get access to,” Mr Bazzani says.
“So it’s not necessarily a need to have hard assets as security for capital, whether it’s capital, whether it’s bank debt or equity, a strong cash-flow business is certainly viewed as being attractive.”
Sentiment by sector
Mr Bazzani believes the among start-ups and SMEs is relatively similar across all sectors.
“I think there’s really no one area that they can pop up in,” he says.
“They’re popping up everywhere. I know there’s been a lot of attention on say fintech, financial services, but we’re seeing them across the board.”
Bentleys SA managing partner Michael Ruggiero says there are several industries where the positive sentiment is higher than others. Two of these sectors are transport and food.
“Transport has been good and that’s a very good sign because that’s a good leading indicator of how the economy is moving. Particularly since about September 2016, transport has been very, very good and the optimism is pretty high,” Mr Ruggiero says.
“Also, we act for a large apple and pear grower, for example, and they’ve invested an awful lot in new technology and capacity in the last four months, and a lot of the growers and the farms in the Northern Territory are expanding and reporting very, very healthy numbers.”
Ms Sandell says there is another noteworthy trend not so much dictated by sector, but by business life cycle stage.
“There is a lot of work from SMEs who might be looking to sell their business in the near future, and that tends not to be sector specific, more an age and stage in life of the business owner,” she says.
“We do see people in that Baby Boomer generation perhaps looking to get some advice on selling their business or how to transition into that next stage. We’re definitely seeing a lot of that.”
State to state variance
Being such a large and diverse country, Australia has multiple economies, and Mr Ruggiero says SMEs business prospects vary state to state.
“If I was an SME, I wouldn’t mind being in Victoria at the moment. They’ve got the population growth and they’ve got the economic activity to be a place to be for an SME,” he says.
Mr Ruggiero says New South Wales tails closely behind, with third place going to Queensland and Western Australia, followed by Tasmania, South Australia and the Northern Territory.
“Unfortunately, well if you live there it’s good, but Sydney and Melbourne tend to be the places to be for SMEs or for anything really and it’s always been the case and it will always be the case.”
As optimism returns to the SME market, SME business owners need assistance from their accountants.
Ms Sandell says as the outlook turns the corner, SMEs need guidance on how to embrace and leverage the positive conditions.
“Sometimes we see people optimistic and with ideas but kind of not sure exactly where to start or what are the basics that they might need in place to be starting,” she says.
“We tell people to get some advice early in terms of how to set up, in terms of what structures to start to operate in and some of those foundations really can help set you up for success or minimising some headaches down the track.”
For those who are already established, Ms Sandell says they are hungry for more from their accountant. Accountants who are not able to provide for their clients should refer them to other professionals who can.
“People are looking for some more value and where they can get more value from their advisers. Part of that is any of those connections we can put clients in touch with,” she says.
“Making introductions, whether that’s introducing you to other professional advisers or mentors or that side of things, being that connector and trusted adviser. Being able to add value in that sense and being someone that clients come to for recommendations as well.”
A big part of the accountant-client relationship is accessibility, according to Mr Ruggiero.
“What we need to do as accountants, we need to be accessible to clients, which I think is the thing they value the most,” he says.
“There is a big demand for us as a profession for SMEs and we’re not just talking compliance. Ever since I’ve been in the profession there’s been this general wisdom that clients want us more for advisory but I think this more than ever is very, very clear.”
For Mr Bazzani it’s simple, all SMEs want from their accountants is value add and technology advice.
“They’re not necessarily looking for compliance. What they really are looking for is an answer to the question, ‘What are the best companies in our industry doing and how can we do that like them?’” he says.
“They want to know how they benchmark against the best in their sector or in their industry and how they can do things more efficiently.”
While it’s all well and good to know and understand what accounting services SMEs want, the challenge for accountants is being able to communicate their offerings to win and retain clients.
Ms Sandell says it’s all about being aware of the trends in the industries their clients operate in.
“It is important to stay up-to-date with what is happening, what questions are on your clients’ minds. You don’t necessarily need to be an expert in everything, but keeping up-to-date in terms of trends and what those pain points might be for your clients is always useful,” she says.
Ms Sandell believes technology should be utilised and leveraged to both maintain contact and communication with clients, and boost the clients’ business exposure.
“Technology has become more and more integrated in everything we do, everything our clients do so it definitely provides a lot more opportunity to work with your clients in real time,” she says.
“We also see it creates potential for clients to compete globally and have that visibility that perhaps without technology they wouldn’t have.”
Meanwhile, Mr Ruggiero says accountants need to be proactive, get out there and spend time with their clients.
“Nothing communicates value more than telling someone you care and you’re interested in what’s happening in their lives and in their business, which means we’ve got to get out from behind our desks and we need to go out and see clients,” he says.
“They’re immersed in their business, you’re not immersed in it, you’re able to offer perspective they don’t have and that’s very, very valuable.”
While acknowledging that positive legislative and policy changes have been implemented in recent years to support SMEs, Mr Ruggiero says more changes can be made to improve the SME market.
“At a federal level I’d like to see a couple of things happen. I think government fiscal policy needs to be more expansionary and there’s been some talk about that recently,” he says.
“I’d like to see a fall in personal tax rates. They are way too high and often that causes a disincentive to businesses.”
Another area causing headaches is the complexity of the tax system.
“Tax is another one where regulation and complexity doesn’t do anything to help the client and in fact it makes our services more expensive because in order to help the client just comply is a formidable task,” Mr Ruggiero says.
“Keeping up-to date and ensuring the client complies with things they don’t really understand means that that’s time and money that’s taken from helping them build their businesses. It is a serious problem.”
“Most firms have clients who are in desperate need of advice and yet you’ve got these roadblocks and these walls that you keep hitting your head against.”
All in all, accountants should be embracing change to benefit their clients’ businesses as well as their own, according to Mr Ruggiero.
“Whenever there is significant disruption, there are opportunities for accountants and I can’t remember a time when there was as much disruption to business norms than there is right now,” he says.
“We are in an era of significant disruption across almost every sector of the economy and I think that there are huge opportunities for our profession whenever that happens.”
“It means we need to re-skill, it means we need to learn new things and it means that we need to do things that we may not be comfortable doing, but business needs us to do it and the opportunities are enormous.”