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Finding a balance

Collins Hume partner Peter Fowler thought he had to choose between life and work. But in the end, he got the best of both worlds.

Finding a balance
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  • Linda Santacruz
  • August 24, 2018
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Peter Fowler had just finished university when he was offered a job at a Gold Coast firm. It meant moving away for the young accountant, who had grown up in northern New South Wales. But while some small-towners would be bursting for the chance to escape to a big city, something kept calling Mr Fowler back home.

“I had a good lifestyle before moving away. Even when I was working in the city, I found myself driving back home on the weekends and holidays. I thought, ‘This is crazy, driving back every weekend’,” Mr Fowler says. “I could have earned more money in the city, but the lifestyle was an important factor for me.”

So, he looked for a new job. The accountant was now on the hunt for a company that was not only closer to home but had a great reputation. Collins Hume – the Ballina-based tax services firm founded by John Collins in 1980 – came to mind.

“They didn’t even have any positions available, but I put in my resume,” he says.

Mr Fowler joined Collins Hume in 2001. By 2004, he was made partner. Today, the firm has six partners and more than 20 staff. It has offices in Ballina, Byron Bay and Lismore and looks after more than 4,000 clients around Australia and abroad.

But there is one thing that hasn’t changed over the years, and that’s Mr Fowler’s attention to work/life balance. It’s a value he even shares with his clients.

“I’m a great believer in working hard, working smart and keeping it in perspective,” he says. “I love my work. I also love my holidays. I encourage my clients to take their lifestyle as seriously as they take their business.”

A holistic approach

Collins Hume may have started out as a tax services firm, but it has since evolved to being so much more. The company today offers holistic services to small- and medium-sized businesses owners, such as financial planning and consulting.

In particular, Collins Hume prides itself on its business development programs, which were created to help clients reduce risks and run better businesses. This is achieved through workshops and one-on-one training sessions, Mr Fowler says.

“The one thing that sets us apart from other firms around here and in Australia is that we don’t just say we’re business advisers. We actually do it,” he says.

“We have a low-cost business development program that enables us to help our [clients] improve their businesses.

“It also enables us to understand the direction they want to take their business in the future, so we can make sure our advice aligns with their goals.”

In addition to business planning, Collins Hume offers what Mr Fowler calls “business mentoring”, which is also known in the industry as virtual CFO services. The aim of this service is to educate clients to become self-reliant, he says.

“My goal is to take myself out of the work and make sure that they are educated enough to be able to do it in the future,” Mr Fowler says.

“There’s a quote that says, ‘You can’t hire someone to do the push-ups for you’. So, I’m here to train them and give them the skills and knowledge to able to do it by themselves.”

But perhaps the biggest point of difference for Collins Hume is its customer-centric approach, Mr Fowler says.

“We genuinely care about our clients and their businesses and their lives,” he says.

“We do take the time to sit down with them and understand their needs.”

Gaining attention

This ‘care factor’ is also what enabled Collins Hume to grow over the years. It has led to numerous client referrals and new business relationships, says Mr Fowler.

“It always comes back to actually caring. If we care for our clients and do a good job, then it does create referrals. We do get a lot of referrals from our own clients and a lot from our referral partners like financial planners, who are actually clients themselves,” he says.

“The fact that we’ve got clients that are actually referring, I don’t think there’s a better way to get a client.”

But that is not the only way Collins Hume gets its name out. The firm also uses digital marketing strategies, such as blogging and social media, and has earned several awards. Among those accolades are the 2017 Accountants Daily Excellence Award, Partner of the Year and Office Administrator of the Year.

This all contributes to the firm’s important online presence, Mr Fowler adds.

“That backs us up when we do get referred because [potential clients] can look us up,” he says. “We earned a lot of awards, which gives us good media exposure.”

Further, Collins Hume works with a number of charitable organisations, including Hope Haven Women’s Refuge and Northern Rivers Animal Services Inc., providing financial and pro bono support.

Mr Fowler says: “The charity work that we do also gets us a lot of clients because it shows them that we’re more than about making money.”

Finally, there is something special about Collins Hume’s stated mission, which has also resulted in new clients, according to Mr Fowler.

The firm says its “overriding purpose is to inspire business owners to achieve business and lifestyle success in powerful and meaningful ways.

“We believe there has never been a more exciting time to be in business. And it’s clear that successful, profitable businesses are the lifeblood of the communities in which we live. By partnering with and inspiring business owners to achieve extraordinary results, collectively we build stronger communities, change lives and create a better world.”

Mr Fowler says this mission statement has resonated with clients.

“Only a couple of weeks ago, I had new clients that came in and said they read that statement and knew straightaway we were the accountants for them.”

Ongoing evolution

When it comes to embracing innovation, Collins Hume does not shy away.

Mr Fowler says the firm first implemented cloud-based technology years before it became widely used, which has helped communication between its multiple offices and enabled team members to work from home when required.

“It was a bit of a no-brainer to go to a cloud-based server so that we can log in from anywhere,” he says. “When we’re out with clients, we can access their information with ease.”

Moreover, the firm has moved to digital scanning for all ATO correspondence as well as for most client communication. As for its accounting software, Collins Hume does not discriminate. It has pledged to offer clients all types, including Quickbooks.

“We don’t have a bias. We use them all. I think it’s a little bit arrogant to tell a client that they have to use a specific software. They might have the skills to use a different one or perhaps one is better suited to them,” he says.

To keep this promise, Collins Hume has trained most of its staff on different software and hired specialists for when issues arise. Clients choose the best software for them, depending on their individual needs and pricing preferences.

When it comes to future plans, Collins Hume is focusing on consolidation and fine-tuning its service offerings, which comes after years of growth, Mr Fowler says.

“We’ve had a few years of solid growth that I think will continue. The next few years, we will bed down our whole service offering and what we call our family wealth office,” he says.

“We want to make sure every client knows that we offer those services and that each division is working together. There will be some new business ventures in the future, but the goal now is just a matter of consolidation and managing the growth that we’ve had over the last couple of years.”

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