On the front line
All That Counts director Lielette Calleja has taken bookkeeping from the back room right into the trenches and she explains what keeps her going back for more.
There’s no mistaking Lielette Calleja’s passion for small business from the outset as she rolls out countless ideas for improving one’s work/life balance and tips for streamlining operations.
Yet beneath that chirpy disposition lies a brutal heartache — losing her father, a carpenter, to a stroke and heart attack, as he struggled with the running of his small business.
Ms Calleja credits this as her guiding moment, turning her attention to helping small business owners succeed or exit the business under their own terms.
“I know first hand what is the cost of running a small business. [My father] put everything on the line for us. This is what small business owners do every day,” Ms Calleja said.
“It’s not just about financial reports, it comes back to the empathy in me and being able to make a difference to small business, not letting children go through what I went through, seeing my dad have a stroke and die from stress.
“I always see business owners as someone’s parents and if I can make a difference to mums and dads, I will.”
Ms Calleja began her journey as an accountant with Entertainment Distributors Company (EDC), moving on to be the national procurement and payables manager for telecommunications company Austar, before obtaining a role as finance manager for Melaar Systems Pty Ltd.
In helping a family member start up his own business, and wanting to start a family of her own, Ms Calleja sought to strike out on her own, setting up All That Counts in 2004.
She believes her time in the corporate world has afforded her an edge over her rivals, hoping to transfer her “corporate accounting knowledge to small business that couldn’t afford to have a full-time financial controller on their books”.
And yet as passionate about her craft as she may be, Ms Calleja’s title doesn’t sit well with her.
“I run a bookkeeping business but I don’t believe I am just a bookkeeper,” she said.
A bookkeeper, according to Ms Calleja, is often stereotyped as the person who merely sits in the back room keeping a record of transactions.
“A good bookkeeper has so many touch points with their clients and they are the people to look at the business’s cash flow, how things are going, and what’s going on in their business,” Ms Calleja said. “
When I first started All That Counts 13 years ago, there weren’t many good bookkeepers out there so back then I had to pitch and hold myself as a bookkeeper and even though I knew I was more a management accountant, financial accountant, I had to label myself as a bookkeeper which didn’t sit well with me.
“The clients I was attracting were those that needed a financial controller, not just a bookkeeper who had just done a Cert IV and done a MYOB course. They wanted someone who really understood business,” she added.
While the idea of being “just a bookkeeper” irks Ms Calleja, accountants attempting to bundle their services with bookkeeping puts her on the edge of her seat.
“The accountants have gone in and sold a fixed package for their tax plus bookkeeping plus the same price that we’re doing the bookkeeping for,” said Ms Calleja.
“[But] small businesses aren’t getting the service they want from those accounting firms, they are still just getting compliance, they are not getting any of what a really good bookkeeper does.
“The engagement — if you’re doing quarterly accounts for someone, then that’s not engaged because it’s too late. We want to be engaged with our clients at least once a week,” she added.
“We want to help them, we want to control their costs, we want to control their processes and that’s what a bookkeeper needs to do.
“Step outside the numbers and start looking at the operational side of the business as well. How can you help a business do better on the financial aspect by helping them improve their operations?”
However, Ms Calleja concedes that not every bookkeeper may be prepared to further their education in preparation for the threat posed by firms bringing bookkeeping back in-house or through acquisitions.
“I’ve been through the trenches and one thing I’ve learnt is that if you’re not resilient in this industry, you won’t survive,” said Ms Calleja.
“Especially when you’ve got accounting firms taking your clients away from you, you’ve got to fight back. If you’re not prepared to sell, you’ve got to be prepared to fight back and you’ve got to be prepared to reinvent yourself every year.
“You’ve got to start bringing in different offerings to your business and upskill yourself in different things,” she added.
“I do think if you want to take your business to the next level, then don’t think it’s just going to happen by just doing what you’re doing today.”
A taste of her own medicine
Ms Calleja believes her firm’s adoption of value-based pricing has been the cornerstone of its success, allowing her team of five bookkeepers to adopt an “attitude of whatever it takes” for her clients instead of “watching every hour”.
“The service that we provide is probably no different to any other firm but it’s when you have someone in your organisation like a client relationship manager, that’s the difference,” she said.
“That’s where clients say to us, I’m not getting the service I want from my accountant, they don’t return my calls, my emails, and that’s because they’re just busy.
“That for me is the biggest difference, it separates just the normal sole trader bookkeeper to an actual bookkeeping firm.”
Further, in watching her father toil under the pressures of juggling multiple small jobs, Ms Calleja developed a strategy for her clients to yield better returns while achieving work/life balance.
“Life’s too short for them to be working all these hours for very little return and that’s what I’ve been educating my clients to do and I thought, ‘I should give myself some of my own medicine’,” said Ms Calleja.
“We’ve made a strategic decision that we’re better off not growing in size but growing in value.”
While Ms Calleja believes threats will always be present in any industry, firms that continue to look outside their familiar roles will continue to ride the storm.
“Talk to CFOs about how you can form an alliance or be, for example, Employment Hero’s implementation partner — that’s not bookkeeping, that’s implementing payroll systems,” said Ms Calleja.
“But that’s where I think you will remain relevant in the industry and you can see why I struggle with the term bookkeeper because they do so much more.”
Conversely, Ms Calleja believes firms need to pay attention to their marketing in order to stay ahead of the game.
“If you think about the future of our clients, where are they coming from? They are coming from the children who are starting to take over their mum and dad’s businesses and that generation is very much driven on social media,” she said.
“Firms are leaving money on the table when they neglect social media.
“It hasn’t been easy because social media wasn’t something I grew up with so having to get out of my comfort zone was a challenge, people think it comes naturally to me but it doesn’t, I really have to work hard at that but it’s obviously paid off and that’s the way the future is.”