Paying it forward
From two travel bags to a successful accounting business, Kaleem Ulah has achieved ample success, and fast. But aside from growing his business, one of his biggest passions is giving back and paying it forward.
At the age of 18, Kaleem Ulah decided to leave Pakistan and travel to Australia on his own. But, upon arriving in Sydney, Mr Ulah realised he was in serious trouble.
He was too stubborn to let his father organise his travel. So, with $1,500 in his pocket and his belongings packed neatly in two travel bags, Mr Ulah hailed a taxi and said “take me to where the Pakistanis live”.
“I was just standing there at the airport with nowhere to go. So, I thought best ask the taxi driver,” recalls Mr Ulah.
The taxi driver dropped him off in front of a mosque, in Sydney’s western suburbs, at midnight.
Luckily, right next door was a home for international students, where Mr Ulah would live in a shared room before relocating to Adelaide.
From engineering to accounting
Initially, Mr Ulah enrolled in a software engineering course at Sydney TAFE. But following a chat with an immigration agent, he decided to pursue a diploma in accounting instead.
After completing this first step and developing a fondness for accounting, Mr Ulah enrolled in a Bachelor of Accounting in Adelaide.
The Australian workforce intimidated him at first, but his adeptness saw him strike an arrangement with his uni professor.
The deal was, Mr Ulah would bring in the clients and fill out their tax returns on a makeshift form. He would pass on the forms to his professor, who would then submit them to the ATO.
He printed his own fliers and dispersed them throughout his suburb.
A year later, however, the word about his know-how spread across Adelaide and clients began to approach him on their own.
Having completed his degree, Mr Ulah was on the prowl for a new job. One day he stumbled upon a newly opened tax office in Adelaide’s north.
“I walked in and met the owner, Julie, and she became my mentor. I spoke to her and said ‘look, I have a client base and you have a new business. Let’s work together. You teach me and I will share my clients with you’,” recalls Mr Ulah.
Their partnership became a success. Mr Ulah gained invaluable practical knowledge and soon became a full-time employee at Optima Tax Solutions.
Mr Ulah was Julie’s secret weapon. He could speak six languages and knew the migrant community inside out.
“That’s where we would advertise. People would see my poster and recognise me. I was their boy. I could speak their language, which made them feel more confident when doing their tax returns,” explains Mr Ulah. Eventually, after almost three years, the time came for Mr Ulah and Julie to part.
“Her office was becoming too small for me. Julie advised me to move out and start my own brand,” explains Mr Ulah.
In the meantime, he married an accountant, who had experience working for the big four accounting firms.
Going into business
In 2017, Mr Ulah made the choice to go into business for himself.
Two short years later, he has 10 offices throughout Adelaide and over 10,000 clients.
His home-made tax form, however, fell victim to his speedy rise to success.
“I remember back in the day a client asked me why I was using my own Word printout. Everyone else was using computers and there I was with my piece of paper. But clients liked my resourcefulness, and years later my very first clients are still with me,” reveals Mr Ulah.
Mr Ulah says he owes his success to his fellow migrants.
In return for their loyalty, Mr Ulah has helped countless newcomers adjust to life in Australia.
“Most of my clients have migrated from other countries. They don’t know any accountants and they don’t know enough about the local laws. So, they need someone who can teach them and who can speak their own language,” says Mr Ulah.
“I am able to provide them with these things. That is why more and more people are knocking on my door every day.”
Mr Ulah also offers traineeship opportunities to international students.
“International students spend a lot of money on their studies, but finding employment is very hard. The reason is that students are learning the theory, but lack the practical experience,” says Mr Ulah.
“As a businessman, I want someone who can do the work. I don’t care if someone has a degree. The truth is, most businesspeople think the same.”
So, eager to share his successes with his community, Mr Ulah allows international students to develop practical experience with the aim of easing their integration into the Australian workforce.
“My wife and I thought, ‘we have the resources, we have everything, so let’s go and offer international students the opportunity to learn how to do tax returns’,” he explains.
“I have hired a professional trainer who trains the international students on how to use software and how to execute tax returns in real time. They also observe our accountants while they are on the job. Slowly we bring them to a professional level.”
At the moment, The Kalculators has around 20 students undertaking the practical study.
“Once they complete it, I offer the brightest ones a job in one of my offices,” he says.
Since starting the traineeship program earlier this year, Mr Ulah has employed seven former students.
Satisfaction is the biggest wealth
Mr Ulah also has plenty of successful client stories.
“One particular client, due to our quality service, transitioned from owning a small car yard to being one of the biggest car yards in Adelaide. He managed to buy his own property and is now one of the biggest exporters of scrap cars to international markets in the city,” he says.
“When he came to me, he had just migrated to Australia. He was looking for a way to launch a business. So, I advised him to do what he is interested in most.”
And it is clients like this that make Mr Ulah proud to be an accountant.
“I come from a business orientated family, so I acquired plenty of skills throughout my childhood. My family and upbringing inspired me to start all this and it is all working out really well,” admits Mr Ulah.
He advises future business owners to “network with your people”.
“Networking with your people and your friends is very important. Don’t ever approach people by saying ‘let me do so and so for you’. This tells them that you are in need,” says Mr Ulah.
“Remember, you are not a beggar, you are a businessperson. For a businessman it is more important to have your own attitude and to maintain your level. Let people come to you.”
For Mr Ulah, it never stops. Besides running an accounting practice, he also owns a branch of hostels for international students.
“I want to make sure no one sleeps on the road when they first come to Australia. I went through a tough start and I don’t want anyone else to go through something similar,” he states.
Asked about his hobbies, Mr Ulah admits, “Business is my hobby!”