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Playing to your strengths

Playing to your strengths

Keith Marshall became a partner in a Perth-based accounting practice at 21. Now a qualified accountant and tax practitioner, he still finds time to help others realise their potential.

  • Maja Garaca Djurdjevic
  • April 26, 2019
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At the age of 21, Keith Marshall likely became the youngest partner ever named in an accounting practice in Australia.

But for Mr Marshall, accounting wasn’t initially part of the plan.

While still in high school, he had planned to study psychology at Murdoch University. However, after falling one point short of the cut-off score, he ended up enrolling in primary teaching.

“The only thing I could really get into at the university I wanted to attend was primary teaching. So, I enrolled but only took psych units,” Mr Marshall says.

But, as expected, he lacked interest in teaching from the get-go and when he was offered a full-time job at a search engine marketing company, Mr Marshall decided to pursue the opportunity.

He was only 19 at the time. The truth was, Mr Marshall now admits, the job was not part of his plan, either. He had in fact decided early on that he did not want to be scraping by with a low-wage service job. However, he had an inherent inability to say “no”.

The YES man

“I would work Saturday nights because no one else in the company wanted to take those shifts. I was working a full-time job, trying to juggle my studies, manage my parents’ expectations, all because I just couldn’t say no to anyone,” Mr Marshall says.

While attending a meeting of the Intercampus Queer group that Mr Marshall had launched to support young people, he was introduced to a personal development course that had helped a psych student advance from passes to distinctions in three short days. So, he decided to give it a go.

“The course, called the Landmark Forum, really opened up and altered my whole world. It’s probably the best thing I could have ever done at such a young age,” Mr Marshall says.

“Literally one day after the course, my manager asked me to do something and I said no. I was on the verge of tears and she reacted like it was no big deal at all. Since that moment, I really haven’t been constrained by saying no to things.”

Three weeks later, Mr Marshall left his job.

Still in his teens, he decided to slow down and allow himself time to figure out what he wanted to do next. “One Saturday night I was out to dinner with a group of people from the course. We had been talking about our struggles. One guy who was running a landscaping and lawn mowing business was talking about spending several hours a day on bookwork,” Mr Marshall says.

“He was spending like 10 hours a week, after having worked all day, doing bookkeeping. He was doing it all by hand and I remember thinking surely there must be a better way.”

Mr Marshall had topped his class in accounting in high school so, naturally, he lent his support.

“So, I went to help him. I taught myself MYOB and ended up reducing the time he spent on bookkeeping by a quarter,” he says.

So, the chance dinner led to a new career and one in which Mr Marshall now enjoys great success.

“From there I started doing bookkeeping. I got a bunch of clients and actually did that for a while. After about two years, my clients were demanding I do their tax returns,” Mr Marshall says.

Partner at 21

In order to meet their needs, in 2003, Mr Marshall entered into partnership with a tax agent.

“I was 21 at the time and likely became the youngest partner in practice in Australia. At the time there were about 21,000 partners in practice, countrywide,” he says.

“From there I did a skills recognition and got an advanced diploma of accounting. I then did a graduate certificate in professional accounting through the University of New England. At the time it was equivalent to the first four units of the master’s qualification.”

That year, 2009, was busy for Mr Marshall. He became a registered tax agent and joined the Institute of Public Accountants (IPA).

Most importantly, Mr Marshall bought out his business partner and became a sole practitioner. However, after several years of growing the business, Mr Marshall decided that something wasn’t quite right.

“I started thinking of having kids and my work/life balance, so I decided to look for a better way forward,” he says.

“While thinking about succession planning, I realised I didn’t have someone in my staff willing to step up and take on my responsibilities. So, I started looking for potential business partners.”

Mr Marshall says his offer attracted about 18 people, and in 2015 he eventually merged with a similarly-sized peer.

“That’s where I am today,” he exclaims.

Besides accounting, Mr Marshall has many passions, and the most prominent is helping others realise their potential.

Since 2013 has been involved as both a participant and a leader at Landmark Worldwide, a global leader in personal and professional training and development.

In 2017, he was a mental health hero/mentor at WA-based charity zero2hero, working to increase the understanding of mental health issues among children and young people. He volunteered at Camp Hero, which trains young leaders to be mental health leaders in their communities.

Mr Marshall has made many positive memories in community/ volunteering work but has also seen his share of tragedy.

“I was working in peer-based sexual health with young LGBTI+ people, and one of our clients committed suicide. He was working with a well-known counselling service here, and I was, unfortunately, one of the last to speak to him.”

This triggered his interest in counselling.

“Recently I went back to the personal development course that got me into accounting in the first place and was reflecting on what had happened to that young person and am now a qualified counsellor,” Mr Marshall explains.

Counselling is the difference

He admits that being a qualified counsellor has made a big difference in his accounting career.

“I had a client who had not been in contact for years. I had tried to reach them, unsuccessfully, and had no idea what was going on with them. So, after some time they came in and said that they had been depressed and struggled to actually tell me what had been going on in their life for all that time,” Mr Marshall says.

“It was literally like they had brain fog and I was one of only a few people they had told. But, because of my training, I was able to have a chat to them about their state of mind and check they were OK.”

He stresses the importance of mental wellness and suggests that everyone should undergo mental health first-aid training.

“I believe that just as most people do first aid training every few years, I think we as a society should do a mental health first aid course,” Mr Marshall says.

He says that it is important to recognise that accountants have a hard time too.

“You only have to drive through the city between Christmas and new year, when the rest of the world is closed, and see the lights on in the big four accounting firms,” Mr Marshall says.

“They do year-end for American companies, so they all work very long hours. My friends in the industry, who work in junior roles for audit companies, are doing 60 plus hours a week.

“This industry is not very flexible. The way our deadlines work is crazy.”

Mr Marshall encourages his employees to take time off regularly.

“We have had a look at this year and know that Easter and Anzac Day are all around the same time, so we have suggested some employees take time off. That will be a good 10-day break ahead of the tax deadlines,” he says.

“Over Christmas time we encourage closing down the office for two weeks so people can entirely disconnect from work over that period. Also, it’s not great to sit at your desks all day. Luckily, our office is near the river, so we take walks around the block.”

Mr Marshall says it is important to know your employees and recognise their individual pressure points.

Recognise your strengths

As for his personal development, Mr Marshall admits that he has always been interested in furthering his personal growth, which has pushed him to pursue courses and seminars all over the world.

“I have always been somebody who is interested in my own growth, development and success. I have

a really supportive environment, friends and people around me,” Mr Marshall says.

Reflecting on his accomplishments in 2018, Mr Marshall says the recipe for success is looking ahead and embracing new challenges.

“I got married last year, I flew over a 100,000km last year, I finished my counselling diploma in a record 13 months, I started a second business unrelated to accounting, and a bunch of other things,” Mr Marshall recounts.

“Something I learned early on in business is to play to your strengths and don’t do something you are bad at,” adds Mr Marshall. “Be aware of your weaknesses so you can be responsible for them, but if you always work inside of your strengths things will just come together.”

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