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As the founder of BizWhiz Business Solutions, Kirsten Norman’s greatest successes have come through searching for the silver linings of struggling businesses.
Even though it was the tail end of the wet season last October, it was still raining hard the morning that Kirsten Norman, founder of BizWhiz Business Solutions, arrived at her client's restaurant on the Mornington Peninsula.
Adding to the trouble, she soon learned her newest client was financially underwater too. And sinking.
Moreover, the American southern-style eatery was facing an imminent audit from the Australian Taxation Office, and the books were not ready to be served.
“This had the look of a nightmare assignment at first,” recalls Ms Norman, also a BAS agent.
“But I fell in love with the restaurant, the owners, and saw it was an obvious success with the diners. Also, I grew up behind the bar in the pub-and-restaurant trade; my family ran several. Yes, a nightmarish assignment, but I thought we could engineer a dream ending.”
A silver lining was that the restaurant was already on an online accounting and business information system.
Nevertheless, glitches were rife; the dining hall had not even implemented usual trade metrics, such as per cent of outlays to food purchases or labour.
It got worse the deeper Ms Norman dug.
The profit-and-loss and balance statements were woefully iffy, compromised by improper classifications or unaccounted accrual costs.
Ms Norman quickly sized the situation up. The founders were terrific restaurateurs, and the large tables were packed at night. The business should be profitable.
The more Ms Norman talked with the founders, the more the story unfolded. The restaurant had started, literally, with a single food stand, and one could handle the books with a pocket calculator. But following a growth spurt — the restaurant now supported 50 employees and operated out of a massive, converted warehouse stuffed with happy-faced diners.
That growth meant the founders, a couple who had migrated to enterprise from government service, worked 24/7 to keep the restaurant top-notch and innovating, to keep the customers coming back.
“The restaurant was their passion,” says Ms Norman. “But often the make-up of the best entrepreneurs is the worst recipe for bookkeepers.”
Job number one was to get the restaurant's books into order, to mesh all the scattered data, such as time sheets and point-of-sale records, into the system.
“We won’t work with a client that does not have, or will not convert to the digital platform,” explains Ms Norman. “There are nearly unlimited ‘bolt-ons’ that allow the platform to accommodate every conceivable financial and informational need.”
Job number two was to handle the ATO by providing accurate records that would satisfy the office. “Anyway, there was not much in the way of a bottom line,” recalls Ms Norman.
Job number three was to turn the business around.
First, vendors had to be negotiated with around existing payments, and then re-negotiated with for more optimal terms. Restaurant floor managers had to review rostering for the number of employees and hours, and told to hit wage targets, with industry norms as a metric. Budgets were made, and were not advisory.
In an unexpected part of the business, gold was struck – a waste-removal vendor could be switched out at a thumping $50,000 per year savings.
That discovery was an outlier, but nearly every aspect of vendor service was improved, while wage costs were held in check. The diners only saw plates heaping with food; behind the kitchen was a steady grind towards true profitability.
By springtime, the financial storms finally broke, aided by ongoing increases in sales. “There were late night phone calls, the weekend conversations, even the tears,” recalls Ms Norman.
“But now they plan to expand, perhaps even go national. They now have the formula, and moreover it is proven formula in a very competitive market. And BizWhiz will be onboard for the ride.”
Business as usual
The assignment and then operation to rescue the Mornington restaurant was an important one for Ms Norman and BizWhiz, but hardly unusual.
All across Australia there are talented business people, says Ms Norman, but who may lack bookkeeping, accounting or certain business skills, or the time for such endeavours – the ace auto mechanic, for example, who wearies of administrative snags, or the brilliant IT wizard who programs until 2am and neglects the books.
And like every other developed nation, Australia has its share of insistent regulations, tax codes, and compliance issues that must be examined and negotiated, but which are time-sinks for independent business operators who get the same 24 hours a day as others.
Such clients not only need bookkeeping services but also key financial and operations advice and information provided in an easily assimilated manner.
“We empower our clients by giving them an intrinsic understanding of their financial position, providing recommendations from our findings and an action plan or manual to follow,” explains Ms Norman.
“Ultimately, this is the key to our success. We provide freedom for clients to focus on what they love to do or to concentrate on expanding their businesses, rather than being trapped by scattered management tasks or handling government compliance issues.”
Bookkeeping gets cloudy
Since starting up BizWhiz in 2013, Ms Norman has aggressively embraced the business software advances that were, and still are, altering the business information landscape.
For example, online or cloud-based software allows Ms Norman to assist clients in their relationship to accountants and banks, while organising payables, receivables, payrolls and other financial information in formats that business operators can comprehend.
In sharp contrast to days of yore, much routine client oversight can be done online with extraordinary efficiency, and even without time-consuming onsite visits.
Being an early adopter of cloud-bookkeeping has both enabled Ms Norman and BizWhiz to offer more services, and set them apart from other bookkeeping services, she says.
“Bookkeeping in the age of cloud technology and automation is our specialty,” says Ms Norman. “It resonates with our purpose, business model and expanding value proposition. We were an early adopter – allow me to say, a ‘pioneer’ – of digital services, maximising the opportunities and efficiency gains that automation offers our industry and clients.”
Indeed, ‘automation consulting’ is a forte of Ms Norman and BizWhiz, and much in demand. By automating as much of the client financial and information systems as possible, Norman frees up client time, a scarce resource for many entrepreneurs.
“BizWhiz services are now being sought out by software providers, and even national and international firms,” comments Ms Norman. “We know how to streamline information and financial systems, make them work for the client.”
As with many other business managers offering highly skilled services, Ms Norman says that getting talent onboard is the biggest ongoing challenge.
In part, the BizWhiz location has perhaps presented an obstacle. “In finding a pool of new talent that have the skills, proficiency and aptitude to embrace automation and new software applications, we have found that our Mornington Peninsula office location has compounded this challenge,” comments Ms Norman.
The Peninsula offers terrific lifestyle options, but the pool of applicants tends to be smaller than firms that are closer to major metro areas.
Advising would-be start-ups, Ms Norman counsels that the big city is probably best for the first office, especially if one expects to grow and add staff.
“In hindsight, if we had chosen to establish our first office location in a metropolitan location, it may have been a catalyst for our growth and expansion strategies,” observes Ms Norman.
With scarce and valuable employees in hand, Ms Norman goes all-out to align her six-person staff with BizWhiz goals.
To build team membership sentiments, she holds daily morning meetings – called the ‘daily huddle and cuddle’ – led by a different member of the staff each day, the goal of which is to start the day “pumped and positive.”
Company benefits include nights out to the Peninsula Hot Springs or paid attendance to regional and national industry award nights.
Networking with other accountants
Ms Norman also advises small business operators to form professional partnerships, to network.
“For example, at BizWhiz we proactively form partnerships with like-minded accountants Australia-wide. We seek partnerships with accountants who offer higher-level services above our own, such as wealth creation and management,” Ms Norman explains.
Indeed, the signal restaurant rescue assignment was a referral from an accountant Ms Norman met from a previous role on an advisory council, an example of networking with the accounting trade that paid off.
BizWhiz and Ms Norman are earning accolades and recognition, such as the 2017 Victorian Small Business Advisor of the Year and the 2018 Australian Bookkeeping Executive of the Year.
Not bad for a firm that started up five years ago, and even then because she was bedridden from an auto accident and casting about for options.
To further expand, Ms Norman is pondering partnerships with other service providers who offer complementary services BizWhiz does not.
“Many of our clients ask for more services after experiencing BizWhiz delivery of our core services,” explains Ms Norman. “We are actively leveraging partnership with reputable third parties to bring those services seamlessly to clients.”
For young people, Ms Norman advises taking a look at bookkeeping or accounting.
“The industry has changed, due to online platforms and automation. The bookkeeper is no longer the numbercruncher wearing green eyeshades in the corner. Today the industry is about online automation, streamlining, compliance, helping entrepreneurs turn passions into businesses.”
People skills are needed more than ever. “Besides that, in bookkeeping and accounting, you get exposed to new businesses and operators continuously, and see how they really work,” asserts Ms Norman.
“If education is its own reward, modern-day bookkeepers enjoy a rich profession indeed.”