Running a business in a small community

13 July 2017

Jayson Forrest

Jayson Forrest is the managing editor of Money & Life Magazine.

Michael Chalmers CFP® made the move to a regional community 13 years ago and while that came with its own set of challenges, it’s a decision he does not regret.

Michael Chalmers has always been a ‘country-boy’ at heart. It’s a claim he wears with pride.

So, it was a naturally easy decision for him at age 25, armed with his new CFP® designation and appointed NAB’s youngest ever senior financial planning manager, to move to the Goulburn Valley city of Shepparton. He still reckons it’s the best decision he has ever made.

Fast-forward 13 years, and Michael is the principal planner of Chalmers Private Wealth, a small dealer-aligned planning practice he established in September 2010.

But like any small business, working in a rural community doesn’t come without its unique set of challenges. That’s why Michael continues to work hard to try and keep things simple within his practice.

“As an adviser, I’m only really comfortable taking on clients who understand our advice model,” he says. “I’m not comfortable having clients who put their complete trust in us without understanding what it is we do.”

So, the approach Chalmers Private Wealth takes with all its clients is to help them better understand their finances and the financial options available to them, while clearly showing them how their decisions will ultimately shape their own financial future.

“By educating and empowering our clients, it enables us to put the onus back on the client for their own financial decisions. That means we take a lot more time taking a client on, making sure they understand all the steps in the process and for us, that has always paid dividends in the long run,” Michael says.

It’s this approach to client on-boarding and engagement that is working for the business, with no client complaints to date and a steady volume of client referrals. And it’s something Michael attributes to belonging to a strong regional community.

“When you work in a regional town, it comes across fairly quickly with the locals if you’ve got their best interests at heart. Regional people can genuinely sense that pretty quickly. And if you’re a good person, with good intentions, then they want you to succeed.”

Challenges

However, that doesn’t mean running a business out of a regional centre doesn’t come without it’s challenges.

“Definitely the most challenging aspect for me working in Shepparton is capacity constraints,” Michael says. “As the business grew, it did become difficult for a while for me to deal with all the referrals, while making sure I was looking after my exisiting clients and meeting all of their needs. There’s only so many hours in the day, right?”

Capacity constraints also meant Michael struggled to simply find the time to work on the business, not in it – a common challenge for sole practitioners.

He concedes he was probably “border line” at the time of having to shut the doors to new clients, when he finally took the plunge and brought on another planner in July 2016 – his business partner Oliver Ladd – to help with the growth of the business.

“Oliver is currently studying the CFP Certification Unit, which was an important factor for me in being comfortable with him joining the business,” Michael says. “In fact, bringing on Oliver has made a huge difference to the business, because for a number of years, the biggest issue for me working in a regional centre was where to find another planner to help me. It’s an issue I think most regional practices struggle with and something most city-based practices take for granted.”

Indeed, finding the right staff to work in a country practice can take time, with there being a smaller pool of talent from which to draw upon. But it’s not an issue for Chalmers Private Wealth, with Michael saying he is fortunate to have all members of his staff having relevant education qualifications, which is an important consideration for the business.

“Jacky, our paraplanner, is tertiary qualified in economics and finance, and she completed DFP 1-8 a number of years ago,” he says. “And our client services manager, Kelly, has a diploma in accounting, while Lauren, our administrative assistant, is currently studying an accounting degree with a view to progressing into the CFP Certification Program.”

Another challenge Michael identifies is the conservative nature of regional folk, which has made it particularly difficult for him to change the community’s perception of financial planners in the wake of negative media coverage of the profession, and particularly with those who have never dealt with a planner before. But it’s a battle he is winning.

Interestingly, Michael says customer loyalty is also a challenge for the practice.

“Customer loyalty can be a real challenge in a regional community,” he says. “Loyalty is great but when you are dealing with a new client and you’re pointing out that another professional they have dealt with, be it a solicitor or an accountant or whoever, has made a mistake or has failed to highlight an issue to them, then you need to be very careful in how you present that to them.

“That’s because in a town the size of Shepparton, everybody knows everyone, or at worst, there’s one to two degrees of separation. So, when highlighting the errors of another professional, you need to be very careful how you go about doing this, because it’s a small town and small town people talk – there’s no doubt about that.”

Community

While working in a regional town does have its own set of unique challenges, for the 38-year-old, Michael draws strength from belonging to a tight knit community. For him, being part of his local community is not only essential but goes beyond being a good corporate citizen; it’s being part of the lifeblood that sustains that community.

“I don’t think it matters how you’re involved in the community. But in a regional town, people do talk. So, if you’re seen as just being for yourself, then that gets around.

“However, if you’re seen as being part of the community, whether you’re on the school council, or part of the volunteer bushfire brigade, or the local table tennis club – whatever it is, as long as you are involved, people see you as being invested in their community.

“Being involved in your local community certainly provides small town people with confidence and trust in you, because you’re invested in the community, you’re one of them and not a blow-in from the city.”

Michael is happy to walk the talk. He is heavily invested in the Shepparton community, coaching his son’s school soccer team and as a participant in this year’s Oxfam 100km walk for charity. He is also the current president of the Goulburn Valley Obstacle Racers – Dirty Fighters (obstacle racing and training), and a past president of the Shepparton Table Tennis Association.

And if that’s not enough, Michael was ‘Mr May’ in a local fundraiser calendar for leukaemia, where he and a couple of his clients posed for a worthy cause. Now, that’s community spirit!

“But it doesn’t end there,” he says. “It’s just as important to have staff who are also emotionally and actively engaged in the community, as it allows clients to more easily feel a real connection to the business.”

Professional Practice

Chalmers Private Wealth became an FPA Professional Practice in April 2012, making it the first FPA Professional Practice operating in the Goulburn Valley.

“For me, it was about bringing a bit of prestige to the practice and to differentiate our business from the other planning practices in the area,” he says.

But for Michael, being an FPA Professional Practice is more than just third party validation of service quality and planner experience. The brand is his commitment to the profession’s highest professional and ethical standards, which has brought recognition from aligned professionals, including accountants, that the practice works with.

“I have one specific accountant in town who refers almost all her clients to us, because she knows we will look after them and subsequently, we make her look good in the eyes of her clients. So, working collaboratively with other professionals, certainly helps.”

Chalmers Private Wealth is also part of the Cbus referral program, which has been another source of growth for the business.

“Those clients who are coming to us from Cbus haven’t been referred by a friend, family member or trusted adviser. They’re coming through from their industry super fund. So, for us being an FPA Professional Practice, actually makes a difference for them.”

And as a benefit of being an FPA Professional Practice, Michael has used his free Business HealthCheck, which he found to be “eye-opening”.

“We did it for the first time last year. Doing the Business HealthCheck was an eye-opener for me in some of the key financial areas, which were generally very positive results. The results reinforced how well we are going as a business, which was very reassuring for our practice.”

And what about areas for improvement?

“There were some business deficiencies highlighted in the report, such as succession planning, our business plan and position descriptions for the staff. I knew these were all issues for the business but it really took this external report to remind me of the importance to address them, which I have done,” Michael says.

“For us, the report has been a good measuring tool that has helped me to refocus on those areas where we need to improve, which is absolutely important as we continue to grow.”

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