Michael Bailey Deputy editor

Michael has been a business journalist for 12 years. He has extensive experience editing magazines covering funds management, commercial property and the travel industry. In 2011 he won a Citi Excellence in Financial Journalism award for a BRW cover story on economic indicators.

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Border security

Published 14 March 2012 12:00, Updated 27 March 2012 15:30

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Four in 10 Australians would love to see state governments abolished, a 2010 Newspoll survey on the subject shows.

We still love telling jokes at the expense of those across the borders and flock to see the likes of Perth Scorchers and Hobart Hurricanes face off in last summer’s inaugral 20-20 cricket national competition.

Yet there’s a healthy disrespect for those arbitrary administrative boundaries, and especially the extra tier of politicians that goes with them. This disdain for state-based affiliations is evident in the results of the 2012 BRW/Beaton Client Choice Awards.

National firms with no obvious geographic bias were the ones that dominated the shortlists for best firm as voted by clients in each state.

There were exceptions but they were counter-intuitive. One finalist for best Victorian firm, engineer Douglas Partners, has its head office in Sydney. The winner in Victoria, Lawler Chartered Accountants, began in Newcastle and until 2009 had no presence outside NSW.

Only a couple of award recipients make sense from a parochial perspective.

A finalist for best Queensland firm, Vincents Chartered Accountants, began in Brisbane in 1989 when forensic accounting specialist Paul Vincent left KPMG to hang a shingle. He’s since expanded into NSW and the ACT but Vincents remains the largest independent audit firm in the sunshine state. Its go-to reputation is illustrated by the fact that when Pitcher Partners broke up its Brisbane office in 2008, seven of its 10 partners were Vincents-bound.

Meanwhile, the winner of best NSW firm, Sydney’s Swaab Attorneys, tried crossing the border once but didn’t like it. “We had a Melbourne office for a couple of years, five or six years ago. It didn’t work for us, we found it difficult moving out of a single-office culture,” says Bronwyn Pott, an accountant by training who is chief executive of the 70-person firm.

Swaab’s Sydney office has an atmosphere different to that of any national law firm. A regular on BRW’s Best Places to Work list, Swaab throws regular staff lunches prepared by Pott herself.

The firm also has a relaxed attitude to staff bringing children into the office in emergencies, a policy inspired by Pott after she was recalled to run the practice two weeks after giving birth to her eldest son, David, in 1988. Her replacement had quit and there was an urgent trust audit the next day. David and pram were by her desk for the next two months.

“I’m hesitant to use the phrase ‘lifestyle firm’ because that means different things to different people but we are smaller so we can be more flexible,” Pott says.

Swaab can still support clients with national needs, she says, through partner travel as well as Swaab being a member of the international Meritas network in the years since its abortive Melbourne experiment. “Belonging to a legal network that’s jurisdiction-based really precludes us from setting up interstate and that suits us fine,” Pott says.

A firm such as Lawler Chartered Accountants might once have been expected to remain another one-town proposition, rather than a finalist in two “best of state” categories and winner of one. Founder Terry Lawler’s home town, after all, is Newcastle – a place whose parochialism can be measured by its devotion to the local rugby league team, the Knights, which recently sold out its first-round game.

However, after establishing a beachhead in Sydney, Lawler has since 2009 formed alliances with mid-tier practices in Melbourne and Brisbane. All the firms now operate under the Lawler brand but what brings them together is their disdain for phrases such as “mid-tier”.

“Terms like that and ‘the big four’ are all invented by the big end of town and to us they show disrespect to a significant part of the professional and business community,” Lawler says. “Sure, we service what you could call mid-sized firms but rather than put a number around it, which soon becomes irrelevant, we use it as a way to define a sort of culture of client we like to deal with, that we respect and will go the extra mile for.”

For Lawler, that is a culture of decision-making and proactivity, rather than the “back-covering” he suggests is rampant in bigger organisations. The accounting veteran says his expansion has not been a success because of any direction he has imposed.

“It’s got to be a bottom-up approach,” he says. “Each firm in the alliance does its own business plan. But then say the audit partners [across the firms] want to do something and it will cost X dollars, then the managing partners as a group decide how that will be allocated. The ideas originate from the people at the coalface, we’re more a sounding board.”

A culture of such input from all staff gets harder as the firm gets larger. With 170 partners and 1200 employees in Australia, Minter Ellison tries to maintain a consistent approach through regular secondments and encouragement of healthy competition between offices.

The strategy has paid off in Queensland. The Brisbane office, under managing partner Ross Landsberg, has recorded higher satisfaction among its clients than those of any other professional services firm in the state.

Landsberg puts some of it down to a “one firm” strategy that Minter Ellison adopted five years ago. “Clients were becoming much more aggregated; they were using us in thee or four different locations and weren’t always reporting the same experience,” he says.

“We had to work harder at making sure clients had access to the best people with the best experience, in any jurisdiction.”

The firm has done it by appealing to lawyers’ naturally competitive instincts. “I’ve had to be able to say to partners, ‘You’re good but in this particular area, Jean in Sydney or Fred in Melbourne is actually better than you. So we’ll bring them in on this matter and you can work with them and learn from them, so we all get better as a firm. But you have to accept that on this particular job you’re not going to be the lead’.”

Hence, the theory goes, steeling the partner’s resolve to be lead next time.

Landsberg says that while relocating partners between offices for weeks at a time creates national consistency, it eats into profitability in the short term. On the upside, it gives partners a financial incentive to think long-term.

“A partnership has to distribute all its income each year, so if we choose to invest in a client, we all pay the tax – and partners who invest today won’t get the benefit if they’re not partners in five years’ time,” Landsberg says.

“Across Minter Ellison, we drive home that what’s good for the firm trumps what might be good for you in the short term. We have good engagement around that but I won’t pretend it’s not an ongoing challenge.”

A test will be whether the firm makes any other “best in state” finals at next year’s BRW/Beaton Client Choice Awards.

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