Date posted: 1/12/2016 8 min read

Tech-savvy rural CAs on competitive edge and country living

Operating an accountancy firm in a rural area can help beat the urban squeeze and have great lifestyle and career benefits

In brief

  • Technology has enabled accountants to work anywhere – with global market potential
  • Technologically savvy staff are key to a rural company’s success
  • Due to lower overheads, rural practices can be very competitive with city firms

Town vs country. Cue stereotypical images of sports matches set in sleepy, small towns with gumboot-clad spectators, swilling beer at the (one) local pub at the end of the day, country folks facing off against city slickers, each preferring their own lifestyle. But as house prices in urban areas continue to soar, squeezing people out of the market on both sides of the Tasman, will more townies decide it makes better sense to “head for the hills”?

Real Estate Institute of New Zealand Chief Executive Colleen Milne says there’s increasing evidence Aucklanders are looking out of the region for properties, buying instead in Northland and Waikato/Bay of Plenty.

In Australia, the number of city dwellers is expected to increase 57 per cent by 2040 (figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics). However data from The Regional Australia Institute in 2014 shows there has been an increase in the number of people aged 25 to 44 moving from Australian capital cities to regional areas.

The lure of cheaper housing and a simplified lifestyle is strong. And with the advances in technology and the increasing prevalence of remote working, it is possible to have a big career in a little place.

New Zealander Greg Sheehan CA is based Martinborough, a small rural town in the Wairarapa, in the south east of the North Island. The picturesque area is known for its wineries and is a favoured weekend getaway for Wellingtonians.

Growth phase

Sheehan is CEO of RightWay, an accounting and advisory firm he and three others launched in 2011. They initially chose Greytown, also in the Wairarapa, for head office — later moving it to nearby Martinborough — simply because they all lived close by.

“We decided that, technology being what it was back then in 2011, we could really be anywhere when we set up.

“There’s that great saying: ‘work used to be a place’, so where you go to work now is almost secondary to what you do. We were able to kick things off in a small country town.”

From the outset, the team knew they were building a business that would have an Australasian, and potentially a global, reach, he says.

“So where we centred it was almost irrelevant — to start with it was really more convenience.”

Sheehan says RightWay, which focuses on small business clients, is the country’s fastest growing accounting firm.

“We’ve now got 50-odd staff and we’re likely to double that count again this year. I would think there would be at least a couple of hundred people in about three years’ time.”

The company has offices in ten locations throughout New Zealand and an office in Sydney.

He believes single-mindedness and determination have been key to the company’s success, along with good people — including one of the co-founders of accounting software firm Xero – and lots of hard work.

RightWay is run like a business, not an accounting practice, with a board and CEO rather than partners. This enables quick decision making, says Sheehan.

Despite being based in a small town, RightWay hasn’t yet targeted rural clients and has few local clients.

“I guess because we’re not a traditional firm that has client bases where our head office is, our rural base is actually very low. We’re going to start growing that soon.”

Virtual office

Sheehan admits there are challenges running a firm outside a big city. For him the main one is the amount of travel required.

“Technology is amazing and we leverage off technology to a massive extent. We use some really cool tools to communicate with one another around the country and across to Australia, but I think nothing beats face-to-face. It just means you’ve got to spend some time in the car or in aeroplanes.”

He has no plans to move back to a big city but acknowledges that, in time, RightWay’s head office might have to move to Wellington, Auckland or Sydney.

RightWay is the poster child for flexible working.

“I don’t have a desk anymore,” says Sheehan.

“It’s kind of nice just having that flexibility — particularly as CEO — to not sit there and have a big corner office, I’ll just dock myself down with various members of the team and work away wherever there’s a spot.”

And the benefits of remote working apply to staff, not just management.

“We’ve got staff who have moved towns because of their family circumstances, and they didn’t need to move jobs.

“We’ve just had somebody move from Palmerston North to Tauranga for family reasons, and they can keep working for us.”

Technology is key to the company’s success with remote working, and it’s a prerequisite that new staff are technologically savvy when they join this cloud-based company with its paperless office.

Technology is amazing and we leverage off technology to a massive extent.

Don’t leave town ‘til you’ve seen… town

While Sheehan grew up in Auckland, he can’t over-emphasise the lifestyle benefits of living and working beyond the big smoke.

“Your dollar goes further, you can buy more property, you can live a lifestyle that’s free of the craziness of the city.”

He says rural New Zealand is great for raising a family. His children would say it was boring, he laughs, but he’s sure they’ll appreciate it once they’re older.

Despite being a big fan of country life, Sheehan is measured in his recommendations for young people. Although there are lots of opportunities in the provinces, he cautions young people not to leave the city before they are ready.

“Don’t leave the city until you’re ready to leave the city. I think there is a lot of opportunity for young people in the cities, there’s a lot of experience they can garner.”

He thinks people reach a certain age — around 30 — where it can be time to settle down more, and that’s when the provinces have a lot to offer.

“There’s cheaper housing, there’s more land available, there’s generally a lot of like-minded people in those areas.”

The view from Armidale

Across the ditch in Armidale, New South Wales, Simon Croft FCA is a farmer and a senior partner at Roberts and Morrow, specialising in the rural sector. He grew up on, and now manages, the family farm at nearby Guyra, where his mother still lives.

Most of his clients work in the agricultural sector and they appreciate having an accountant with a farming background.

“A lot of the guys [farmers] just seem to like to deal with people who know their industry,” says Croft.

Croft is surprised by what he sees as just a small number of people with rural backgrounds going into accounting. He would like to see more people combine the two areas if they have an interest in agriculture and a good head for numbers.

“They’re overlooking the great potential that is in public practice and advisory work.”

He believes it’s due to lingering stereotypes about chartered accounting being boring, combined with a lack of knowledge about what CAs really do.

Croft says the work has changed significantly since he started in the profession, going from just preparing tax returns and financials to now being the only independent advisor many clients have.

The firm is also focused on driving technology change for clients. As with RightWay, all of Roberts and Morrow’s staff are technologically savvy and the office is working towards becoming paperless.

A lot of the guys [farmers] just seem to like to deal with people who know their industry.

Encouraging new blood

Croft is keen to encourage more young people into the profession and the firm has utilised work experience as a way to do so. They have made a dramatic change in their approach to the scheme, going from viewing the Year 10 school students as a burden (and finding them filler tasks to do), to “treating them like they’re royalty”.

“We have someone sit with them and explain to them exactly what the career is about. We make the experience fun for them, we take them out to lunch.

“If I do that and I get one kid to choose accounting, I’ve done a pretty good job, I reckon.”

He admits adjusting to life in the country — despite Armidale’s population of just over 25,000 — can be difficult for someone brought up in an urban environment.

The firm’s cadet programme, for people part-way through their university study, pitches to those who have grown up in rural or regional areas.

“We’re getting them from the local area so we know there’s a pretty good chance of them staying.”

While it’s not essential to have a rural background to work in a rural area, he says it does help and it means no great adjustment is needed.

“I don’t think there’s anything you can’t learn… you don’t have to know how to drive a tractor and put out feed to be interested in agriculture.”

Croft believes the country offers a very good standard of living, particularly when people are ready to start a family, and the cost of living is significantly lower than in the city.

“What we encourage is that people go and get a taste of the big city life, but always encourage them to come home. That’s pretty much what I did and what a number of our staff and partners did.”

He believes a rural or regional-based practice has a lot of advantages over a city-based firm. The costs of rents and wages are lower and rural practices can compete with city firms “very savagely” on price, he says.

“The rewards here in the country — the financial reward for us personally as partners is pretty bloody good — it’d be very hard to match.”

This article was first published in the September 2015 issue of Acuity magazine.