When advice gets personal

Clients’ stress can affect the whole community, says Josephine Christmas CPA | Photo: Randy Larcombe

The role of accountants in regional Australia often extends far beyond financial matters.

When you consider professionals who are on the front line in a crisis, paramedics and police officers usually come to mind. Accountants do not.

Yet as business owners worldwide grapple with issues such as the fallout from the global financial crisis (GFC) and environmental disasters, today’s regional or rural accountant isn’t just a numbers man or woman.

They are the person on whom a client leans in times of crisis.

This social phenomenon is borne out by a recent University of South Australia study, Accountants as Emotional Wellbeing Counsellors in Rural Areas, and by anecdotal evidence.

The study’s findings highlight that, despite a lack of formal training, accountants in country areas act in a counselling role considered important by both local residents and regional developers.

They are identified as the first line of defence against degenerating emotional and social wellbeing that’s linked to financial stress.

In times of financial or environmental hardship, reliance on accountants for advice grows, say study authors Amanda Carter, Roger Burritt and John Pisaniello.

“I’ve had clients who have been through floods, droughts and fires, some who have done really well and some who struggled big-time,” says Peter Mogg FCPA, who runs a successful accountancy practice in Cobram, a small town on the Murray River in Victoria surrounded by orchards, dairy farms and wineries.

“Often they just need someone to talk to – it’s not financial, it’s personal. I did a cash flow analysis for a dairy farmer who had A$2 million of his own money in the farm and was set to lose A$100,000 a year – if both he and his wife worked 80 hours each a week,” Mogg says.

“What does that do to your mental state? You hang in there, but the strain on the whole family is enormous and my role is to navigate them through it.”

Mogg is typical of the accountants whom regional developers identified as “sounding boards” or “leaning posts” for business owners in their jurisdiction, according to the researchers.

While he grew up in the area, returning from Melbourne to practise there in 1983, Mogg still feels the pressure of dealing with clients who are very emotional at times. “If someone is separating from a partner, we’re often the first to know things aren’t good,” he says.

Like the study’s authors, who advocate greater training in crisis management for accountants, he believes “all public practitioners could use extra skills in dealing with clients’ emotional wellbeing. We discreetly refer clients to the Rural Counselling Service – but, for many, there is too much stigma attached to acknowledging that you may need professional help”.

At Byfields Merredin in Western Australia, Russell Roberts CPA says the big issue for clients has been several poor farming seasons. “Farms don’t have cash flow and don’t spend on retail, which puts a strain on other local businesses,” Roberts says. “Clients are very stressed and we provide a shoulder to lean on.”

Of course, there is also financial expertise, not just moral support. “For example, during the GFC I had a client operating in the mining sector who lost their primary contract and source of income,” Roberts says.

“They faced a difficult 18 months as they struggled to find replacement work, had large equipment finance payments to make and significant tax debts. Working closely with the client, their finance broker and the Australian Taxation Office, we were able to defer or reduce equipment payments, set up ATO payment arrangements and assist the client to continue trading.”

But it’s the sympathetic ear that is just as crucial as the financial solutions. Roberts says staff support each other and have attended in-house training days where guest speakers included Bali bombing and tsunami survivors. “It gives you a greater perspective,” he says.

Peter Knights checks a canola crop | Photo: Sally McIntyre

Peter Knights checks a canola crop | Photo: Sally McIntyre

Ironically, when Carter, a research associate at the University of South Australia Business School, began the research study for her PhD, it was not with the idea of uncovering the pressures on accountants of acting in a counselling role.

Yet the more she heard about their involvement in personal issues, the greater her sense that “this had become part of the job”.

Says Carter: “A few found it quite distressing – for example, the accountant who had a client come in covered by soot after a fire saying, ‘I’ve just lost everything’. A few had made appointments for clients to go to the local GP for help; some even went with them. A few had business cards for counselling services but, in many areas, there was a limit to what was available and there was still a stigma on using these services so the job fell to them."

Carter says the research proves there is a strong emotional content to the job of accountant. “On the other side of the table is a human being,” she says.

Previous research backs up her findings. In their study of 1374 financial planners, Dubofsky and Sussman (2009) found that 74.4 per cent of respondents experienced clients who had become emotionally upset during consultations, sobbing, and showing anger or violence.

In addition, 57.6 per cent had been told a secret by clients. The researchers concluded: “Divorce, family strife, suicide, drugs, mental health, religion and spirituality, illness and death – this reads like a list of issues that would and should be managed by a member of the clergy, social worker, psychologist or physician.”

Carter continues: “Clients come in joking ‘can I afford to divorce my wife or husband?’. One accountant noted it had taken 2½ years to get trust in a relationship where a grandmother could lay out a family feud that affected her will.”

Most rural and regional accountants say they get invited to weddings and funerals.

With more than 40 years’ experience, Tony Ponti CPA of Fahey & Ponti (with offices in Ayr, Bowen and Townsville in Queensland) says he regularly gets asked to deliver eulogies, to act as the go-between in family feuds and to offer advice as to whether clients should get a divorce.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily a rural thing,” Ponti says. “It’s a people thing. As an accountant you get to know the family’s personal business.”

Terry Brown CPA is a semi-retired partner in BNW Accountants, a practice that specialises in small business and primary producers with a head office in Warwick, Queensland, and a branch in Millmerran.

These days he enjoys hobby farming and breeding thoroughbred horses but, having spent more than 50 years in accountancy, he’s seen plenty of tragedies as well as triumphs.

“Farming is always up and down – there’s too much rain or not enough – and some clients have had it very rough,” Brown says. “You often get told more than a priest would and you can’t help but be moved by the situation. I wake up in the middle of the night worrying about a particular client. Trouble with banks is the most stressful for people, more so even than terminal illness.”

Brown says some clients are wary of professional counsellors when he suggests that option. “I do everything I can,” he says.

Peter Knights CPA, who has a practice at St Arnauds in Victoria’s Wimmera region, says during the drought of 1997 to 2010, relationships and mental health were often strained. “As an adviser to a lot of farmers it was hard not to soak up these pressures as you provided a shoulder or friendly ear.”

Knights, who moved back to the area in 1994 to help his father, Bill, with their 1600ha sheep, cattle and wheat property, says that an increase in debt load will be a continuing legacy of the drought for many farms in the region and has spelt the end of the line for others.

However, the variability of markets, low prices and overproduction may be even bigger challenges than the weather, he says. “Coaching and support of clients through financing, restructure, disputes and succession planning is a part of my role that is assisted greatly by a direct empathy with farmers and farming.”

While many clients bottle up stress, their ability to talk things through and seek help is better than it has been thanks to campaigns run by organisations such as beyondblue, Knights says. However, he is also the stopgap, the person who sits at the family table and “gets the skeletons out of the closet”.

Many regional and rural accountants have adjusted to this expanded role, while others have found their own ways to cope.

Josephine Christmas CPA, a partner in Christmas & Volling, a firm with offices in Rockhampton, Queensland, and Victor Harbor, South Australia, grew up in Emerald, Queensland and now has her own alpaca and sheep farm in Victor Harbor.

An accountant for more than 30 years, Christmas says: “We can have clients in drought in one area while at the same time others are badly affected by rains and floods. In both situations we can be dealing with financial institutions on behalf of the clients as they have ongoing commitments, but income sources have stopped. We act as an advocate for the client and try to help reduce the stress they are experiencing. Some don’t recover and that affects the whole regional community.”

Peter Knights with his father Bill and sons Patrick and Harry | Photo: Sally McIntyre

Peter Knights with his father Bill and sons Patrick and Harry | Photo: Sally McIntyre

However, even in very stressful situations, Christmas says she doesn’t feel overwhelmed by clients’ emotional needs. “My relationship with clients is confidential but also personal. I can be at the family table with a box of tissues if I have to,” she says. “What they talk about [to me] sometimes the family doesn’t even know about. But I love that the trust is there and I do feel that, with the support of fellow partners and staff, combined with a sound network of professionals, I am well equipped to cope.”

David Elphinstone CPA, director of Elphinstone Stevens in Burnie, Tasmania, says he uses his drive home from the office, outdoor pursuits and advice from a colleague to clear his mind.

He has clients who have recently faced hard times with the upheaval in the vegetable processing industry. “McCains at Smithton moved all their processing to New Zealand except for potatoes and Simplot announced their processing was under review,” Elphinstone says. “Clients who had grown vegetables for many years all of a sudden lost not just their contracts, but also their livelihoods, their business and all they have ever worked on. It is very emotional.

“If you asked my wife or staff they would definitely say I get stressed, but the good thing about living 30 minutes from work [at Sisters Creek] is that I have time to free my mind of work-related matters. My former business partner, Bob Stevens, who has continued to work part-time, is also a great sounding board. Nothing beats 40-plus years’ experience in public practice.”

Maybe, but what is really needed is better training of rural and regional accountants to cope with their more diverse role, agrees study supervisor Professor Roger Burritt, director of the Centre for Accounting, Governance and Sustainability at the University of South Australia.

“Training in counselling should be a necessary aspect of a well-rounded accounting practitioner,” Burritt says. “But training is also needed in other aspects, particularly in the ways that accountants can interact and best engage with other professionals. This landscape is changing and the accountancy profession could get left behind if it does not adapt its educational and training core.”

To address problems faced by clients, there is a need to include the perspectives of professionals such as engineers and lawyers, Burritt believes.

“Water accounting is driven by meteorologists who understand rainfall distribution, not by accountants. Hence in sectors such as the wine industry, to provide useful advice we have to be on top of water issues as accounting at present is seen through the eyes of these other professionals.

"In management control in the health sector we need to learn from neuro-endocrinologists, and so on. The profession in Australia has the opportunity to be a world leader in these trans-disciplinary areas and it is something we definitely need to address.”

The Program in context

CPA Australia Program Manager Richard Brown says that, in designing the CPA Program, there is a strong focus on the role of the accountant as a part of the broader business and economic environment.

“The Contemporary Business Issues segment provides a diverse view of the contribution accountants make, with a focus on issues such as ethical interactions and advising beyond traditional accounting areas.

“The practical experience component of the CPA Program focuses specifically on communicating effectively and relationship management, critical skills required to deal with stressful situations.”

Brown adds that CPA Australia also provides a wide range of options beyond the CPA Program, particularly through sessions at CPA Congress and Public Practice Conferences that explore personal effectiveness and leadership skills.

This article is from the November 2013 issue of INTHEBLACK magazine.