A former big bank executive, Neil Slonim FCPA is now helping “the little guys” with a crack team of one – himself.
By Winsome Byrne
Helping “the little guy” is the main objective for Neil Slonim FCPA, who has made a second career providing advice for small business after 25 years in senior roles at National Australia Bank (NAB).
“I’d always wanted the opportunity to see what I could do, as distinct from what I brought to the equation as an employee of a big organisation,” he says. “I was at the NAB for 25 years and always wondered whether my achievements were attributed to what I used to call ‘the big red star’, the NAB brand, or to what extent was it my personal endeavours.
“I didn’t want to finish my career not having addressed that question.”
In 2008 he struck out on his own with Slonim Consulting, an advisory practice for mid-sized corporations, big family private enterprises or small, emerging, listed companies.
However, he soon realised that while bigger clients were prepared to pay for his services, another group was being neglected: the “little guys”, the small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs). “For them, things can turn bad quite quickly,” Slonim says. When they do, the owner needs the advice of someone independent, he adds.
“The bank’s position, rightly, is it needs to look after its shareholders. The little guys traditionally have relied on their accountants, who tend to focus more on compliance. So where do they go?”
His solution was to set up http://theBankDoctor.org in 2013, a free online resource that offers practical help. It doesn’t make money; it’s not designed to. Nor does it funnel clients to Slonim’s consulting arm, which funds it.
As the Bank Doctor, Slonim writes content for his site, and connects on social media. In 2016, his blog was listed among Australia’s best business blogs by Smart Company.
“What I learned from that very difficult period was that true character surfaces under pressure.”
The advice Slonim gives is grounded in decades of experience. He started his finance career some years before he went into banking with the Bank of New Zealand Australia (BNZA) in the mid 1980s. He’d had accounting roles at KPMG and BHP, worked for a computer service company and done an MBA.
After the Black Monday stock-market crash in October 1987, BNZA was one of the first banks in Australia to set up a separate unit to manage impaired loans, and Slonim headed it.
“Warren Buffett was right when he said that when the tide goes out, you can see who is not wearing bathers,” says Slonim.
“What I learned from that very difficult period was that true character surfaces under pressure. When things got really tough and businesses, homes and livelihoods were at risk, some people didn’t behave as I expected, while others surprised me the other way.”
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When NAB took over the bank in 1991, Slonim stayed on as senior controller of the asset restructuring department. Two years on he stepped up to be a regional executive and, within a decade, became regional director of the major client group.
The most satisfying aspect of his banking career, says Slonim, was backing the people and businesses – such as jobs website Seek – that had potential but needed support to reach it.
He’s backing people in his second career, too. He’ll soon join forces with the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman and Fintech Australia to look at practices in the fintech lending market.
“Fintech lenders are an important alternative form of debt funding for SMEs which, for various reasons, can’t or don’t want to deal with traditional banks,” Slonim explains. “Fintechs don’t rely on [you having] property as security and can provide quick access to funds.”
He says another big issue for small business owners is mental health. They are often under huge financial and time pressure, and don’t have the flexibility or resources to deal with mental ill health.
Slonim, who has a staff of one (himself) running his two businesses, has found his own solution to time pressures: “If I need help – legal, IT, accounting – I contract someone I know and trust.”
One piece of advice
“My main priority is looking after my health. You cannot look after your family or your employees if you’re not in good physical and mental health.”
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