Jim O’Connor CPA got hands-on experience in his family’s grain silo business. Now he’s co-owner of a farm equipment firm as well as a craft brewery.
By Winsome Byrne
Running an agricultural equipment business and brewing beer could hardly be more different but it’s something Jim O’Connor CPA relishes.
O’Connor is director of finance for Gessner Industries in Toowoomba, Queensland. He oversees a team of 50 in a business that designs and sells agricultural machinery throughout Australia.
He is also co-owner and director of Fortitude Brewing near Mount Tamborine, a boutique brewery that employs 10 full-time staff, and says both jobs depend on skills he developed as a CPA.
After graduating from the University of Queensland in 1999, O’Connor took a role with accounting firm Arthur Andersen as an analyst in its global corporate finance division. That led to an intriguing assignment in Brunei, where he was part of a team called in to investigate a misappropriation of funds within the Brunei Investment Agency.
It was a fantastic opportunity to gain experience outside traditional accounting, he says, and it also taught him that he wanted a career with more direct involvement in the day-to-day running of a business.
O’Connor’s parents ran a grain silo business and it was at about this time they set up a factory in country New South Wales making silos and tanks. O’Connor also happened to be looking for his next challenge, so he left Arthur Andersen and, in 2001, joined the family business, MPH Rural, as a branch manager.
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It gave him the hands-on business experience he craved. He spent eight months setting up the new factory, including finding the premises, employing staff and getting the logistics of the business right.
As he became more involved in learning the financial side of the business, O’Connor decided to formalise his qualifications and started studying for his CPA designation.
He qualified as a CPA in 2004, the same year he and his brother and sister bought the family business from their parents.
O’Connor took over as director of finance, looking after the operational side of the business while his brother focused on sales. They expanded the business, then sold it on in 2010.
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Soon after, he ran into an old friend – home-brewing enthusiast Gerard Connors. “Gerard had always been interested in the science side of brewing beer. I was probably more interested in drinking it,” he says.
Taken with the idea of setting up a craft brewery, he and Connors created Fortitude Brewing in 2012. They pulled their first beer in 2013 and now produce ales, lagers and even a ginger beer. They are also carving a niche with a lower-alcohol ale, which few craft breweries make.
"You learn how to learn. You get some extra polish and focus on issues..."
However, while brewing beer was fun, O’Connor knew he needed something else to help pay the bills. In 2013, the owners of Gessner Industries were looking for someone to buy their business, and O’Connor saw it was a good fit. “We knew the market, we knew the clientele. Farmers buy planting equipment as much as they buy silos,” he says.
Although Gessner and the brewery are different industries, both are manufacturing, which means they demand similar skills. Despite that, O’Connor admits his dual roles are challenging. “It’s hard to compartmentalise the work and feel like you’re on top of everything.’’
He is still drawing on the skills he acquired in his CPA and at Arthur Andersen, he says. “You learn how to learn. You get some extra polish and focus on issues ... it’s invaluable.
One piece of advice
“You need to challenge yourself. Make that difficult phone call, don’t be afraid of it. Don’t be afraid of that conversation. Have a crack.”
What running his own business taught this CPA