"I started my degree when my peers at school were only starting Year 12."
“I feel very fortunate in my childhood as we grew up in a very safe, stable, happy home environment. I’m one of five children, and we grew up in Berowra in the north of Sydney. I went to the local school. It was still in the days when you could still play in the street, with the neighbours. If you ran out of sugar you got more from the neighbour next door – it was that kind of area. Dad would never lock the front door or close the windows at night time, it was just carefree.”
Catherine always enjoyed school. “I always liked learning. But I hated Year 7. There was a girl that used to bully me and she made my life quite miserable, so I left that school and then went on to another high school and really excelled there. I left school with the school certificate; I sat the exams and then left.
“I remember going through the careers book and thinking to myself, ‘I just don’t want to do any of these subjects, at all’. So I answered an advertisement in the local paper for a receptionist in an accounting firm and they said no experience necessary, we’ll train on the job, so I applied and to cut a long story short, I got the position” Catherine says.
Catherine recalls that her parents really encouraged getting out into the workforce and learning about real life for herself. “I was very fortunate in that the fellow I was working for, Matt Thompson, said if I wanted to study Accounting at TAFE, he’d pay and buy my textbooks. So I worked full time for him and studied Accounting at Tech.”
Looking back, Catherine notes that “I just excelled at it and loved it. I got straight A’s, so Matt said ‘you seem to have a bit of a knack for this. You should go get your degree’. But. I didn’t have my HSC. So I researched all the Universities and the University of Newcastle offered me a place in their Bachelor of Commerce. I started my degree when my peers at school were only starting year 12.
Catherine worked as receptionist for an accounting firm for two years, moving to another firm in the city while she did her accounting training and studying part-time at university. She went overseas at 19 and, on her return, worked at the Starlight Children’s Foundation, followed by a more senior role at a medical practice. By the age of 22 she had been working for about six years. “At the Starlight Foundation I learned some really good management skills,” she recalls.
At the medical practice, Catherine did everything except consult with the patients – she ran the show. It was a steep learning curve and it was also very fast-paced. The skills she learned in that medical practice have been taken into her own practice.
“Double checking, triple checking, it was really drummed into me in the medical environment. You’re dealing with peoples’ lives, so there’s literally just zero room for error.”
Catherine then wanted to go back into accounting, yet didn’t want to go back to being employed having effectively been her own boss, so she decided to start a bookkeeping practice for medical centres. “I’d been in the industry, I knew how it worked, knew Medicare, knew all the health funds, knew the structure and I was doing all the bookkeeping and accounting anyway. So that’s how I decided to start it.”
“So I quit my old job and then just went into being self-employed,” Catherine recollects. “That was in 2008 when I fully threw myself into it and I was 27.
“Working for yourself, self-discipline and responsibility kicks in because you can’t pass the buck. You either do the work or you don’t get paid, so you have to do it.” says Catherine.
Importantly, Catherine comments “I’m good with people, I’m good at finding the issue and then working out what we need to do to fix it, reassuring them and taking away the pain that they find themselves in. So, I’m good at connecting with people and that skill was sharpened as the receptionist looking after these ill people because you’ve got to be quite sensitive to a lot of them.”
Once in her own business, Catherine noted that “all of a sudden you’ve got wages, you’ve got rent, you’ve got the financial commitment you never had before. So that was where my financial training really started – how to manage all that and put in place the proper weekly debtors management system, debtor follow up processes to ensure they pay and make sure everyone’s paid under 30 days for cash flow.”
Many of Catherine’s clients were older and she often felt she was viewed differently “as a young female chasing around for money, not that we do it aggressively”. She added that she “sometimes wonders whether being a female in business is a bit of a disadvantage. I’ve had a lot of learning to do to be able to stand up for myself.”
Catherine was married in August 2011 and discovered on her honeymoon that she was pregnant with her daughter. “I was to go on maternity leave in April 2012 and expected to take six or 12 months off and be a first-time mum but that didn’t happen. I was home for about six or seven weeks when I had a phone call from my accountant who said ‘we need to get together to go over your tax’.
“Accountants have accountants, because it’s good to have someone external, to be objective.” Catherine discovered they owed a lot of tax, and about then the GFC hit. At the same time, about a third of the clients left because they were using the new DIY bookkeeping software. When Xero came in it had a big impact, meaning $150,000 in fees just walked out the door.
“It was really, really stressful, I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, just crying all the time. I remember it was awful, I hated the world, I was angry at everyone. I was angry at every mum I saw pushing prams because it should have been me out there pushing the pram.”
Catherine remembers going through every single transaction in her bank accounts for the previous six months. “I itemised absolutely every single transaction into what was necessary, what wasn’t necessary. And so everything that wasn’t necessary got axed. If you ran out of petrol, sorry you’ll just have to wait till Monday. And even with our home expenses we decided to divert every cent to the debt and just get rid of it.”
By December of that year most of the debt had been paid off. As Catherine says, “we basically smashed through it; that was pretty severe, that was a very hard year”.
On reflection, that time “really toughened me up a lot. It gave me courage. It gave me energy, and I just remember feeling in some sense, liberated, if that’s the right word. We looked at liquidating, we looked at selling, we looked at closing down, we looked at selling the unit, we looked at moving back to parents, we looked at everything. But when we decided no, we’re just going to deal with it – just get on with it. And I found that about after about a week or two, once I started seeing the results and things are actually starting to happen, I got excited. And I started getting my energy back, I felt we can do this, and seeing the debt go down was great.”
One of the highlight moments of that time was “ringing the banks and telling them you don’t want them anymore. It’s very empowering.”
“The big lesson we learned is that, if you want to fix something you can. If you really, really want it, you’ll find a way to do it,” says Catherine.
“It was hard, I had to leave my baby every morning and walk away from her and I hated it. I remember walking down the stairs from the unit and she’d be crying or should be asleep or something and I just hated it, I hated leaving her.”
Empathy for her clients is very personal for Catherine. “I see the person behind the business and I get it. I get it when they don’t have the money to pay the tax, or they’ve got other expenses at home, or other pressures, and it’s that person that I connect with,” she reflects.
“You know, at the time, it was pretty hard. Once you came to terms with it and once I got on with it, I got better. And the other benefit was that it was a catalyst for getting the business into the position it’s in now. From that experience, walking away from my baby every day which I hated, we knew we wanted to have a second child at some stage and I knew I couldn’t go through that again so I have to get this right.”
Now Catherine is looking to the next 10 years. “We’ve had our financial plan done and I want to make sure I achieve my financial goals, and that will see us in a solid position in our early to mid 40s.
“There’s a difference between someone who’s self-employed and someone who actually has a business. Because the business owner should be able to step away from it and the business should be able to run independently then that business income goes into investments and then you get your income ultimately from your investments.
“I see the business as a vehicle that I need to drive the best way I can, and I need to make sure it’s always fine-tuned and operating at the most efficient level,” says Catherine.
Catherine is proud to say “next year is our 10th year in business. So I think that’s a sign of success. Lots of businesses fail before the five-year mark. But you’ve got to be so persistent and determined and you cannot walk away, that’s the thing.”
Advanced Accounts is a full-service accounting practice and now has several divisions covering accounting and tax, compliance work, management accounting, forensic investigations and also undertakes work in the pre-insolvency space. Catherine is most excited though about their own product which is now one of the most important elements of their business,“the financial U-turn rescue program where we’re actually able to grade where the business is on a scale, diagnose exactly what’s going on and then depending on how close to the wall they are, we’re able to help them to do a U-turn and move them back towards success.”
Using her experience of their own financial crisis, Catherine is able to “draw on a lot of skills I developed to be able to help clients in similar situations. We live in an amazing country and there are so many opportunities, and the SME market is the backbone of the Australian economy, but 80% of them are suffering financial hardship. And they don’t talk about it. We see it every day; not knowing where to turn, not knowing what to do and not knowing what questions to ask in a really difficult time. It can be quite embarrassing for a lot of people to admit that they’ve got financial problems. From being there myself, I can identify and connect with people on that level, diagnose the situation and help them to get out of it.”
As well as having empathy with those in financial crisis, Catherine also brings another valuable personal attribute into the culture of the business.“ I think a personal attribute I bring to the business is to always operate honestly and with integrity. And that’s a personal attribute that’s been part of the culture of Advanced Accounts- we just tell you how it is.”
Catherine has good advice for someone starting up their own business: “Be real about what you’re doing and have something the market actually wants. Be qualified in what you’re actually doing, and then go for it, have fun and throw yourself into it. Talk to people, get into networking groups, meet people, build relationships and just have a crack at it because it is fun.”
The people Catherine really respects are her parents. “They both had a very significant impact on me growing up. Not so much in the sense that they were always in our face or anything. I think that’s where a lot of discipline, determination, quiet determination, quiet achievement comes from. Dad has a saying, which I say now, when he see something that needs to be done. He would say: ‘Right, this requires immediate action, it has to be done right away.”
“Now I find myself saying that. I’ve been brought up with this, it has to happen kind of attitude – just get it done. And my parents instilled in us a sense of responsibility for your own self. And if something didn’t go right they’d say: “Well, what are you going to do about it? Whenever I faced any sort of challenge my parents would never hand me the solution. They would talk through my ideas, to help me get to a solution, but they would never come to me with a solution.”
Catherine reflects on that upbringing when she comments that “in my business and my adult life, and especially when we had our own financial crisis, you’ve got to find your own way out.”
But for Catherine it’s not all books and balance sheets: “I’ve got a real passion for classical piano, and also ballet and dancing. I get a lot of personal enjoyment from exercise. Getting outside, going for a run or walk, just being in the sun.”
These pursuits still carry through the same philosophy and disciplined approach, as Catherine notes, “having a focus on discipline, where there is no room for error, it’s just very rewarding when you can crack it. It’s a bit like a business when you hit it right, the similarities between running a business, accounting, piano and ballet. They’re all things where there is no room for error. You’ve got to be disciplined and focused with all of them, but it’s relaxing at the same time.”
- “Always operate honestly, and with integrity.”
- “If you want to fix something you can. If you really, really want it, you’ll find a way to do it.”
- “Talk to people, get into networking groups, meet people, build relationships and just have a crack at it because it is fun.”
- “Self-discipline kicks in, and self-responsibility; because you can’t pass the buck. You either do the work or you don’t get paid so you have to do it.”
It seems in business that failure only makes you stronger. Catherine McMurtrie had a new baby, and an accountancy business in real trouble. Using her financial skills she got the business back on track, and now has first-hand knowledge which she applies to her growing list of SME clients.