Five minutes with…The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman

With the floods negating the improving COVID situation for so many small businesses, we spoke to Bruce Billson, the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman to discuss the most pressing needs of the SME community and the initiatives his office is focusing on in 2022.

ISB: Just as regional small businesses were emerging from the shadow of COVID, those in many parts of Qld and NSW have been hit with devastating floods in recent weeks – what impact are you hearing those floods are having on small businesses in those regions and do you think they’re getting the help they need?

BB: This is a time of great distress for many Australian small and family businesses. Lives have been lost and entire townships significantly impacted. The flood damage bill has been reported to reach $2.5 billion. According to the Insurance Council of Australia, claims so far have topped $1.77 billion and that is expected to rise over the coming weeks. The trauma experienced by these communities cannot be understated.

In the areas where water has begun receding, massive clean-up efforts are underway with local ‘mud armies’ working day and night to help salvage what is left. Outside these businesses, lie growing piles of debris and destroyed equipment and assets.

“It’s the local business communities who are experienced in disasters that affect their region that can best guide and support their business peers.”

These natural disasters experienced in the first eight weeks of 2022, come on top of the challenges faced during the global pandemic over the past two years, the Black Summer bushfires and prolonged drought conditions. Recovery is expected to be lengthy and take a heavy toll on small-business owners, their staff and the broader community.

ISB: These floods just highlight the importance of that Small Business Natural Disaster Preparedness and Resilience Inquiry. Firstly, how was the small-business community’s reaction to your request for information via the online survey and face-to-face feedback sessions you hosted around the country?

BB: My office was overwhelmed and humbled by the willingness of small and family businesses from across Australia to speak candidly about their experiences of natural disasters and share their learnings.

More than 2000 small and family businesses completed our online survey, and we also hosted 36 feedback sessions in areas impacted by natural disasters across Australia.

Small businesses shared their valuable insights about what steps and support would best help them to proactively contend with and recover from a disaster.

We heard ideas about how best the government can support small businesses to prepare and remain resilient in the case of an unavoidable event.

In our feedback sessions we heard time and time again that local engagement, leadership and decision making, informed by local knowledge and community connectedness and engagement is critical. More often than not, it’s the local business communities who are experienced in disasters that affect their region, that can best guide and support their business peers.

This local leadership needs to be supported appropriately, so they have access to the resources needed to assist small business owners who are working to get back on their feet after a natural disaster hits.

We also heard, in many cases, local critical infrastructure isn’t fit for purpose in the event of a natural disaster. This essential infrastructure needs to be ‘hardened’ to remain intact and functioning.

ISB: And secondly, can you tell us about the progress of the Inquiry and what you hope / expect the outcome of the Inquiry will be in terms of legislation or government initiatives?

BB: Our Small Business Natural Disaster Preparedness and Resilience Inquiry is being finalised now and will soon be handed to the Minister for Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business, the Hon Stuart Robert MP. The primary focus of this inquiry has been to examine and make recommendations to improve education and engagement programs to best target and assist small businesses in preparing for natural disasters such as fires, floods and drought.

As natural disasters occur more frequently and with increased severity, small businesses could be greatly assisted by improved education and engagement programs to help them prepare accordingly.

The recommendations in our Inquiry are designed to provide much-needed support to the small business community in preparing for natural disasters and boosting their resilience.

ISB: Finally, we do finally seem to be managing to live with COVID and getting “back to business” in a more “normal” way – after two such difficult years, what do you see as the key priorities, outside the issue we have covered above, for small businesses in the months ahead?

BB: In light of nation-wide staff shortages that we are seeing, my office has encouraged small and family businesses to welcome applications from all-ages. Mature age employees could lighten the workload.

Vacancies are at an all-time-high in the hospitality industry, with more than 100,000 positions open across the country, particularly in tourism hotspots. Older workers can elevate an entire workplace, with their knowledge, experience and transferrable skills forged over many years.

We have seen this happening already in places like Cobargo Hotel on NSW’s south coast, which is hiring mature-aged workers and seeing the benefits first-hand.

Small businesses looking for staff should ensure their advertising is welcoming of all ages , and they should offer flexible working arrangements if possible to give workers at various life stages a chance to manage their work-life balance.

The biggest trend we have seen over the course of the pandemic is those businesses that managed to stay connected to their customers have managed to weather this storm better than others.

Many small businesses adopted better use of mobile and internet technologies as a result of the crisis, and MYOB research tells us that SMEs with advanced levels of digital engagement are 50 per cent more likely to grow revenue and earn 60 per cent more revenue per person. Greater digital adoption by SMEs would result in a $10 billion boost to the economy.

Although that research reveals that 24 per cent of SMEs are worried new technology is too expensive and a further 24 per cent say they don’t have time to set it up, it’s worth noting that of the businesses that digitised during the pandemic, 39 per cent found themselves to be more productive and 34 per cent were more profitable. A whopping 85 per cent of small business owners say they used digital tools to keep their business running.

The devastating floods have brought into sharp focus, the importance of preparedness and resilience. Broadly speaking, well run and managed businesses are more likely to manage effectively through natural disaster than businesses with less internal capacity. Simple steps such as ensuring record keeping is up to date, business processes and critical information were, where possible, digitised, and payments to relevant bodies such as the Australian Taxation Office and lenders, were likely to help a small business in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

A strong sense of community connectedness, business connectedness, and strong relationships of trust between businesses lead to more resilient, unified communities that work together in response to disasters.

As we learn to live with COVID, it is a good time to sit down with your trusted, accredited adviser who can take a professional look at where your business is at and develop a tailored plan that will help you grow your business going forward.

A critical aspect of this planning is ensuring your business is resilient enough to withstand the next crisis. Putting the work in now could save you in the long term.

This article first appeared in issue 36 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine