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How Stem Rural increased productivity by 20% with a 6-hour workday

Une photo de Stem Rural

The Stem Rural team aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. What can you expect from an accounting firm that specializes in serving farmers, kiwifruit orchards and rural support service providers?

Based in Te Puke, in New Zealand’s North Island, Stem Rural’s market niche is almost unsurprising given the area is particularly renowned for its kiwifruit  orchards. Taking their location in their stride, the Stem team work hard to be deeply rooted in their clients’ businesses, ensuring they’re delivering a service that addresses the unique pain points and needs of their clients, both as farmers and people.

“As an accountant, you’re much more than just about the numbers. You actually get to know the clients and the people really, really well,” explains Stem Rural Director, Trudi Ballantyne.

Some may find it surprising that an accounting firm so entrenched in a typically traditional niche is actually one of the most progressive firms in New Zealand.

Making waves through embracing—and leading—change

The Stem team knows there’s more to accounting than processing information—it's about finding better ways to bring more value to the people they serve.

Challenging the traditional workday—before the pandemic

It’s this changemaker attitude that has Stem challenging traditional workplace norms that are so common in professional services. 

Since the pandemic, there has been a lot of noise around the 4-day work week, but Stem has taken another approach to work-life balance. An approach that has seen them win the Small Organisation Excellence Award in the Work-Life Balance category at the 2020 Diversity Awards NZ.

Back in 2018, they implemented a six-hour workday (based on a book by Stephan Aarastol) in a bid to increase productivity by introducing artificial constraints—in this case, a shorter period of time. The team is still paid for a seven and a half-hour day, but now have more time to balance their personal and work lives.

But a pre-COVID six-hour workday isn’t the only innovative change Stem has led. 

Changing the law to help their clients

Back in 2010, around 3,000 kiwifruit growers were hit by a Psa outbreak—a devastating kiwifruit disease that leaves farmers with no choice but to effectively uproot their orchards and start again, leaving them without income for five years.

“It was a biological catastrophe,” explains horticulture consultant, Sandy Scarrow.

After meeting with clients to understand the devastating impacts, Trudi leveraged her knowledge and training as a Chartered Accountant and led a group of accountants to lobby a tax legislation change that would alleviate the ‘blackhole expenditure’ from cutting back the kiwifruit vines.

It resulted in the expenses associated with ripping out affected vines now being tax deductible.

“By making these tax changes we were able to allow the growers to retain more cash and more equity in their business than they would have if we hadn’t changed the rules,” says Trudi.

It was Trudi’s deep relationship with her clients and her community that led her to playing an instrumental role in the disaster recovery, making a change that will impact kiwifruit growers for years to come.

Finding the right tech to support the firm, clients and community

Self-professed early tech adopters, the Stem team lean into the best technology solutions that can offer them more efficient ways of operating, so they—and their clients—can be more productive.

“We're always looking for technology to either help our business or our clients' businesses. It’s all about having the data in one place that allows us to collaborate better,” says Martin Pipe, Stem Rural Director.

Stem aren’t afraid to work hard to find the very best solution that will enable them to operate exactly how they need to.

“It’s about change,” explains Nick Cole, Stem Rural Director. “Not a lot of accountants out there are willing to embrace change. We’ve shown we can with our six-hour work day, and we’re still getting our work done on time.”

« Karbon has assisted us to successfully operate with six-hour workdays. We’ve seen at least a 20% increase in productivity—we’re doing the same work in 30 hours per week, as opposed to 37.5. »

Nick Cole, Stem Rural

It was a seamless workflow that attracted the Stem team to Karbon in the first place. Because of the way they operate, they needed a solution that could keep up with them.

“With the majority of our clients, we do our GST (Goods & Services Tax) every two months and process as much information as we can then, so at any given date, we can provide our clients with accurate financial records,” says Nick. “It comes down to having up-to-date information for rural clients, particularly with dairy farmers.”

In order to capture the information needed to process their clients’ GST every two months, the Stem team uses Client Tasks in Karbon and automates the entire process.

“We set up a recurring workflow in Karbon that sends out automated emails to our clients to do their paperwork, and when they tick the box, we are notified in Triage in Karbon,'' explains Nick. 

« Before Karbon, we would have to keep checking in with clients to see if they had completed the work. Now, Karbon tells us without [us] needing to do anything. »

Nick Cole, Stem Rural

By leveraging Client Tasks this way, Stem Rural are able to ask their clients three questions every two months via automated emails, which saves them four hours per staff member, per week.

And by analyzing the data in Karbon, they can track how well their staff are performing against their GST processing KPIs.

Karbon is also helping the Stem team address the ongoing talent shortage in accounting: “We’ve had two staff members leave over the last four years and we’ve not needed to replace them, thanks to the tech we use, especially Karbon.”

Sowing deeper roots

The next stage for Stem Rural isn’t about quantitative growth—it’s about enriching their existing client relationships.

“We are looking to go deeper with each client, rather than trying to win more market share,” says Nick. 

The Stem team are looking to expand their service offerings to existing dairy farm clients by leveraging Figured, a farming financial management tool. While Figured was initially used to create an annual cash forecast, with the introduction of Figured Insights, Stem are looking to benchmark their clients against farmers country-wide, helping to demonstrate how well their clients are performing against other similar farming businesses, like cost of capital and expenditures compared to a similar farm.

For the Stem team, whatever services they’re offering and whatever the tools they’re using, they’re always rolling up their sleeves to help their clients. And one thing is for sure—whether it’s forging groundbreaking tax law changes, discovering life-changing industry insights, or providing up-to-date financial forecasting—the kiwifruit growers and dairy farmers of New Zealand are in safe hands.

Key results:

  • Transitioned to a six-hour workday

  • Increased productivity by 20%

  • Saved time chasing clients by four hours per staff member per week

  • Increased efficiency with easily-automated workflow