Robots and reinvention: Steph Hinds on why Australia’s pandemic exit requires creative problem-solving

  • Steph Hinds, Head Ninja at Growthwise, joins Stuart McLeod on the Accounting Leaders Podcast to discuss how COVID-19 has uniquely impacted Australia and the challenges and opportunities that have emerged from the chaos. 

  • In the aftermath of the pandemic, reinvention has become a common theme. Individuals are reevaluating their priorities, while businesses start to think more strategically about long-term growth. 

  • For Australia to become more self-reliant, it needs to embrace innovation. The cost of labor is an obstacle that must be overcome to make this path forward possible. 

COVID created a global crisis. But in the aftermath of that crisis, it also made way for a culture of reinvention.

As Head Ninja at Growthwise (an accounting firm based in Newcastle, Australia) Steph Hinds worked tirelessly to support her clients during the chaos. 

Steph pursued a career in accounting because she’s a helper by nature—and that’s never been more clear than in the past 18 months. 

Steph joins Stuart McLeod, CEO of Karbon, on episode five of the Accounting Leaders Podcast to share her perspective of the pandemic through the intimate lens of her clients’ financials. While Steph and Stuart typically prefer to meet over a glass of red wine, Australia’s travel ban had other plans for the duo. 

Still, they manage to come together for a candid conversation about how COVID-19 has challenged Australia in both positive and negative ways, the phenomenon of reinvention that has emerged in the wake of the pandemic, and how innovation can support both Australia as a nation and the accounting industry. 

The road to recovery 

The pandemic revealed some major cracks in Australia’s system.

Stuart recently spoke to Arthur Sinodinos, Australia’s Ambassador to the United States. Sinodinos expressed his concerns about generational debt and COVID-19’s far-reaching impact on the nation’s economy. They also discussed the barriers that Australia’s strict travel policies create for international organizations looking to invest in the country. 

Steph agrees.

In Australia, we definitely will be paying for this for a very long time. There’s nothing in the near future [in our federal budget] that has us being able to repay anything that’s going on [with COVID-19 lockdowns].

Steph Hinds, Growthwise

She, too, sees problems that come with Australia remaining closed to foreign visitors: “From a business perspective, we just don’t have enough people to do the work.” 

Farming and agriculture have been hit especially hard as industries that historically rely on working tourists for labor. 

But Steph gives credit to Australia’s JobKeeper program for keeping business executives from knee-jerk reactions to layoff employees during the early months of the pandemic. 

On the other hand, she also worries that some of the support has gone on too long. She predicts that when Australia’s borders reopen, some businesses won’t be able to operate due to staffing shortages. 

The silver linings worth celebrating

But it hasn’t been all doom and gloom since COVID upended the global community. Steph elaborates on the positives that have emerged from the crisis.

“Because [our clients] panicked so much, they’ve now actually made much more money than they normally do. And I think [they] were just more strategic in their thinking, which is always helpful from a business standpoint,” Steph says on the episode. 

An interesting trend has emerged: businesses are now thinking more about the long term. Accounting firms, including Steph’s, have noticed a shift in the type of questions they’re fielding from their clients. 

Prior to the pandemic, most questions had to do with immediate financial needs. These days, companies are more forward-thinking in their planning. Business executives aren’t just focused on surviving in the short term; they’re also developing plans to endure whatever’s next on the horizon. 

And Steph’s impressed by the results.

It’s been a real shock to see how much profit people can make when they are really, really concerned about cash flow, concerned about spending, and concerned about getting that income in the door today.

Steph Hinds, Growthwise

She’s also observed the power of community during this time of financial strain. She credits her fellow Australians for joining together to intentionally support small, locally-owned businesses in their time of need. 

The communities themselves have also shifted. Living in Newcastle, two hours from Sydney, Steph has seen many working professionals spend their time away from big cities, opting instead for a quieter, slower lifestyle.

Stuart has noticed this happening state-side, too: “People [are] reassessing their life values and their goals and their kids’ upbringing. It’s caused a dramatic movement of the population across the world.” 

Where does Australia go from here? And how? 

As people reassess their business strategies and home lives, now is also the time to reevaluate priorities at the national level. 

Steph believes that Australia needs to consider the big picture to set up for future success. Mining has always been a crucial contributor to Australia’s economic stability, but she believes that COVID-19 has shed light on the need for increased self-reliance. Manufacturing is one industry worth pursuing. 

But Australia faces a problem in that pursuit: the cost of labor.

“In Australia, you’ve got to pay more than the minimum wage,” explains Steph. The economic reliance on high wages is a problem for entrepreneurs and innovative business owners.

Take the potential of manufacturing facilities, for example—“if you want someone to stand there and press a button on a machine, you’re paying $120,000. … That’s a structural issue.” 

Some businesses are looking into robots and other technologies to support automation, but that, too, presents a challenge. “You need the cash, right? … Where does a small business get that type of capital from?” Steph asks. 

Still, she remains optimistic. “We’ve got enough space, and we certainly have the brains,” Steph says. 

How Australia pivots in the wake of the pandemic remains to be seen. 

Automation in accounting—what’s the holdup?

While whispers of automation can give some accountants hives, the promise for the future excites Steph. 

“Bring on the robot that talks to me every morning on my bedside table and tells me who’s been good, who’s been naughty, and who’s behind budget. Who do I need to yell at today? What needs to happen?” Steph laughs as she imagines her future officemate. 

But while she’s eager for technological innovations, she’s also realistic that they’ve been slower to take off than she’d hoped. Part of the challenge lies in the global market being dominated by just two ledgers: Xero and Intuit. 

“They’ve got all the data. Just get on with it,” Stuart chuckles, but he also acknowledges the challenges that come with change in such large organizations. 

The other blocker to true automation lies in banking. Steph elaborates, “There’s been no real assistance for businesses in the banking realm to really change. … They’re the bits that are missing to build out the whole piece of that puzzle because banking will drive the ability to get the data that people need to [automate accounting].” 

In the meantime, Steph remains focused on helping her clients achieve their goals and gain financial acumen. 

The power of telling your business’s story

With business leaders understanding their companies’ true capabilities, sometimes for the first time, the opportunity for growth is there for the taking. 

For Steph, it all comes back to storytelling. It’s something she often challenges her clients to embrace. She believes that when a business learns to tell its story, it becomes better-positioned for success. It may not be a common piece of advice given by an accountant, but Steph isn’t a run-of-the-mill accountant. 

And so in an era ripe for reinvention, when businesses and individuals alike are reflecting and reassessing choices and strategy, it’s also time to partake in some revising. 

Ask yourself, “What’s the next chapter?” and don’t be afraid to rewrite your story.