The Victorian Government launched the Small Business Wellbeing Project in September 2020 to support small business owners (less than 20 employees) to deal with the impacts of COVID-19 lockdowns, restrictions and ongoing uncertainty. Funded by the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions and managed by the Department of Health, Partners in Wellbeing – Small Business Support meets the needs of people who are small business owners by providing coordinated, free access to small business financial counselling, business advisory and wellbeing coaching.
Financial Counselling Victoria (FCVic) is pleased to support the work of this project and take the opportunity to raise awareness of financial counselling in general, and to advance the emerging professional specialisation in small business financial counselling.
A major contribution has been the development and delivery of training on small business financial counselling. Ably led by Helen Brady and Sandra Blake an extensive set of resources, including e-Learning, webinars and a comprehensive resource compendium, has supported the rapid mobilisation of a new team of small business financial counsellors based at EACH. These pilot materials are being upgraded and made available to all FCVic members via the CPD Library.
The ‘Foundations of Small Business Financial Counselling e-Learning Series’ is being progressively rolled out between February and June 2021. The e-Learning series aims to provide financial counsellors with the context and knowledge they need to undertake small business work. As such, the material is extensive and requires a continuing interest and commitment to complete. The e-Learning platform enables members to undertake the work at their own convenience, over time. Part 1 – Small Business Fundamentals is already available and the next release, Part 2 – Credit Issues will launch after Easter. Members who successfully complete all modules will be able to request a ‘Completion Certificate – Foundations of Small Business Financial Counselling e-Learning Series’.
FCVic has also undertaken extensive industry engagement work, convening a Technical Advisory Group of 15 peak industry organisations and Reference Groups working on shared issues including hardship and access to expert advice. As part of the project, mental health clinicians from EACH have been embedded in 9 industry peaks, to work with their staff and members providing intensive training and support. FCVic has led and supported engagement and outreach activities in multiple ways. A series of publicly available videos, featuring Sandra Blake, addresses some of the current problems being faced by small business owners and explains how small business financial counsellors can help.
At the coalface, the Partners in Wellbeing – Small Business Support service is delivered by EACH, ACSO and Neami National with small business financial counselling provided by EACH and business advisory by Melbourne Innovation Centre. The EACH financial counselling team has had to upskill on the fly. This has required flexibility and determination, according to this reflection by Team Leader, Liz McCarthy, and the coordinated service offering is making a crucial difference for small business owners, as described in this case study by Team Member Chris Kunaratnam.
If you have any queries about FCVic's work in the Small Business Wellbeing Project, please contact Dr Suzy Goldsmith: [email protected].
Reflection on our first six months providing financial counselling to small business owners impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic
Liz McCarthy – Team Leader, Partners in Wellbeing Small Business Financial Counselling Team, EACH
Our Small Business Financial Counselling service commenced within the Partners in Wellbeing program back in September 2020 and we are already at our 6-month mark. It has been a mammoth effort to get the team (currently 9 financial counsellors) together and trained up to be able to assist our Victorian small business owners: people who have endured many and varied challenges due to the heavy restrictions and lockdowns that have come with the COVID-19 pandemic.
We have all seen the state-wide devastating impact this has had on our economy, local communities and employment. Many small business owners are still unsure as to what it is the future holds for them. With access to grants and the introduction of JobKeeper assisting to keep many small businesses afloat, there is now a looming sense of trepidation as we face the end of March 2021 and the end to current government supports.
Many businesses have attempted the process of pivoting, or restructuring, by introducing more innovative ways of operation, accessibility and reach. However, many have been ‘stuck’ in a place of waiting to see what will happen and hoping that things will return to a sense of normality.
Businesses that once were thriving no longer have the capacity to re-invent themselves and are facing the inevitable heartache of closure at the end of a lifetime of hard work.
We know that many small businesses will not survive this time.
The Partners in Wellbeing program offers wellbeing support to small business owners and their families, financial counselling and business advice for those times when tough decisions about the future of a business need to be made. Of those clients that access the Partners in Wellbeing Small Business Financial Counselling service, many are in significant financial hardship with unmanageable debt. The different service components of our program working together reflect the fact that we know how emotionally and mentally draining financial stress can be.
We are all learning so much and growing along with our clients and really hope we can continue to support the Victorian small business owners to recover from such a devastating time.
Partners in Wellbeing – Small Business Support is delivered by EACH, ACSO and Neami National. The Small Business Financial Counselling support is provided by EACH and business advisory by Melbourne Innovation Centre.
Partners in Wellbeing – Small Business Support Case Study
Chris Kunaratnam – Financial Counsellor, Partners in Wellbeing Small Business Financial Counselling Team, EACH
David is in his mid-20s and owns and operates a customer service business in regional Victoria supplying many tourist businesses. He lives in a shared rental accommodation.
David has a history of mental health and alcohol and other drugs (AOD) issues which began in his teenage years. He was previously referred to a mental health service by a GP a few years ago, but he did not engage. He has spoken about past infrequent suicide ideation with no plans or intent, arising from stressful, triggering situations where he wants to escape the difficult emotion or situation rather than wanting to die. He has a history of mood instability; however, he has had no formal mental health diagnosis.
David started a new business in late-2019 which made him ineligible to receive JobKeeper or any other assistance offered by the Federal or State Governments as he had not been trading for 12 months and so he was unable to demonstrate that his income had fallen due to COVID shutdowns.
David was severely impacted by the lockdowns in Victoria as many of the tourist businesses he depended on as clients were shut down for months during 2020, so he was unable to develop his business as planned. However, due to his hard work, David did manage to grow income each quarter after securing several medical facilities as clients, which provided him with some income.
Prior to owning the business, David had been employed in the business by the previous owner. When the previous owner decided to retire, David agreed to buy it and established a payment plan to purchase the required plant and equipment from them. David had also rented two adjacent premises from two different landlords.
Although David was unable to trade as planned, he still incurred ongoing business expenses including rent, utilities, equipment hire charges, and insurances. He did not wish to incur bank debt and part-paid invoices as and when he could. This resulted in unpaid invoices of more than $48,000 accruing over the past 12 months. He was unable to pay himself a salary and also incurred unpaid invoices in relation to his personal rent and utilities.
David had no staff and was solely responsible for finding new clients, operating the business, making deliveries to customers and undertaking the accounting and finances for the business. His financial situation caused him much distress as he did not have a mentor to guide him and could not see how he could build up his customers as he did not have the finance to purchase new inventory.
David was referred by the Victorian Tourism peak body to their embedded Partners in Wellbeing mental health clinician, who in turn referred him to Chris on the Small Business Financial Counselling team, given his business issues.
David presented with concerns about his unpaid invoices (both business and personal). He also needed assistance to use accounting software to prepare accurate BAS returns, and mentoring advice as to how he might grow his business to service his expenses and debts and pay himself a salary.
Chris researched all grants and other assistance available at the time and unfortunately determined that David was ineligible for all such assistance given that he did not receive JobKeeper and his ANZSIC did not relate to a tourism business, although tourism businesses were his customers.
Chris prepared a Statement of Financial Position for David with his business income and expenses, personal expenses, and a debt listing. Some expenses were disclosed at later meetings as David had forgotten about them. It was the first time that David had seen his complete current financial position.
Chris referred David to the Partners in Wellbeing – Small Business Support Business Advisory team which had recently commenced. The Business Adviser helped David to improve his business management knowledge and capability so he could better understand: preparation of financial statements, bookkeeping best practices, cashflow projections, and pricing and sales strategies.
Chris attended a telephone meeting between David and six landlord representatives to discuss unpaid rent and a way forward. This meeting would have been overwhelming for David if he had attended alone. Information that the landlords wished to be conveyed to David about the importance of timely, regular payments was communicated via Chris. The landlords observed that David trusted Chris, as David had listened to what Chris said to him.
Chris obtained David’s consent to share relevant information about his state of mind and issues facing him with his Mental Health Clinician and Business Adviser so all three professionals could assist him in a complete and coordinated manner. Sometimes David would not answer calls when important decisions had to be made and all three services worked together to assist him and keep each other in the loop. Chris and the Business Adviser together provided David with information on business forecasts so he could consider his options, including bankruptcy, fully informed. Chris also advised the Mental Health Clinician so they could provide support structures to David to help him not revert to AOD, as he used to in the past when he had difficult issues facing him.
The file is still active as there are several issues facing David which he needs to make decisions about. Chris, the Business Adviser and the Mental Health Clinician continue to work together to provide support and assistance as required.
David seems to have benefited from frequent and consistent engagement and he thrives on the different supports that have and can be offered.
This case study highlights the way that the different professional supports provided by Partners in Wellbeing – Small Business Support worked in a coordinated and collaborative way. The integrated service provides a comprehensive service to the client for both their overall wellbeing and their business financial issues.
David has told his Mental Health Clinician that “when the business is looked after, I feel looked after”, and “I feel like me again and for the first time in 12 months, I feel excited to go to work again.”