Digital transformation, leadership and differentiation – those are the three things business expert John Knight says SMEs need to embrace to leverage the distinct advantage that Brisbane has as the city looks to a post-pandemic recovery.
Not many people have the kind of unique, all-encompassing view of Brisbane’s small business landscape quite like Knight, who is the managing director of Fortitude Valley-headquartered company businessDEPOT.
businessDEPOT is an award-winning diversified accounting firm that’s grown to include and offer a number of services to support small businesses.
Having worked alongside business owners in Brisbane for decades, Knight’s perspective about the state of things for SME owners is one seated in deep analysis of the numbers, and in the transformative effects of great culture and leadership.
And he says since the pandemic upended the economy in March, he has seen just about everything 2020 has had to throw at small business owners, their staff and in particular their business models.
“Brisbane’s SME world has been all about the extremes,” Knight says.
“Tourism, travel, fitness and those sort of services in particular, some of them had to close their doors for so long and have not been able to get back to normal – it’s been a survival event.
“But don’t underestimate how many businesses have been thriving during these times.”
Leadership and the people power driving positive results
Thriving may seem like a dirty word during an economic crisis but Knight’s point is a salient one – when you take out the businesses devastated by border closures and their knock-on effect, it has been the people behind the businesses who have driven things past survival and into pivoted, profitable, and successful territory. And there are some strong numbers to back up a positive view of things.
“It doesn’t mean SMEs haven’t had their challenges,” he says. “But when we look at the people behind SMEs, what we’re seeing is there are extremes within that as well.
“Some owners used their lockdown time to catch up on things that they’ve been meaning to do. Or they’ve been able to pivot their business, or they’ve been able to add a new line that they’ve been wanting to add because they knew it would be good for their business.
“That mimics what we’re seeing in Brisbane SMEs here at Business Depot more broadly – we’re seeing pretty good results.”
And those good results haven’t come about by accident. Knights says the pandemic has revealed some strong acts of leadership in the toughest of circumstances across Brisbane’s SMEs.
“A big part of leadership is how you handle change,” he says. “Because of the uncertainty, so many have had to have a good, hard look at their business. And they’ve made the hard decisions that they’ve been putting off for possibly years.
“It means that those underperforming staff are probably not there anymore. Those underperforming service lines or product lines are probably not there anymore.
“And because their decisive moves have worked, they’ve actually changed their whole business model or their offering out there to the world, which has now meant they’re a better business going forward.”
However, Knight says the business optimism and positive outlook has a potentially sinister undercurrent that, he admits, has him fearful for business owners and their staff.
“My biggest fear about the future is probably more about human burnout than anything else,” he says.
“There are people that are just pulling themselves through to Christmas. And I wonder whether people are going to take a longer holiday this year. I’m a little worried about the flow-on effect of that to the high street businesses of Brisbane, or even the professional services businesses of Brisbane.
“Because if we’ve got this whole group of people that are away for a month, then they’re spending money out there and they’re not doing things back here. I’m worried about the impact of that in probably March and April.”
While that does put some clouds around the near future from a revenue perspective, Knight also notes that there is positive sentiment driving immediate benefits for SMEs.
“We’re seeing some really good positivity out there. You only have to look around. Restaurants are full – you can’t walk down to the local restaurant and get a booking anymore. And that’s not just COVID, that is because they’re organically full.
“And I’m hearing some of these small businesses saying they’ve never been busier.”
Where does that leave the outlook for Brisbane and its small businesses?
Despite the uncertainty and tragedy still unfolding globally, Knight says Brisbane should be on the top of people’s list as a high performer economically and socially during the next few years.
“I think Brisbane is actually in a very lucky place,” he says. “We’re already seeing signs of migration from Sydney and Melbourne to Brisbane, or Queensland generally.
“When we look at the amount of skilled people that were living in London or New York that have come home as a result of this, I actually think it’s a really exciting time for Brisbane to go to the next level because we’re going to have this calibre of skills, experience and knowledge that we can capitalise on as a city.
“It’s also good for property. We [businessDEPOT] do a fair bit in the real estate space. So we’re seeing property prices holding up quite strong. And there’s people coming up with cash from selling their property in Melbourne, and so they’re ready to spend. I don’t see it stopping anytime soon to be honest.”
Being the economic centre of attention will have benefits for SMEs, and Knight says those businesses out there looking to capitalise need to do three things.
“Number one is digital transformation,” he says. “It’s finding those little tweaks within their processes and their systems. It’s about saying what can we remove from a process so that it can be done more efficiently?
“The second thing is continued investment in people, culture and leadership, because we’ve still got a lot of change happening. People still are anxious, they’re stressed, all these types of things.
“And thirdly, I think now is the time for businesses to stand out. So if you think about your business and why people deal with you, I think now is an opportunity for you to really solidify your point of difference, your value proposition, why people choose to do business with you.”
The opportunity, it seems, is now in Brisbane’s hands.