The Minister, Small Business and me; why Billson matters
Many in the small business community say the sector has been neglected for a long time by successive governments as they focussed more time and effort on the bigger end of town but then, in 2013, with the election of the Coalition Government, came a very surprising addition to the Cabinet line-up, Bruce Billson. The unassuming Billson, the Federal Member for Dunkley in Victoria since 1996 last served as a Cabinet Minister under the Howard Government in the portfolio of Veterans Affairs – and truth be known when you look around his office there is no shortage of his obvious affection for that role! But, what a lot of people don’t know is that Billson was also a small business owner and as he recounted those times in the context of what his current role as Small Business Minister is what came to the fore was a remarkable man determined to make a difference. Bruce and I talked mentoring, entrepreneurship, the challenges small business face, the China FTA and more.
First, a step back into his time as a small business owner where one of the first lessons he learnt was the struggle small business owners had to go through in just managing the day to day and my first question: so is your experience as a small business owner the reason why you are the best person for the current job?;
“I don’t know, I use to say to my wife, we loved every minute of it, but each month that we pay our mortgage today, half of my mortgage; it isn’t for housing its paying the debts from our business. So it’s still with me and its quite personal and as I was saying, I veraciously say it’s the pillow talk of cash flow is really living the dream, where every waking moment you’re thinking what can I do better? why is this not working? Here I am with a Masters in this sort of stuff and my wife who is incredibly highly regarded for her field of endeavour; and together I thought we made a pretty good team, but you learn quickly that there is no substitute for customers. So all of that is great, but if you don’t have the customers you are still in trouble, and I often say to young couples that owning your business together is the greatest contraceptive ever.”
“So it was tough then” I asked; “People talk about peter Costello, where he was saying “have a child for mum, a child for dad and a child for the country.” In small business it’s a child for mum, child for dad one for the country and one for the bank. Because you actually mortgage your house and first born to have a go, it is an awful, lot of emotional and financial investment and it can all be consuming and often is.”
“The idea that your performance is quite visible to people outside of your immediate group, I mean the KPIs are quite vivid when you are putting up the closing down sale ... that given the emotional and financial investment and I suppose that investment in personal identity can really bring on some real challenges for your emotional wellness for your resilience but more particularly what you do next. I mean we as a country need to better nurture entrepreneurs and enterprises characteristics and I have seen it too often that when a business hits some trouble that we don’t salvage the parts that are recoverable. I mean this is partly why we have a productivity commission that focuses on business entry and exit. But that is about business formation. What are the imperatives? Where are the challenges? Why is accessing finance difficult? Why are we not commercialising in intellectual property insights? Why have we got discovery of new knowledge detached from commerce?”
I then went on to ask: Is it because we still have a long way to go as a country to discover ourselves as entrepreneurs, it doesn’t appear that there is enough of us.
“I am trying to build the gene pool and that is why I am a great supporter of enterprise where ever it is found, and social entrepreneurship the challenges and leading edge work so many NGOs are involved in. If they are not at the pointy end of innovation then I don’t know what is. I mean these are real path finding initiatives. I mean how we find new interventions that demonstrable in their activeness and bankable in terms of their finance. Being not for profit is a virtuous ambition; tell you what being not for loss is pretty significant for your survival as well.”
“Even when I talk to young people, I think the other day we where looking at what the future of livelihoods looks like, and they are looking at 5/6 careers and dozen or so jobs, some of which will not be employment someone else provides, it will be self-employment.”
“The fact that you are seeing business formation at the highest it has been in our countries history, more women than men saying maybe my livelihood strategy. I can manage where I am in my life but also have the agility as different life challenges emerge. Family is important, great, but I want economic independence as well and you are seeing new business models of mumpreneurs.”
"Think also have the talent pool we have developed. We’ve got the most highly education generation of our life, but sometimes an important part like a family event can take people out of that isn’t it important."
Now, lets turn to the small business package your Government announced in the May Budget. The small business package, I mean everything that we have had as feedback on the website has been overwhelmingly positive, there has been no negative feedback at all. So is what you just described in the challenges that lots of small business have faced, was that one of the central pillars as to why you guys decided to go down that path?
"This is such a crucial part of our story, nature has been kind to us and we have been endowed in wonderful resources, I mean what a great natural endowment that is and that has been a real driver of our economy. My concern was with mining and resources it has shone so brightly that it has almost blinded us of what else is going on. Your readers would know that if something is that delicious and the margins and profitability is that attractive there will be a supplier response other people will want a piece of that action and a lot of what you are seeing is a reaction to that. So that is why we have to ensure other aspects of a deep and diversified economy is the part of our economic story for the future. Where is that going to come from, that is going to come from enterprising men and women that are the disrupters, the new business models, the new ideas and insights of how to create value in the minds of customers here and abroad, and this is where the trade agreements are so important. Hundreds of millions of new prospective customers that we can delight and build opportunities, incomes and prosperity from, I mean that is the way I see it."
"So what was needed, well all the research tells us that we are pretty inclined to be innovators in our thinking, what is less clear is operationilising that, there is a bit of a gap, everyone has an idea of "Mmm maybe maybe." What is that we can do that is catalytic to turn that idea and ambition into economic action and investment and that was what the budget was shaped about. If this is peculating in a vast number of our population, what is it that we need to do to operationalise that, what we need to do, we need to celebrate it more, we need to say this is incredibly valuable, a contribution of the economy working for someone else, great, tick – but creating your own opportunities."
Is it also because in the main stream press some of the criticism has been that small business don’t get enough coverage of those good news stories and there are so many of them out there?
"That is why your product is so popular, because they are dead right, I can tell you stories about what happened after that budget announcement. I had a journalist who I respected and admired for their own diligence trying to write about this clearly not having been on that journey before. There is nothing wrong with that – that is not everyone’s lifes story, engages with entrepreneurship in what ever form you find it, but maybe other pathways that people may take. I know from the questions I was getting asked, there was this disconnect and when I said hang on, 44% of all private sector livelihoods are made possible by enterprising men and women in small business and family enterprises."
"When we think about the economy of the future, look at what the G20 said when they came to Australia. The G20 said we want to accelerate economic growth by 1-2% above BAU, when we actually think about how that is going to happen, it all came back to enterprising men and women with the new ideas, the new disruptors, the new ways to delight people. When you see the renaissance in the American economy, a lot of it was from graduates that couldn’t get a placement in the big corporates realising I will make my own money."
"When you think about the common thread across the economies of our region, what is it, it doesn’t matter where you go in our region, you see enterprising men and women creating their own livelihood opportunities, family business trying to improve their circumstances to be their best selves through their own private endeavour. You see families realise this is a way of getting ahead in their lives; you see those same enterprising people are the ones that are active in the communities. They are putting in so the vitality of small business and family enterprises is inextricably linked to the vibrancy of our communities and our future prospects to achieve a simple ambition. Shouldn’t we all be our best selves."
Do you think we are also lacking something when it comes to creating entrepreneurial spirit in the school system.
"You are touching on something that is very very close to my own interest and where we are doing some constructive work. We’ve got to get the culture to be valuing of entrepreneurship; there is more to being a entrepreneur than being a rogue."
"We send our athletes off to compete against the rest of the world and we properly honour and respect the great commitment, dedication and celebrate their success with them. That happens maybe once every 4 yrs when there is an Olympics or world cup scenario. But that happens every day in small business, where our people are taking on the rest of the world and succeeding and that deserves as much celebration. I think that is part of what you are talking about and that percolates into the schools. That is why I am happy to pimp my overly stout body around to bring a spotlight to where good things are happening, NABs 20$ boss, I mean they make the funds available and they are working with young Australians to roll out this idea that we will introduce you to enterprise skills. We will loan you $20, you come up with your business plan you think about what need is not being meet or where you think you can turn a profit, and we will nurture financial literacy we will introduce you to some of the commercial concepts that are a part of so many lives and we will feed that sparkle in the eye and fire in the belly. That idea that is there we will build that competency and confidence to think you know what I am going to have a crack, I am going to have a go. I think that is something that we can start in the schools, something we need to focus in the universities as well."
Lets turn to the China Free Trade Agreement - so tell me more about why it is so important to small business?
"What a delicious opportunity that is, 90% of exporting businesses in Australia are SMEs yet they account for about single digits of value...we have a mobile population, deep people to people connections, factor in that south and south east of China we have been trading with that community for over a century, well over a century. So I think the possibilities are fantastic, we’ve got hundreds of thousands of Chinese visitors coming to Australia, high expectation of our environment and natural landscape, the beauty, majesty of our landscape is great. Very low expectations on food, hoags (Paul Hogan) is one with a shrimp on the Barbie and the idea that we all drink beer is there, but when those visitors come one of the most invocative and enduring memories is what they consume, the food the fresh wine, the high quality premium products, the skin care that they know has got nothing in it that can trouble them, the health supplements that are so close to traditional medicine that they think wow this is fantastic, and the there is the services piece, 70% of the Australian economy is the services sector and it is 17% of our exporting income. There is an enormous gap there, so we have got the things that we export and an enormous opportunity to move from a mining boom to a dining boom (without trying to sounds to corny), but then there is the know how, these are economies in China in particular, where sophistication is increasing, the scale and number in the middle classes, their ambition to understand our services, whether it be financial services, telecommunications, health, education, training, aged care, retirement planning, design and architecture, sustainability know how. All these areas are exactly where there economy is moving into, they’ve got wonderful expertise."
So whats stopping us? why are we not rushing towards this massive opportunity?
"Well the door is open, but to turn an extraordinary diplomatic achievement into real economic prosperity and livelihood opportunities we need to operationalise it."
"So what I have been doing is ... at these FTA road shows where we are saying, "here are the doors that have been opened, but as to what we were saying before, to make the best of them it is going to take private endeavour. We can chaperone, we can make what I call the away game as responsive as it can be, and that is the agreements themselves having business inform our negotiators about where the business community sees the opportunities and what would be helpful. AUSTRADE how do you best get value out of AUSTRADE and that means knowing a bit about your business and having export incograted in your strategy, this is no summer romance, you cant go there for 6 weeks, have a whale of a time and hope for commercial happy endings, its just not going to happen. You need to stay engaged and build those relationships, and we’ve got people who have done that and these FTA roadshows bring not just the officials that are part of the away game trade negotiators, AUSTRADE, export market development grant, Ethic export finance insurance corporation, industries trade ready programme, they are all there. But we then bring other small businesses in, just like those in the audience and say here is someone just like you, lets hear their story, what learnings can they share, what are the key steps they took, what would they do differently, what are those insights that are the knowhow for success that we can percolate out and that’s part of that work and that’s I think a really important part of operatialising those agreements, so yes the door is open, what a great place, but what can do to make the best of it, and that’s exciting."
Indigenous small business and entrepreneurship, so last week there was a conference at Deakin University on indigenous business and accounting. Marcia Langton made an amazing statement that any job will do and maybe maccas (McDonalds) would be okay if everybody started there for a career.
"Well, I started at Maccas, that was my first scheduled rostered job prior to that I was delivering news papers and working everywhere."
So does she have a point though?
"She does because work place know how and the capacity to demonstrate what you’ve got in your kit bag, I mean getting that first opportunity is gold..."
"Down in my own electorate, the youth mental health services runs a programme called Mind Bank. Mind Bank is there to encourage and its brilliant. What it does is it takes people with emotional wellness challenges or a disconnection from the main stream and says please don’t sit in the corner and isolate yourself. This is not going to help, this is not good for your own wellness, and it really isn’t that positive action step that we where talking about earlier that can be so empowering and so nourishing as well and the rewards given for voluntarily being involved with community organisations, for basically turning up, and I keep saying the world is run by people who turn up. So there’s incentives there for to get out and do time within the community to help build up those connections. Now the Time Bank, the lower level rewards are discounts at Maccas, free bowling, nights at the movies. Do you know what the big prize is? It’s a work placement. And you know and all they say is all I want a work placement, all I want to be able to do is show people what I am capable of doing and I want to be able to do go someone and say here is my workplace knowhow not only do I know what is expected in that environment, here’s some competencies that I can demonstrate and have been validated by a work placement, give me a chance."
"And all of a sudden the dark clouds lift, and there is something to be selling, and this is why I am so pumped about that programme, and one of the measures in the budget which hasn’t got a lot of attention, is work placement, it is effectively work for the dole not only in the not for profit or government sector but its in the private sector. One of the things I talk to young people about is what they have been exposed to hasn’t put that sparkle in their eyes. Where as a chance to go and work in a small business in an area that they have an interest, all of a sudden its like, Wow im really pumped, so that’s those connections why Marcias comment is so important, you get a toe hold into the workplace, you then have something in your kit bag that you can convey to others. Also it also says if you’re the person that puts together the footy club news letter each week, tell you what, I can break that down for you. Able to work in teams and people you have no sanction over to get things done on time, communication capacity, use of technology, problem solving, tell you what, you walk into any job and say here’s what I do voluntarily and they go Wow."
"So that is also where that Maccas analogy goes towards non work things, things people do in their own private life, are great insights into the capacity they could bring in the work place and you know that’s great stuff."
"And I would say this to kids, and I would explain to them that when I spoke on behalf of our country at the UN about poverty alleviation, I knew not to wear socks with thongs, because im learning every day, that’s what you need to do, so if you think a couple of things. Turn up, the world is run by people who turn up, and then we go through what I call the toggle, toggle being the switch, here’s a bit of a template on how to turn on your life."
"The first V is value your self but value everyone else around you as well, there is no impediment to you learning as well as anyone else in this room, but everyone else can do it too. So there us a mutual respect and a self respect that comes out of that V."
"The you get to Toggle T, take your place, turn up, you gotta turn up, you know if there is an opportunity there put your hand up and say, pick me pick me. The O is being Open and Curious, ask wise people like you Matt, what have you seen in your life, tell me a bit about what your doing."
"That’s what got me involved in my first job; I was dating a particularly bodacious tennis player from Kuringle and her uncle was the CEO of a council, I loved what he was talking about, being engaged with the community, helping with others, worrying about why sewage farm was backed up one day, doing economic strategies the next, I thought that’s interesting, I gleamed that because I was open and curious to the learnings and wisdoms around me."
"G next G, have a Game plan. As a young person I learnt quickly what I didn’t like, and what didn’t float my boat, but that steered me into things that I did find interesting, and your game plan has a bit of purpose and clarity to it.
The next G is gather the tools, every day is a chance to get some new insight, some new competency that you can put in your kit bag."
"The L is learning for life, keep going"
"The last E is emotional resilience, some days are sh%$t, just make it one day though, keep it at one day, one up the next morning and think another day of delicious possibilities and Im going to V Toggle. Im going to turn up at this new day and yesterday was crap, but I have kept it to one day, I wish it didn’t turn out the way it did, but today is a new day, let’s go again."
So all of that advice, I we also missing another opportunity here where we don’t have enough structure around mentoring around the country.
"Possibly but it’s a two way thing, I don’t get down on young people, I remember when I wasn young, I like to think I am still young, but you know Im not and I remember then people who are older then me, ahh these youngsters, what do they know, bunch of lazy bastards, whats he doing carrying around that thing off his belt, it looks like a little cassette player, probably listening to Journey or Steve Perry and some horrendous thing."
"This is the culture of one generation, it always looks this way but there is that old saying that you have to be a friend to have a friend, and in mentoring it is a two way thing and going back, the appetite to share in that openness its a mutual commitment and what I am learning more and more is particularly in the business community is that there are a whole lot of successful business people who retire way to early, the wisdom that they bring, to come together and partner with a young entreprenour to say Imight be a bit crusty but you are going through what I went though, It is a little like an Angel investor that’s just an angel, if they want to invest as well that’s fantastic and we can have a whole other discussion about that, but whe you talk to young entreprenours one of the things they love about the Angel investors not just there skills its their wisdom their knowhow, it’s the sounding board, its someone that can dial back exurberance, that’s why ive got staff that try to keep me calm."
So, in the end , the fact is that small business now has someone who does know what he is talking about and the truth is there is probably no better person for the role. The points Billson makes about the need to inspire the next generation, of disrupting the way we think in order to find new ways of business, of appreciating that small business is a major part of the national economy are all points that are sometimes often lost on the mainstream. The success of the small business package introduced by the Government in the May budget is an indication of the fact that finally, the sector has a champion that knows what he says, does what he says and engages the way he says. Perhaps we will see Billson's star continue to rise and perhaps, just perhaps, we will see the profile of small business continue to rise.
About the author: Matthew Tukaki is the editor of EntreHub.org and sat down with Federal Minister for Small Business, Bruce Billson, on the 9th of September to conduct a wide ranging interview. You can follow Matthew on Twitter here or join our conversation on Facebook.
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Images: supplied, Optometry Australia, Alex Ellinghausen, brucebillson.com
"In small business it’s a child for mum, child for dad one for the country and one for the bank. Because you actually mortgage your house and first born to have a go..."
"we as a country need to better nurture entrepreneurs and enterprises characteristics"
"I often say to young couples that owning your business together is the greatest contraceptive ever.”
Billson record to date as Small Business Minister:
Implemented a Food and Grocery Code of Conduct to ensure fairness and transparency in the grocery sector
Cut over $2 billion in red and green tape costs
Undertaken an independent ‘root and branch’ review of the competition framework
Reformed the national Franchising Code
Signed Free Trade Agreements with China, Japan and Korea
Abolished the carbon tax
Overseen the historic Right to Repair Heads of Agreement
between participants in the automotive supply and service industry to ensure consumers are provided with the right information to make informed decisions when it comes to the repair and servicing of their vehicles
Created a Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman
Ensured Government pays their small businesses accounts on time
Activated the Productivity Commission inquiry into workplace relations and World Trade Organisation barriers into business entry and exits.
Provided an additional $304.1 million over four years from 2014 15 to boost the wage subsidy for mature age job seekers, through a Restart Programme.
"What is that we can do that is catalytic to turn that idea and ambition into economic action and investment and that was what the budget was shaped about."
"When you think about the common thread across the economies of our region, what is it, it doesn’t matter where you go in our region, you see enterprising men and women creating their own livelihood opportunities, family business trying to improve their circumstances to be their best selves through their own private endeavour."
"44% of all private sector livelihoods are made possible by enterprising men and women in small business and family enterprises."
"...there is more to being a entrepreneur than being a rogue....That is why I am happy to pimp my overly stout body around to bring a spotlight to where good things are happening,"
on the China FTA "we have got the things that we export and an enormous opportunity to move from a mining boom to a dining boom"
"Well, I started at Maccas, that was my first scheduled rostered job prior to that I was delivering news papers and working everywhere."
"this is no summer romance, you cant go there for 6 weeks, have a whale of a time and hope for commercial happy endings, its just not going to happen. You need to stay engaged and build those relationships"
"The world is run by people who turn up."
"What I am learning more and more is particularly in the business community is that there are a whole lot of successful business people who retire way to early, the wisdom that they bring, to come together and partner with a young entreprenour to say Imight be a bit crusty but you are going through what I went though."
Federal MP Bruce Billson delivering groceries collected through his office. Photo: Frankston.net
Federal MP Bruce Billson out and about with Federal Minister for the Enviornment Greg Hunt
Federal MP Bruce Billson with Communications Minister, Malcolm Turnbull
Federal MP Bruce Billson launching a new small business grants initiative