Image: Elin Collins (second from left) and her team at Focus Partners.
In what now seems like another lifetime, each morning, Elin Collins would make the leisurely 25-minute drive along the winding country roads from her home in Victoria’s Rutherglen to her accounting practice in Albury, New South Wales.
But, from midnight on Tuesday 21 July, the familiarity of her everyday routine was suddenly up-ended. And, overnight, this peaceful commute became just another of the many things she’d once taken for granted and now found strictly out of bounds.
Following increased lockdown restrictions and subsequent border closures, countless business owners, like Elin, living within the reaches of border zones across the country have found themselves in the same position.
She explains, “I honestly never thought I’d be stuck like this. I’ve got a business to run and I can’t get into work.”
Providing support across state lines
Despite the challenges of being locked out of her practice, coupled with homeschooling her young daughter alongside an ever-increasing workload, Elin has found renewed purpose in coming to the aid of her clients on both sides of the state line.
“Many of the businesses close to the border have found that work has dried up completely because, all of a sudden, half of their customer base can no longer access them.”
“Before the pandemic arrived, I’d barely spoken to some of these clients on the phone. Now, brief emails have turned into regular half an hour check-ins, and our relationships have really deepened as a result (they’ve even seen my little girl jumping around in the background).”
Like Elin, Albury-based accountant Clayton Wood of Business Edge has found himself becoming the first line of support as his clients navigate their way through the ongoing disruption wrought by COVID-19 and the intricacies of border zone regulations.
He explains, “As well as getting the right information to our clients as quickly as we can, we’re also calling just to let them know we’re here for them. They’re now realising that what we offer goes far beyond tax returns.”
Staying connected and cutting through the confusion
As the latest details filter through, it often falls to advisors to translate what it all means. Amidst the confusion, Elin and Clayton have worked to stay on top of shifting restrictions and a shifting ‘border bubble’.
Both have found that the key to moving forward lies in being as prepared as possible and accepting that there’s still plenty of learning to do. In Clayton’s words, “As an advisor, I don’t think you need to know everything, but you do need to know where to find the answers. Our approach has been to plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there and this entire period has been hard for our clients on both the Wodonga and Albury sides. We’re here to provide clarity by looking to the latest regulations and permits.”
Elin adds, “Of course, you want to give your clients the right advice when they need it. But it’s been tough, because the goal posts are ever-changing. Still, I feel a strong sense of pride as a business because we’ve been on the front foot as much as we possibly can.”
With many clients no longer able to visit in person, the ability to do business online has never been more important. Clayton explains, “With so much change occurring around us, being able to leverage the systems we already have in place has been hugely helpful. Luckily, we can already work any time, anywhere through Xero.”
“Having that real time data and customisable reports are crucial at the moment, as it allows us to find answers for multiple clients at once. And the fact that the platform was updated to accommodate JobKeeper payments so quickly has really eased the burden.“
While for Elin, going digital has made all the difference. “There’s absolutely no way I could work from home if we were still using server-based software. It frightens me to think how much leave I would’ve had to use up.”
Finding strength in community
As twin towns, there has always been something of a rivalry between Albury and Wodonga. But, following the border closure, “Community spirit has reached a whole new level,” says Clayton.
“The collaboration between small businesses has been incredibly inspiring. Our client The Real Florist has opened up their Albury space to Wodonga-based photographers who can’t access their studios. While Wodonga’s Le Maison restaurant (where we usually hold seminars and workshops) is offering customers Click & Collect pick ups on both sides of the border thanks to generous stockists.”
“People are sharing everything from their knowledge to their space – whether that’s offering advice, reciprocal gym memberships or hot-desking. Above all, everyone is here to help.”
But it isn’t only his clients who are coming together in this time of need. “Local accountants and bookkeepers have been helping each other stay on top of the latest changes. There’s been a huge amount of support.”
Elin agrees, “Community is what will get us through this thing. Sometimes I get a bit teary thinking about all that we’ve accomplished together over these last few months.”