Steering a business through the murky waters of COVID-19 isn’t without its challenges but, as Melbourne’s Jeff Long can attest, careful planning can mitigate the impact with opportunities already emerging.

I began my accounting career relatively late in life compared to some of my peers but have been with HLB Mann Judd for 24-odd years now. The benefit of many experiences during this time really helps in times like these; I’ve been through partnership breakups, the GFC and now COVID-19, and all of these events teach you lessons that enable you to be a better leader.

Change in itself isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it’s healthy and can breathe new life into a business. I’ve been through a number of changes with the firm and it’s afforded me some useful tips, particularly around the importance of the stakeholders strategically working together with a plan, managing staff and adapting to change quickly as required.

I’ve worked in business advisory for much of my accounting career and undertake a lot of valuation work for clients including for those in the legal fraternity and on family law matters, where I’ve actually been to court to give evidence in some cases. This high-pressure type of experience has helped to shape my approach to leadership and to manage some difficult times with the business.

Fortuitously, we started planning to have staff more mobile back in December last year, so the plan was already in motion however the pandemic certainly forced our hand. We wanted to make sure our staff could work from home in a safe environment, and that our systems and processes were adequate in allowing them to do their job as well, if not better, from home. This aligns with our philosophy and the direction of the business in providing staff with a more flexible work life. It also ties in with making all employees – irrespective of role or seniority – accountable, and focussing on outcomes and performance, not time sheets.

Over the past few months, clients have been appreciative of a simple phone call to see how they’re going and whether there’s anything we can do to assist them and their business. Most of our clients are very loyal and checking in should be routine, but we’ve also won new clients on the back of phone calls simply because they hadn’t heard from their existing accountant.

There are three main service sectors of the Melbourne business – audit, tax and business advisory. With audit, we’re particularly strong in government work for the Auditor General, and it’s a stable business widely considered to be market leading in the use of technology. Similarly, the tax business is well-regarded and is heavily involved in tax advice for construction industry clients, and our business advisory offering focuses on high level advice and service delivery to existing large family business clients.

Looking ahead, while it’s hard to predict trading conditions, you can be prudent in your planning. The business is only budgeting three months ahead at a time as we believe that will help tell a reasonable story, and a key focus will be only having clients that pay within 90 days. We’re officially in recession now, but with many of the stimulus measures ceasing in September, October to January could prove even more challenging for both individuals and businesses.

We’re three to four months into this economic downturn and, without a doubt, it’s the biggest yet, because people have lost real money. We need people to be employed and to be spending money so all businesses get their share of the pie.

The local coffee shop guy recently chatted about what Melbourne might look like as a city going forward. Given we, as a business, have planned for half of our staff to be in the office at any one time, this means we will have approximately 60 people less coming into the city each day. Let’s assume other businesses adopt a similar approach that means a significant reduction in the number of people in the city each day going forward. What happens to traffic flow, public transport, office space, cafes etc? Our way of life and what Melbourne looks like as a city may be very different.

And then of course there’s the footy – will we ever see 100,000 people at the MCG again?

This article was published in the 2020 Winter edition of Financial Times.