ROBERT GERRISH: (00:31) Today I am delighted to be speaking with Sumi Sivalingam who joins us from Melbourne.
Hello and welcome, Sumi.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (00:42) Hi, Robert. Good morning.
ROBERT GERRISH: (00:43) Good morning. Look it’s great to have you here. I remember you so strongly from various conferences and met you in at a meeting recently and for people who will see a picture of you, you just radiate such joy and happiness whenever I see you.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (00:58) Thank you. That’s so sweet.
ROBERT GERRISH: (01:01) Yeah. You brought some sunshine into not the sunniest day for me. I’m delighted to be speaking with you. Look let’s dive into this. So your practice is based in Doncaster.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (01:12) That’s right.
ROBERT GERRISH: (01:12) A suburb of Melbourne. So perhaps as a start could you just let us know a little bit about what Doncaster is like. Just give us a little snapshot.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (01:21) Doncaster today, it’s really a bustling suburb. It’s got a real mix of different races and religions. It’s a friendly place to live in. It’s beautiful hills and parks and lakes and it’s just a beautiful place to live in. I moved here 10 years ago and I just always wanted to live in this area, so we ended up buying a house about five years ago here. I love it. It’s got really good schools. Some of the top state schools are in Doncaster as well and my boys go to one of the schools here. So yeah and it’s a lovely area. Everybody is friendly, good neighbours. Can’t complain much really.
ROBERT GERRISH: (02:07) Doesn’t sound like it.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (02:08) No.
ROBERT GERRISH: (02:08) A good choice. You moved there from where? From where do you originally hail?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (02:14) I come from Malaysia and I moved to Melbourne in 2008 with my two kids. I’ve been here now 10 years exactly since I moved to Melbourne.
ROBERT GERRISH: (02:27) Wow! Okay. When you first came here, was your intention sort of immediately to start your own business? Was it a clear path or how did that sort of evolve for you?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (02:39) Yeah. When I moved here 10 years ago, my boys, they were in primary school still and, you know, when you move from a different country I really wanted to just be there for them throughout their school life because it’s a big change. It’s a new culture. It’s new faces, new friends and when you have young boys… I know they were a little bit insecure so I felt that my priority was to take care of them first.
ROBERT GERRISH: (03:09) Of course.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (03:09) And not think about work. I did that for… from 2008 to 2013 and in 2013 my younger son went into Year 7. So when he went into Year 7 high school they were a little bit more grounded. They were happier. I felt that it was time that I could actually just leave them and they’ll be fine and then I thought about what I wanted to do because I had all this free time. I was no longer involved with…
ROBERT GERRISH: (03:37) With the kids.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (03:38) … the kids and parents and friends and Teacher’s Day and Mother’s Day and canteen duties. So yeah, having an accounting background back in Malaysia, the natural option was to find something within that accounting field itself and I did explore a lot of possibilities of either working for somebody or starting my own business and then I came to that point in my life when I thought after being on my own for such a long time I didn’t want to go and work for somebody so then I decided, “Yeah, I think I’ll start my own business.”
ROBERT GERRISH: (04:18) Wow! Okay. That’s quite a big…it’s a very big decision, isn’t it, to start your own business as opposed to take the slightly easier, in that scenario, option of employment. Do you remember the trigger, the thing that really prompted you to, “Yeah, I’m going to do this. I’m going to do my own thing?”
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (04:40) Yes, I do. I remember thinking that I wanted to run… because I think I was finally realising… Now you look at, “Do I want to buy a coffee shop?” “Do I want to run a catering business?” “Do I want to do…?” You know, there are so many options out there, but at the end of the day I knew I had to be sensible and fall back on what I knew best, which was accounting and journals and double entries. Then I thought about, “Yeah, I think I’ll do something of my own.” Then I thought about, “How do I do this?” “Do I just start a bookkeeping business?” That’s when a little bit of the fear set in because I thought, “Look, I’m new to the country. I’m new to tax laws and accounting practices.” I think it was that confidence level that wasn’t so high, to be honest.
ROBERT GERRISH: (05:31) Yeah, which is very natural, very natural position to be in.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (05:33) Yeah, it was. It was the fear of going out on my own and not having the support. That was a huge criteria for me to then decide that maybe I’ll go with a franchise because I honestly needed technical support and just having somebody there to back me up if I was ever in doubt.
ROBERT GERRISH: (05:55) Yeah.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (05:56) Back then… Unlike today we have Facebook. We’ve got the software partners on Facebook and that’s a big support group out there, but back then when I started business I didn’t know about that. I didn’t have that. So I decided, “Okay, I’ll look into a franchise and I explored several of the bookkeeping franchises out there. First Class Accounts was one of the franchises that I looked into and went for the open day and met the people and yeah it was…
ROBERT GERRISH: (06:30) And the rest is history.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (06:31) Well the rest is history because it was just meeting the management, some of the management staff and just looking at the way the group presented itself. It gave me the level of confidence that I needed to take it to the next step, which was to explore that a little bit further. Yeah.
ROBERT GERRISH: (06:50) Yeah. Forgive me. How many years into your business now are we?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (06:56) I’m going into my second term. So I finished one term of five years and I’m re-signing my second term contract for another five years. So I’m starting my sixth year.
ROBERT GERRISH: (07:06) Yeah. Okay. How does the whole sort of community and support system… How important is that to you in your business? To what extent even now sort of five or six years in, to what extent do you still lean on the, let’s call it the community of First Class?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (07:28) I’ve been in business for six years, but you still don’t know everything. There’s still something new that you learn and there’s still something new that you go, “Okay, hang on. I’ve not come across that before.” Today when I come across a problem like that, I actually have no fear because I know that I’ve got the technical, that amazing technical team up in Queensland and I’ve got the help of my fellow franchisees who have been absolutely phenomenal in extending a helping hand. It’s been so easy to get help. You can just ask a question. You’ve got your chat groups. You can ask a question. You get not just one answer, but you might get several answers from several franchisees.
ROBERT GERRISH: (08:10) Yeah.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (08:10) And it’s that spirit…
ROBERT GERRISH: (08:12) Different opinions.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (08:13) That I just absolutely love and they have asked me to take on any client with any problems and any challenges because I know I can just fork that out.
ROBERT GERRISH: (08:25) Yeah. Okay. Isn’t that wonderful? So I guess then there must be times when you maybe go out to meet a potential new client and that possibly on your way back to your office thinking, “Oh my gosh! How am I going to do this?”
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (08:36) Yes. Absolutely.
ROBERT GERRISH: (08:37) Yeah, but then you get back and you know that there is a whole group of people who are going to give you those answers, which is wonderful.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (08:43) Absolutely. Absolutely.
ROBERT GERRISH: (08:45) In your sort of opening little intro there, you talked to us a bit about the community in your area, you know, different religions, different ethnic backgrounds. How has that been for you? Here are you still a relative newcomer to Australia yourself, in a new business with so many different cultures around you, what’s that been like for you? How has it been to sort of infiltrate and grow your business with that sort of a background?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (09:17) Okay. Coming from Malaysia… Malaysia is a multi-cultural country. You’ve got the Chinese, the Indians, the Malays. So I’ve grown up in an environment where you are always mixing with different people. Moving to Melbourne or moving to Australia wasn’t that much of a difference.
ROBERT GERRISH: (09:38) Okay. That’s a good point.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (09:39) Because I was so used to people being different, but it’s just now not so much the Asians or the Indians or the Malays, but more of the Italians and Greeks and it didn’t really matter. To me it was moving from one country to another where everything was about the same. It just, you know, meeting new people, learning how to get around, those were the challenges that I faced. Like when I first came here and I hadn’t… My husband gave me a car. I didn’t have a GPS and he would tell me how get from A to B and he’ll give me landmarks. That scared me more than anything else. Would I get lost?
ROBERT GERRISH: (10:21) Right. Okay.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (10:22) It wasn’t so much the meeting people because we are so… I’m so used to that. That’s just me.
ROBERT GERRISH: (10:26) Yeah. Okay.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (10:28) Yeah.
ROBERT GERRISH: (10:29) I mean in many ways it sounds like it’s not only… As you say, it’s you, but it’s essential for you. You chose to go to Doncaster for that reason.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (10:39) That’s right.
ROBERT GERRISH: (10:39) And I guess what you have now, six years in, is a business where presumably you have clients from all sorts of backgrounds in all sorts of areas.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (10:48) I do.
ROBERT GERRISH: (10:49) Yeah. Variety is clearly a very important thing to you and it…
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (10:54) Yes. Variety I think it’s something that I’ve grown up with.
ROBERT GERRISH: (10:59) Yeah.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (11:01) I still do have friends from Malaysia. They are Muslim background or the Indian background or Chinese background. When you grow up in a multi-cultural country you just get used to seeing everybody as one.
ROBERT GERRISH: (11:18) Yes. Of course.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (11:18) And not identifying them differently and I found no difference here as well. My neighbours had neighbours, but yeah, I’ve got Greek neighbours, Italian neighbours, but they’re just people to me and that wasn’t really much of a strong point with me as to moving to a different country and a different culture. It’s just more as to learning the ways and speaking the language.
ROBERT GERRISH: (11:41) Yeah. Got you.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (11:43) And all their short cuts and abbreviations. So for me that was my, I think, my learning curve.
ROBERT GERRISH: (11:49) Yeah. Okay. And it’s probably ongoing, isn’t it? Because it’s…
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (11:52) That’s right. Today I’ve got to ask now, “What’s a chippie?” Right?
ROBERT GERRISH: (11:59) Yeah. Okay. Got it. Excellent. Let’s have a look briefly then at some of sort of the nature of the businesses that you serve. Do you have any particular speciality? Are you tending to go into any particular sector with your clients? Also is that fairly sort of broad and far-reaching?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (12:18) I’ve looked at my client base and I can’t say there is one specific area or industry that I’m targeting. I’m pretty much… I’ll take on any client, small businesses, even large organisations who really just need somebody to help them manage their books. I’ve always been about helping people, so as long as you want my help, you really need my help, I’m there. Yeah. So it’s been good. I’ve got… yeah.
ROBERT GERRISH: (12:51) Tell me, do you tend to go on site with your clients or do you work more from your own office? Do you work from home or do you have a free standing office? How does that operate?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (13:03) Initially when I first started our business, I wasn’t using Cloud software. Everything was desktop. So you had to make visits to clients and I did a lot of travel in my first maybe couple of years of business. You don’t have that many clients when you first start, so it’s very easy to make these field visits because you do have all the time in the world.
ROBERT GERRISH: (13:24) Of course.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (13:25) But yeah. Then you start learning about different software and Cloud. I went into the Cloud and once I went into the Cloud with the use of other apps that are Cloud-based, traveling to client’s places then reduced significantly. Having said that, it also enabled me to pick up more business because I then had the flexibility of staying in one home office. I have a home office, by the way, and just working from the home and managing all my clients, but clients are still very important to me because I don’t forget that they came to me back in the day. So I still make visits to them. I still go and just drop in, have coffee. I still check with them every week, keep in touch. I just want them to know that while I’m not seeing them as often as I used to…
ROBERT GERRISH: (14:14) You’re still there.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (14:14) But they’re still there. I’m still there for them.
ROBERT GERRISH: (14:16) Yeah. That’s interesting because as I said at the outset, I’ve met you a few times. I know you to be someone who clearly enjoys the social side and interaction with people. No, I mean that in a very genuine way you clearly like the connection with people. But it’s interesting then that what you’ve been able to do is very much design your business so that you kind of get enough of that for yourself and give enough of it for your client relationships. You know, you have that choice, don’t you? You can either…
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (14:45) Yes, I do. Yeah.
ROBERT GERRISH: (14:46) Yeah, which is a… So we’re touching on sort of tech there. Would you call yourself a natural sort of tech person? Has it been an easy process for you? Is this an easy process or is it something that is not your sort of natural bent. What’s your response to that?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (15:06) In terms of technology, I embrace technology. I think that whatever it takes to make your business easier to handle, I’m there. So when I first started in business we did bookkeeping the old fashioned way where you go and pick up receipts from your clients.
ROBERT GERRISH: (15:27) Those were the days.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (15:27) You do the data entry, you know, and then you come across apps that just takes all that away from you and once again that technology increases my efficiency and if it increases my efficiency I can then spend time trying to get new clients or focusing on areas that maybe a client may have, an issue that they may have and solving that problem. So I feel that today after six years in business my time that I spend on my client, I’m trying to manage that differently. It’s not all about bookkeeping and data entry, but just trying to take it one step further and see how I can actually help them to grow their business and analyze figures, talk to the accountants and yeah, so just things like that.
ROBERT GERRISH: (16:19) Yeah. I guess that’s one of the very many lovely things about the way this industry is developing is that your role is you are able to sort of increase and broaden the aspect of your role the more that you are able to save time with technology. So as you say, you are going in there now and you’re turning into more of an advisory… Let’s have a look at how we can grow this business. Let’s look at how we can do things more profitably or more quickly or with less kind of stages and steps along the way. That must be very satisfying for you I’m guessing.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (16:55) It is. It has been because I know that I’m moving in the right direction, that I’m not staying back in the times of just data entry and I’m feeling that my self-worth is also growing because I feel that I’m just doing a little bit more than being just a bookkeeper and that’s actually a great feeling at the end of the day.
ROBERT GERRISH: (17:15) Yeah. How lovely. On that then, if we kind of look to the future, what do you see there? Currently I think I’m right in saying that you work pretty well on your own. How do you see the future? What do you envisage for your business?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (17:32) Actually at the start of this year, because I realised that I’d finished the five-year contract and I was going… Then I came to a crossroads. Do I re-sign for another five and if I did that then would I then need to make changes to the way I worked. Because working by myself as a sole trader, it was getting really hectic. Clients were growing but my work-life balance, I wasn’t striking that at all.
ROBERT GERRISH: (18:01) Okay.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (18:01) And I came to also a crossroads where, as I mentioned earlier, I turned 50 this year and I thought, “I’m going to be 50 and if I wanted to take this business on for another five years I have to make some changes.” So I actually hired a staff at the start of the year, a part-time contractor. She comes in twice a week and she works 11 hours a week. She has been a phenomenal help to me and having her on board has actually reduced some of my personal work load on the usual Monday nitty gritty things that I would have to do. She does it now and it’s left me so much room to increase my business, to take on more clients, to… You know, like I said, analyze things for them, go and make more visits, speak to them.
ROBERT GERRISH: (18:54) How wonderful.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (18:55) Yeah, and I’ve actually… I’ve been busier. I’m in a much better position in terms of preparation for end of financial year.
ROBERT GERRISH: (19:02) Okay.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (19:03) This is with the help of my contractor. We’ve actually got everything pretty much organised and ready and yeah, I’ve hit all the goals this year that I’ve wanted to do. So moving forward, I think I’ve accepted the fact that I do need help in the office if I’m going to carry this on because I no longer can handle this myself. So as long as she’ll stay with me, I’ll have her. If she just likes to go then I’ll just have to get somebody else, but on a personal level it’s been phenomenal because I now don’t work on weekends. I can actually close the door on a Friday evening and just walk in on a Monday and still have the peace of mind that everything is under control.
ROBERT GERRISH: (19:46) That’s brilliant.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (19:46) Whereas in the past I would be working Saturdays and Sundays and my husband and my boys would have to come and talk to me in the office if they wanted to see me.
ROBERT GERRISH: (19:56) Okay. Then I guess that’s… It’s not an unusual scenario that when you’re getting started in any business, in the first few years and five years is still… You know, the first five years is still fairly early, aren’t they I guess in any small business and clearly you were working well, your client list was building so of course you’re work load is building. But it’s great that you’ve got to this point now and you’ve gone, “Okay, enough is enough. I need to get the balance right again.” So employing this first person who works with you, as you say, just for a sort of 11 hours or so a week… Was that a fairly straightforward process? I mean that must have… It sounds like it’s giving you a lot more confidence sort of going forward. So if you were going to employ someone else again, do you see that as being a fairly easy potential for you?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (20:51) Yeah, because if I were to get somebody else… The first reason why I got her as a part-time contractor for 11 hours was because I felt that my work load wasn’t at a level where I needed her full-time or I needed her for five days. So 11 hours is good for now. Moving down the track if I feel that I need her to be on a bit more I may change the way things work, but at this point of time it’s good. It’s working well and she’s brilliant. She comes in. She always wants to know what needs to be done urgently, “Is there anything that I need to clear and get done.” She has got excellent knowledge in Excel spreadsheets and text matters as well.
ROBERT GERRISH: (21:40) Okay. Perfect.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (21:40) And I am not above asking her asking her for help or her opinion on certain matters and so we work well together and it’s been a pleasure having her. You know, because you open up your house and your home to somebody, to a perfect stranger and it has to be somebody that I’m comfortable with. This girl ticks all the boxes. So moving forward I really don’t know what’s going to happen, if I’m going to get another staff. Will I move to a… rent a little place? But it’s working well at this point of time and I just believe in just taking one day at a time.
ROBERT GERRISH: (22:16) Yeah. Okay. Does the future excite you? What’s the sort of feeling that you have about the future?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (22:24) Look, it definitely excites me because there’s nothing like owning your own business, I believe, and a business that’s going well. I am not aiming to make millions of dollars, but I’m at a comfortable level and I think if you just leave the financial aspects aside, it’s that personal satisfaction of seeing how I can help my clients, actually relieve some of the stress and pressure of having to manage their books themselves and seeing them grow and seeing them happy has been one of the, I think, turning points in my own life personally and to see the changes that they go through in their business and opening up a second shoplot or taking on a new factory premises and consulting me and yeah, it just been a good experience so far. So I’m…
ROBERT GERRISH: (23:19) It’s lovely.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (23:20) Yeah.
ROBERT GERRISH: (23:20) To be part of the growth of someone else’s business and to be, as you clearly are, the trusted advisor, the person that’s saying, “Hey, I’ve been thinking of taking on a second factory, Sumi. What do you think?” That must be a lovely feeling to be in that position.
You mentioned your boys before. Where are they now? I’m dying to know what sort of… What age are we at with your boys now?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (23:45) I’ve got a step son who is 26 and he lives in Perth and they’ve just made me a grandmother quite recently.
ROBERT GERRISH: (23:53) How exciting.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (23:54) So I’m really happy and then I’ve got two boys of my own and the eldest is in third year uni. He is turning 21 in October.
ROBERT GERRISH: (24:04) Gosh!
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (24:04) And my youngest, my baby, he is turning 18 in November. He is in Year 12, studying for his VCE at the end of the year.
ROBERT GERRISH: (24:12) Fantastic.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (24:13) And the two boys live with us still and yeah.
ROBERT GERRISH: (24:17) Do you see either of them coming into the business?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (24:20) No. I don’t think so. [laughter] I wish I could pass the torch, but no. One is really athletic and doing a health and exercise health program. The other is either… Such a vast difference, either medicine or business management.
ROBERT GERRISH: (24:39) Okay.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (24:39) Yeah, we’ll have to see how that goes.
ROBERT GERRISH: (24:42) How interesting. How fantastic. Now look, I happen to know that also not only do you like the sort of the line entries, but there’s another form of line that you [laughter]… That’s a bit of a bad link isn’t it, but…
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (24:55) Oh no, it’s good.
ROBERT GERRISH: (24:57) So line dancing… This is a passion of yours.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (25:00) Yes. It’s a passion.
ROBERT GERRISH: (25:01) So come on, tell us about that. How does that fit into your busy life?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (25:06) I started line dancing back in Malaysia in 2001 and it was a new experience because back then I hadn’t heard of line dancing, but you dance and you don’t need a partner and it’s all sorts of music and line dancing obviously makes me so happy. So when I moved to Melbourne 10 years ago, I went looking for a place where I could dance because I was actually really homesick and missing my parents tremendously. I knew that I needed to get out of this rut because I was feeling really down.
ROBERT GERRISH: (25:46) Right.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (25:46) So I went looking for classes and I found some line dancing classes here within the Doncaster area and I started dancing and yeah, I went for one class a week then it went to two classes a week and then it went to three and then it went to four because I wasn’t working, yeah.
ROBERT GERRISH: (26:03) Hang on a bit. Hang on a minute. It sounds like when you said you were working evenings and weekends it’s because you’re line dancing all the time.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (26:09) No. That was before I started the business. Then when I started the business of course I had to take a bit of a cut in terms of my time management.
ROBERT GERRISH: (26:19) Okay.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (26:19) If I did two hours of dancing in the morning, I just put in the two hours at the end of the day. So I just always tried to balance and I juggled the time.
ROBERT GERRISH: (26:30) But now, you’re doing how much a week? How often a week are you dancing?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (26:35) Yeah, so I still do pretty much quite a few classes. I teach. I’ve got a class now that I started teaching about three years ago every Wednesday morning. I love teaching line dancing. I’ve got a beautiful class, a lovely bunch of ladies and I’ve got two men in my class, I think. It’s my little hobby that I have. It’s the time that I get to de-stress.
ROBERT GERRISH: (27:05) Yeah.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (27:06) And just detach from the office for a bit even if it’s for two hours. But if I’ve been having a stressful week or just a horrible day, I come to class and I forget everything and I dance and I’m happy.
ROBERT GERRISH: (27:19) How fantastic.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (27:19) And I come back to the office and I’m actually in a much better frame of mind.
ROBERT GERRISH: (27:23) Of course you are. Yeah.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (27:24) To tackle anything really.
ROBERT GERRISH: (27:27) And many clients in your line dancing classes?
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (27:32) No. No clients at all, but they all know that I love my line dancing and they know, yeah, they know it.
ROBERT GERRISH: (27:39) Fantastic. How wonderful. It is so important, isn’t it, to have that balance and even when you’re busy to kind of take yourself away and do something you love because when you come back to your work, you’re just a different person so refreshed and clear headed. It’s a fabulous thing.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (27:59) I believe everybody… I think we all need that one thing that we can go to that just makes us happy and puts us in a better frame of mind because sometimes it’s not always about work. You got to put a bit of yourself ahead as well because if you are good and if you are feeling fine and you’re happy then I think that it translates into the work that you do and the people that you meet and the aura and the energy that you give out. So I’m a great believer of that that in order to attract you have to also be positive and give out that sort of energy as well and yeah, for me honestly dancing does that for me.
ROBERT GERRISH: (28:42) Yeah. Well look, as I said at the outset, you bring sunshine whenever I see you and…
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (28:48) Robert, you’re so sweet.
ROBERT GERRISH: (28:50) No. I think we can see where some of it comes from. So that’s so wonderful.
So Sumi, thank you so much for joining us and spending your time with First Class Accounts today.
SUMI SIVALINGAM: (29:00) My absolute pleasure, Robert. Thank you so much.