What the new family business chief has planned

Family Business Australia’s new CEO has come from the depths of the business sector. She explains her plans to to shine a new life into Australia’s unappreciated family business heroes.

Australian family businesses are likely to get to know Robin Buckham well over the next few years.

Family Business Australia’s new CEO plans to shine a light on Australia’s broadest sector and pursue the recognition she says family businesses deserve.

The general public’s lack of understanding on what makes a family business unique is a distinct and tall hurdle to clear but with the FBA team behind her, she’s ready to get down to business.

So, you’ve been with FBA for six weeks now -- how’s it going?

It’s been very exciting, it is an amazing sector -- largely with its light under a bushel I think. I’ve met a tremendous range of businesses, from jam-makers to funeral directors and swimming pool owners, right up to the very large businesses.

What are some of the roles you’ve held previously?

Well I started out as an English and history teacher (not for very many years), where I learnt that if you can teach Shakespeare to year nine boys you can pretty much to talk to anyone about anything.

Then I moved into a steel pipe making business, where for 10 years I managed a large-diameter oil and pipe plant in Wollongong. That was fairly unusual -- a little bit because I was a woman but mostly because I was neither an engineer or metallurgist. During that time I was chair of regional development authority, and chair of the business chamber for a while so I contributed to the economic development space.

Then I moved to the University of Wollongong and set up its marketing arm -- a bit of an odd trajectory I know. I did that for ten years and then five years ago I came to Melbourne to be deputy vice chancellor (international and development) at Deakin University.

It’s an unusual CV, people tend to listen to that and say ‘but what do you do? Where’s the specialty?’

Well it sounds like you specialise in business, marketing and education… and they seem to be three big parts of what FBA does.

Yes and that’s what comes together nicely for FBA.

What’s stood out or taken you by surprise in your time so far with FBA?

The lack of understanding of the sector and its breadth. At a dinner party when you tell someone you’re working with family businesses they tend to say “Oh yes small business is important…”

People often tumble to the things that are important, like succession planning. But, like them, I had a mistaken impression that succession planning was probably something you thought about on a Tuesday afternoon at 5pm, got it sorted then moved on, rather than it being a process that can last 10 or 15 years.

The other thing that struck me was the emotional piece to it. It’s the meshing of family (emotion) and business (logic). So, as people say, the spreadsheets get muddles with the bed sheets.

Do you see those surprises as the biggest challenges to the sector?

Yes I think they’re certainly a significant piece of the chapter. When you go into business you do it because you’re a really, really good florist (or whatever), you don’t go into it to fill out a tax return or find out about the new privacy laws etc. So some of those things take people by surprise -- but that’s classic small business.

Then there’s the extra complication of family -- for example you might have to sack the managing director, it’s just a shame she’s also your wife.

I’m going to all our courses at the moment, just to learn about the product, and it’s interesting to see the ‘light bulb moment’. The people in the room said “we’re not alone -- I thought we were struggling by ourselves with this but there’s other people going through it too.” And that’s great as an organisation -- to bring people together and help them with that.

What’s your take on the new Federal Small Business and Family Business Ombudsman?

I think it’s a good idea. Anything that gets our name up there and next to small business so people can see that it’s not all about small business is good. And it follows nicely from the Senate committee inquiry into family business last year.

That joint parliamentary inquiry into family business was back in March 2013, is the progress a bit slow?

To be honest I don’t know yet. I haven’t had a conversation with the small business commissioner or Bruce Billson yet but I certainly aim to do that. I’ve got a meeting with the small business commissioner in Victoria this week to see how our interests might align and I think that’s important to do in each state.

Do you think the government is gaining a better understanding of what makes family business unique?

I think we’re getting there. Certainly the parliamentary inquiry helped but there’s more to do.

I was encouraged when I went to the opening workplace leadership centre at the University of Melbourne a few weeks ago. Minister Eric Abetz, who was opening it, came over to me and told me he was aware of what we were doing, so I was pleased about that.

What are you setting as your goals for your time at FBA?

I think recognition is important. We are the peak body for this sector and this sector is very large. I’d like to do more work with other peak bodies to help us represent the interests of family businesses in Australia as well.

It’s also important to get the recognition of family business to Australia’s productivity.

There’s two points: recognition and professionalisation.

The training and education is designed so that family businesses get that solid transfer between generations and go on employing people.

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