01/04/2009 - 22:00

Health concern sparks business overhaul

01/04/2009 - 22:00


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SMALL business owners often feel the need to have input in every aspect of their business.

CHALLENGES: Marie Bermingham has overcome a number of hurdles in operating her small business. Photo: Grant Currall

SMALL business owners often feel the need to have input in every aspect of their business.

Letting go of control and delegating tasks and responsibilities to other employees is often a difficult concept to accept, and even harder to put into practice.

When Sovereign Bridge Capital Group founder Marie Bermingham discovered she had breast cancer in 2000, she felt the challenges ahead, both personally and professionally, were insurmountable.

For 12 years she had taken full responsibility for the operations of the Perth-based business and personal financial planning services company.

"I had to have a significant amount of time away from the business and this highlighted the dependence on one individual as well as the risk to clients," Ms Bermingham said.

The small business owner's clients had always been comfortable with the fact that she was significantly younger than most of them and that she would be likely to "see them out".

However, this perception ran into a prospective different reality with Ms Bermingham's cancer diagnosis.

Back at work in 2001, she set about rebuilding service levels and a team around her that was able to cope with a range of delegated responsibilities.

Ms Bermingham returned to Curtin University in 2002 to complete a small business management course and employed a new business model that enabled her transition to step away from much of the decision-making process.

The first step involved appointing Ian Richardson as general manager, effectively handing him responsibility for running the business, taking control over paying the bills, organising human resources and managing end-of-year financial audits.

WA Business News 2009 40under40 winner Leanne Rowley was then employed as operations manager to oversee the production team and its daily operations.

In 2002, Ms Bermingham bought out her silent partner and set about building a business that was not so reliant on her individual efforts.

In 2005 she sold down 25 per cent of her share for more than she had paid for 50 per cent in 2002 - and the business has grown from strength to strength since.

"Both the turnover and profitability has increased substantially, to the point where the number that represents the 2004 annual turnover was only slightly more than the profit number in 2008," Ms Bermingham said.

She said while her team of 15 "fantastically talented exceptional young Western Australians" has led the business to discussions to open a Melbourne office, rebuilding the company's business model over the years was an onerous task, but an essential one.

"The business is robust at a time when competitors are struggling," Ms Bermingham said. "We are in a position to hire more staff in the next quarter to continue to build our client base.

"We are having fun at work and our clients are in good shape despite the global financial crisis and are enjoying life.

"We seem to be the only firm I know that is still both seeing new clients and helping them commence plans to build their personal or business wealth in the current economic conditions.

"We have previously had to close the doors to new business in April 2007 for just over 15 months to deal with existing client issues, but are now open for business and keen to meet new people to take advantage of the current market conditions to help set them up for life.

"We spent 2007-08 employing people and skilling them up to service our client base just in case this happened."

Ms Bermingham had three months away from the business last year and intends to continue to do this in 2009, secure in the knowledge that the staff are attending to the needs of the client base as well, if not better, than she would.


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