Leaders from some of Perth’s major professional services firms have seen big changes in their working lives over three decades.
ADVERTISING boss Steve Harris vividly remembers where he was working 30 years ago.
“I was the marketing manager and classified advertising manager at The Sunday Times,” he recalls.
“We had 170 call centre staff, all women, taking telephone ads for the weekly 128-page Readers Mart.
“People used to line up outside on a Saturday night to buy the paper so they could get a first look at the ads.”
“We were convinced that it could never touch the might of News Corp and our newspapers,” he said.
“Not sure we got that one right.”
The dramatic impact of technology was a recurring theme for Perth business professionals discussing changes they have seen over the past 30 years. Another theme was the increasing diversity in the workplace, albeit off a very low base.
It was almost exactly 30 years ago when Julie Bishop was made managing partner at the Perth office of law firm Clayton Utz.
That appointment was considered the first of its kind at a major law firm in Australia.
The major accounting firms were even slower to move.
It was not until 2004 that any of the big accounting firms appointed a woman as partner.
Ms Drummond said working life was very different for accountants when she joined EY 30 years ago.
“I was still using green and red pens for referencing, handwriting workpapers, and neat handwriting was a prerequisite of the job,” she said.
“Our tools are now dramatically different.
“Long gone are the days of crowding around the single office Mac computer and reading dot matrix printouts.
“Apps and mobile tech have made our working lives unrecognisable.”
Michelle Tremain says people no longer have to leave Perth for their career progression.
Ms Tremain remembers that graduates had a special role when the federal budget was handed down.
“We had the budget analysis that had been typed up by the people in the typing pool,” Ms Tremain told Business News.
“We would send it out by fax, and for really important clients, the grads had to hand deliver it.”
Ms Tremain also remembers a very different work environment.
“Back when I started, the partners would come around and see who was still in the office and still working,” she said.
“Now, I think people work harder than ever and are still ‘on’ at whatever hour of the night, but it’s very different because you are not physically there.”
“Technology has totally changed the way we, as lawyers, communicate,” he said.
“It has gone from letters and physical documents in almost every aspect of our daily work to most aspects being through email and online and being contactable most of the time.
“At one level the basic substance of the service to our clients has not changed, but how it is delivered and the speed at which that happens has been a quantum shift.”
“Mortgages and conveyancing used to be a big practice area, but that is now automated,” he said.
“Practitioners have moved to areas that are more complex and require intellectual heavy lifting.”
Mr Hely said the Perth market had become a lot more competitive as the number of law graduates and the number of law firms increased.
“If you go back 25 years, there were a lot of practitioners where work just flowed in,” he said.
“There was no such thing as business development, you came to work, did a good job and work just flowed to you.
“I remember old partners begrudgingly having to go to drinks or meet their clients.” Mr Hely said clients now expected more from their professional advisers.
“There is a greater expectation from clients now that you are more involved with their business,” he said.
“That you understand it, that you are looking for opportunities, to make introductions, come forward with ideas to help their business improve.
“They look at you as more than just a legal service provider but something wider and that gives you a competitive advantage, you are providing more than just black letter law.”
Mr Harris said the advertising industry was unrecognisable now compared to 1993.
“In many ways that is a good thing,” he said.
“When I started at The Brand Agency in 1997 there were offices for the men and the women were the secretaries.
“Nowadays no-one has an office and women are driving the business.”
The industry has also become more complex.
“In the 1990s if you could do TV, radio, press and an outdoor ad you had things covered,” Mr Harris said.
“Now there are so many different comms channels there are specialists for everything, and a campaign can have hundreds of individual components.”
That trend is reflected in the changing profile of the sector in WA, judging by Data & Insights.
While The Brand Agency is by far the state’s largest ad agency, long-time market leader Marketforce is just hanging on at number two, and is closely followed by two younger businesses, Bonfire and Juicebox.
The big accounting firms have become much larger over 30 years, but a more significant trend is the diversity in their services and staffing.
“When I started, we all had to be a chartered accountant and we had to be as similar and as ‘grey’ as possible,” Ms Tremain said.
“The only choice used to be between tax and audit.”
The firm was also a lot more formal.
“The staff handbook set out dress codes and girls had to wear a skirt or a dress,” she said.
“Going out to see a client, you had to wear a jacket.”
Ms Tremain recalled Australia was in a recession when she graduated, and people felt lucky to get a job.
“Now it’s all about wowing the grads and showing them all the opportunities and different areas they can work in,” she said.
“You might be an engineer or environmental specialist or a health expert. “There is such a diversity of backgrounds, and you can come in from anywhere.”
Ms Tremain said that was driven by clients.
“What people really value is when you are helping them with problems outside the box, not just the standard accounting and compliance work,” she said.
Fiona Drummond believes nothing beats a face-to-face meeting with staff or clients.
Ms Drummond has seen similar changes at EY, which has grown from an office of accountants and lawyers into a multi-disciplinary business.
“We have over 800 people focused on everything from climate change and sustainability to energy transition to data analytics to space tech and large-scale transformations,” Ms Drummond told Business News.
“Despite the fact that things have changed so dramatically in the way we engage and deliver for our clients, many of the fundamentals have remained the same.”
She acknowledges COVID has changed how people work and connect.
“But I think the fundamentals of face-to-face collaboration are back in a big way,” Ms Drummond said.
“Things might have looked a bit different for a while there, but nothing beats sitting at a table with your team.”
Mr Harris says modern technology came with a downside.
“I think people have confused being busy with productivity,” he said.
“They have confused doing stuff with delivering outcomes.”
He recalls being told by his old boss, Paul Yole, to ensure that modern technology did not substitute being in front of people and building relationships.
“Email has done that,” Mr Harris said.
“Talking on the phone used to be seen as the substitute to talking face to face.
“Now people don’t talk at all as it is easier to email.”
Mr Hunt believes the business community has become much more diverse.
“That’s across any dimension you care to name, in particular on gender and cultural background,” he said.
“Walking down the street in the CBD there are often people talking in other languages, reflecting WA’s connection to the rest of the world.”
One notable trend has been the increasing number of women in the legal profession.
Women comprise about 60 per cent of graduates and a similar proportion of senior associates and special counsel but are only about 30 per cent of partners.
Mr Hely said most firms had been slow to adopt flexible work practices, around parental leave, work from home and part-time work.
“COVID pushed that along because people are working from home and working part time and we realise it works,” he said.
Additionally, Mr Hely said, young people were demanding improved policies.
“They are asking [about our] policies on parental leave and working from home,” he said.
“They want to know about the make-up of the firm, does it represent the general community?
“It’s not just female staff asking that, it’s the male staff.
“Over time, organisations that are not doing that will miss out on picking up some of the good female staff and also the good male staff.”
Ms Tremain said the accounting profession had come a long way.
At PwC’s Perth office, 43 per cent of the partners are female, exceeding the firm’s 40 per cent national target.
“Sometimes we beat ourselves [up] about not achieving things we want to but in Perth we are doing well,” Ms Tremain said, adding she believed staff were judged on merit.
“One of the great things about Perth, almost because of our isolation, we recognise people who do a good job and get the job done.
“I don’t think gender is a core determinant.”
She said female staff had been helped by the trend toward less formal networking.
For instance, unlike some of her male peers, she does not attend one-on-one dinners with clients.
“There are not so many lunches and dinners; that makes things a bit more accessible for everybody,” Ms Tremain said.
“I wouldn’t go out for a big boozy lunch, but I don’t think many people have time for that now.”
The major professions have been affected by changes in the broader business community in WA.
Some sectors, like advertising, have been adversely affected.
“So many great local brands were lost or subsumed through M&A over the past 30 years,” Mr Harris said.
These include Home Building Society, Challenge Bank, Western Underwriters, Jeans West, Archie Martin, Aherns and SGIO.
“There were also all the Swan Brewery brands, which I worked on until it was centralised out of Sydney; that was the beginning of the end for many of those great brands.”
Mr Harris said it became uneconomical to be a WA-only brand with a WA-only market when a national company could aggregate costs and efforts into this market.
“All those brands created local opportunities, local jobs and kept the local ad market sharp through intense competition. It’s a sad loss that they’ve all gone,” he said.
Most other professions have benefited from the entry of global businesses into WA, especially in resources, energy and mining services.
“There are now many more head offices located here and the size of those businesses has grown,” Mr Hunt said.
“They still largely centre on similar industries but there are a lot of new players.
“There is lots more cross-border work: companies coming into WA on an ongoing basis and WA companies going out to Africa, Asia and South America, among others.”
Mr Hely has seen similar trends, though COVID was a disrupter.
“Pre COVID, WA was really on the move,” he said.
“There was a lot of interaction with Asia and Singapore.
“You saw professionals coming down from London and those regions, there were a lot of people moving over from over east.
“And then we had this period of COVID, it seemed like a bloc of two years, and it seems to have stalled some of that movement.”
The increasing links between Perth and the global business community is also reflected in changes within many of the professions.
Engineering, environmental consulting and insurance broking, to name just a few sectors, are increasingly dominated by big global players such as Wood, WSP and Marsh, respectively.
The legal profession has undergone more change than most, with many independent Perth firms entering national alliances, then merging to form a financially integrated practice, and then joining up with global firms (see table).
Perth’s largest law firm is a prime example.
In 1979, Perth firm Muir Williams Nicholson linked up with Sydney-based Freehill Hollingdale & Page.
It rebranded as Freehills in the 1980s to align with its interstate partners.
That was followed by the 1997 merger of Perth’s two largest law firms: Freehills and Parker & Parker.
In 2012, the Australian firm merged with London-based Herbert Smith to form the business known today as Herbert Smith Freehills.
Many of its competitors have taken similar steps.
Perth-based Stone James became part of Australian firm Mallesons Stephen Jaques, which merged with China’s King & Wood to form King & Wood Mallesons.
Some of the big Australian firms have resisted the overtures of international firms.
The Lavan business had been aligned with the national Philips Fox partnership until 2006, when the local team decided there were better opportunities as an independent firm.
“There aren’t many of us left,” Mr Hely said.
“Whether it be law firms or accounting firms or engineering firms, everybody has moved into those national or international models.
“We’re a proud WA firm and like to service WA clients.
“Only time will tell how it plays out into the future.”
The resources sector is seen as a continuing driver of prosperity in WA.
“[This has] inoculated us against many of the world’s more brutal competitive forces and built an inertia in to WA business and practices,” Mr Harris said.
“Our geographic isolation also kept some competitors away.
“Technology and a digital world have largely broken these barriers.”
Mr Hely said even though the economic outlook was a little bumpy, WA still offered great opportunity over the longer term.
“We are on the same timeline as a lot of the Asian countries, and there is a lot of interest in WA, not only for resources, but tourism, for industry, for property” he said.
“We saw that getting real traction before COVID, I think that will continue.”
Ms Tremain said Perth was more than just a mining town, with success stories in areas such as healthcare, technology and education.
“When we have people from the east coast here and they meet our clients, they are constantly blown away by what is happening here in Perth,” she said.
Ms Tremain said there was also recognition WA people could have global roles.
“A few years into my partnership, I was told that if I wanted to progress I would have to move to Sydney or Melbourne or go overseas,” she said.
“But in recent times I’ve had both national and global roles from Perth.
“That’s definitely a massive change, that you don’t have to leave Perth for your career progression and to achieve bigger things.”