Shirlaws asks business owners: ‘Do you know your number?

by Tim Dwyer and Jacob Aldridge >> 

IF YOU OWN a private enterprise in Australia then you have ‘a number’. This is your end game, your commercial vision, the sale figure you believe will see you happily sail into the sunset.

What you may not know is your Numbers – plural. These are the periods of No Man’s Land where enterprises stall, and the black holes that suck business owners, their teams, and their dreams into a vortex from which many never emerge. 

Stress in business is often the result of having your vision Number just on the far side of one of these black hole numbers – almost forever out of reach for reasons that are not apparent.


We met recently with a business owner who shared the state of his company, including revenue of $1.5 million per annum.

Our next question was, “How long have you been stuck there?”

His response was, “Three years – how did you know?”

We knew because we see this all the time. We ask the same question of a business with $17 million in revenue, while knowing a business with $4.5 million is almost certainly experiencing strong revenue growth and will do so until they reach $6 million.

Similar points exist in much larger companies as well.

Did you know it’s much easier to move from $300 million to $700 million than it is to move from $700m to $800m? Those that bust through the $700m black hole almost invariably become $1 billion unicorns shortly thereafter.

How frustrating to be predictably stuck? How energising to know you are not alone.


Not only are these numbers consistent in private enterprise, so too are the growth strategies most likely to help you bust through for the fastest return on investment.

For the $1.5 million business, the sales system that had worked was now holding him back. Combined with a capacity strategy to plan the growth, we believed sales would propel him to $3 million, at which point his current channel strategies would need innovating.

Many business owners, guided by the generic advice of the internet or other CEOs at different stages, build detailed systems too early ... or too late.

For example, a business in the $750,000 black hole will not see value in a brand strategy that will take it past $12 million. 

Similarly, businesses stuck at $12 million are often using the same brand strategy they had when they were much smaller.

By knowing your numbers you will know what to invest in and when.

You will be in control of what advice you seek, and be able to more easily calculate the return on investment from any initiative.

It also means you will get the timing right for each investment, which speeds up the process of getting to your Number sooner.


  • Tim Dwyer is Shirlaws Australia CEO and former journalist Jacob Aldridge is now a Shirlaws coach in Australia after returning from UK, where he was Shirlaws head of operations. Shirlaws coaches use the extensive business systems research of the organisation to develop businesses and assist business owners to realise their ‘number’. 
  • The Shirlaws annual conference is being staged at Seaworld Resort on the Gold Coast from October 7-9. This year's theme is Scaling Your Business: Creating Your Jump – and this year the event features founder Darren Shirlaw. Venue: Seaworld Resort Gold Coast.



Beware the rise of the zombie company warns RSM Bird Cameron

RSM Bird Cameron calls them ‘zombie’ companies – the walking dead. Just like their irksome namesakes, these are companies that can endanger your business, if you deal with them and are not careful.

Andrew Beck, national head of turnaround and insolvency at RSM Bird Cameron said in the past, many underperforming companies managed to slip under the radar and escape insolvency. He warned that with market conditions changing, these businesses need to change course if they want to avoid going under. 

“In 2014, many indebted companies were able to repay the interest on their debts but not able to reduce the actual debt itself or invest in maintaining or updating equipment or make strategic investments,” Mr Beck said.

“Low interest rates let these zombie companies maintain their commitments to their financiers. As such, it is unlikely that these financiers will seek to enforce their security any time soon and this is how zombie companies will continue to battle on.

“The amount of zombie companies may even increase, given there is no expected increase in interest rates in the near future.”

According to Mr Beck, there are four signs that indicate a company may be heading for zombie-status:

Covering the bare minimum. Companies that can only cover the bare minimum, such as running costs and interest-only repayments, may be heading for zombie-status if they can’t improve their position in a reasonable time frame.

Paying interest but not the debt. After paying initial costs such as rent and wages, companies should at least be able to repay interest on outstanding debts. However, if the business is incapable of paying down the actual debt to an agreed timeline then it may already be a zombie. So, unless their operating practices improve dramatically, they are likely to become insolvent in the end regardless of bailouts and support.

Put a hold on growth. Zombie companies generally are not able to invest in new business or hire new staff. When organisations need to put a prolonged stop to growth and expansion, especially if market conditions are average, this can be a warning sign.

Financiers will be reticent. When companies have reached the point where they are only covering interest and not paying off the actual debts, smart financiers and investors will become more hesitant to continue funding the business. This may in turn lead to additional debt from alternate sources (such as creditors, including the ATO) which may go largely unpaid if the company is declared insolvent and will leave lenders and investors without their money.


“Some companies need support or even a bailout because of extraordinary circumstances, while others simply need a longer foundation period before they can start to turn a profit,” Mr Beck said.

“But when an organisation consistently underperforms financially and is doing the bare minimum to meet its financial obligations, it could be a sign that the business is about to reach zombie-status.

“When this happens, there are two options. The first is to try to save the company with an overhaul of management practices and operational procedures.

“The second is to put an end to the cycle and shut down the business. Either way, a zombie company cannot be allowed to continue to wander aimlessly, potentially taking others down with them.”

RSM Bird Cameron is said to be the largest mid-tier national accounting firm in Australia and is an Industry Expert partner with Victorian Leaders, the organisation developing the next generation of leading companies headquartered in Victoria.



Where is your business headed? Navigate for success, urges Richards

ONE of Amazon’s best-selling business authors, Australian consultant Rod Richards, has a few tips for those starting a business – and they are not too dissimilar from measures he advises business leaders to use in rejuvenating their businesses.  For Rod Richards, success is all about business leaders directing their energies to best effect. Here are some of his latest tips.

WHERE is your business headed?

Perhaps you’ve just launched a new service and are excited to finally convert all that sweat into your very first sales.  Perhaps you opened up shop a few years ago and are at a “respectable” level of success, but are afraid of growing complacent or having the competition gain on you.

But really, do you know where you’re headed – short-term, mid-term or long-term?  The answers lie in how well you know your own business.  

Suppose someone asked you the following three-part question: “What are your financial, business and personal goals?” 

Would you be able to provide clear, positive, definite responses?

These three key areas should be assessed regularly.  It is important to consider where the business is going, where you are going and what needs to be put in place for goals to be achieved. 

When first sitting down with my clients, one of my initial questions is, “What business goals do you want to achieve by the end of the financial year?” 

I look at one-, three- and five-year planning periods.


These give clarity and focus to this all-important area. Business goals need to be defined and redefined as necessary as your business develops. They must be specific and measurable.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure. Hazy goals will produce hazy results. Being clear about what has to be done also motivates you and your staff and encourages commitment.  Ensure your business goals are realistic, well researched and achievable.


Know the numbers and determine what gross turnover, gross profit and net profit are needed.  It is important also to know your business cost centres.

Analyse running costs (fixed, variable and semi-variable). This will help you understand their impact on your cash position. Forecasts help you avoid possible pitfalls.


Does your business run your life or are you in business to support your lifestyle?  It is worth giving careful consideration as to how close you are to the business. 

It is important to discuss with family the commitment required to run the business and the impact it is likely to have on family time. Organising a balance between work and family can be achieved with input from those involved.

In summary, be specific about what you need to achieve. Setting goals does work if you persist and review them regularly.

-          Rod Richards, Richards Consulting.


Tough conversations: deal with it


TOUGH conversations – confronting staff about behavioural, budgetary or even business survival problems – cast a spectre over most managers. Most would agree it is the hardest aspect for even the most capable managers.

According to behavioural scientist and co-founder of Pragmatic Thinking, Darren Hill – one of Australia’s most in-demand strategists working with companies such as PepsiCo and Suncorp –  it is how managers handle these tough conversations that defines them, and their careers. 

Mr Hill, the bestselling co-author of Dealing with the Tough Stuff – how to achieve results from key conversations, said whether it is an emotionally-charged discussion around a job termination or another colleague’s behaviour, “the common denominator is that all of these conversations will be tough”.

“Difficult situations at work weigh heavily on us and while making minor changes to how you deal with the ‘tough stuff’ might seem small today, over the course of time, those small changes can make a huge impact,” he said.

From his experience and out of his research for the book, Mr Hill has created some tips for managers having to deal with what he calls “the three toughest conversations you will ever have in the workplace”.



The dismissal or restructure conversation.

“Don’t even attempt to remove emotion from the conversation,” Mr Hill said.There will be emotion and you will have to deal with it. Recognise that tears and sadness are okay but tread carefully with sympathy v. empathy. Statements such as, ‘it looks like you are really upset’ are helpful while ‘I’m sorry this is happening to you’ sends the message ‘I’m glad it’s you and not me’. “



“Always remember to keep the tone and volume of your voice underneath the other person’s,” Mr Hill said. “If it does get heated, voices can be raised. Never be tempted to match the escalation. People do not usually shout for very long if the other party doesn’t reciprocate, as it makes them feel uncomfortable.”



Mr Hill said the social rule of direct eye contact is dangerous.Although we’re taught to look someone in the eye, this is the most personal communication medium and the person on the receiving end often has no choice but to take the message personally,” he said. “Share an independent visual medium such as some written notes to help you talk about ‘it’ (the restructure or termination) instead of ‘you’.”



Mr Hill calls this the “awkward personality conversation”. “Never use phrases like ‘I don’t want you to take this the wrong way.’ This is a classic priming statement and now the person is on the lookout for a way to ‘take it the wrong way.’ Always prime the person towards the successful outcome, such as ‘I need us to both be on the same page’.”



‘I want to talk about you being arrogant.’ “Ouch. I can guarantee this conversation will head south, fast,” Mr Hill said. “Take the unhelpful trait and find a strength – cynical becomes realistic and interfering becomes inquisitive. This paints a different picture yet remains on topic. For instance, when addressing arrogance: ‘One of your strengths is that you’re a confident guy, but there are times when your confidence can be a little overwhelming or misplaced. Let me give you an example...’”



The underperformance conversation. “One of the biggest mistakes people make is to focus on ‘traits’ instead of ‘behaviours’,” he said. “Firstly, confusion occurs because the definition of a certain trait varies from person to person. I may consider dedication as taking on extra tasks while you might interpret this as more thoroughness in your projects.

“Secondly, traits are often enduring patterns. Thinking you can change them in a half hour conversation is ambitious. Don’t tell someone they ‘lack initiative’ – highlight that they rarely put their hand up to lead projects and you will have a much higher chance of success.”

Mr Hill also has some advice for those on the receiving end of such criticisms.

“It’s hard to rationalise without the full picture, so even if you’re seething with rage, you need to match the tough conversation with tough questions,” he said.

“And remember this; all bad seas are followed by calm weather. It won’t last forever. Focusing on next steps rather than dwelling on the wrongs will help you to make the best of your situation.”



Brisbane business leaders learn from San Diego ‘cleantech’ experience

CLEAN technologies are providing their economic and community worth for a great many Brisbane business leaders – most engaging through the Brisbane CitySmart collaborative program – but there are a lot more gains and efficiencies to be had.

That is the headline message for the October 23 CitySmart Leaders Project lunch at Brisbane City Hall, which features insights by one of the global leaders in accelerating business and community outcomes through ‘cleantech’ collaboration. 

Jim Waring is Cleantech San Diego’s executive chairman and co-founder and he will outline to the Brisbane CitySmart event how the high adoption of cleantech systems and behaviours has not only transformed that city’s economic environment but also helped create a thriving new area of industry.

Mr Waring will explain how Brisbane – with some of the most innovative cleantech companies in the world – can adapt the experiences of San Diego to its own advantage. Through collaboration and leadership, the San Diego region has established itself as a global leader in the cleantech economy.

With more than 800 cleantech companies in the region, including over 300 innovator companies and more than 400 market enabler companies, San Diego’s diverse cluster of cleantech enterprises makes for a hotbed of innovation and investment.

Mr Waring’s Cleantech San Diego is an industry cluster association which works with government, industry groups, business and academia to incubate cleantech innovation and develop technology solutions at scale.

CitySmart, Brisbane City Council’s sustainability agency, operates through much the same principles and this CitySmart Leaders Project event hopes to inspire further business collaboration in cleantech from understanding where San Diego has taken its world-leading program.

Collaboration was the basis for Mr Waring founding Cleantech San Diego in alliance with the city’s mayor – ironically, as a result of being fired from his job as deputy chief operating officer for San Diego Land Use and Economic Development. He had gained that role as a result of his proven regional experience in real estate development and law.

“Through someone I had hired as a project consultant, I was introduced to our new mayor, Jerry Sanders. Jerry hired me and my title was deputy chief operating officer for Land Use and Economic Development,” Mr Waring said.

“Basically the development regulation, economic development team and real estate assets departments reported to me. I was there for 17 amazingly difficult and exciting months. I learned so much, and met many great people.

“I also learned that action and politics can often collide,” he said. “I was fired while vacationing in Iceland, which is a funny play on words. Seriously, it was a great experience that I would never trade.

“While there (in his San Deigo City role), I suggested to the mayor that the next opportunity in economic development would be developing a city and regional brand around business based sustainability,” Mr Waring said.

“Basically, striving to deliver goods and services in a sustainable manner and at a price normal people can afford. From this idea, and with the mayor’s support, we started Cleantech San Diego.

“At the time the idea of a clean technology based trade association was very novel. That was seven years ago.

“The field is so very different than I thought it would be.”

Mr Waring said he was glad to be able to impart as much as he could about what San Diego had learned to cities that are on similar paths, such as Brisbane.

“Generally, what we have learned is that it does make economic sense to do business in a sustainable manner,” Mr Waring said. “Baseline public policy is critical.

“Companies want to participate, but often don’t know how to do so efficiently.

“We have also learned that technology is way ahead of behaviours,” Mr Waring said. “And companies in America are way ahead of the political system.”

Brisbane’s CitySmart program may also benefit from San Diego’s experience in trying to drive more rapid and larger-scale change to business sustainability behaviours.

“It is much harder to scale projects involving many users than expected, primarily because the marginal individual benefits are not a motivator,” Mr Waring said.

“So we are focused on proving models that eliminate barriers and increase ease of adoption.”

The annual CitySmart Leaders Project explores the role of collaboration between industry, government, academia and the community in meeting market needs to drive sustainable economic development and innovation. 

Mr Waring keynotes the October 23 luncheon event at Brisbane City Hall from noon. Members and non-members of CitySmart can attend.



Australian businesses ‘don’t care’ about recycling

A SURVEY by waste and recycling company claims that up to 80 percent of companies in Australia have no green policy in place and do not separate recyclable waste from non-recyclable.

BusinessWaste said business was indiscriminately filling landfill waste sites and some were resorting to “illegal activity” to get rid of rubbish.

The research showed most businesses do not sort paper, food and glass waste, despite the practice being widespread in domestic waste collections. 

BusinessWaste’s survey found business were commonly not recycling paper and cardboard, plastics, printer cartridges, green waste for composting, electrical waste and old computers.

“It reflects very badly upon us as a nation,” said BusinessWaste recycling manager Jonathan Ratcliffe.

“Other countries have forged ahead with commercial recycling, but a high proportion of Australian companies seemingly can’t be bothered and contribute to the millions of tons of waste we produce every year.

“Landfill is both wasteful and expensive and businesses are hitting themselves in the bank balance because of their inability or unwillingness to recycle. It’s not a great step implementing a green policy, and it saves money almost from the start.”

The BusinessWaste survey of more than 1200 businesses also found that some companies were prepared to break the law in order to reduce or eliminate their waste-handling costs.

“We’re well aware that some companies will still fly-tip in this day-and-age,” Mr Ratcliffe said. “But we've found some smaller businesses prepared to admit that they dispose of their waste at the household tip while posing as a member of the public.

“It’s a dangerous game. Companies that breach their waste management duty of care face unlimited fines if they get caught.”

Mr Ratcliffe said fortunately governments were incentivising green policies and recycling through tax breaks for energy efficiency, and the landfill tax, which penalises organisations that do not recycle their waste.

Local governments around Australia are also increasingly offering commercial and industry recycling collection services. One of the most comprehensive business recycling services began through Brisbane City Council in 2010.

“At up to $102 per tonne going to landfill, it soon adds up for companies that don’t recycle,” BusinessWaste’s Mr Ratcliffe said.

“Our company is committed to the vision of a zero-waste, 100 percent recycled economy.”


EXTRA: What happened to Business Acumen?

EXTRA: WHATEVER happened to Business Acumen?

We tell this story, in a subscriber-only extended version here, to illustrate the points made in our print edition's Liquidation Epidemic special report: There must be a better way.

The decimation of Australia’s SME sector – including far too many agribusinesses and generational family concerns – is now a fact. The concern now is that new businesses, many similar to the types that have vanished, along with others completely new and reliant on new technologies, are being touted as Australia’s ticket to new economic and employment success.

If that had been the official realisation in 2009 rather than 2014, Business Acumen may not have even needed to conduct a feature report of this nature. 

Business Acumen is not seeking to blame but to explain. From an understanding of where Australia is standing, right now, it must logically be easier to chart a more successful course.

From our own experiences of liquidation and the evidence we present in this report, we see that an attitude change is needed among such pivotal organisations to the business sector as the Australian Taxation Office, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission and the major banks.

This is a plea for collaboration with business people rather than blind procedure. This is a plea for such vital organisations to listen for a moment, rather than tell all the time.

This is a suggestion that the system might work better if these organisations adapt to the new environment wrought by the digital revolution – a revolution in which there is more connection, more collaboration and more integration. It means the ATO, the banks and ASIC becoming economic team players – because team sports are where Australia really shines – instead of judgemental spectators. At the moment Australia is losing from the situation in which these vital players may know and work to the rules of the game, but cannot be relied upon to play in the spirit of the game.  

What happened in the lead up to, and during, the Acumen Media Pty Ltd liquidation process is instructive and may help others caught in similar situations to see the signs, understand the environment, and perhaps navigate a way clear. And realise that, at the moment, administration/liquidation remains a zero-sum game in Australia.




THE Business Acumen magazine experience is, unfortunately, fairly typical of the small and medium business routing that occurred from 2011-2013 across Australia.

Business Acumen magazine’s then-owning company, Acumen Media Pty Ltd, was directed into liquidation in the Federal Magistrates Court of Queensland on March 23, 2012, at the request of the Australian Taxation Office. It was the magazine’s eighth year of publication.

Five of those years had been reasonably profitable. It employed about six people on average, in the first phase of its life. It drew and paid GST on advertising, subscriptions, postage, courier fees, printer maintenance, paper, digital toner and inks … and of course the other regular business costs such as power, rent, body corporate fees, staff amenities.

The first year of Business Acumen Queensland – 2004 – had been tough, but it had the benefit of emerging from a fairly successful graphics and large format printing company, which shared its directors and some staff.

From then up until 2009, with the GFC and financial collapse of several major advertisers, the magazine had enjoyed steady circulation among CEOs, business owners and business leaders, along with vital advertising revenue growth. Business Acumen had been invited to join the business community-minded mentoring group Queensland Leaders in 2006, and began an association of circulating to, and drawing fascinating stories from, its group of leading Queensland CEOs.  A mark of the integrity of Queensland Leaders has been that this association continues today, stronger than ever, and it was encouragement from Queensland Leaders that helped energise Business Acumen’s return to full print and online publication this year.

The magazine’s early years drew increasing support in subscriptions and advertising from the Queensland Government’s State Development Centres, from where it was distributed to the business leaders that department’s teams were working with regionally; the new Brisbane economic development arm, named Velocity at that stage, then Brisbane Marketing; and a range of innovative businesses, including Zernike Australia which had also launched its Innovation Series in 2004. Business Acumen teamed up with the Innovation Series in a fruitful partnership that endures to this day and has, since, expanded to Melbourne and Sydney.

Acumen acted out its mantra of being overwhelmingly positive about business and striving to help create business opportunity through publicity. The magazine and website had a focus on innovation and presented many inspirational case studies. A simple but welcomed formula.

There were many winners who knew how to leverage the positive publicity Business Acumen generated, and was increasingly sought out for, by business leaders. Take Absolute Data Group (ADG), whose CEO Tammy Halter found that the pre-seeding of Business Acumen editions featuring stories on ADG, by the Los Angeles Trade Queensland office, played a helpful role in gaining a hearing from the US military on her innovative electronic technical data manuals. ADG won a series of breakthrough contracts with the US Air Force and Coast Guard.

There was the Brisbane start-up which designed lockable surfboard racks. Business Acumen was contacted by a large US sporting goods distributor, who just happened to pick up the magazine from his Brisbane hotel’s executive lounge, and passed on contact details.

There was the James Cook University and MDB Energy-developed algae-based carbon dioxide capture and conversion system, which was struggling for recognition until CEO Andrew Lawson’s appearance at the Innovation Series and a story in Business Acumen helped to cut through the right corridors of the Queensland Government. Within a year MDB had a grant and trials operating at Stanwell’s Tarong power station in Queensland, then on to Victoria’s Loy Yang A plant and NSW’s Eraring power plant.

There was also the ongoing relay, to business leaders and owners, of information on government programs, grants and changes brought through the taxation system by the ATO. This was all part of the business community service territory for Business Acumen magazine.

None of this was considered or deemed relevant when, on March 23, 2012, ATO’s representative legal firm, Gadens Lawyers, told the court its client, the ATO, believed Acumen Media Pty Ltd should be wound up and its assets liquidated to recover a taxation debt of, by that time, approximately $160,000. It was a mix of GST, PAYE, penalty fees and penalty interest. A post-flood income and cashflow crisis throughout 2011 had meant there had barely been enough cash available to keep staff employed, let alone service the ATO debt.

The ATO’s position was that it was not confident of Acumen Media’s legal representative’s claim that the debt would be serviced by the impending publication of its 2011-12 Queensland Yearbook. Acumen Media’s solicitor’s request that an adjournment of the case be made for that publication to complete (and advertising funds to be collected) was rejected on the ATO’s advice.

The ATO’s position to the court was that it was ‘not confident’ any further delay in liquidating the company would stand a better chance of collecting the debt. There had already been several adjournments granted – which the Registrar noted were at the ATO’s request – and this latest request by the defendant’s legal representative was opposed. The Registrar took the ATO’s advice and nominated the pre-nominated liquidator, Bentleys. The order, and Acumen Media Pty Ltd, was summarily executed.

There were 40 small and medium businesses being considered in that morning session. Of those, 27 were earmarked to be liquidated by the ATO and just a couple of other petitioners.

A notable exception was the property company of the Gold Coast Titans, which fought well to escape a summary decision a week earlier to be wound up by the ATO, only to be in court that day again as creditor Reed Constructions took over the action. The matter went on to be considered in another court hearing that day: about a month later, Gold Coast Titans (Property) went into voluntary administration, but the club itself restructured and the up-and-coming team staved off liquidation with the backing of the NRL.

Editor and Acumen Media director Mike Sullivan was sitting in the court that day, watching this disastrous turn of events unfold. For the Business Acumen editor, this came in an excruciating way.

In his briefcase, at his feet, were two copies of that Yearbook, numbers 999 and 1000, produced on Acumen Media’s in-house digital press the previous day. Another 9000 copies of that edition were set to be printed and distributed over the following weeks.

Mr Sullivan realised, in a cold sweat, that he had made the disastrous and fundamental mistake of not representing the company himself. A former court rounds reporter, he later lamented that he should have simply asked the permission of the court, held up that magazine, and politely pointed out that the print and distribution process was well advanced and stood the best chance of a positive outcome for the ATO and all concerned. It may not have worked, given the ‘liquidation system’ was in play, but it should have been tried.

But he was tired. He froze. He described it as a “surreal” sensation. His every inclination had been to rise and ask the leave of the court to present an item of evidence to Acumen Media’s solicitor. But things were moving so fast and the people did not stop talking … the court was eager to get through the morning’s list.

Mr Sullivan later admitted his mind was blunted and exhausted after 18 intense months of fighting to keep the company alive. Acumen had endured a steady loss of clients, many of them with unpaid advertising bills, to liquidations and closures, along with the withdrawal of all advertising by its bank – accompanied by the same frantic tightening of bank credit and loan covenants that all Australian SMEs experienced from 2008 onwards.

At a crucial time in negotiations with the ATO he also had been personally beset with the deaths of two friends in November and December, 2011, both from brain tumours.

A month before that he thought the worst had passed when the ATO send a letter announcing that it had garnisheed Acumen’s Westpac trading accounts. This had come after an intense series of ATO requests, discussions and reports were made in order to assess Acumen Media’s ‘viability’ in the damaged trading environment that followed the January 2011 Queensland floods.

Mr Sullivan was relieved at the time, as the garnishee seemed to give permission to continue to bring the flood-affected Queensland Yearbook to publication, it was just that any money collected would be going direct to the ATO. He would have to find operational funds, mainly to pay staff. But at least Acumen could still trade.

It was a relief to have the liquidation threat sidelined, he thought … but it had not.

For whatever reason, the ATO did not take funds from the business accounts and the next contact was a summons announcing the winding up hearing in the Federal Magistrates Court.

Urgent phone contact took place, desperately seeking the case officer for the company. As frustrating as the phone chase was, stretched to hours in waiting time, there seemed to be an opportunity to complete the publication – although the ATO now wanted more company information, cashflow and budget projections so it could assess again if Acumen Media was viable.

At a time when all effort was directed to client contact and getting the stories, design and advertising material finalised to go to press, days were to be lost in meeting the ATO’s requests.

One hold-up was an assessment required from an accountant. Accounting figures were delayed past the nominated deadline by the unexpected business travel of Acumen Media’s accountant – a friend who was not charging to complete the task, understanding the situation and wanting to see Business Acumen survive.

Another black mark went against the company.

The first black mark had been for earlier budgets and accounts figures, such as the aged payables and receivables ledgers, which reached the ATO a day later than specified, mainly because of technical barriers in the ATO’s system at that time.

The Acumen Media team was astonished to learn that these items had to be either received by mail or faxed, by the deadline. They could not be e-mailed and Acumen Media was informed there was no e-mail address available to receive them. They had to be faxed, a process that took almost a complete business day of dialling, re-dialling and waiting for the ATO’s line to accept them. Those lines dropped out many times, usually with just the first page transmitted. What was not understood, when the 29 pages finally did go through, was that the nine final crucial pages had dropped off. They had apparently not transmitted, although there had been no warning.

In a letter, a week later, the ATO pointed out that all the information requested had not been received. This would accelerate the winding up.


He’d had little sleep.

On March 23, 2012, Mr Sullivan had “stupidly been worried about having enough money for petrol and parking that day” to attend the court hearing. Money had been very tight for many long months. He had parked at a friend’s home at Spring Hill and walked down the hill to the Federal Court, rushing to make the start time. The Acumen Media case did not arise until the second hour of the hearings. The sweat formed cold on his back in the court room.

Just a day earlier, when he had been informed by the ATO’s lawyers that an expected further adjournment was not going to be granted, he had desperately called on a solicitor friend who had been helping him with other looming business debt issues that go, as any small business director knows, with this territory.

He had unfortunately not been available, but delegated another solicitor from his office who was briefed and fully expected to be able to buy time to complete the publication and settle the tax debt.

Mr Sullivan estimated to the solicitor that full publication of the Yearbook and collection of the proceeds would have settle the ATO debt within 4-6 weeks. Buying time to ‘get product out’ and recover debt obligations was the goal. This is precisely what Mr Sullivan and his accounting helpers had been putting to the ATO since the wind-up action surfaced in late 2011.

“It felt like a team sport contest in which the result was challenging, but within reach,” Mr Sullivan said of those weeks.

“We had a good team. We had a good track record of ‘helping’ business and the government, because our editorial stance was always a-political and to be ‘overwhelmingly positive about business’. Business Acumen could continue its role of helping to create business opportunities through publicity.  Our opposition on this occasion, the ATO, was tough but would surely play fair. The winner would always be Australia.”

It was a naïve and fatally misguided confidence.

Yet that attitude was what had probably sustained the Business Acumen team since the event that had triggered this company’s latest financial crisis: the Queensland floods of January 2011. Acumen Media’s offices at Kerry Rd, Archerfield, had not been inundated – but most of the Yearbook’s key client list throughout Queensland certainly had.

That was why the Yearbook became known as the 2011-12 Yearbook … the aftermath of the floods had prevented publication of the 2011 Yearbook. Most of the paying clients in that publication were regional council economic development organisations using the Yearbook, which was distributed nationally and internationally, to outline their competitive advantages, to draw business and investment to their regions.

Most of those regions were now deeply in crisis and could not afford to publish. They invariably asked not to feature until the crisis had been sorted out. It was to take more than 12 months.

Another major advertiser and long-term sponsor of the Yearbook, one of the big four banks, pulled out at a very late stage, without explanation and in breach of its contract commitment. Enquiry revealed a change of bank staff had prompted a change of priorities.


When, on the afternoon of March 23, Mr Sullivan called around to the office of the appointed liquidators, Bentleys in the Brisbane CBD, the first commiserative words uttered to him were,  “Well, we didn’t expect to see you here today …”

The ironies stacked up. On page three of the latest regular edition of Business Acumen had been a story on Bentleys’ capital raising support for innovative early stage companies. Acumen Media’s liquidators were aware of the coverage and thankful. They shook their heads in disbelief as its editor dropped a copy of the freshly printed Yearbook on the table, 9000 copies short of solving the problem.

The three Bentleys men assigned to the liquidation interview began to discuss a way forward. There might be a way that Mr Sullivan could complete the Yearbook publication, collect the money to get the best outcome for the ATO and then get permission to continue publishing the magazine into the future. This had, in fact, already been quietly suggested by Gadens Lawyers after the court case, prefaced by the optimistic suggestion, “Look, it’s not the end of the world … ”

Not yet it wasn’t.

Over the following two weeks, as Mr Sullivan began writing the detailed eulogy for Acumen Media in the form of the required financial, legal and property records – gathering everything of “value” for the liquidators – he began to understand that his own legally-required actions were driving more nails into the coffin, not resuscitating the business.

For a start, access was removed to all bank accounts and the liquidator controlled them. This allowed them to collect more than $20,000 in past advertising payments that subsequently came in, which were to eventually be divided up as the court-deemed payment to the ATO of $5087.50 and $15,000 retained by the liquidator as fees. In the liquidator’s final report, it would be pointed out that this sum was less than half what the actual costed $33,000 fee should have been for a liquidation of this nature.

With no income and no bank accounts, there was now the desperate dilemma of how to pay staff members and, indeed, operate. With the Yearbook rescue and resuscitation looming as a mountain in the background, the landslides of liquidation began to impact proper.

Clients and suppliers were notified by the liquidator, as is part of the process, from the supplied MYOB file lists. A notice was posted in the daily newspaper. This induced a rolling period of explanations and mild panic as the contagion spread and even suppliers not owed money cut off any potential service. Most were commiserative, but wary.

The most devastating of these losses was Lanier, a marketing partner and supplier of Acumen’s digital press – and a vital cog in the printing of the Yearbook and any future editions. In fear of having the liquidators resume their machines, they urgently and rightly sent in a team to dismantle and take them away.

The Acumen Media land lines and VoIP phones were summarily cut off. All mobile phones, with another telco, were also cut off and numbers lost. The landlord was notified and made moves to change the locks on the building, but understood the situation once explained and was thankfully persuaded to hold off.

All the while, discussions ensued with Bentleys about a purchase of the rights from Acumen Media (in liquidation) to publish Business Acumen on the basis that a majority of proceeds would be passed back to the ATO. That was the desired outcome. Bentleys was bound to proceed with the liquidation process, to the letter of the law. On that basis, a request to use the funds that had come in to the Acumen Media account, to finalise the printing of the Yearbook, and bring in its advertising income, could not be granted.

But there was still hope.

Budgets presented to the liquidator were seen as viable, but all had the same hurdle: no funds could be clawed back, another company had to purchase the rights and that company also had to have enough money in hand to pay staff and pay for printing and distribution.

A couple of false starts ensued in the coming months as potential buyers and collaborators tried to fashion deals that worked for them. But all were hampered by the fact that Business Acumen was not being published and the confusion of the liquidation required a re-building of confidence among advertisers before, realistically, any payments would be realised.

The fight was steadily lost. Business Acumen staff had valiantly tried to hang on, without pay and in their spare time, to be ready for the re-birth, but to no avail.

In the wake of the company liquidation, print company Geon Group successfully petitioned the Federal Magistrates Court in Sydney to declare director Michael Sullivan personally bankrupt, seeking payment of a $37,000 residual debt, plus almost $20,000 in costs and interest.

Little if any of that claim was realised by Geon Group as Mr Sullivan’s mortgage-secured business banker, NAB, had soaked up a large part of the equity in his family home through a long period of charging fees and penalty interest compounding on a rolling bill approaching 19 percent per annum. Less than 12 months later, Geon would itself go into administration and then liquidation, owing creditors more than $29 million.

Through a quirk of the way it had been established, the ownership of the Business Acumen website and e-newsletter system was outside the scope of the liquidation and so, off his own bat and without income, Mike Sullivan kept populating the site with news in the hope of an eventual rejuvenation.

This finally came on December 17, 2012 when Screamer Media Pty Ltd purchased “such rights and title as Acumen Media Pty Ltd (in Liquidation) own in the publications and titles” from Bentleys.

The edition you are reading is the second print edition of Business Acumen published by Screamer Media Pty Ltd and printed on its in-house digital press.

Business Acumen now circulates nationally and has an innovative digital print and online information mix that gives subscribers access to extended and prior information not available to the general public.

The 2011-12 Business Acumen Queensland Yearbook has been published as a digital magazine only, available to all readers as a free download from the website.


 POSTED JULY 23. 2014.





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