Date posted: 12/10/2020

Case study: Steven Watson CA

Steven Watson took a career leap in his mid-30s, buying out part of the firm he worked for. He’s now merging with other firms and expanding the business nationally.

In brief

  • Steven Watson CA bought out the audit arm of the firm in which he was working
  • From a university degree to certifications and continuing education, he’s sought to fill his capability gaps
  • He’s empowered other staff members to help him expand nationally

Steven Watson CA grew up in Wagga Wagga, the largest inland city in NSW. He made a late entry into Chartered Accounting, doing a carpentry apprenticeship and working at KFC after leaving school in year 10.

But it was not enough. He enrolled in Charles Sturt University as a mature age student where he studied a Bachelor of Business Management.

In his final year, Watson landed a job as a junior in a regional firm, where he travelled to see clients in Dubbo, Albury and Wollongong. "I really developed my relationship skills," he says. "I had to build rapport with people in drought, have difficult conversations and learn how to be diplomatic. It was a very steep learning curve."

During his six years at the firm, he worked with a range of clients including schools, registered clubs, farms, aged-care providers and not-for-profits. This varied experience gave him the confidence to move to another firm where he worked for eight years.

After this firm was taken over by another listed accounting and financial planning group, Watson and a colleague bought out the auditing arm of the business and set up National Audits Group with Watson as managing director.

The business is now carving out its own niche as an audit-only practice that doesn't do tax or offer business advice. The group already has audit managers in Brisbane, Wagga Wagga, Adelaide and Sydney.

"Our point of difference is that we have a no-fee model where we partner with multiple accounting firms as their trusted audit partner," says Watson. "There's no fear that we're going to take over the overall client relationship. We just perform the independent audit function."

Reflecting on his career to date, Watson, now aged 39, says that an important ingredient of success is developing relationships with many people on different levels; getting out in the field with a client and hearing their story, chatting with fellow accountants about the challenges they face, sitting on boards and learning how other companies run their businesses.

"I've never been one to hold back in terms of providing advice or assistance to other people in the industry," he says.

Empower others to make decisions

As he expands his firm, he's focusing on leadership and agility. "I believe that you've got to be inclusive and bring all the people you work with along with you. I love to empower others to make decisions rather than making decisions myself all the time, and if someone suggests a better and faster way then we just do it."

He's undertaken various leadership professional development courses and recently graduated from the Australian Institute of Company Directors program. He wanted to further his knowledge and learn more business management and governance skills.

"Once you get to a certain level, many accountants are good at the numbers," he says. "They're very smart technically, but they haven't got the managerial skills or the emotional intelligence to drive their business forward. I know that I needed to learn those soft skills, too."

“Many accountants are very smart technically, but they haven't got the managerial skills or emotional intelligence to drive their business forward. I knew that I needed to learn those soft skills, too,” 
Steven Watson CA, Managing Director of National Audits Group.

Step back from the tools

Watson has made a conscious decision over the past two years to "step back from the tools" and now signs off only about half of the firm's audits. The rest are done by the other five registered company auditors who he's empowered and mentored to take on more responsibility and accountability. This has freed up Watson to focus on strategy and preparing the business for its next phase.

One of the firm's strategies is to partner with sole practitioners who keep their individual brands  but National Audits Group provides back-office support, quality control and a structure. This means that together they can build scale and, in turn, attract bigger and better opportunities for the whole group.

He's also building on the skills he learned decades ago at KFC to ensure he's providing great service to his clients. "It sounds funny, but from a customer service point of view, I learned at KFC that the customer's always right and you bend over backwards to make sure that they're happy. And I continue to do that today with my clients," he says.

Watson's plans to establish an independent board of directors to run for National Audits Group so he can eventually retire to pursue other business and personal ventures.

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