I’m speaking to the Entrepreneur on the phone. He doesn’t have to commute into the city much anymore. Perhaps for a lunch with the boys on occasion….Even his bank manager prefers to get out of the city and head to Jay’s home office. It overlooks the pool and the gum trees beyond – a far cry from the professional accounting firm where Jay earned his stripes in his twenties. He is more the shorts-and-t-shirt sort of guy these days and couldn’t be happier.
Jay Stevenson’s career path is a fascinating one. How did a QUT accounting graduate become a highly successful entrepreneur?
At a notch over fifty, Jay has embarked on a new stage in his life these past few years. His current focus is in property development and he is also invested in a number of other businesses that require a ‘bit of his time’, and Jay, always the opportunist, is keen to identify the next opportunity. This is the lot of an entrepreneur. Not satisfied with a day-to-day involvement in business, an entrepreneur is always seeking to identify the next idea, evaluate it, and then, if it sounds robust, kick it off with some time and effort, and a fair bit of cash, nurture it to a stage when responsibility can be handed to someone else for the day-to-day running, and then head towards the next good idea.
To the wage earning employee this may sound exciting but the element of risk is often equal to the possible return. This is the key – making sure the investment makes a return well worth the time, effort and money invested. There’s not always a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!
Interestingly, Jay’s life now is a far cry to what he imagined as a boy growing up in Longreach and boarding at Brisbane Boys Grammar. Early in his life he presumed he would work on the family property but as he grew he decided an accounting career was a better possibility.
From observation, there seems to be a well trodden path for many young Brisbane accountants. Graduate with an Accounting degree, do your Professional Year (qualifying as a Chartered Accountant) whilst working at an Accounting practice, head to London to experience a bit of life whilst building skills and experience and then return to Oz to settle down and work towards becoming a partner, or move into commerce and carve out a path to senior management. And Jay did just that – what was expected and what he expected.
So what now makes Jay different? Where did Jay’s path diverge and head in a new direction?
Jay’s decision to get out of accounting profession was conscious. In Jay’s words, in 1999, his ‘Dad dropped dead’. It made him think. He opened his eyes and asked himself some tough questions. His conclusion – he didn’t want to be in chartered accounting for the rest of his life.
From the early 2000’s, Jay had built up Jefferson and Stevenson, a Brisbane based firm, to twenty-five staff, and as an insolvency practice, it was tough business. The ever present dramas of litigation, inconsistent court rulings, and dodgy directors, and by nature of the beast, just generally unhappy situations created a frustration and somewhat disheartening work environment. People losing jobs, losing money, losing their livelihoods and the constant tearing apart of organisations to salvage what could be salvaged to pay debts. Jay dreamt of building something up. It was time to get out. It was time to follow a new dream.
At 37, Jay invested time and money in a transport company, and as CEO of Troncs, a $75Million business with 300 staff Jay was doing what he dreamt of – building up a business. For eleven years Jay was largely content. He was adding value managing the strategic direction of a company, reshaping it to become a more successful, more profitable business.
But then surprising Jay did something quite different – quite left of field and unexpected. He was fed up with the obligations of being an employer. He didn’t want to be a member of the C-suite. He was over corporate life. He didn’t want to be involved in the day-to- day detail of a business. He didn’t want to manage people. His investment had provided him with a great return. It was time to move on. He bought himself a backhoe and a tip truck!He laughing admits to being happy sitting in his rig, waiting in line to drop his load at the local dump/ landfill. But of course this wasn’t to last long. Jay’s mind was ticking.
Jay with an entrepreneurial mindset, that cannot remain dormant, saw the next opportunity. He stumped up some significant capital and Herbies Earthmoving, a start-up business, was born. If you google it, you will see it is now a significant operation with many bobcats, trucks and other big machinery that is serious stuff. Jay saw the opportunity to ‘clip the ticket’ of earthmoving contractors by corporatizing a small portion of the earthmoving sector. He set up the business structure, helped put in systems and now his investment ticks away earning money. He is now essentially, a silent partner having little to do with running the business.
Often one finds entrepreneurs involved in property development and Jay is no different. Spending his time recently working on his significant property development projects, Jay is about to conclude a couple of very successful residential developments. Meanwhile he has a portfolio of businesses and investments that allow him the luxury of determining his future and how he spends his time.
Jay is contemplating taking a year off next year. But then…. well, there are always opportunities.
So what does it take?
In speaking with Jay, it seems there is some serendipity about opportunities but perhaps Jay’s reputation precedes him, and people know people, and the introductions are thus made. Life is full of possibilities but obviously preparedness is a critical factor in grasping opportunities and having the essential ingredients in skills and the right personal qualities for the situation. Certainly the gaining of wisdom and experience combine to better understand the deal and the risks involved.
Jay, I am curious about the property development as many accountants I have met are interested in this area. Can you give an insight please?
The first site I was involved in was in a JV with a guy who had it under contract, had all the approvals to start construction but couldn’t fund it. I had many sessions with him throughout the process to understand how it all works etc. I have a few people I talk to about prospective sites and get their views. The key factors to succeed are not paying too much for a site, controlling construction costs, understanding sale prices that can be achieved and ensuring all the funding is sorted before you start out. It really isn’t that hard – it’s a numbers equation – knowing your costs, controlling them and ensuring you can sell what you build for what you plan. Each project is run through a feasibility process and the software I use provides all the key metrics as to whether it is a goer or not.
How valuable was studying accounting in your career? Could you have been as successful without this base?
No way, studying accounting was a critical base for my success. You need a numbers framework in business for successful financial outcomes. Banks and other investors are not interested unless you can show robust methodologies and accounting provides this critical thinking.
What personal characteristics assisted you in the transition away from your chosen profession?
A determination to make it work, pigheadedness (self-proclaimed), opportunistic approach to life all helped me get to where I am.
What lessons have you learnt along the way?
Don’t over borrow, do decent financial planning on anything you do, scrutinise – look at it, relook at it and try to find holes in it. Constantly check and check again. Ask yourself; is what you are doing, consistent with what you forecast? I review my budgets and plan every couple of months to see how I am tracking with my forecasts versus my actuals.
Definitely surround yourself with good people and don’t be afraid to take advice from people who know more than you. Listen and learn. Recognise people sometimes know more than you do. I’ve had some fairly tough, business savvy mentors and have enjoyed learning from them.
Work hard. Deal with people that you can be friendly with. Invest for the long term (there is no such thing as get rich quick and I’ve never tried to)
What qualities do you look for in people?
It’s consistent in both my personal and professional life. Honest and fair (it’s not about how much I can get out of this), good quality people.
One of my mentors, Humphrey Nolan, Chairman of the Board at Troncs is a highly intelligent man with a fantastic presence and aura and is an impressive person. I like him and am fortunate to have met him and worked with him.
Do you believe there are significant differences in the generations in the work force? If yes, what do you believe them to be?
The younger people expect things to come to them easier without working hard, they expect too much and it seems to be a common failing amongst GenY. You have to earn your stripes, put in the effort and learn by experiencing.
What have been your motivators throughout your career? What drives you?
Providing for my young family is what drives me. Making sure they are well set up for their futures. I have always strived to be successful in whatever venture I am doing (and this means looking at a deal with a profit focus).
If only I knew then what I know now……. How would you complete this thought?
I wouldn’t do too much different. I’ve been lucky to have a number of career changes that have worked well for me. I’d do the same again but in hindsight I would have started my family a bit earlier.
Jay Stevenson – entrepreneur