Accounting firm top man Ken Matthews is the person growing businesses and he is in the business of growing people.
If there is anything that Ken Matthews is passionate about, it is of growing people. “I always wanted to grow something. What gets me up in the morning is growing our people, growing our clients and growing our business. I've had that sort of passion for a long time. But it's the people. Interaction with my staff and with my clients are the things that drive me,” enthused the CEO, Director and founding partner of Matthews Steer Chartered Accountants.
From a one-man team working out of the garage of his Keilor home, Matthews Steer has grown into the largest accounting advisory firm in the North West of Melbourne with nearly 50 people in its employ. It’s a feat that deserves Ken a pat on the back.
He rejoices in his success as a CEO: his people. “You've got a lot more opportunity to see as managing director – to influence and shape the direction of the company and the people. Probably the biggest thing is to influence the culture of the organisation.”
Being able to employ graduates and guide them into becoming outstanding advisors is his biggest joy. Like a shepherd looking after his flock, Ken makes sure that all his staff are coached and mentored. A succession plan is in place and an employee-share interest within the company is instituted. Ken beamed, “I think the future's fabulous. We're growing, we're retaining good people. We buy into a strategic plan going forward. It's exciting. If it wasn't exciting, I don't think we'd be able to retain people.”
And when he’s not wearing his CEO hat, he takes his passion for moulding people towards his charity works. You can feel his zeal when he talked about one particular project that he is currently actively engaged. “I've been involved with Victoria Police Kokoda Program. I've been involved there for 10 years and walked the Kokoda track myself.” Each year the program takes 16 local youths to trek Papua New Guinea’s notorious Kokoda Track, scene of The Kokoda Track Campaign – a series of battles between Japanese and Australian forces during World War II and reputed to be the third toughest trek in the world. The program helps opportunities for personal growth to long-term disengaged youth residing in the public housing in Flemington and North Melbourne.
“The aim of the program is to decrease the incidents of youth involvement in crime and to improve the relationship between young people, the police and the wider community and helps provide a positive and life-changing experience for these kids,” says Matthews.
Since he loves to be surrounded by people, Ken also enjoys that kind of setting in the bosom of his family, especially with four kids and three grandchildren in his brood. Still, Ken finds time for himself. Twice a month, he and his wife Liz escape to their family farm near Timboon, which he considers as his secret cave. There, he relishes on the relaxing ambience of nature, as he is able to recharge the creative mind that gets him to do a lot of thinking and planning. And when he craves for some thrill and excitement, he’s out there cheering for the Bulldogs.
It’s a picture of a satisfied entrepreneur, but all these excitements, joys and victories didn’t just appear out of nowhere. It stemmed from hurdling many challenges and experiencing several setbacks. “It’s been quite a journey,” according to Ken, who considers himself fearless in terms of facing difficulties.
For someone who thrives on challenges and not afraid to take risks, Ken was indomitable in setting up a startup business. Plus, he already had interests in several other businesses at that time. “It's never been scary for me to develop a business,” Ken declared. “It's always been a natural progression. It's the next step in an evolution. It was just something that I know I had to do, and the time was right.” Armed with limited resources and lots of determination, he went about building an enterprise. His headquarters? The garage of his home.
But bear in mind that many successes were born out of garage ingenuity and Ken was resolute of getting there, despite the odds. The first four years was an acid test when he worked primarily on his own. He had his fair share of problems and frustrations. Staffing was his biggest problem because attracting and retaining people have put him in a tight corner. That situation was the key to his decision of taking in a partner, which he found in the person of Geoff Steer, the other half of Matthews Steer.
Realising that they couldn’t do it all, yet eager to grow the business, they got more people and partners into the company. However, as common as with most startups, there were some hits and misses along the way. “I would have gotten a general manager earlier. That freaked me out enormously,” declared Ken, evoking memories of the early part of his journey.
Whereas it is with people that keeps him going, it is also with people where he found his enormous heartbreaks. Some of his disappointments were on meeting people who would take advantage of him and those who were not the right culture fit. “It has taken us too long to make a decision to remove them. Probably the biggest frustration is that we were too slow to act. The frustration would be the time wasted on people without a proper culture fit. And you spend too much time on them rather than spending time with the good people that you can grow.”
It was also a tough scenario when partners started exiting. You can feel his anguish as he recalled, “It’s really challenging to have a conversation with someone that's not fitting into the organisation, for what it has arisen. To get them to agree to exit, it was difficult. It was a difficult process.”
If these were not enough, there were a few more humps he had to surmount. “We bought a business… and that was very challenging when it didn't go well. It was pretty disastrous, actually. So, I have a view that you haven't been in business until you bought a business, sold a business, taken a partner and sacked a partner,” Ken remarked.
Leaving this all behind him, Ken decided there was no use dwelling on the undesirable. He took a constructive approach to things, chose to move forward and surrounded himself with good people. He found inspiration from individuals that he admires. One such person is Colin McLeod, the Chairman of Matthews Steer. Throughout the company’s lifespan, the ripe moment has finally come for them to establish a formal board and have an independent chairman and a non-executive director, which was a great benefit to the organisation. Ken was jovial that the formal setup has worked for the last 10 years. The informal structure was also effective at first but only for a while.
It amazed him that there are other people in the business world who are willing to help. They have also become his role models. “They're busy people running quite large businesses. It's amazing if you reach out to other entrepreneurs, they're very willing to help you. And that's something that I probably want to (emulate) – people that are up there, yet they're quite happy to share their knowledge if you ask for it, not to exploit them, but in terms of a genuine need.”
To top it all, he became part of the EO Melbourne Chapter and joined the board this year, which was a big help to Ken in terms of drawing out his passion for business. Apart from keeping him aligned with the latest innovations, EO was also of immense assistance to him at certain times when he had personal issues. It was a great sounding board and reality check for the accountant-entrepreneur.
With a path that is full of challenges and potholes, Ken needed this kind of support from his peers. Ken supposed, “I think a lot of family and friends think that running a business is a lot easier than what it actually is. I think that's a misconception. But then it's probably they underestimate the enjoyment you get out of it, too.”
True enough, the fruits of his labours are very rewarding to him. His achievements are his clients, which he also considers as his source of inspiration. “There is a joy that I get in helping Australian entrepreneurs structure their businesses, to keep their family assets safe, and to unlock their potential. I get a real kick out of that. Just in terms of personal successes, we've helped brands to become nationally or internationally successful businesses from startups,” Ken enthusiastically revealed. He has honed his skills at developing a thorough understanding of what his clients want or need in their specific industry, along with their concerns and aspirations. Moreover, friendship, which is based on trust, respect and being able to help them in times of need, has blossomed between him and his clients.
With over 30 years through his entrepreneurial journey, is there any stopping for Ken Matthews? “I think if I stop learning and I lose the urge to learn, I'd get out, I'd retire. I'm learning all the time and I stretch. I love being in uncomfortable situations where I stretch myself.”
Although he still sees himself involved in the company, he is prepared to take on the role of a mentor to the younger partners and associates of the accounting firm. He is keen towards moving into more of a business development role rather than a managing director role.
As Ken primes himself for his future functions, he still does his regular self-examination. Every three or four days, he lists down his achievements, learnings and intentions to provide him with a clarity of knowing what to do. He suggests this exercise to other entrepreneurs as well “I think you need this to give yourself some space to think about what you've actually achieved and what you want. It's very important. That's all for yourself. I do that a lot.”
Best of all, he wants budding entrepreneurs to remember that “It is a journey. It's a journey of learning. It's a journey of making mistakes and learning. It's fantastic, there's nothing better than creating something that you give equal opportunity to others to be part of that success,” said Ken.
For those who are still afraid of venturing on their own, he has this to say, “Start small. Just put your toe in the water. Start part-time, if you're afraid. Get as much knowledge of the account of that industry. Then, be passionate, be brave, and surround yourself with the best people that can elevate your thinking.”