Tributes have begun flowing for Victorian Small Business Commissioner Judy O’Connell, who announced on Tuesday her plans to retire from the role in July.
Victorian Small Business Minister Jaala Pulford, Small Business Ombudsman Bruce Billson, Council of Small Business Organisations Australia chief executive Peter Strong and Franchise Council chief executive Mary Aldred all took to Twitter on Tuesday afternoon to thank O’Connell for her “outstanding work” and “unwavering dedication” to the state’s small businesses.
O’Connell has served as Victoria’s Small Business Commissioner for four-and-a-half years, during which time she has led efforts to improve how councils interact with their small business communities and build awareness among small business operators about their rights and obligations when it comes to leases and other contracts.
She has been at the forefront of helping the state’s small businesses grapple with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, with her team responding to more than 17,000 pandemic-related enquiries last year.
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Thank you @judyoVSBC . Your unwavering dedication to small businesses in Victoria is admirable. You are a true champion of the sector and have helped so many small businesses along the way. We wish you all the best in retirement. https://t.co/rmX2qsy1jP
— Bruce Billson (@BillsonBruce) April 13, 2021
Speaking to SmartCompany, O’Connell says helping businesses survive these past 14 months has been one of her proudest achievements as commissioner.
In a normal year, O’Connell says her office would be involved in helping businesses in around 2000 disputes, but that number jumped to around 5,500 in 2020.
Over the course of the year, her team was able to help support businesses in 4,300 rent relief disputes, including one memorable mediation in which a landlord was moved to help the owner of a country pub by offering an 80% rent reduction and $15,000 to help pay an outstanding electricity bill.
“I like to think we’ve helped a number of businesses to continue to run their businesses,” she says.
“To help those who desperately needed help”.
O’Connell has also played a key role in developing Victoria’s ‘Small Business Friendly Council’ initiative, with 52 of the state’s 79 councils now part of the program — which is about creating a fair and competitive trading environment for local businesses.
The initiative involves councils signing up to the ‘Small Business Friendly Charter’ and, as a result, committing to paying small business suppliers within 14 days; supporting businesses affected by local infrastructure projects; streamlining approvals for people opening a new business; and helping to set up and support local business networks.
“Early on, we recognised that councils know their local business community better than anyone else,” O’Connell says of the program.
O’Connell, who worked in a small business liaison role with the Australian Taxation Office before being appointed commissioner, says she is also proud to see that Victoria now has more support in place for businesses owners experiencing mental health concerns, including a dedicated hotline for business owners.
“A lot of small business owners prioritise their family and staff before thinking about themselves,” she says.
“But they’re no good for their business if they’re not on top of their game.”
COVID fast-tracked digital adoption
Victorian small businesses experienced some of the toughest restrictions across the country last year during the state’s extended lockdown. And while O’Connell says there are those who’ve now “done the sums and decided they just cannot make it”, her office is seeing signs of recovery, particularly in regional areas and among businesses that have embraced digital technology.
She says the Bellarine Peninsula and Horsham are two examples of where people are “out and about” and supporting their local businesses, although admittedly, the state’s retailers are still “struggling”.
The vast majority of rent relief disputes to come to her office last year were in the retail and accommodation sectors.
“It’s a mixed bunch,” she says.
“It has sped up the move to digital, and most retail now have to have an online presence as well as a physical one.”
O’Connell believes the pandemic has accelerated the move to digital for small businesses by a number of years and she encourages business owners to continue embracing technology that they were forced to use during 2020, like Zoom meetings and QR codes.
It’s also essential for operators to take a close look at their accounts and cashflow now, she says, to figure out how they might get through the next 12 months. This may mean seeking help from an accountant or bookkeeper, or business mentor.
“This is the time where a lot of businesses are coming off JobKeeper, they’re coming off rent relief, they’re having to pay full rent again, and potentially facing higher rents because they are paying back a deferred amount or there has been a rent increase,” she says.
“They need to really be on top of their game in terms of what their financials are.”
The next chapter
The Victorian government is now looking for a new commissioner to replace O’Connell and an announcement is expected to be made in due course.
O’Connell says she has been fortunate to work with a “great team” at the Victorian Small Business Commission, and also thanked the industry stakeholders who she says do an “amazing job” in supporting small businesses.
As for what’s next for her, O’Connell says she’s now looking forward to taking a break to spend more time with her family.