20 October 2022


Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Bruce Billson interview with Sean Aylmer.

Fear and Greed Podcast

20 October 2022

Subject: The work of ASBFEO, challenges facing small businesses and cyber security

Sean Aylmer

Welcome to the Fear and Greed Daily Interview. I'm Sean Aylmer. Small business in Australia has had a tough few years and it's not getting any easier. Those businesses that survived the pandemic are now being hit by inflation, rising interest rates, staff and skills shortages and ongoing supply chain problems.

Bruce Billson spent two decades as a federal MP, holding a number of ministerial positions, including Minister for Small Business. Post-politics, his knowledge and passion for the sector saw him become the Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman.

Bruce Billson, welcome to Fear and Greed.

Bruce Billson

Sean awesome to be with you and the Fearsters and the Greedsters.

Sean Aylmer

Now Bruce I want to know.

Bruce Billson


Sean Aylmer

You didn't have to move back to Canberra, but it sounds like you did move back. In fact, you got out, but you've come back.

Bruce Billson

20 years in public life. Seven terms, thankfully undefeated in my electorate of Dunkley, which was down on the Mornington Peninsula and Frankston, or as I would call it, Melbourne's Riviera, Sean. I got out of that to spend more quality time with the family because it's quite a punishing lifestyle and you know, we're the volunteers, but your family are the conscripts and looking for a little more a little more time with me. And so that was great.

Went out and set up a few businesses, got heavily involved with a couple in particular, Judo Bank and a few others, just to help improve a lot of small businesses. And then was asked to take on this role, which ironically was one of the initiatives of mine when I was the cabinet minister. So, I understand deeply what its objectives are and what it's about, and I sought about trying to meet those ambitions commuting from Melbourne. Well, let's just say Sean, that didn’t go down well with the family. So, new chapter. We decided we'd go and move near the capital and we're building a house out at Murrumbateman, the country wine growing region. So yeah, it takes me back there as now a near resident rather than a regular visitor.

Sean Aylmer

Okay, so what exactly does the Ombudsman for Small Business do?

Bruce Billson

Look, great question. And it was born out of firsthand observation about where I thought there was some gaps in the way the Commonwealth, the federal government, did its business. It became pretty obvious to me that a lot of government portfolios, departments and agencies do things in the name of, or do things to, small and family business without a really deep understanding of what that means.

And really without grasping the simple fact that a small business isn't a shrink-wrapped version of a big one. You know, you don't have a slightly smaller HR department. There isn’t a smaller team of compliance people running around. You know, it's often one person doing everything. And I wanted to make sure that was reflected, but also a chance for independent advocacy, where someone could see what was going on in the life of small and family businesses and fearlessly raise those issues or challenges with the government or regulators of the day.

And that meant a policy and advocacy role, Sean. Trying to bring a spotlight on the actual plight of small business as well as raising where things could be done better. But also an important assistance function. In the federal jurisdiction, Sean, I'm sure the Fear and Greed audience would know, if you get into a legal stoush that's covered by federal law, you're off to the federal court in most cases.

Now that's 300,000 bucks and might take three years for you to get your day in court. No small business can cope with that. And so, I wanted some way of resolving disputes quickly in an amicable way, hopefully keeping those relationships together, so that people could get on with business. So, we do about 7000 matters a year, where we provide advice and guidance on how to resolve disputes involving a small business.

In many of those, we become a case manager and may recommend alternative dispute mediation. And just to close that loop, Sean, from our policy insights, the assistance work that the case studies that we're involved in, we try and put out better practice advice to small and family businesses. Time poor, but maybe not knowing what the hazards are of engaging a search engine optimization firm. You know, they'll talk to you about doubling your revenue, but they'll actually sell you activity that may or may not result in that uplift in revenue. We'll put that kind of advice out there saying “before you do that, maybe have a bit of a think about this, here’s some way you can navigate a complex issue” or, “here's some advice, whether it be about cyber security, accessing finance, you know, what do you need to tell an insurance broker?”

We'll put that sort of useful know how and better practice advice out there. So, they’re the three legs of our stool, Sean.

Sean Aylmer

Okay, so there's plenty in that. You must be across a lot of small businesses, family businesses. What's the state of play for them at the moment? They've been through COVID. We obviously have lots of cost-of-living pressures, inflation pressures, staff shortages, natural disasters, think of the rain going on in Melbourne, Tasmania, New South Wales at the moment.

Where's the sector up to? It must be exhausted almost.

Bruce Billson

That's what I often use Sean. Most small and family businesses are exhausted right now. Whilst their experience during COVID and the period since, whilst the challenges that natural disasters - and we've had way too many of those - have been there and the ramifications are being worked through by small and family businesses. There's so much going on.

And with some of those issues that you pointed to, a lack of available staff, skills challenges, supply chain blockages, even all the way through to getting paid in a respectable time, they've made business a tough business to be in. And the plight of small and family businesses with that shared experience, the outcomes have actually been extremely varied.

A number of small and family businesses, frankly, have had a terrific pandemic. You know, they've been in the line of work, they've provided goods and services, that have delighted customers. Or frankly Sean, as so many businesses are, they've solved problems that these new challenges have provided and have profited quite handsomely from it.

Others have just hung on. Many who who've done okay have pivoted. There's that word, but they've made adjustments to the way they do business, and that's got them through. Others may have a weak pulse in their business, that the government’s support has been vital to keep them afloat. Now they're thinking about what's next? And for some, it's been absolutely punishing. Absolutely punishing.

If you're a foot traffic customer facing business, if you need the suburban centres and the CBDs throbbing with humanity as you nab a couple of those people that go past your café, or your retail outlet, that foot traffic is not there. And if you're in the visitor economy, there hasn't been the visitor levels that have been there. The arts and entertainment area that's been particularly challenging.

And even for those that have been doing well and there's some delicious possibilities right in front of them, some supply chain and skill issues have actually held them back. And think about the building industry. I know so many builders that are flat chat, but hardly making a profit at all because of delays in getting certain stages of projects done, cost increases on key inputs and then the difficulty getting trade.

So, you know, it's a really mixed picture.

Sean Aylmer

Stay with me Bruce, we’ll be back in a minute.


Sean Aylmer

My guest this morning is Bruce Billson, Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman.

So philosophically, do you think Australia gives small businesses a fair go? And this comes down to government really, the rules and regulations around small business?

Bruce Billson

Look, I think the intention is there, Sean. Well, to coin a phrase that I often use: Nice backswing. Where’s the follow through? So, I think people are talking well about that. They recognise that a small business isn’t a shrink-wrapped version of a big business. Yet so often policy makers, program designers, regulators seem to imagine that a small business has all the bandwidth, all the diversity of skills, all the capacity to come up with some new expectation that government might have of them, when they're already so time poor. No one got into business for the back end of running the business.

I know when my wife and I had our businesses, it was the greatest contraceptive ever invented. We’d be having pillow talk of cash flow and BAS and making sure we paid bills.

Sean Aylmer

Lucky Mrs. Billson.

Bruce Billson

Oh, look, living the dream, mate. Living the dream. You know, it's an unrelenting thing. And most of those compliance obligations, small family businesses do those after hours and when they're also filling shifts that the staff aren't available for, or someone's called in sick, or something like that. There are just constant demands.

And I keep saying to people, we're not anti-regulation. Regulation has its place, but please, let's right size it so it's relevant and it's genuinely commensurate with the risk you're trying to address. And it's the minimum effective imposition you're putting on extremely time poor people to start with. So, I suppose that's one context around the compliance side. The other one I'd throw out there is, I'm not sure there's a deep enough appreciation of just how vital small and family businesses are, not only to the economy generally, but the uplift.

You look at times like the GFC. Small businesses was about, just between four and five of every ten private sector employees. Yet the new jobs that came out the other side of the GFC, two out of three were coming from those small businesses. So, they’re drivers, they’re innovators, they're producing new ways of delighting customers and new ways of creating wealth and opportunity.

I reckon that means they should have the wind in their sails, not the wind in their face. And that's often the challenge that we tackle, just trying to make sure they get a fair go to thrive and prosper.

Sean Aylmer

I just want to ask about cyber, because the Optus hack recently, Woolworths earlier this week. It must worry small businesses because many wouldn't know what to do I presume?

Bruce Billson

Yeah and look, they're on edge. And frankly, all the research is telling us that small family businesses are a bit of a preferred target for some of the scammers and for some of the cybercriminals. The most prominent thing that's happening is a cybercriminal will tap into a small businesses email system. They'll see invoicing that's going out from the small business.

In some cases, they'll intervene, and this is called an invoice scam. They'll intervene and put some other bank account details in, other than the business itself and then shoot that over to an unsuspecting customer who's expecting the bill. They'll probably know what the number is that they need to pay and when it arrives, they think, “okay, let's just settle that account,” and they'll go and punch in those adulterated bank details and all of a sudden some joker on the other side of the world’s getting some hard earned that's come out of a customer wanting to do the right thing by Australian small business.

So that's, that's the most common attack on small businesses. Then the next, one of those phishing scams, where you get an email that kind of looks like it's okay Sean, but what sits within it is an entree into your technology that then sees people messing with your digital infrastructure, or in some cases, demanding a payment for you to access your own information.

So, it’s a real issue. I’d say I’s a BAU, a business-as-usual issue, for small business. But not all feel well-equipped to tackle it. And I think part of that’s because often we hear about these mega, mega cyber strikes on big companies and think, “my goodness! They’re sophisticated, how would I ever combat that?” But there are things a small business can do. Simple multi-factor authentication, having sophisticated passwords or pass phrases, making sure not everybody's got full access to all parts of your technology, thinking twice about, you know, those emails that look kind of dodgy but kind of okay.

I mean, you're probably too young, Sean, but I'd say listen to your spidey senses. If it looks kind of weird, there’s a fair chance it is in this world. And then, you know, get training that's needed to make sure you've got timely backups, so if someone does take your system down, you can stand it up again, when it was the last time it was healthy. And, also, you know, think deeply about training your staff to be alert to these things.

It's about 9 to 10 grand is the actual cost on average for a cyber strike on a small business. And that's from the Cyber Security Centre out of Canberra. But worryingly, there's a significant number, Sean, that never come back. They don't just pay the money. Their systems are compromised or moreover, their customers who were trusting them with customer information might think, you know, “I'm just not sure about these folks now, I might not continue to trade with them.” So, it is a big issue, but there are things within the gift of small business that they can do, and I strongly encourage people to turn their mind to that.

Sean Aylmer

Bruce, good luck with the role. Thank you for talking to Fear and Greed.

Bruce Billson

Great to be with you.


Listen to Bruce Billson's interview on the Fear and Greed Daily Interview podcast here: https://omny.fm/shows/fear-and-greed/interview-why-exhaustion-is-the-big-challenge-for