Johnston Associates: Consistent award-winning service scores a hat trick

Words & photography by STEVE HUSSEY


To win a national title is impressive. To win the same national title three times leads to a series of conclusions; the winner must be committed, goal-driven and have a passion which drives their tenacity. They must know how to positively react to challenges, disappointments and failures.

Johnston Associates Chartered Accountants is a company which epitomises an organisation that knows how to navigate the very turbulent waters that have been stirred up since the Covid-19 outbreak. This has created threats, anxiety and opportunities at an unprecedented rate, and forced us to galvanise and react immediately at a national, community, whānau and personal level.

Helping to lead the charge is Julian Stilwell, Advisory Manager at Johnston Associates. A third generation powerboat racer, Julian is widely known in the Nelson/Tasman region as a champion driver, with three titles on the NZF1 powerboat tour. While accounting and F1 powerboat racing may appear disparate, they share many complementary characteristics.

Julian says that he loves the competition and the technology involved in powerboat racing. “It takes a different mindset, and you’ve definitely got to be sharp. I think I’m an intelligent driver. I weigh the risks up before making a move.”

He is meticulous, precise and obviously motivated to be the best – highly desirable characteristics for an accountant. Possibly the most valuable of these attributes in the current climate is the tenacity to keep striving to do better and the ability to lead through adversity.

“I’ve gone sideways a couple of times, been run over once and had quite a barrel-roll a couple of seasons ago. It’s very much like being shaken around in a beer bottle. I haven’t given up, and I’m not about to.”

It is this sort of mindset and resilience that has helped Johnston Associates to adjust and adapt its business model in the currently disrupted marketplace.

Communication key

On Johnston’s decisive response to Covid-19 lockdown, Blenheim-based general manager Ben Halliday says the company immediately went on the front foot. “We were already cloud-based, so the transition for our team to start working from home was reasonably instinctive. We made sure everyone got ‘on the tools’ and kept the communication flowing, both to our clients and within our team.”

Johnston Associates had two clear objectives at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. The first was to collate, filter and disseminate the most complete and well-considered information and advice available from government, health agencies, economists and business commentators in a manner that its clients and staff could understand and use.

One irony Ben sees in this process was that before Covid-19, Johnston Associates had been trying to implement Microsoft Teams software to simplify how its team members collaborated on projects. There was a natural reticence within the team to adopt the new process initially, however, after switching to working from home during Covid-19 and needing to use the software to collaborate, the entire team of 40 is now expert at using it.

The second company objective was to make sure the team was in constant communication with its clients – helping identify risks and opportunities and creating comprehensive action plans. “There was no rule book or webinar for this sort of thing. We kept a steady focus on the most important matters, whilst gathering the information required to identify the right path, and to make the right decisions. This was when Masterminding Brighter Tomorrows became more than just a positioning statement for us – it became a call to action; a time for resilience and stability,” describes Ben.

“How we helped our clients recover was a direct reflection of the quality of the decision-making, and the quantity of time we invested in working with them. Lockdown gave us clarity, time to focus and the motivation to help our clients work through this difficult period. We had to be proactive, as things were moving fast. Our team of experts was adaptable, and we had the organisational agility to work successfully during this period of uncertainty. This was a leadership moment – one that required us all to step up, take in all the information, reach out and stay connected, despite the barriers that isolated us, and have the courage and tenacity to help our clients plan a recovery.”

Changes ongoing

Obviously this year has been challenging, but Johnston Associates has used the challenges as opportunities to improve existing services and launch new ones.

“Technology will dominate the ‘new normal’, and influence the way we work and the services we offer,” says Ben. “It will enable us to develop business in new regions, for example, we have opened an office in Westport, with a minimal footprint. It will also enable many of our staff to work from home on a regular basis.”

Technology has made the delivery of the Virtual CFO role so much easier. With a suite of tools including cash flow management, forecasting, budgeting, KPI setting, reporting, long-term planning, risk management, IT and systems, the use of technology has been transformational to the business.

Julian Stilwell recently became one of only five accredited Business Valuation Specialists in New Zealand. Being in Nelson, he is the only one outside of Auckland (with only eight in Australia). He’s been busy helping clients evaluate the impact of Covid-19 on their businesses and assessing their future opportunities.

Working with clients

Describing his journey to this accreditation, Julian says that 12 years ago the Johnston Associates advisory team started with a business development background, so its members are very proactive and skilled at helping their clients achieve their goals.

“We love working alongside our clients and having positive relationships with them. There is a real sense of camaraderie with our clients; we aren’t an elite professional supplier, we are ‘sleeves up, and meet you where you are at’. Our team is forward-focussed – forecasting, budgeting and planning. Forecasting is now a huge part of what we do, in part as a response to Covid-19.

“We are working with our clients to prepare continuity and/or recovery plans for managing novel risks, and mentoring them through a period of rebuilding or growth, depending on what opportunities or challenges have impacted them.”

Julian says that historically (pre-Covid-19), forecasting was usually more standardised, in the form of a formal report going to a financial institution to support a loan application. It was how they communicated with a bank, and the format had to be quite stringent. “In this Covid-19 world, the same checks and balances are in place, but as we are much more involved and aware of our clients’ rapidly changing circumstances on a day-to-day basis, the forecasting is much more detailed.”

As with powerboat racing, your business needs to be backed up by the best technology. You need accuracy and clear focus when the wind kicks in and the waves chop up. You need to be able to trust that you have the support of an experienced team to help you understand and move with the changing conditions. Whether an individual or a business, Johnston Associates Chartered Accountants offers a diverse array of services to meet your ever-changing needs.


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