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How numbers have opened up my world

Posted 3 years ago in Advisors by Erin Smith
Posted by Erin Smith

James Devenny is a Senior Partner at Devenny Payne Taxation & Business Services with a unique approach to change. Having overcome so many challenges in life, James uses his story to inspire, motivate and inform others.

When I was seven years old I was told I had a disease that meant I would be legally blind by the time I was 21. My dreams of being a fighter pilot or marine biologist were pretty much dashed, and I remember a teacher at school telling me I wouldn’t amount to much.

As I processed this news in my early teens, it became clear that my two career options were to become an accountant or a lawyer. These were the only two industries that had braille machines at the time.

The opportunity in numbers

Luckily I did enjoy numbers. When I was 10 years old, I did my first share portfolio – for my parents. My parents didn’t implement it, much to my 10-year-old disgust, but we’ve since tracked it and it’s done pretty well. I also played a lot of Monopoly and my parents got me the sequel, which specialises in the share market, with silver and gold bullions and all sorts. It was a whole new world to me.

The bigger picture

Looking back, my parents really encouraged hard work. They would say to me, ‘Whatever you do, do it 100%.’ So I did basketball and became a referee for the NBL. I did rugby and played for the state team. I’ve been in the Paralympics and I’m doing karate now, with a shot at Japan in 2020.

When faced with so much from a young age, I learned that we have a choice as to how we react to change. Not many of us like change, but we can choose to sit back and look at the big picture first, to see what our next steps might be. And plan from there. This is something you can control.

Overcome the odds

Since those early days, I’ve finished my studies and then was headhunted by an accounting firm who taught me a lot, but ultimately I felt they exploited my disability. They made it quite clear that they believed no one else would hire me. Until I was headhunted by another firm.

It was here that I met my soon to be co-founder, John Payne. Eighteen months later, after building a friendship over many sessions at the gym spent talking and putting the world to rights we launched Devenny Payne.

Starting the firm was a risky move. I was training for the Paralympic team at the time, my son was 18 months old, we were about to move into a brand new house in two weeks – and I chucked in my job! That was 10 years ago. Since then we’ve had year-on-year growth. We’re turning over about $2.4M per annum and we have two offices in Australia and one office overseas. We employ 22 staff.

But in the lead up to this, a lot had to change. And change is scary, I knew this as much as anyone.

Turn fear into opportunity

This is why the big picture is something I talk a lot about to clients who come to me – often fearful – in the midst of great change. We remind them that they can turn a negative situation into a positive one simply by seeing the bigger picture and learning from it where possible.

Because a lot of learnings can be unlocked through change. You just have to listen to what’s really happening behind the scenes. Change is often the result of something not working well or needing to be improved.

Listen more closely

I listen a lot. Because I can’t see, I have a tendency to ask my clients questions that other people may not. I’m really listening to my client’s voice, and any talk of numbers is secondary to this. I can hear a slight pause or inflection and I’ll ask the client, ‘Hold on, what’s the story behind that pause?’

It means we’ve been able to go much deeper into helping clients who may come to us thinking they need an accounting service, when in fact what they really need – and haven’t articulated even to themselves – is someone to walk alongside them and help them to run their business. This invites a very different dynamic.

Tech that transforms

My visual impairment has also opened us up to the latest tech innovations, which have been game-changing. I remember playing with my first smartphone. Suddenly the early version of Siri could read all my emails aloud to me, no matter where I was. And it was amazing when banks began texting security codes that could be read on my phone, rather than sending the security tokens of old, which were pretty useless to a visually impaired person.

So it’s no surprise that our firm was an early adopter when it came to embracing major tech developments and going paperless through the cloud. Without Xero on our phones, and integrating so well into our Apple products, I couldn’t do my job – let alone do it from anywhere in the world. I also use JAWS, an excellent screen reader. And I’m used to memorising a lot of information and analysing numbers in my head, as I need to given my visual impairment.

Changing the future

My hope for the future is that positive change is even more widespread in other business models. I hope businesses will stop looking at top-line profit and focus instead on how their work can positively change the lives of others – their environment, community and the people they work with.

We set aside charitable donations based on our turnover. And a proportion of our payroll every year goes towards staff development. Because, realistically, if you start getting those elements right, the rest of it takes care of itself. Change can be one of the most powerful enablers in life, no matter which end of it you are on.

James’s top tips on handling change

  1. Don’t keep only one area of focus in your life
  2. Understand what you’re changing
  3. Always look at the big picture
  4. You have the power to choose how to respond
  5. Above all, look after your family and friends

James’ story is taken from the new issue of Partner Pages – a magazine of beautifully curated content, written by partners, for partners. Get your free copy at the Roadshow Australia 2018.

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