Q&A with Simone Thompson on the launch of her new boutique consultancy firm July 2017

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What was meant to be a three-day stint at a consulting firm turned into a ten-year role and the start of Simone Thompson's career in the finance industry. Last year, after taking a break from the corporate world to travel around Australia, Simone decided to "take the plunge" and realise her life-long goal to start her own business. Six months on, she tells Industry Moves about the boutique service she offers the industry, pays tribute to a mentor who has guided her along the way and shares some advice to empower industry newcomers.

What initially attracted you to the compliance area of the finance industry?

I fell into the finance industry completely by accident. I studied law at Monash University in Melbourne because I wanted to change the world, one injustice at a time. Quite early into the degree I had decided that a traditional career as a solicitor or a barrister wasn’t for me, but I could see the benefits in the broader skills that I was learning, so I kept persevering. The problem was, I didn’t really know how or where to apply these skills. Once I finished my degree I moved to Sydney and a family friend organised a contract role for me with consulting firm Professional Financial Solutions (PFS), sorting through a mountain of documentation related to an admin tender. It was at this point that a three-day job turned into a ten-year role and the beginning of my career!

I am a huge advocate of the superannuation industry, primarily because I believe that the majority of the people working within it are genuinely working to protect the retirement incomes of ordinary Australians. I’ve seen first-hand how tirelessly people work to ensure that a super fund is operating effectively, and how personally they are affected by some of the issues that they have to confront as part of a day’s work, particularly in relation to insurance claims and applications for early access to super. Working in compliance within the superannuation sector is my way of, if not changing the world, working for the benefit of others. Ensuring that super funds are working within the legislative framework means that these funds are able to dedicate their time and resources to working on new ways to protect retirement incomes and engage members.

What prompted you to set up your own boutique consultancy firm, ST Consult, earlier this year and what are the main benefits that you offer the industry?

Last year I decided to take some time out of corporate life to do some travelling within Australia. During this time off I thought long and hard about the type of work that I enjoy doing, the type of people I enjoy working with, and the type of business that I wanted to represent, and concluded that it was time to take the plunge and realise one of my life goals, which was to start my own business. I really enjoy working with trustees and management teams of small to mid-tier super funds. They’re generally straight shooters working with minimal internal resources and tight budgets, who are looking for a consultant with industry knowledge and experience who can provide pragmatic advice and services without unnecessary overheads.

Through ST Consult I aim to offer tailored and intuitive solutions to the governance, compliance and risk management challenges based on the knowledge I have gained from working with super funds of different types and sizes. There is nothing to be gained from designing a process or implementing a solution which is unworkable in a real life context. I am now working with trustees and management teams to find and implement policies and processes which meet legislative and regulatory requirements, but also bring a positive benefit to the business.

What was the greatest lesson that you took away from your time with Australian Ethical Investment?

In-house experience is crucial to becoming a well-rounded consultant. Before taking on the role of Risk and Compliance Manager with AEI, I didn’t have a proper understanding of, and appreciation for, many of the intricacies involved in operating a financial services business on a day-to-day basis. I quickly learnt that a decision made in respect of one aspect of a business can have ramifications across all other arms of the business, so it is important to have a whole of business outlook. I took the time to get to know everyone in the business and to understand the different roles and pressure points. I use this knowledge daily when designing solutions for clients, by asking myself questions like ‘who will be impacted by this process?’ and ‘once implemented, will this solution be able to be sustained amongst competing time and cost pressures?’

Can you tell us about what prompted you to co-found the ASFA Emerging Leaders program?

I’ve worked alongside some amazingly talented individuals under the age of 40 who are the true driving force behind a financial services’ company’s success, but are often completely unknown outside of their direct workplace. These individuals have ideas and opinions that could propel the financial services industry into the future, but because their position description does not include ‘chief’ in the title, they are given limited opportunities to share their opinions with the broader financial services community. I wanted to give these individuals an opportunity to have their ideas and experiences heard. Through ASFA Emerging Leaders, individuals under the age of 40 have the opportunity to network with each other, to gain access to industry executives and decision makers through mentoring and learning opportunities, to develop professional skills and to contribute their thoughts and ideas to industry publications and events.

Throughout your career, who has been one of the most memorable people that you’ve worked with and why?

During my twelve years in the financial services industry I have had the opportunity to work with a number of influential and memorable people who have been generous with their time and support. The person who comes to mind first is Joe Farrugia, Company Secretary at Catholic Super. Joe is an important mentor to me as well as a good friend. Aside from the significant practical skills that Joe has taught me with respect to governance, compliance and dealing with boards, Joe is incredibly generous with his time and is always willing to have a coffee and a chat when I am looking for direction or grappling with a difficult task. I admire Joe’s work ethic and the genuine respect that he displays towards everyone that he comes into contact with.

What has been the best piece of advice that you have received?

Be genuine and respectful. Reputation is everything and so it is important that your actions are genuine and that you treat people the way that you wish to be treated.

…and what advice would you offer to an industry newcomer?

Attend industry events, soak up knowledge and meet new people. Knowledge is power and the best way to empower yourself is to learn as much as you can, from as many people as you can. Also, if your job or your role doesn’t fulfil you, don’t waste time in complaining or waiting for things to miraculously change, either take active action to fix the situation or move onto something better or more suited to you. You are responsible for determining your path, and sometimes that might mean making a decision that takes you out of your comfort zone. It is only by challenging ourselves that we learn what we are truly capable of.

What was your very first job?

My first job was at the local Target where I spent four years working nights and weekends whilst at high school. I loved the financial independence and break from study that this job gave me. At 19 I started working at Keg Restaurant and Bar and it was this job that really defined me. I worked my way up from clearing tables, to waitressing, to working the bar and at the age of 21 I found myself solely responsible for managing a 150 seat restaurant and separate bar on a pumping Saturday night. I loved managing a team under pressure, interacting with customers and feeling invested in the success of the business. Through this job I discovered that I was a natural leader who was prepared to work hard for a cause I believed in. These are traits that I have taken with me into each new role.

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I had a pretty typical Australian upbringing in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. As the eldest of four kids I was never short of a playmate and we were constantly outside riding bikes, bouncing on the trampoline and kicking the footy. I have always been an academic and loved attending high school at Aquinas College and then university at Monash. These days I no longer live in Melbourne but get back regularly to visit family and friends. I will always be a Melbournian living somewhere warmer!

If you weren’t working in the finance industry, where do you think you’d be?

As an avid participator in, and watcher of, sports, I sometimes wonder whether I should have followed in the footsteps of my mum and studied physiotherapy so that I could work with elite athletes to keep their bodies in top condition. I have such admiration for the way in which my mum can diagnose a muscular skeletal issue just by looking at the way a person walks, or holds their head or hunches their shoulders.

When you took some time off in 2016 to travel around Australia with your husband, what was one of your favourite spots that you visited?

Without a doubt it would be the Dampier Peninsula and Cape Leveque. Stretching 220km north from Broome, the only access to the area is via the partially unsealed Cape Leveque Road. During the day we climbed striking red cliffs, walked on brilliant white-sand beaches and swum in clear turquoise waters, whilst at night we enjoyed a camp fire under a sky full of stars. We can’t wait to go back!

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