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The call of accounting was a constant throughout Melissa Lawson’s early years, even when it went unheeded. Although she grew up with a dream of becoming a lawyer, her skills in mathematics illuminated another career path.
“I grew up pretending to be a lawyer with my dolls, but I always loved mathematics in school,” she recalls. “It wasn’t until my very late teens, when I began doing the bookkeeping for my employer at the time, that it all began to happen.
“It felt very natural, as if it was what I was supposed to be doing all along.”
“It’s so important to recognize and celebrate exceptional leadership and achievements within the business world.”
That natural feeling was to culminate in Acumen Accounting Group, a team of financial professionals serving businesses and individuals in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs.
As Acumen’s Founder and Principal, Lawson has realized her vision and accommodated her skills.
“I always had my goals, even through some very dark periods. There were probably a few times where I didn’t think I’d make it at all,” she admits.
“But I’m quite resilient and determined, so while completing my studies and obtaining the relevant academic achievements I needed to get Acumen off the ground, I never lost sight of what I wanted to have and to be.”
Acumen started life as a sole trader business. “I was trying to get myself out there and start helping people in small ways, even if it was just with their bookkeeping.”
As the business steadily progressed, Lawson says she hit a point of no return.
“I was on the verge of evolving into Acumen Accounting Group. There were wheels in motion and I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. It was happening,” she says.
As Lawson’s experience and confidence in accounting grew, so did her ambitions. Having effective mentors offer guidance early on in her career was another big step up.
“I never lost sight of what I wanted to have and to be.”
“They’d sit down with me and take the time to talk me through things, they’d share their own life experiences and knowledge,” she says.
“I was lucky to have that, and it was something I kept with me as I studied.”
As a mature-age student, Lawson was in a unique position of bolstering real-world experience with qualifications while her classmates were doing the opposite.
“It gave me an advantage,” she says. “The qualification is great, but having that hands-on experience is what really makes the difference.”
And that difference is felt in every element of Acumen. Lawson says her ultimate aim is to help her clients succeed financially.
“I recognized early on that people like to know that you genuinely care, that you’re not just there to churn out the work and issue an invoice,” she says.
“So at Acumen we take the time to get to know our clients, understand their goals and hopes and dreams, and help them work towards realizing them. It’s fulfilling for me to do that; I love to see my clients win.”
Lawson delights in challenging the belief that accounting is a robotic, automated process.
“It can seem that way. One of the first things I was told when I started in the industry was to keep things moving. I was more than happy to explain a concept to a client until they fully understood it, and I used to get into trouble for that,” she says.
“But I’d put myself in their shoes and I knew that I’d appreciate that. As technology evolves so quickly, I think the world has lost a bit of its humanity, so for me it’s important to keep that human connection. I think that’s probably why our clients enjoy working with Acumen.”
“Yes, AI will play a huge role in the industry going forward, but that human touch is still so important.”
Technological advancements have also made it possible for more and more Australians to handle their own tax returns, but Lawson says it pays to stick with a professional.
“If the knowledge isn’t there, you might not understand the repercussions of lodging your tax return incorrectly. Having an accountant to get real clarification is important,” she says.
“Yes, AI will play a huge role in the industry going forward, but that human touch is still so important. That’s the foundation on which I’ve grown my business and I don’t intend to change.”
Something that does change at Acumen is its scope. From its origins as a force of one, Acumen has grown into a tight-knit team of three, and the company’s areas of expertise have come to include accounting, taxation and personal wealth creation, in addition to financing and commercial property management.
“We’re constantly working on our professional development and upgrading our knowledge base so that we can help clients in all areas of their business,” Lawson says.
“I’m hoping to offer evening seminars in the near future, where we can run through clients’ queries over a glass of Champagne. Again, it’s so important to maintain contact with clients.”
Lawson’s personal experience in business management has helped give her an edge. As CEO of Australian Auto Logistics, she has made significant gains in an industry very different from finance.
“Logistics is quite a male-dominated industry and it’s certainly had its ups and downs, but it’s given me a confidence I didn’t have previously,” she says.
“I’ve helped grow that business over the last six years to a multimillion-dollar turnover. I think my background in accounting certainly paid off.”
With that company now on the market and looking for a buyer, Lawson has turned her full attention to Acumen’s continued growth.
“I want more diversity in the Acumen team, I want to open up new areas such as self-managed super funds and financial planning,” she says.
“We’re moving into a new, larger office at the end of 2023, and I think that’s going to be the real turning point for the business. In the next three years I’d like a team of 10, and at the same time continue to build relationships with our clients and help them realize their dreams, just as we do with Acumen.”
The extent of Acumen’s growing influence in the field – and Lawson’s tireless dedication to staying in touch with the business community – will be felt at The CEO Magazine’s 2023 Executive of the Year Awards, of which Acumen is a sponsor.
“It’s so important to recognize and celebrate exceptional leadership and achievements within the business world,” she says. “It’s a privilege to be a part of the event, but for me it’ll be a big step towards helping me move out of my comfort zone.”
An atypical start in the industry, coupled with the recent ordeal that was the COVID-19 pandemic, has given her a distinct appreciation of reaching one’s full potential in life.
“Acumen is my baby, and being able to develop and grow it after having gained all my academic achievements is a pinch-me moment, particularly once my tax agent license came through,” she says.
“They’re little things, but they’re big things because there were times they may not have come to pass. The major achievements my team and I have been able to accomplish are now establishing us as a competitive firm, and being a part of events such as the Executive of the Year Awards proves that.”
“We attract the right clients and we all work together to help each other grow.”
At the heart of that success remains Lawson’s belief in the power of human connections, and its strength as a natural lubricant when it comes to tricky subjects like accounting.
“I’ve attracted many beautiful clients, many of whom I consider friends. A lot of our business comes from word of mouth. I haven’t actively had to advertise, and I prefer that, because I feel it’s more of an organic growth. We attract the right clients and we all work together to help each other grow.”