Problem solving

Ombudsman offers help for small businesses in crisis

- March 18, 2024 4 MIN READ
Paper cutouts, one helping the other up from the page

There’s been a surge in small and family business owners seeking support as economic conditions worsen. Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Bruce Billson writes that free financialadvice, business know-how, and mental health help is available.

The latest economic report card will be no surprise to small business owners. Economic growth is barely limping along, with GDP rising by 0.2 per cent in the December quarter and running at just 1.5 per cent for the year.

The combination of sluggish growth, persistently poor productivity, tight labour markets, supply chain challenges, above-target inflation impacting on higher input costs and customer demand, and 13 interest rate rises are having the biggest effect on small and family businesses.

Insolvencies increase

Over the past year, there’s been a 20 per cent increase in queries from small businesses struggling to manage their debts.

Businesses are also becoming increasingly worried about other businesses they do business with, who might owe them money or, worse, be on the verge of insolvency.

Requests for help from small businesses concerned that they are owed money by businesses that are insolvent have increased by one-third compared to last quarter. Nearly three-quarters of these were from small businesses in the construction industry.

Corporate insolvencies are above pre-COVID levels and at a record high in the construction sector. It is often not realised that there are more small businesses in the construction sector than any other industry, so it’s a terrible truth that when construction falters many small businesses can collapse.

We are also seeing rising insolvencies in industries reliant on discretionary spending, such as accommodation and food services.

Free help is available to business owners

It is so important that small business owners take advantage of free help before it’s too late. Being able to speak to someone who understands the pressure of running a small business makes a big difference.

Data released by my office shows that 43 per cent of small businesses didn’t make a profit in the last full year of reporting. And some three-quarters of self-employed small business owners are earning less than the average total weekly, full-time earnings.

I can’t stress enough how important it is for a small business to check the credit history of its trade creditors.

Recently there was some controversy about the Tax Office’s move to notify credit agencies about 20,000 small businesses with large tax debts.

But if you’re doing business with someone who owes the ATO a big sum, wouldn’t you want to know? This is a reasonable way of alerting other businesses that if you were to offer trade credit or finance, you might not be paid either. At the very least, you should take that into account if you are considering doing business with them and, if so, on what terms.

A good business pays its taxes, proper employee entitlements, and suppliers in a timely way. Not paying gives you an unfair advantage over other small businesses that are meeting their obligations. Some businesses think not paying your taxes is a clever cash flow strategy—until they get hit with the penalty interest rate!

Do a business health check

It’s equally important to get an expert or trusted adviser to look at your business finances – a check-up for the health of your business.

The Small Business Debt Hotline operated by Financial Counselling Australia provides financial counselling support, particularly for small business owners who have loans secured against the family home and are uncertain about their future.

For small and family business owners, their identities are interwoven into their business and the stakes are so much higher than just a job.

Many people have invested a lifetime – and put their family home on the line – to build up their business, which amplifies the emotional challenges.

Almost 50 per cent of small business loans are secured by personal assets, such as the family home, and 25 per cent of all personal insolvencies are business-related.

As is often the case when family businesses face difficult economic conditions, other family members pitch in—all hands on deck—to save the family home.

But this also means the dining table becomes the board table, and that can create great stress.

Seek support if needed

New Access for Small Business Owners is a free service developed by Beyond Blue that offers one-on-one telehealth sessions with specially trained former small business owner ‘coaches’ who work with empathy and knowledge to equip small business owners with straightforward approaches to managing stress and the feeling of being overwhelmed.

It is common for small business owners to work long hours, feel isolated, worry about cash flow and decision-making, and experience market pressures, all of which make them susceptible to financial and mental distress.

You might be feeling overwhelmed by the big responsibility of running your own business, and it might not be playing out the way you had planned. The passion, excitement, special talents, and offer you aim to delight customers with are a long way from ‘the business of running the business’. Few get excited about lodging a BAS with the tax office or delving into the numbers to find the story they are telling you about the need for potentially tough decisions now.

Take financial action now

Your ‘numbers’ may point to a bit of a wobble in your business and the need to adjust to improve future prospects to best capitalise on your strengths and financial resources. Or should you consider a dignified dismount while you still have choices based on the trajectory of your financials?

An early chat with your trusted adviser, if you have one, or an end-of-financial-year business health check and review, might be something to put in place. The Tax Office has produced some really good learning resources that might be useful in supporting your decision-making.

Business know-how and the ability to benefit from the wisdom of others can be key to turning an idea into a successful enterprise or turning around a business that is not firing on all cylinders.

Chances are someone has grappled with the problems you are now facing.

We have resources, tips and tools about mental and financial health available on our website at

Information about the Small Business Debt Helpline is available by calling 1800 413 828 or visit

Information about the New Access for Small Business Owners program is available at:

This post first appeared on Kochie’s Business Builders. You can read the original here.

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