John Duncan was looking after his parents’ share portfolio before he had turned 18. He started his first business well before attaining his accountancy degree. Reflecting on his early career, the 38-year-old associate partner with professional services firm Rubik3 believes he could have made even more of the opportunities opening around him in Canberra.
“People have always said to me, lower your expectations, know your limitations, you are not ready for this, you need to sit on this for a while – it is all just rubbish,” he says. “I look back now at missed opportunities and think, wow, what was I thinking.”
As a business leader and renowned trainer, his advice to young people coming through the ranks is the exact opposite: be confident in your own ability, embrace technology and aim high.
Born and educated in Canberra, John loves the continual flow of success stories of intelligent young people in the national capital with the skills and courage to strike out in the professional services sector. Going from Kambah High School to Canberra College and on to the University of Canberra, he kept looking for things to learn. He studied at the ANU and Canberra Institute of Technology as well, and became a chartered accountant.
The pace moved up a notch when he embraced technology emerging in accounting systems. He took over an information technology business in 2006 and ran it out of the Sydney Building in the city, rode the highs of a flourishing ACT contracting sector and by 2010 was contracting to mid-tier accounting firms and then the public service.
His love of learning evolved into training others around him, and then bigger groups of people for government departments. Initially he wondered whether he was hitting the mark as a trainer.
That question has been answered often. “When people actually come up to me and say, ‘hey I just want to say thank you, I have learned so much today and I want to come back for more, I can’t wait for the next course’,” John says.
“Sometimes they would say ‘if it wasn’t my employer paying for it, if I could pay for it myself I would come back and get trained through you’.’’
The feedback counts. As a trainer, he is sure his comedic value with dad jokes isn’t bringing people back for more. It is the knowledge he is sharing, most especially the IT skills which he blends with his accounting knowledge.
He says professionals in the financial services sector should tune out from all the negativity and focus on becoming more tech savvy.
“I think we need to embrace that more, accountants in particular tend to underestimate themselves and their abilities,” John says. “I am the sort of person who reaches out for new technologies. The landscape has changed so dramatically in the last 10 years, that accountants are becoming encoders and this is just happening right across the board, particularly in Canberra. Canberra has the best talent in the country, certainly per capita,” he says.
John has trained more than 1000 people, mostly in the ACT.
Of all the systems he teaches, he rates the Excel-centric budgeting, forecasting and analytical database TM1 as the premium model. He says it is widely embraced across Canberra, within the ACT and Australian governments and larger private sector firms. As a chartered accountant and TM1 developer, he has found much better outcomes in reporting and taking data to the next level. He sees people fascinated by TM1 and what it can do and encourages everyone to explore it.
“People shouldn’t feel discouraged that it is hard to learn,” John says. “This is stuff you can do – if you have studied accounting or if you are a public servant doing finance.”
Over the next decade, John predicts more financial services people and accountants managing and reporting their information with cutting edge technology.
Among a broad network of enterprising business leaders in the ACT John has watched, Rubik3 founders including Guy Earnshaw’s strategic business solutions venture has stood out.
He regards Rubik3 as an exciting, Canberra-based success story kicking goals and dominating the market.
“It goes back to what I was saying earlier, we have the best talent. People pay out Canberra, but we demand and attract the best talent and the best minds, coders, accountants, consultants, contractors,’’ he says.
Running the business services and consulting arm for Rubik3, John expects to meet the demand for high-end finance and business partnering roles and information management. Products like TM1 are more in demand.
“It’s not good enough to be an accountant with finance qualification. In most areas, particularly the Commonwealth public service, there is a high demand for skills to go above and beyond, an expectation that you are fairly tech-savvy in information management.”
Rubik3 is building long-term relationships, setting longer-term goals and working with clients to build on their current achievements.
John and his wife Stephanie, a partner at mortgage brokers Tiffen and Co. are expecting the arrival of their second child. A keen runner, John is happy to push the pram on his outings. A handy amateur boxer, he is quick on his feet too. Stephanie is among the people who inspire him, along with Dr Bruce Arnold, UC, who was a long time business colleague and now best friend. Australian tech companies excelling internationally also inspire him.