Without a doubt, 2020 has been a year full of challenges. But for Astute Ability Finance Group founder and principal broker Mhairi MacLeod, this time of crisis has not been without opportunity.

Fresh from collecting three awards at the 2020 AMAs, including the coveted Australian Broker of the Year, this month’s Prospa Groundbreaker discusses the importance of having a growth mindset, and why women in the industry are continuing to find their voice and showcase their abilities.

MFAA: Mhairi, congratulations on winning the Australian Mortgage Awards Westpac Australian Broker of the Year, Pepper Money Broker of the Year – Specialist Lending, and Broker of the Year – Regional. What contributed to you standing out so much this year?

Mhairi MacLeod (MM): I think I actually found my voice. I’ve entered awards before thinking this is how you should enter, instead of thinking I’m going to enter on my merits, and really what I feel strongly about. So, instead of trying to find what you perceive to be an award-winning submission, I took it off-the-wall and changed the way we submitted things in a way that’s not just about the numbers, which I think the AMAs clearly demonstrated. I am not in the top 100 for dollars, but I would have to say I’m in the top five per cent for sustainability and longevity in this industry, because there’s not too many of us that have done 22 years successfully. And success is different to everybody. To me it is about sustainability, agility, the processes, and all the other things that make up Mhairi MacLeod, and it’s not just about numbers.

MFAA: What is the secret to the sustainability of your business?

MM: You’ve got to have a really strong team behind you. I’m very lucky that in my 22 years, my average staff member has lasted 12 years. For me it’s about being good to the people that support you, and not just in dollar terms, but also allowing them to have some creative flow in your business and to allow the business to grow and have the agility for change. If you look at all the digital changes in 2020 and what COVID’s brought, if you have too much resistance to change and no agility, you’re going to struggle with sustainability, and growth. For my business, yes I lost a little bit of business in 2020, but what I’m seeing coming out of COVID, with all the changes in technology and the way we do things, my business is on track to increase by 20 to 25 per cent. Because of technological advancement, there’s no such thing as regional anymore. There’s no limit to the customers you can target. So again, with myself and my team having that mindset of looking for change and looking for unique value propositions for our clients and for our business, we’re grabbing on to all this stuff and thinking, how good is this!

MFAA: It’s been a year like no other. What have been your challenges and how have you responded?

MM: I think the challenge has been the absolute rapid pace of change. One minute we’re functioning as a normal business, the next minute we’re shut down. Then we start crawling out of that first shutdown, then we have the next problem. And when I say a problem, we had customers that decided they needed to look at their own businesses and be more cautious. So, we went through a quarter of real uncertainty, which contracted my business, but I’m fortunate enough to have been running for 22 years, and I don’t have massive debt against my business. Now, we’ve got the confidence coming back, but you’ve got paused payments which, when they resume, you’ve got to wait another three months of full payments before you can entertain a new lend. Then we have the next problem, our three months are up, we go to order the equipment, and we have a supply problem. But that also creates another really fabulous opportunity. We have a lot of customers right now that are waiting to buy equipment, so in the meantime I’ve looked at their figures, and consolidated their debt, then I look at their home loans. Hence, I’ve got growth in a market that’s been contracting. I consider myself a business development manager with a great support system and team, and you need to use those words really clearly - you are there to develop the business.

MFAA: And how have you been going with your extracurricular work with children and in the corporate social responsibility space?

MM: With my work teaching financial literacy to students, schools have basically closed to outsiders, so I’m preparing that work now for 2021, which will have a focus on being money savvy, and having the basic skill sets that you need in the big wide world. Also, at the beginning of the year I received a regional government grant to educate our industry on how to participate in social-giving and how to measure it, then COVID hit. I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry, because knowing the extent of the work, and emotional and mental stamina I needed to make all of that come together, I just felt totally deflated and defeated. So, when I picked myself up off the floor, I decided there’s a bigger opportunity for this, and we’re hoping that we will be able to run that program nationally towards the end of next year. It’s also allowed us time to improve our education modules. So, in one way I was disappointed, but in the other I thought this has opportunity written all over it.

MFAA: You were also part of a scientific study looking at twins. Can you tell us a bit about that?

MM: So because COVID hit, all my projects were put on hold and I had some free time. I came across an article about a COVID twin study and how big life events impact twins emotionally and whether that's something that is programmed or is it something that you learn? So, I asked my sister who is an international flight attendant and was heavily impacted by COVID, to take part with me. So, they studied what the loss of income, job pauses, and other life changes meant to us, and our answers were almost the same. So, clearly a lot of our thoughts originate in our DNA. Whether you believe it or not there is a sixth sense between twins, so getting the feedback on that was very interesting.

MFAA: This year you were the first woman to win the top AMA prize in quite some time. How did that make you feel? And also, you’ve done a lot of work in the diversity space, in particular through the MFAA’s Opportunities for Women initiative. How do you see that side of the industry progressing?

MM: Firstly, no matter your gender, winning that award is a significant milestone in any career. But for me the beauty about our industry is that gender truly does not discriminate on incomes. There’s no barriers to how hard you want to work in this industry or how much time you want to put into other projects whether you are male or female. I think I have made a significant contribution to this industry, and I feel I am deserving of these awards. But truly, I think the fact that it has taken 18 years for a woman to win shows one other key significant piece - that women just don’t use their voice or their abilities and showcase them as well as men, because they are just as good, and we are all equal in this business. So, I think what’s changing in our industry is that women are now finding their voice and finding the ability to showcase what they do. But you do have to have deliverables and measurables.

MFAA: What’s next, Mhairi? What are you looking at doing in the next few years?

MM: I’m always looking for something new to accomplish but not forget what I’ve already got in place. I’m looking at going international with my corporate social responsibility platform, the Giving Forecast. And I still love brokering and my customers. I still want to be involved, but I need to get back out there. I did 57 flights last year to achieve what I’ve achieved. So, I think next year once they start allowing us to cross borders, I will be working hard to make up for the year that didn’t happen. So I’ll probably be working twice as hard as I have leading up to 2020, and that excites me because I meet new people, and have new ideas and showcase them. So, I think going forward for the next three years, I will get my business back up to where it was and keep working on the projects that make me feel alive and excitable about why I’m in this industry.