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Overcoming self-doubt and starting a practice


From starting in a male-dominated profession to founding her own practice, Arabon Accountants principal partner Michelle McDowall shows how she did it.

By Reporter4 minute read

Where did you start your working life and where are you at now?


My first job was picking green beans on a farm in Eudlo on the Sunshine Coast at the age of 14. Moving from picking beans to becoming the principal of an accounting practice was quite a different journey, to say the least.

As only the second member of my family to complete Year 12, I was accepted into the University of Queensland to study both law and commerce in the mid-1970s. (By the way, I had never met an accountant so had no idea what an accountant did!)

Today, I am the founding partner of a mid-sized suburban Brisbane firm, Arabon Accountants, focused on helping clients achieve their life goals. I work full-time and at all ends of the spectrum, from brand-new businesses who have never used an accountant right through to selling multimillion-dollar businesses. I mentor our new accountants and am driven by bringing insight and wisdom to our clients.

In 2018, we established Arabon Care to assist families to navigate the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Our practice’s ethos is and has always been: “We care, communicate and are comprehensive.”

What personal wins and struggles have impacted your career?

I started my career in what was then a male-dominated profession during the days of legislated unequal pay for women (two-thirds of the male rate!). Strong women — including my mother; the nuns who taught me in high school; Quentin Bryce, my first law lecturer; and Patsy Wolfe, my first law tutor — all led me to understand the need to speak up and keep speaking until I am heard.

Raising seven children, running a home, participating in community activity, looking after an ageing parent and running a practice — that was my struggle. Self-doubt was always part of my psyche — overcoming that with a persistence that looks at why I was doing what I was doing, planning and goal setting.

When I was a state finalist in the 2014 Telstra Business Women’s Awards, and again in 2017, it was the external validation that my work was being recognised as valuable.

In 2019, I was honoured to be named the Accounting Consultant of the Year at the Accountants Daily Australian Accounting Awards.  

Were your salary expectations realistic when you started out?

It was 40 years ago when I started working at the ATO, then I felt that my salary was appropriate. Working within public practice, it is not a set salary but a mix of salary and profit. Whilst wanting more, I have been satisfied overall with the remuneration.

What advice would you give your graduate self?

Be kind to yourself.

Create a five-year plan for all aspects of your life, not just your profession.

Create a list of 100 things to do, learn, achieve and create in your life. Be daring in your dreams. Live the great adventure.

If you could change one thing about the accounting profession, what would it be?

If I may have more than one, please.

I would like to see gender equity in our profession and a continued increase in the number of women on boards.

I would like to see an improvement in our clients’ expectations of the value of accounting services. I believe that the outsourcing of data overseas denies young accountants the scope to develop their skills. By improving the perceived value of accountancy, our professionals would be better paid and offshore issues should disappear. 

Is your job fun?

Only to the extent that I make it fun. I need to be proactive to make it fun. It is a conscious decision.  

Does your job look like what you expected it to be?

Beyond owning and running Arabon Accountants, my role and expectations are on a continuum. Within any 12-month period, it is. I am always changing my expectations, five-year plan and my list of 100.

What is your favourite part of your work?

I thrive on mentoring young accountants to care about our clients. Our practice’s ethos is: “We care, communicate and are comprehensive.”

I also thrive on working with clients who are new to business, helping them to set goals and watching them being achieved.

Overcoming self-doubt and starting a practice
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