Tree change takes roots

For those who look hard be­fore they leap, a tree change can be lib­er­at­ing, writes Ju­lia Stir­ling

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Career One -

TWO years ago, Ab­bie Free­man and Peter Smith opted for a tree change and moved from Melbourne to the gold­fields town of Castle­maine, in cen­tral Vic­to­ria. They not only changed lo­ca­tions, but ca­reers too.

Their goal? To work to­gether in their own busi­ness and in­te­grate a work/life bal­ance so they could en­joy rais­ing their young daugh­ter.

They bought a milk­bar/gen­eral store with the idea of grad­u­ally trans­form­ing it into a bak­ery which they now call the Wesley Hill Bake­house. Smith, who for many years op­er­ated his own pi­ano hire and re­moval busi­ness in Melbourne, orig­i­nally trained as a chef and al­ways dreamt of one day run­ning his own bak­ery.

In the year be­fore mak­ing their tree change, Smith honed his skills with a one-year full-time patis­serie course at William Angliss In­sti­tute of TAFE. They re­searched where they should go — con­tact­ing Vi­cRoads, Vic­to­ria’s roads author­ity, for sta­tis­ti­cal in­for­ma­tion on two spe­cific ar­eas.

While both had sim­i­lar ac­cess to Melbourne via free­ways, Castle­maine was the stand-out. It was ob­vi­ously a growth area, and the busi­ness at­tract­ing them was on the main road to Melbourne — which car­ried the most traf­fic.

The tran­si­tion from city to coun­try has had its chal­lenges, and find­ing the work/life bal­ance has been harder than they had imag­ined. Smith de­scribes the first two weeks of tak­ing over the busi­ness — which ran seven days a week, 12 hours a day — as the hard­est two weeks of his life.

We had to try and un­der­stand a new busi­ness, run day-to-day op­er­a­tions — and then we had Is­abelle (their daugh­ter), adorable as she is, teething. So we weren’t get­ting any sleep at night. I was ly­ing in bed at night hav­ing vi­sions of me jump­ing on a mo­tor bike and head­ing off into the dis­tance,’’ he says. Says Free­man,

When we talk about lifestyle change it was like, what lifestyle? It was just in­cred­i­bly hard.’’

Buy­ing an ex­ist­ing busi­ness had its pros and cons, and in hind­sight Smith thinks it would have been eas­ier if they’d set the busi­ness up from scratch. He spent many a sleep­less night wor­ry­ing about dis­ap­point­ing lo­cal cus­tomers, be­cause they had to drop par­tic­u­lar lines in or­der to move the busi­ness in the in­tended di­rec­tion.

I guess we were a bit naive think­ing we would slip straight into the bal­ance, and have our days off and spend qual­ity time with Is­abelle — that wasn’t the case at all. It was full-on. It was a real learn­ing curve, that’s for sure.’’

Free­man op­er­ates the busi­ness with a wealth of HR ex­pe­ri­ence in the cor­po­rate world. Em­ploy­ing peo­ple wasn’t a stress­ful thing at all, be­cause I was used to both in­ter­view­ing peo­ple and se­lect­ing them — and also let­ting them go if that was nec­es­sary. Also, deal­ing with ac­coun­tants, lawyers and all of those things was some­thing I was used to do­ing.’’

Smith says he knew they would work well as a team. Ab­bie loves crunch­ing num­bers, and if she has a bit of a maths prob­lem she loves it, I’ve got no time for that.’’

Free­man de­scribes Smith as the ideas per­son with blue sky think­ing’’, and then she comes along be­hind and works out if those ideas can be put into ac­tion.

Free­man says the busi­ness is tar­geted to­wards baby boomers who are more likely to have a bit more dis­pos­able in­come, more time to be out on the road sight-see­ing, and ap­pre­ci­ate old­fash­ioned food made out of but­ter, real cream and fresh pro­duce. That has proved cor­rect, but they have have been sur­prised by the sup­port from lo­cal peo­ple.

Their vanilla slice is now fa­mous, com­ing in the top ten at the 2006 Great Aus­tralian Vanilla Slice Tri­umph com­pe­ti­tion in Ouyen, rural Vic­to­ria. Word spread quickly through Castle­maine and be­yond — a Melbourne man even or­dered him­self a vanilla slice wed­ding cake.

Free­man says they are start­ing to en­joy the ben­e­fits of a small coun­try town. They now take time off to spend as a fam­ily, and Smith re­cently bought him­self a mo­tor bike — not to es­cape, but to ex­plore the sur­round­ing coun­try­side.

Says Smith, In a coun­try town peo­ple are a lot more friendly. Peo­ple def­i­nitely have a bit more time for each other, and I like that as­pect. I would never be able to take Is­abelle back to a big stinky city — to know she is suck­ing in the clean air makes me feel good.’’

IT is vi­tal for peo­ple con­tem­plat­ing a tree change to re­search thor­oughly. Whether buy­ing a busi­ness or set­ting one up, peo­ple need to thor­oughly un­der­stand the re­gional area they are mov­ing to.

Bernard Salt, de­mog­ra­pher and au­thor of The BigShift , ad­vises peo­ple to be­come very familiar with a town be­fore com­mit­ting to it. That might mean liv­ing there for a while, or if that is not pos­si­ble, visit­ing at dif­fer­ent times in dif­fer­ent sea­sons to judge whether the busi­ness you have in mind will be af­fected by sea­sonal changes. He rec­om­mends visit­ing in ‘‘ the cold­est, mean­est, wettest, month of the year’’ be­cause peak tourist times can be mis­lead­ing.

He also says it’s im­por­tant to be flexible in your ex­pec­ta­tions and adopt an open de­meanour. ‘‘ You can­not go from city to coun­try and take your Big City val­ues to the coun­try lo­ca­tion. That means you can’t turn up to the new tree change town and nec­es­sar­ily ex­pect cafe cul­ture and all the so­phis­ti­ca­tion that you have in the city to sud­denly ma­te­ri­alise in a cute coun­try town.’’

The onus is on the new­comer to in­te­grate, says Salt, and that is eas­ier if you have chil­dren be­cause ‘‘ chil­dren are very good so­cial glue in terms of pulling peo­ple to­gether’’.

For older peo­ple with­out chil­dren, the tran­si­tion can be more dif­fi­cult. He sug­gests peo­ple join ev­ery pos­si­ble group they can, such as ser­vice, re­li­gious and sport­ing groups. ‘‘ Put your­self in the fray straight­away.’’

Salt says the tree change phe­nom­e­non is a sig­nif­i­cant trend that will ac­cel­er­ate. While baby boomers pi­o­neered the tree change phe­nom­e­non, Salt says Gen X has jumped on board at an ear­lier age in life — ‘‘ they’re just say­ing, ‘ I ain’t buy­ing into that 70-hour-a-week crap, I’m out of here. It’s just a bet­ter propo­si­tion — the kids are hap­pier in school, it’s bet­ter value for money, it’s a nicer lifestyle. So, okay, I don’t have to earn $200,000 dol­lars. I don’t need that’. ’’

Telecom­mut­ing is also mak­ing it pos­si­ble for peo­ple to tree change, and anec­do­tal re­search sug­gest mo­bile phone cov­er­age is a key de­ter­mi­nant in choice of des­ti­na­tion.

Trevor Budge is a se­nior lec­turer and co- or­di­na­tor of plan­ning and com­mu­nity de­vel­op­ment pro­grams at Bendigo’s La Trobe Univer­sity. He says im­proved roads, the mas­sive drop in the price of tele­phone calls, and ac­cess to broad­band has pro­vided busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties for re­gional Aus­tralia.

‘‘ Peo­ple are in­creas­ingly us­ing telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, which al­low them to plug into a whole range of op­por­tu­ni­ties from home or from a base in a re­gional cen­tre — it doesn’t mat­ter whether you’re in the hurly burly of the metro area, now you can telecom­mute to dif­fer­ent things.’’

But he says it’s crit­i­cal to dis­cover the lo­cal broad­band in­ter­net ca­pac­ity, and mo­bile phone cov­er­age. It’s also im­por­tant to find out what sup­port ser­vices ex­ist should your com­puter fail, or you need ac­count­ing and tax­a­tion ad­vice.

If your busi­ness is ex­pand­ing and you need to re­cruit highly skilled and ex­pe­ri­enced peo­ple, Budge says ‘‘ you’ve re­ally got to look at your ca­pac­ity to do that, even in large re­gional ar­eas’’.

He says about 80 per cent of all em­ploy­ment growth in re­gional Aus­tralia has been in the ser­vice in­dus­tries. ‘‘ There have been some phe­nom­e­nal growth rates in the tourist re­cre­ation in­dus­try in many re­gional ar­eas, even in ar­eas that don’t ex­actly have an enor­mous tourist prod­uct.

‘‘ We’ve seen an enor­mous growth in peo­ple in the fi­nance and busi­nesses ser­vices area. There has been a struc­tural adjustment in re­gional economies — there is not re­ally a large re­serve of peo­ple in re­gional ar­eas who have got some of the new skills be­ing sought by the new econ­omy, So those peo­ple who have moved out into re­gional ar­eas with those new skill sets, and per­haps some mod­ern busi­ness pro­fes­sional think­ing, have in many cases done very well — be­cause they’ve ac­tu­ally found a vac­uum.’’

No half-baked move: Ab­bie Free­man and Peter Smith, pic­tured with their daugh­ter Is­abelle, stud­ied traf­fic pat­terns be­fore buy­ing a busi­ness

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