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