Local Leader Spotlight: Dave McEllistrum

Patricia Kopec

At Intrigue, we believe in empowering leaders and strengthening communities — that’s why we have decided to spotlight a ‘Local Leader’ each month!

Our Local Leaders are individuals who have shown both professional leadership and leadership within the community.

We are proud to live and work in communities with many amazing people who exemplify these qualities!

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Dave McEllistrum is from RLB, Chartered Accountants and advisors. RLB, and their sister company Amplify LLP, help Ontario businesses, startups, and entrepreneurs.

Watch the ‘IM in a Car’ segment below to see Dave being interviewed by Intrigue co-founder Rob Murray — it’s all about managing growth, and tips on how to recruit the best people to lift your organization!

Can you give us a quick synopsis on your background, where you came from, and what you’re up too?

I started at RLB as a co-op student, at 19 years old, so I’ve been there my whole career. I became a partner after a few years and was fortunate enough to be a managing partner for 10 years in a high growth period where we went from 40 people to over 100 people…which was a little stressful.

Always looking for other challenges, I stepped down from that work when I saw an opportunity to change how small businesses get accounting services. Over the past few years I’ve been building Amplify.

I started to do research about two years ago and soft launched Amplify 16-17 months ago. As a business owner I knew that business books are always the struggle. What business owner wants to deal with their bookkeeping? The market out there, from a small business perspective, means that you don’t get a lot of personal attention. It’s about compliance and getting things done for the government. I wanted to change the experience to make it from feeling like going to the dentist, to actually adding value and being more about relationships. Offering services from bookkeeping, to year end to business advice, to how they can create a good people culture. Essentially to help them simplify their life, business, and personal networks.

That sounds like what RLB does. So what’s the difference between RLB and Amplify?

One of the big differences is the use of technology. We’re utilizing tools that are available and putting them together in a way that makes it easy for businesses owners. For example, they can take photos of receipts, rather than keeping them in a shoe box. We’re really trying to simplify things for business owners. We produce the monthly information, the HST returns, the year end corporate tax returns, the year end statements, and everything that needs to be filed and planned. We have clients in Northwest territories, BC, and Windsor. Some want to meet locally and some don’t, so we try to tailor to what people want.

So the big thing is the idea of using web-based technologies that exist, packaging them together to make it so that it is an easier and simpler experience, and so you can Amplify their business.

Let’s talk about that growth period going from 40 people to over 100. What was it like and how did you get through it?

If I said it was easy, it would be a lie. The keys in terms of growth, if you’re in a growth phase is when you have the right people, the right product, and the right mood and style to be able to grow your business. From an operational perspective, then it’s a challenge to try and understand when do you add people on. So it’s important to get ahead of it. In the growth phase, if you staff to your capacity needs, you’ll have trouble growing because you won’t have enough people to do the new work coming in. That’s a big challenge understanding that.

How do you manage cash flow, if you are trying build capacity for growth to come?
It’s important to see it as an investment, rather than a cost. Same thing with training people. In our world, we sell our people, their skills, attitudes, and abilities. We have to make sure we have the right people that are the right fit. It’s really an investment.

We’re talking to a lot of our clients, and a lot of business owners have the issue where it’s tough to get good people or they’ve gone through six different staff members in the last six months. What kinds of tips or tricks can you give our audience to help them find the right people?

If you have some good, senior people, that know what they’re doing from a technical perspective, hiring is almost fully about soft skills. If they’re quick learners, take high ownership and accountability for what they’re doing, if they’re good with technology, if they’re good with people, then we can bring them in at an early stage in their career and make them into accountants or marketers because they have a great base of skills. That’s our focus and we’re lucky we had some great people to train. We look at it from the bottom up, in terms of let’s not bring in people with experience, because we’ve had mixed success with that. Let’s try to build people.

Can you give us some tips or tricks on how you go about hiring for soft skills?

We do a few things. A personality profile is used, DiSC, which tells you how the person reacts under stress, how you should and shouldn’t communicate with them, and the value to the organization. We usually have an idea of what the profile should look like for the role, and if someone doesn’t necessarily look like that, we still use our intuition to make a decision. A while ago we had an industrial psychologist interview for our top culture fits, great examples of what we wanted the firm to be. He developed a 30 question pre-screening test that we send to all applicants. If you get 24/30 you are highly recommended for interview, if you get 21-24 you’re moderately recommended. His name is Rex Gatto.

In interviews, especially people coached in university, we try to give them a logic problem. The goal is not to get it right, it’s to assess how to deal with something they weren’t expecting…did they understand the question, did they get the first part of the answer? We then take it up quickly with them. How do they react? How do they deal with failure? Are they competitive? How do they handle stress?

As a leader in the organization, what kind of things do you keep in mind on a day to day basis to keep you on track?

Helping people. That’s a base level expectation. The mindset and excitement is how can we help people maximize their business or minimize their taxes. We’ve dealt with strategic planning exercises to help determine how owners can make more money and spend half their time in the business, rather than full-time. It’s about asking the right questions, giving opinions, and not being hurt when they say you’re out of your mind.

Are there any authors, speakers, or people you’ve looked up to that you look up to or follow, or use as a mentor? Any words of wisdom?

I do a lot of reading but the Simon Sinek book Start with Why, for me, is the one. We’re all busy and we have a tendency to involve people so they understand what you’re trying to accomplish, rather than focusing on what the tasks are. With Amplify, we’re trying to simplify people’s lives and amplify their businesses.

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