It’s hard for us to believe that Catalina Consultants is now a decade old. It has been an incredible 10 years, with the business growing and evolving from just one person to a multi-skilled team servicing clients around the country. We sat down with founder and Principal Merilyn Speiser to ask her about the highlights of the past decade, as well as what’s in store for the next 10 years.
So, Merilyn, can you cast your mind back 10 years and tell us how you came to start Catalina Consultants in the first place?
I was a partner at a major accounting firm, which gave me exposure to the way lots of businesses worked and I saw the difference between those businesses that had access to quality human resources advice and an HR function and those that didn’t.
In particular, I saw some good businesses that weren’t large enough to afford a full HR team and had to make a choice about where they spent their money and where they didn’t. This meant they always had gaps in their HR department and this would always cost them one way or another. I thought to myself ‘wouldn’t it be great if all businesses could have access to a full HR department regardless of their size’. That was when the concept for Catalina Consultants was born.
When you started, you were the only employee. How were those early days and when did things start changing?
At the start, I thought I had a good idea but I wasn’t sure what the appetite for it would be. There wasn’t really the same knowledge of outsourcing core business functions, such as HR, as there is now. Most of my work was coming from my accounting and personal network. I had to do everything myself and a lot of the work was more consulting style. I was doing a lot of leadership training, performance and engagement-related work. This was great but it was just a part of what I wanted to do.
Everything changed when I was approached by a national architecture firm that wanted Catalina Consultants to run its entire HR function. They didn’t just want strategic advice or high-level work done. They wanted a provider who could do the admin and keep the lights on as well. There was no way I could do it all by myself and I realised that if I wanted to play in this space I needed to hire someone to help out, even if I couldn’t really afford it yet.
The next client we took on was an IT company and it was even bigger still. They had four offices and 120 employees and we were asked to oversee everything HR-related, so I hired again. It was such a good decision and everything started growing from there.
I’m really very grateful for those early clients. Without them, there’s no way we would be here today.
What has been the key to your success?
I think we’ve always offered a very different proposition from other outsourced HR businesses. HR comprises many functions and you need employees at a whole range of levels. That’s what we offer. A lot of others simply have mid-to-senior level employees who they place, say, a day a week with a client. I think that’s entirely the wrong approach because it says ‘HR only happens on a Monday’. With us, we’re always with our clients – they know they can contact us whenever they need help no matter what it is.
That said, we also offer a level of flexibility, so some clients like us to come in and be visible in their workplaces, like a traditional HR practice. Others want only part of our services, such as offering advice that will facilitate the success of their managers. Whatever it is, we can make it work.
What are the main things you’ve seen change in your business and also in HR over the past decade?
One of the real changes over the past decade is the understanding of what can be achieved remotely. Obviously, COVID played a big part in that, when most professional staff had to work from home. But there was a growing understanding of remote working before that too. It means the conversations I’m having now are very different from the ones I had in the start because I no longer have to convince people that we don’t have to be always physically present to do a great job – although sometimes we are.
Another big change has been that, in the early years, businesses often saw supporting their HR function as a discretionary spend. Now, even small start-ups tend to understand the need for strong HR right from the outset. That can be anything from strategic C-suite advice and guiding the leadership team through to creating the right culture or wellbeing engagement, or even having the right retention strategy in place.
Finally, I’d say that the rise and use of technology and data have really changed HR and made it more affordable for everyone to understand their drivers and make better decisions. We’re able to now provide even smaller clients with quite a sophisticated data-driven HR function for a reasonable price.
10 years is quite an achievement. What lies ahead for Catalina Consultants over the next decade?
We’re still growing and evolving and we have so much planned. We’re going to be expanding into Melbourne shortly. The mix of businesses tends to be very different there – with more manufacturing – and our model really lends itself to that sector.
Beyond that, we have plans to start a recruitment arm and a legal arm, as well as IT. These are adjacent services to what we already offer and there is a real synergy between them and what we do already. Watch this space!
Finally, looking back a decade ago, what is the one thing that you really got right with the benefit of hindsight?
I think the main thing was putting trust in others. When I began hiring people the salaries I had to pay were higher than what the business was earning from contracts but I knew if Catalina Consultants was ever going to get off the ground, it had to be more than me. Every time I hired someone it was a real turning point. There is real strength in numbers in any workplace and everything we did together was far better than I could have ever achieved on my own. For any business, your people really are your biggest asset! That’s ultimately what HR is about.