Olivia Maragna grew up on a cane, cattle and fruit farm three hours north of Brisbane, seemingly a world away from her future career as an accountant, SMSF adviser and co-founder of a financial planning firm.
It turns out that free-range bush childhood was one of the best educations she could have received for her career.
While years of formal training followed, including an intensive executive course at Harvard University, Maragna says her country upbringing is what has given her the edge.
“I’m going to sound really boring, but from a very young age I was serving customers at the fruit stall on the farm,” she says. “We used to send off fruit to the Sydney and Melbourne markets, so I was liaising with agents and in charge of working out how much money we were making.
“I was good at managing the money, so when I left school it was easy to just continue working with money.”
It wasn’t an easy decision, however, to move away.
“I am a farm girl at heart, so I think I broke my dad’s heart when I left the farm to move to Brisbane and study accounting,” she says. “But my mum was determined that her kids would have university degrees first and if we wanted to come back to the farm after our education, then fair enough.
“That is how it has ended up. We have lawyers and advisers in the family but a few have made a conscious decision to return.”
Maragna followed her passion for numbers straight into a job at Deloitte, where she found herself increasingly pulled towards the financial planning arm of the company.
“I found the super legislation wonderfully complex,” she says. “And now that’s our niche; we deal with complex clients.”
Maragna left Deloitte to co-found Aspire Retire with husband Stephen Degiovanni. Since 2003, the couple has built a successful Brisbane-based business, which now has 12 staff, including four planners.
“We like to deal with complexity and while it’s a mixed demographic, we find that we do skew older, as retirees’ affairs are often more complex,” she says. “We take on about 10 per cent of our enquiry at the moment, and we are quite particular about who we take on because we want to make sure we can add a significant amount of value to the clients.”
Not surprisingly, Maragna has found that her farming background has helped her deal with the challenges of running a business.
“I think in farming you have things thrown against you, you have a hail storm that comes through and completely destroys the crop,” she says. “You learn to fix things yourself because help may be a few days away. So you get good at being able to find solutions.”
Maragna’s problem-solving abilities have been acknowledged with a slew of awards over her career.
She has won Telstra Young Business Woman of the Year in Queensland, MYOB Business of the Year, and an AFA Australian Female Excellence Award.
She was named The Australian Financial Review’s Top 10 Emerging Leaders for 2014, the WIFS 2013 Financial Planner of the Year and the 2012 AFA Adviser of the Year – the youngest and first female to ever win the award.
She also has a regular finance column in Fairfax newspapers, which acts as counterpoint to her complex private work.
“I almost see these columns as a kind of community service for people whose affairs are not so complex to warrant an adviser, but who are after tips on how to manage their money,” she explains. “One recent column focused on the fact that it’s not what you earn that is going to make you rich, it’s how you manage your money.
“So simple tips like that I enjoy writing about.”
She is also passionate about the way bad money habits are passed down from generation to generation and how empowering it can be for people to smash them.
“You often see someone doing something in their 70s because of something they saw when they were 7,” she says. “I love hearing about that and changing it.”
Name of firm: Aspire Retire Financial Services
Name of licensee: Self-licensed
Time in the industry (previous jobs?): At least 16 years. (Started off in accounting and worked in one of the big four accounting firms before co-founding Aspire Retire in 2003.)
Academic qualifications: Bachelor’s degree in accounting taxation and law; executive courses at Macquarie School of Management and also at Harvard Business School.
Accreditations: Chartered Accountant Designation; Certified Financial Planner; Self-Managed Super Fund Specialist Adviser certification.
Professional association memberships: SMSF Association; FPA; AFA
Other memberships: Australian Harvard Women; Harvard Club of Australia