Being able to adapt and being resilient in sometimes trying circumstances have been cornerstones to the career and business life so far for Strathalbyn conveyancer Mel Wilson.
At 32, Mel, a partner in Connolly Wilson Conveyancing, can boast a wide range of life and career experience including supermarket checkout operator, mother, journalist, PR/marketing manager and, more recently, conveyancer and business owner.
She grew up in Murray Bridge in what she described as a happy but challenging childhood with her parents moving interstate at one stage and later navigating a tumultuous relationship breakdown. But, rather than see it as a total negative, she believes this has helped her become resilient and able to adapt later in life.
“I ended up working quite a lot during my school years and I was focused on surviving and paying the bills at the time as much as studying,” she admits.
In those days she had no idea what she wanted to do career-wise.
“My English/History teacher suggested journalism,” Mel says.
“I’ve always been very passionate about what was right and what was wrong.”
When The Murray Valley Standard advertised for a cadet, her boyfriend, and later husband, suggested she apply.
“I didn’t even have my driver’s licence at the time, and somehow I got the job,” she recalls, adding that a condition of her employment was she had to get her licence within three months.
“I’d just finished year 12 and was working 30+ hours a week at the local supermarket – I’d always worked hard.
She describes her cadetship as “a great opportunity”.
“I felt it opened my eyes to the real world working in journalism. One day I was interviewing the local CWA and the next an Afghani refugee while being reunited with family at the airport.
“It gave me a no-warts view of the world, from my 18-year-old perspective.”
Upon finishing her cadetship, she found herself at the age of 20 about to become a mother.
After just a year off to “enjoy” motherhood, she found herself back at The Standard as the deputy editor but needing a change.
“It’s just not an environment conducive to working as a young mum,” she recalls.
“With irregular and often long hours, I just realised it wasn’t going to work.”
And at that point Mel also realised she had become somewhat jaded about the media industry and the corporations that run the press.
“Although I worked with a great team, the larger organisation at the time was pretty misogynistic and I realised, looking up through the ranks, that a lot of the blokes looked at the journos as just skirts on the ground,” Mel said.
“I just couldn’t see a path in media that was going to work with raising a child.”
She describes her next career step as a “baptism of fire”, joining Langhorne Creek Wine as a marketing coordinator.
“I soon realised that just because you work in media doesn’t mean you know anything about PR and event management,” she said.
“I had to learn quickly to adapt my skills.”
A wine lover, Mel remembers with more than a hint of a smile, that one of the best perks was to be able to regularly take home a couple of bottles of wine.
“They were the leftovers of all their wine tastings and events, so the best of the best,” she said.
“It was a beautiful community to work with. I loved working there.”
But despite all that, the stress of motherhood, he relationship breaking down and the commute from Murray Bridge suddenly came to a head and Mel knew she was headed for a breakdown unless she made some serious changes.
“I could tell I wasn’t on the right trajectory. At 24 I felt I was heading towards a breakdown,” she recalls.
“Now I realise it happens to a lot of mums going back into the workforce.
“But at the time I didn’t know who I was; didn’t have confidence in anything I did; and didn’t feel I had the headspace to do the job as well as I wanted to be doing.
“It became a downward spiral.
“One day I woke up 4am and thought I just have to stop and have a break.
“I decided I’m going to resign and work out where the hell I’m going in life.”
She said her resignation came as a big surprise to those around her.
“Turning 25 was a big turning point to me. I wanted to start to be in control of my life.”
Fortunately, although the marriage broke down with her husband and father of her daughter, Mel is grateful they have still been able to maintain a good relationship.
“I knew I would have been a much worse mum if I hadn’t done something.
“If you don’t feel happy in a situation you have to make the choice to change the situation if it doesn’t feel right, even if that choice is hard for other’s to accept.”
After a short period working in local member Adrian Pederick’s office, Mel made what is now a significant life step – working in the office of a conveyancing business.
“Going into a service-based industry, I realised that’s what I was missing; genuinely helping people in a part of their life which was essential, making people’s life a little bit better,” she remembers.
Soon her life went into overdrive, working full-time at the conveyancing firm, studying to be a conveyancer and also being a single mum.
“I remember going home and putting the lectures on while I made dinner.”
It was during this crazy busy period that Mel met and began working with her current business partner Trish Connolly. Together they forged a strong friendship which has now grown into a solid business relationship.
“In 2017 we were both at the same point in our careers – we loved the work but we wanted to create our own environment, our own culture and own platform.
“At that point the decision not to do it became worse than the decision to do it.”
She also recalls how her now partner, Brett, who also has his own business, had been a catalyst in encouraging the commencement of Connolly Wilson Conveyancing.
Brett and Mel met when Brett, a customer of Mel’s previous employer, had brought in a bottle of wine in thanks for the conveyancing services he received.
“He is more of a risk taker, and he was the one who said, ‘why wouldn’t you do it?’.
“I owe him a lot of gratitude to give us the confidence to go ahead with our own business.”
Mel admits she tends to avoid planning too thoroughly as she’s learnt to adapt quickly when life throws surprises.
“I have a bit of planning anxiety as things can go out the window and leave you disappointed, so we decided we had to be all in.
“We couldn’t spend a couple of years making inquiries because we knew the opportunity might pass us by – mainly our bravery!”
And while some people might reflect on Mel’s past and wish it could be different, Mel, on the other hand is more philosophical.
“It’s been a baptism of fire for each step and I’ve come out the other side more resilient,” she said.
“Ten years ago I would never have thought I would be able to run my own business – sometimes I’m literally still learning what being an adult is about!
“But all of those experiences have led me now to think, ‘why can’t I?’, rather than pigeonholing myself.”
Like most of us founding a business has not been all smooth sailing.
There have been challenges, with costings being higher than expected, and a learning curve for the two women has been the need to “harden up”.
“We’re quite generous people by nature and we don’t like to ruffle feathers, but we couldn’t afford to be too sensitive. We had to focus on getting the business up and running for our families.
One of the biggest challenges has been that Trish and Mel have had to learn business management and accounting, but this has been a challenge they’ve relished.
“When you’re getting established the reality is you can’t stop – you have to just keep going and going.
“We were working 9-5 in the office, and then working a lot from home with websites, marketing, accounting etc.
“For our families it probably meant we disappeared in our own world.
“The thing that has surprised me is we haven’t found it a stressful experience.”
Although now business partners the two women are, even now, best friends.
“We’ve gained a lot more respect and understanding for each other.
Mel says being a sole trader would be a very lonely process, but it’s critical to go into business with the right person.
“Partnerships are a risky situation. Wherever you’ve got a relationship it’s fragile.
“We complement each other a lot and ultimately we have the same approach to our work and values. We act as a double check for each other.
“I’m so grateful that we have the relationship we do because not many people could find a business partner they trust and respect so much.”
She said the two celebrated even the small successes – lodging their first BAS, finishing a task or gaining a new client.
“Going into business as women has really made us think about who we are and how we run our business.
“We were very deliberate in trying not to market our organisation as a women’s organisation. Our logo is deliberately not in pink.
“We really wanted to stand on our own merits.
“Our mantra has been to do the job well and the rest will speak for itself.”
Connolly Wilson Conveyancing operates from two offices – in Strathalbyn and Murray Bridge. Trish and Mel spend time at each of the offices with Mel living at Ashbourne and Trish at Woodchester.