By John Counsel
At work I was never bullied. I was always in management/leadership roles — or I owned the business. What I often had were people who were forever trying to control or constrict me… usually bosses for whom I posed some kind of perceived threat.
Frankly, I was never ambitious. But I had ideas and very clear visions of what I wanted to achieve in those roles, and I was always happy for those who wanted to work with me to share whatever rewards or acclaim came from them.
But I always achieved my best results when I owned the business, because I hired skilled, talented people who were incredibly loyal and shared my own vision for the business and enjoyed the fruits of their own efforts.
One such business arose from an episode I wrote about here recently. After 7-8 months, my knowledge and advice meant that my employers were able to sell 49% of their newspaper publishing business to the Age (Fairfax Group), which was acquiring newspapers in accordance with a deal they struck with News Ltd in around 1970 dividing Victoria (my home state) down the middle, with Fairfax taking over the east and News Ltd taking over the west.
I’d created and implemented a strategy to basically take the lion’s share of the commercial printing market in Gippsland — the south eastern region of Victoria — which I’d managed to accomplish in those first 7 or 8 months (85%).
As part of that strategy we’d forced our main competitor into a merger, and attracted the attention of Fairfax.
I’d realised, months before, that I was having a detrimental impact on the printing industry throughout the Gippsland region, after I was politely ostracised at an industry event in the Latrobe Valley.
Time for a new direction
The new management appointed to my division of the group had an axe to grind with me because of my strategies, despite all of them being much wealthier, and retaining full control of their businesses into the bargain. So I took the opportunity to propose a buy-back of all the equipment I’d sold to them almost a year before (for a heavily-discounted purchase price, because they had no staff who could operate it) and I resigned to set up a new operation in creative and technical pre-press services for all the commercial printers in the region, to help restore balance to the industry by levelling the playing field.
This was the #1 reason I’d been so successful in acquiring an 85% market share — those creative and technical skills, all supplied by me because of my intense interest in that industry — plus my extensive marketing experience and skills.
The owners and managers of those other printing companies were very suspicious of me, until I got them to realise that, not only was my former employer no longer going to be competitive, but that they now had a new strategic alliance partner who could provide all those scarce services under one roof, in our region, with integrated marketing and strategic support.
I hired a few really good people from Melbourne who wanted a seachange for themselves, living by the beaches, etc, and no long commutes — and all within 90 minutes’ drive from Melbourne, the state capital.
A rude awakening
The first summer, I added airconditioning to our studios and darkrooms, located next to a large hotel-motel complex, but I was startled to learn that our productivity (and profitability) had taken a major hit during the summer months.
I normally went home for lunch with my young family, just a 2 minute drive from the factory, but one day I had to stay through lunchtime to meet an urgent deadline — and discovered why our results had plummeted the previous summer: wives and kids arrived at lunchtime to collect the family cars so they could take the kids to any of the superb local beaches for the afternoon, from Cowes, San Remo and Phillip Island anywhere through to Cape Paterson, Inverloch and Waratah Bay (alongside Wilson’s Promontory).
My team suffered a figurative Black Hole for their motivation and concentration every afternoon. Mistakes, blunders, makeovers, redos and disincentives were a plague for the entire afternoon!
So the next day I presented a proposal to the team that they unanimously accepted — and which saw a 300%+ jump in productivity and profits that same summer.
An innovative new approach
I realised that we were rarely visited by clients, and as long as we delivered what they’d requested on time and in perfect order, our working hours didn’t really matter.
The proposal was for us all to start at 5:30 am, have breakfast at the hotel-motel dining room from 7:30 am to 8:00 am, break at 10:00 am to 10:30 am (the pub kitchen would send over cold drinks and sandwiches), then finish for the day at 12:30pm, to spend the afternoon with their families.
I also spent $30,000 on new equipment that saved us up to two days a week in very demanding, tiring, highly-skilled work.
The change proved so successful that everyone shared in weekly bonuses and, because of the income tax structure in the mid-1970s, our accountants advised us that we’d all be better off taking reduced hours than losing it in tax.
We ended up working a three-day week, with no drop in income. Phone calls were re-routed to an answering service and I bought a pager in case I needed to contact a client urgently. All clients were advised of the change in summer working hours and we had almost no dramas.
I received a special bonus as well… in all the time I owned that business, none of my team ever quit! And ‘sickies’ were unheard of. 😀
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