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Fine print: Kevin Slaven

Two quotes are stuck to Kevin Slaven’s computer screen: “When you were made a leader, you weren’t given a crown; you were given the responsibility to bring out the best in others,” and, “Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.”

Kevin Slaven, CEO of Ovato

While leadership comes naturally to the CEO of Ovato, many years of playing rugby taught him the power of working in a team. His style is more democratic than absolute, his command more savvy than arrogant.

“Over the years, I have learned the power of listening and harnessing the power of others,” he says. “I get a buzz out of facilitating a group-based decision, appreciating the expertise emerging from differing backgrounds, education and life experiences.”

As for any moments of doubt, Kevin has had little time to entertain them. He’s had a huge couple of years, steering together Australia’s two largest commercial printing companies, IPMG and PMP, incorporating 20 plus companies into one – Ovato – and then crossing the country and the Tasman to spread the word.

In between, he’s navigated a couple of 21sts, the wedding of his only daughter and the engagement of a son – all of which comes with the territory for this father of six. “Yes, we had six in nine years,” he laughs.

“We’ve still got three of them living at home, but we recently celebrated the youngest’s 21st with 150 of his friends. We’ve had all the 21sts at home, so that’s the last of them.”

Home is Sydney’s lower North Shore, where he and his wife Anne raised their large brood in a close-knit neighbourhood and where touch footy is played socially in the local park – Kevin as the oldest, playing against the youngest at 16.

Staying fit is important, keeping him on his toes and alert enough to keep up with “these young digital innovation guys”, or at the very least, his own children, who have provided vital insight into digital platforms, social media and the lightning speed at which they constantly transform.

“Yes, six children help, absolutely – no question,” he says. “They’ve taught me a lot. As I keep telling everybody who’s prepared to listen, a generation used to span 20 years but, today, there is a generational difference between my two elder children and my two younger children, and there’s only seven years between them.

“A generation is shrinking exponentially, a result of social media as much as anything else, so for me to be a good parent I’ve actually had to keep up with the new stuff. In turn, this has helped me run a business and understand the importance of setting up different divisions within the company to evolve new revenue streams through technology.

“Structurally, we’ve set ourselves up as a business to stay one step ahead. It’s vital. You’ve got to do it as a parent, you’ve also got to do it as a CEO.”

You get the feeling Kevin takes both jobs in his stride. He’s easygoing and effuses a practicality that inspires calm. He also laughs a lot, but then his engaging sense of humour is something you suspect a father of six would need, if not develop.

He segues easily in the conversation from family to business, from sport to finance, emerging as fair but firm, energetic but not pushy. You sense he’d have your back, that loyalty is something he admires and would return in spades.

He’s also wonderfully optimistic about the enduring power of print, an industry written off many years ago.

Kevin Slaven, CEO of Ovato

Ovato, the leading fully integrated print, distribution and marketing services company in Australia and New Zealand, operates on the four pillars of print, distribution, agency and production; distributing more than 2,000 magazine titles across Australia twice weekly to over 3,000 newsagents.

It is the only printer with large-scale printing and distribution facilities in all the major capital cities in Australia.

It is also the only distributor in both Australia and New Zealand to deliver both directly to households and to most of the newsagencies, petrol stations, grocery and convenience stores, reaching more than 8,000 businesses and seven million households.

Its production services include photography and video, pre-media, post-production and advertising production systems. It also has creative agency services, covering PR, social media, advertising and digital marketing.

The company employs around 2,000 in Australia and New Zealand, with a handful employed in offices in India, London and Singapore.

Print still makes up 70% of revenue, but the company is rapidly expanding its marketing services, using cutting-edge technology to effectively target and reach consumers, as well as the ability to measure each campaign’s exact impact in terms of dollars spent at the till.

Ovato is probably one of those behind-the-scenes companies never given much thought, but we are exposed to it, albeit indirectly, every day.

Think Bauer titles including Australian Women’s Weekly, Woman’s Day, Elle, Gourmet Traveller, House & Garden, Street Machine, Mother & Baby, or the Qantas and Virgin in-flight magazines. Then there are the catalogues and brochures for retailers such as Woolworths, Myer, David Jones and Harvey Norman.

“There are still great areas of opportunities within print,” he enthuses. “Sure, magazine volumes have been decreasing for a number of years, probably by around 10% a year, but we just printed the first instore magazine for Bunnings, so there are still great areas to explore and expand. The other, quite ironic, aspect of print just starting to emerge is digital or ecommerce companies turning to printed material to promote their digital ecommerce platforms. We’ve printed and distributed into letterboxes two million catalogues for eBay Australia to drive traffic to their ecommerce site.”

Kevin joined IPMG as CFO in 2000, helping to manage the proudly Australian print company, led by five generations of the Hannan family, during its initial efforts to merge with rival printing giant PMP in 2001.

The move was knocked back by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) over concerns competition would be lessened with the combined companies controlling more than 75% of the market.

Kevin Slaven, CEO of Ovato

Appointed CEO in 2013, Kevin was at the helm when the ACCC, bowing to the significant reduction in demand for magazine printing, finally gave the green light for PMP to acquire IPMG in 2017.

Kevin became CEO of PMP’s Distribution and Marketing Services and interim CEO of the company seven months later. Faced with the task of combining resources to combat the industry challenges triggered by a shrinking print industry, Kevin’s job was to not only evolve the business but also bring the two cultures together.

It was challenging on multiple levels, primarily from a practicality point of view, with more than 20 companies running autonomously on individual business plans.

“Many of them were, sort of, small entrepreneurial businesses, with their own visions and strategies, and we were confusing customers by going in with three different people having three different business cards,” Kevin explains.

“We had to bring all of them together to create a united vision under the one company, and much of 2018 was spent with our major customers explaining how the company was evolving and how they would be able to call upon more varied skills across the business to problem-solve.”

His next step was to deal with the cultural differences between the two companies, a challenge which had to be handled personally and with sensitivity.

That meant hitting the road with Kevin, flanked by his executive management team, travelling around Australia and New Zealand to meet their employees, explain why they were losing their individual company brands and present the company’s shared purpose.

“The culture thing is really at three levels. It was a family company versus a public company. It was two arch rivals coming together. And it was the old age and new age coming together. We did about 24 town hall presentations covering 94% of our rural staff, every site and every shift change.

“People are either scared, or invigorated, by change,” Kevin adds. “Visiting our people last year gave everyone the opportunity to understand what each of the different parts of the company was doing. We’re not 20-plus individual businesses now, we’re one. Our Ovato people are invigorated by the change; it’s been very rewarding. PMP was officially rebranded Ovato in February, the name inspired by ‘ovation’. “It’s the strongest response an audience can give,” Kevin explains.

“We’re not 20-plus individual businesses now, we’re one.”

“We want to turn our audience into customers for our customers. If you think about it, somebody receives, reads and takes note of every piece of content we produce and distribute, whether that be printed collateral, social media, email marketing or stories generated through PR. With innovation, we have developed the capability from a data perspective to not just think that is happening but also to actually know.

“We can see from catalogues delivered to a particular street what the spend is with the retailers we’ve been working with. So, we can actually show how we turned those audiences into customers.”

“We can see from catalogues delivered to a particular street what the spend is with the retailers we’ve been working with.”

This experimentation with marketing not only offers value to clients with more detail than ever before, it’s evidence of Ovato’s proactive strategy.

Kevin relies heavily on his Growth and Innovation committee, headed up by one of his non-executive directors, to identify potential new products and areas to invest in.

“It’s an evolving set of potential products in the pipeline, which we test and either monetise or don’t. It’s almost like an incubator if you like, within the business.”

Kevin Slaven, CEO of Ovato

While Kevin is acutely aware of how invaluable young talent can be in a constantly evolving industry, he’s not immune to the crucial impact older heads can provide.

His innovation committee is not a hierarchal set-up, but rather a hand-picked selection comprised of varying ages, all as equal as each other.

“We have a diverse range of employees, all ages and backgrounds, because we know that diverse teams produce the best outcomes. Everyone’s ideas are welcomed and respected as soon as they walk in that room.”

“We have a diverse range of employees, all ages and backgrounds.”

Kevin takes no-one for granted in his Executive Leadership Team either, and since taking over as CEO has invested in three new roles.

A high-calibre People and Culture resource, to ensure the right structural processes to recruit, train and retain exceptional individuals; a Chief Innovation and Marketing Officer, to develop both internally and partner with others in new technologies to complement the company’s core offering of print and distribution; and a Chief Corporate Development Officer to ensure a pipeline of opportunities, both internally and externally, to provide new revenue streams as Ovato evolves.

“I have expanded and enhanced their capabilities with this investment in their roles,” he explains. “I am extremely fortunate to have a very talented and committed ELT with such a broad range of skills and capabilities.”

Kevin also relies on the expertise of external partnerships to grow Ovato and offer the reliability customers expect. No matter which name the company has operated under in the past, numerous longstanding relationships have been cultivated and enjoyed, including global paper producers UPM, Stora Enso, Norske Skog and Sappi, all of which have optimised supply chain opportunities and worked with Ovato to digitally develop new paper grades.

A newer partnership with Konica Minolta was also formed last year to expand Ovato’s print-on-demand book production and improve speed to market.

The mention of speed brings us back to Kevin’s prowess on the rugby field. Describing himself as a “rugby tragic”, understandable considering he was raised in New Zealand, Kevin is a tad unconvincing about his talent, particularly when it comes to discussing his chance of becoming an All Black.

“Was I really good? Yes! I’d say I was close to making the team,” he laughs. “But I came to Australia at age 15, and like every failed New Zealander says, had I just stayed another year or two… I’m an AFL fanatic as well, thanks to my university job pouring beers at the MCG. In fact, I like all ball sports.

“It is certainly the power of a team, not the individual, that helps you become a decent leader,” he adds. “I learned a lot through team sport, whether I was playing, or managing junior rugby teams over many years. I love the ethos around the harvesting of individual skills, ideas and personality differences to create something that’s extremely powerful, whether on the footy field or in business.

Kevin Slaven, CEO of Ovato

“I have been motivated by being part of a very committed team, striving for both individual and collective excellence, something I get every day working at Ovato.”

Meanwhile, Kevin’s longest partnership, and perhaps his greatest teamwork, has been with Anne, his wife of 32 years.

It’s not a bad run, considering Kevin met her on his first day of work and there was a boyfriend in the way.

“I’d moved to Sydney to join Deloitte,” he says. “We were both commerce graduates, she from the University of New South Wales and me from Melbourne University, and we met at graduate induction in January 1984. It took me until November to get rid of her boyfriend. We married three years later and moved with Deloitte to the UK where we stayed a couple of years before returning to Australia. Six 21sts later, and here we are.”

Meanwhile, Kevin’s commitment to the print industry over the past 20 years has more than fulfilled his career aspirations.

In search of a role where he could harness creative talents and convert them into meaningful results, Kevin appreciates his industry, despite its pitfalls, is a gift that keeps on giving.

“It’s evolving as a business that’s going to be extremely relevant to marketing for all retailers,” he explains.

“Instead of being reactive, Ovato is extremely proactive, providing retailers with a multichannel platform to guide them at every step. From the very front end at creation, determining where and what they should put into the market, all the way through to production and delivery, we are measuring the return on market spend and those results help conceive what the next campaign should be. That’s why Ovato is extremely important.”

“It is certainly the power of a team, not the individual, that helps you become a decent leader.”

Kevin’s enthusiasm for an industry, regarded by many as yesterday’s news, is refreshing, if not infectious. Where others see closure, he sees opportunities in change and countless avenues open for exploration.

As far as he’s concerned, print is open for business, and he refuses to accept the industry is going down the tubes. “Not under my watch,” he declares.

“Our vision is clear. We’re building a smarter and more sustainable business by leveraging existing skills and attracting new ones. Building value in the data surrounding everything printed and distributed is a top priority to ensure the right messages are seen by the right people at the right time through the right channels.

“It’s exciting for me as an older guy in my mid-50s to have witnessed throughout my career the face of marketing change and evolve so much. Being at the forefront of it all still gives me energy.”

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