Throughout her career, Officeworks Managing Director Sarah Hunter has often found herself to be the only woman in the executive room. She has also regularly been one of the youngest. She says her success comes down to being true to herself and an authentic leader.
“It’s about being true to who you are,” Sarah comments. “I don’t have to behave like everyone else in the room to say what I want or be who I want to be. Leadership is not authentic if you’re just copying someone else.”
Working in a field dominated by men, she recognises the need to have positive female role models; however, she admits they are few and far between. “There aren’t many of us, so there aren’t many women to look up to.”
Instead, numerous people inspire Sarah. She takes note of the qualities she admires and that helps shape her approach to leadership. “That allows me to be who I am, and that’s important.”
Before her appointment as Managing Director of Officeworks, Sarah held senior management roles within the Wesfarmers Group, including working at Coles for nine years. Growing up as a Coles shopper, she says she felt a sense of nostalgia when she joined the company in 2010. “I wanted to bring value back to the Australian consumer,” she confirms.
“I don’t have to behave like a man. I don’t have to behave like everyone else in the room to say what I want to say or be whom I want to be.”
Over the years at Coles her senior positions included General Manager of Workplace Strategy, State General Manager Victoria, Financial Controller, and General Manager of Finance Coles Express and Coles Liquor. Her most recent position was the Demerger Program Director at Coles, where she oversaw the successful implementation of the demerger of the business from Wesfarmers in 2018.
“It is an amazing brand, a fantastic leadership team and it was a great opportunity to learn a new sector,” she happily recalls. When the opportunity presented itself with Officeworks, Sarah considered not only what the business had to offer her, but just as importantly, what she could offer the business. She asked herself, ‘Is this a company I can do something with? Do I think it’s a growth business?’
“I’m not arrogant enough to think that you should go into these conversations if you don’t think there’s something you can bring to the table,” she says, adding that she wanted to make sure she was in a role that would play to her strengths.
Towards the end of 2018, Sarah’s appointment was announced. She quickly recognised that Officeworks is a business of growth and, after a long track record of financial success, she wanted to capitalise on that. “It was about figuring out what worked well in the past that would continue to work well in the future. But we also had to consider what worked in the past that wouldn’t work in the future. Our customers’ expectations are changing all the time and we need to be across that.
“Ultimately, we’re a people business,” she continues. “We have more than 8,000 team members and it all starts with them, delivering for the customer. It’s about creating experiences that are easy and engaging for customers, however they want to shop, whenever they want to shop.
“To do this, we make sure we offer every channel solutions, which means we don’t think about our stores as separate to online or as separate to our business service team – everything is connected.”
Bringing customers to the forefront is essential for Officeworks, and it has a ripple effect on other areas of the business. “If you run a sustainable company where you are part of the community and you look through the lens of doing the right thing in the right way, research indicates you’ll deliver a better return for shareholders,” Sarah notes.
“If you run a sustainable company … you’ll deliver a better return for shareholders.”
Officeworks particularly prides itself on being a supporter of small businesses and their growth, as well as ensuring its practices are always sustainable. In 2019 the company announced plans to introduce battery recycling at all stores and pen recycling in most stores. This move is in addition to recycling facilities already in place for e-waste, computers and accessories, ink and toner cartridges and mobile phones.
Its existing recycling program, introduced in 2012, has collected more than 10 million ink and toner cartridges and 4,800 tonnes of e-waste so far. Ethically sourced paper is also a priority.
“We sell a lot of paper, and not caring about where that paper comes from and how it was sourced could have an immense impact on the next generation – my children and grandchildren. That’s not a legacy I wish to leave.”
Last year saw positive progress for Officeworks. Highlights included opening its biggest store in Mentone, Victoria, acquiring Geeks2U and launching a new paid parental leave policy, Growing Families. It also reduced its carbon emissions by seven per cent and celebrated its 25th birthday. With the support of its customers, Officeworks has raised A$4.1 million for its national charity partners and local community groups.
Thinking of the future, Sarah wants to look back on her time at Officeworks with pride. She wants to know that the company has “supported the Australian economy to grow, supported Australian businesses to grow and helped Australian students get a better education, done so in a way that leaves the environment in a better place”.
This is always at the back of her mind as she works to sustain and grow profits. In August last year, Officeworks reported an 8% increase in total revenue to A$2.3 billion for the full year to 30 June 2019. The retailer also had a 7.1% increase in earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) to reach A$167 million.
Return on capital increased from 16.6% to 17% as the business invested in products and services to support growth. Sarah notes that many businesses are either online or bricks and mortar, or are sales and relationship based – meaning they are one dimensional.
The ‘every channel’ strategy at Officeworks continues to resonate with customers, delivering strong sales growth both in stores and online. “It means our decision-making is different,” she says. “We’re not pigeonholing customers and saying, ‘You shop with us online, so you get that experience or you shop with us in store, so you get this experience’. That is something that’s quite unusual,” she says.
Part of Officeworks’ success is its ability to think like a small business startup – inviting innovation and perseverance. Sarah says this type of thinking is deeply rooted within the business.
“As big business that is proudly Australian, we continue to bring new things to market.” To illustrate, Sarah adds, “We were in the top 10 most innovative companies in 2019 for the work we’ve done on voice purchasing with Google.”
Since her appointment, Sarah and her leadership team have refreshed new strategies for the long-term growth of the company. She has established four main focus points: continuing growth from core areas such as office supplies, technology products and services; education, including the Back to School period, which is the company’s busiest campaign; small business; and connected customers. “I say connected customer rather than connected home because the boundary between work and home or the office and home is increasingly blurring,” Sarah notes.
When asked what attracted her to the role at Officeworks, Sarah answers, “When I walked around the stores and spent time in the business, I could see the opportunity for growth. I feel privileged to be in a position where there are many opportunities.”
But at the end of the day, Sarah believes that all of this wouldn’t be possible without a healthy workplace culture. “Unless you’ve got the right culture, you can’t achieve anything,” she says. “It’s the most important element to success. Your business can only change, grow and improve as quickly as the culture allows it to.”
“Unless you’ve got the right culture, you can’t achieve anything.”
Sarah’s passion for the role is evident. And she confirms that she loves her work. “It’s not hard for me (to be motivated),” she enthuses. “(It’s about) believing that you can make a positive difference.” On the not-so-good days, Sarah says she talks with her team. “That’s my happy place.”
Alongside her demanding role at Officeworks, Sarah is also a mother of three children. “The reality is, when you walk through the door, it’s about them,” she says. “They don’t see Mummy, CEO. They see Mummy, Mummy. They’re not interested in what’s happening on your phone. They want you to be present,” she says.
“For me, it’s important to be present – when I’m at work and when I’m at home. If you are in the moment and enjoying being in the moment, then you don’t waste energy worrying. That’s important. I can’t do anything about what happened yesterday. I can learn from it, but I can’t change it. I can only change what happens tomorrow. That helps me live in the moment.”
Officeworks was recognised as one of Australia’s most innovative companies in the AFR BOSS Most Innovative Companies List for 2019. Officeworks ranked 10th on the overall list, from more than 1,000 nominated organisations across Australia and New Zealand. The submission was based on a voice assistant pilot program, which enabled customers to shop with the retailer using voice technology.
“I’m thrilled that Officeworks has been acknowledged as a business that fosters a culture of innovation. We’re focused on helping make bigger things happen for our customers and growing our business to meet their needs better as their expectations change,” Sarah said of the win.
“We have a history of innovation and listening to our customers, and being responsive to their needs. This means we’ve always stayed on top in terms of our range and relevance. We put ourselves where we believe they expect us to be, whether that’s online, instore, or with new technologies such as voice.”
When asked what advice she would give to other women in leading positions or those looking to enter leadership roles, Sarah says, “You have to be resilient. But you also have to be true to yourself, and believe in yourself at a level that maybe others don’t.
“If your boss doesn’t appreciate you or the environment you’re in doesn’t understand you, and you feel that you can’t be yourself – leave and find an environment that does. You can’t change it. I know that sounds terrible, but if you’re the lone voice, it’s very tough and takes a huge amount of energy.”
Instead, people need to look out for employers who embrace and welcome self-expression. “It’s about finding the environment where you can be yourself and you are appreciated for being yourself,” she says.
Sarah also says to embrace opportunities when they present themselves; fear of change shouldn’t be something that holds someone back. “I have worked in a variety of sectors and done lots of different roles. If I thought there was a standard career path, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” she says.
“Make the most of opportunities that present themselves and also seek them out. Also, never forget that people are at the heart of everything. Investing in your people and listening is most important.”
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