He labels himself as sector agnostic, but he admits that his career path has been “quite a colourful journey”. Through it all, though, is a common thread of people and relationships. Sheldon Upton started his career in the steel sector in South Africa, moving through the sales stream into general management roles.
He was attracted to Australia by BlueScope Steel, then moved into the resources and industrials sector. Along the way, he completed his MBA and other qualifications. Then, one day, he took a phone call that started his venture into the private equity world.
“Three years ago I got a call from an executive recruiter in Sydney who said they had a CEO role in a private equity asset that supplied products to the energy sector,” Sheldon recalls. “I remember thinking what I know about electricity utilities is dangerous, but that challenge enticed me even more.”
He took up the opportunity and joined Acculec as CEO, embarking on a reformation program to modernise and reinvigorate the company. When Sheldon first arrived at Acculec, he found a team of individuals who were talented, but somewhat “disjointed”.
“They were clearly highly capable, but not operating as a united team,” he concluded. That had to change. “What I’ve found is one of the biggest constraints to growth is internal individuals’ mindsets and an external individual’s perceptions of the business. If you have employees with a constrained paradigm of thinking, that’s what they project. The external perception of the business is then exactly the same. So we had to lift the lid off and completely shift the paradigms internally and externally. We got external executive coaching implemented for the management team to reinforce that this business could be anything we dreamed it to be.
“If you have employees with a constrained paradigm of thinking, that’s what they project. The external perception of the business is then exactly the same.”
“What that gave us is a real medium- and long-term view. We completely rebranded. We had a couple of strategic staff movements – promotions and some exits – then started building from a foundation of good strategy, a better understanding of our macro and micro environments, and the right structure to drive that strategy.”
Sheldon then turned to what he considers the central tenet of doing business well – collaboration between people. “You need a solid understanding of everything, from operations to proper business development and marketing, effective strategy formation and execution, mergers and acquisitions, and so on. But the real rubber on the road is the strength of relationships, internally and externally, and how you develop those relationships,” he points out.
Acculec’s relationship with suppliers was another area of the business he reimagined. Among Acculec’s supply relationships, US manufacturing company Hubbell figures prominently, but dealings between the companies had become fragmentary, so Sheldon sought a solution.
“Part of lifting the veil was getting stakeholders to understand that transparency and mutually beneficial outcomes are real positives. I was doing regular trips to the US and Hubbell was doing regular trips out here just to spend quality face-to-face time. We’ve had tremendous support from Hubbell. We set about jointly developing innovative products, especially to mitigate bushfire risk,” he explains.
“We’ve had tremendous support from Hubbell.”
Sheldon constantly works on team relationships, and the results lie at the centre of his love of doing business. “I am extremely proud of the relationships I’ve seen being forged inside the business. I think about our team – how it’s developed, how it’s grown collectively, and the bonds that are cemented between individuals.
“When you’re in challenging market environments, which we certainly are – we’ve seen a couple of our competitors exit the Australian market recently because of it – success will come from building high-performing teams. You need to create that feeling of ‘we’re in the trenches together’.
“I encourage our chairman to undertake 360-degree feedback sessions every year, and there are a lot of different views expressed in those conversations. But it gives me a valuable insight into how successful those relationships are. I’m less concerned about ‘Sheldon’s a hard driver’ or ‘Sheldon’s a caring guy’, and more concerned about how attached people are to one another inside the business.”
Team spirit grows organically through leaders who acknowledge the importance of two key elements – language and behaviour, he says.
“I think it’s about tone setting, about setting examples. It’s very much about being human. I’ve forged strong bonds and friendships with the people in this business, but relationship building is not one size fits all. Leadership is about merging people, leaders and situations into any given point of time, and requires fluidity. But, fundamentally, it comes back to relationships – particularly trust and respect.”
“I think it’s about tone setting; about setting examples. It’s very much about being human.”
Sheldon attributes this attitude to his long-time mentor and friend, Jeff Jarratt. One piece of advice from Jeff has always stuck with him – “We see things how we are, not how they are.”
“It’s really important how we view the world – to actually understand it’s all about emotional intelligence and your mind frame right now. Am I seeing what’s going on for what it is, or what’s going on for what I am?”
Sheldon has built a network of close colleagues inside the business, but he also has a tight family and friendship network outside that provides a counterbalance when he steps out of the office.
That is, he suggests, as important as career and business development for a genuinely rounded professional person. “Both our personal lives and career lives should enrich us.”
This even reaches into his penchant for mentoring young and aspiring executives. It’s about giving back, he says. “We develop valuable skills during our careers. Well, let’s use those skills to help others get ahead.
“I take immense pride in mentoring people and contributing to their careers and personal lives. I’d like to put more time into developing, mentoring and coaching others. It’s a really important part of our story.”
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