Ask most people and they will say the possibility of exposure to losses, hazards or failures is a characteristic often associated with small, start-up enterprises, not those who have built a global presence.
Julie Christy dispels that perception. As group executive, product and business innovation, for Cotton On Group, she told Entrepreneurs Geelong’s most recent breakfast seminar that risk in business does not disappear with size. If anything it can seem larger. But the trick is to learn from hazards or failures.
Ms Christy is one of 20,000 people who work for Australia’s largest fashion group which in 25 years has established a network of 1400 stores in 18 countries. When she joined Geelong-headquartered Cotton On in 2003 it had just one brand and 34 stores in Australia. Since then she has played a critical role in the expansion of the business, spearheading the launch of Cotton On BODY, Rubi and Typo, three of the eight brands for which the Group is known.
Presenting an intrapreneur’s perspective to Entrepreneurs Geelong, the former Gordon Institute fashion designer told the audience of more than 70 people she had to consult a dictionary to determine what an intrapreneur was.
Behind that label her expertise in product, product differentiation, brand identity and production management is integral to her role.
Cotton On’s website says “ she uses her intimate knowledge of each brand’s DNA to support brand teams in delivering products that are not only true to the spirit of their brand and the Cotton On Group ethos, but also progressive and exciting for their customer.”
Drawing on an extensive career she outlines some of the lessons she had learned both in and about her “intrapreneurial role” at Cotton On.
Arguably the most important of these lessons is “if the organisation scales up, the intrapreneur needs to recognise their own skills, instead of trying to do everything.”
She says in the drive to become a global brand one of the big challenges is the expectation that everyone on a team can keep up. An initial lack of success with a Cotton On brand in one country had Ms Christy believe this was the result of not having developed her people. Relaunched in a different way, the brand is now off and running.
“If you learn from such an example, then it is not a failure,” she said.
Ms Christy dispels the myth of risk only being associated with small enterprises, citing an adage that entrepreneurs in any organisation might consider: to go fast, go alone, to go far, go together.
But, at a personal level she cautions “I can still feel isolated because I network, rather than have a team (around me).”
Among the challenges the intrapreneur faces in larger organisations is the need to remain nimble while potentially losing that agility as a consequence of having to manage stakeholder engagement.
“This can lead to risk aversion,” she said.
She also notes the personal challenges stemming from having to ensure each brand is running well. Initially, to build each brand, Cotton On ran its business by function.
“This proved very stressful until the introduction of general managers for each brand,” Ms Christy said.
She shares the belief of Virgin’s Richard Branston that staff come before customers in developing successful businesses. So, while the sign on her door reads “The Department of New Ideas” it’s not slick labelling but rather aimed at having Cotton On staff come forward with ideas that can be explored.
“Creative leadership fosters innovation. I am keen to grow our staff because they are the key to corporate success,” she said.
Asked if she identified any shortcomings in her own career development, one word might sum up Ms Christy’s response. Communication.
“It is essential to communicate well to understand the needs of customers. I wish I had been more articulate.”
As someone born and raised in Geelong, Ms Christy is a vocal advocate for the city being seen as an environment for creative thinking.
“People forget that the ute, the Hills Hoist and the refrigerator are among the innovations which were born in Geelong. Geelong needs to become known as a start-up city,” she said.