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Alex Birrell - Heads over Heels about Business

04 May 2015

Dr Alex Birrell

Paftec manufactures and exports - to 20 countries around the world - powered respirators for personal protection from airborne hazards. Think: asbestos fibres, dusts, poisonous gases, the Ebola virus. In English, the breathy sound of the plosive consonants in the Australian company’s name reminds you - in an onomatopoeic sort of way - about the territory it wants to own.

Dr Alex Birrell (above), who joined as Paftec’s COO in 2011 and is now CEO, is quick to note that the company is in the midst of an intense period of development and growth and that can be “very time consuming”.

Alex, who is one of our Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence, joined Paftec only 18 months after the founding two engineers (both of who had worked for Australian medical equipment manufacturer Resmed) had decided there was an opportunity to design, produce and supply a better, certified personal respiratory protection device than those currently on the market. Her decision placed her in a male-dominated industry in a technology start-up. It’s still an unusual spot to find a woman in a leadership role.

When we meet, amid the noise and fragrant smells of a city coffee joint, she lets drop that the growth stages of a company’s life is what she loves being involved in, but that comes with its own challenges.

“In fact,” says Alex, by way of explanation, “lately, I’ve been very transactional with many of my deep long-term relationships, and I do find myself apologising for that – hoping people will forgive me and that I have  enough ‘credit’ with them to last through this very intense period. I try and provide an insight into what I’m doing so they’ll understand, and I make efforts (albeit small) to connect as much as I can.”

Her experience is all too familiar to many men and women in leadership roles.

Before her role with Paftec, Alex worked with ATP Innovations, a business which expressly states that it “doesn’t just incubate growth but multiplies successes and helps transform technology businesses into high value companies” and before that at PricewaterhouseCoopers in private client practice which focused on growth businesses.

That “build for purpose” passion in Alex has a long history, stretching back to a childhood obsessions of Lego and “that clay you moulded and fired in the oven”. She is also one of five founders of Heads over Heels, a not-for-profit initiative aimed at helping women build high-growth businesses.

Heads over Heels, Alex explains, doesn’t advise or mentor or set up boards or find finances. All it does is ‘connections’.

“When I was at ATP Innovations,” explains Alex, “I would be speaking to 100 companies and there’d be just one woman in the mix. I couldn’t understand it… if there were no hurdles to starting your own business and 50 percent of businesses were being started by women then where were all the women?”

When it comes to the way women operate, she and her four cohorts have identified that while women may be great networkers they were missing in the space that counted.

Says Alex: “If you think about a growth business, it needs money, a board, structures and plans in place. You might be small but you need to think big and you need to act big and to do that successfully you need money and contacts and to ask questions. Many women don’t have the contacts, the networks, into that more sophisticated business area.

“Heads over Heels decided to build a tight membership base of connectors. These are business leaders with the quality networks that connect CEO’s where needed - to the CTO of Telstra, for example. Our connectors are engaged and inspired by entrepreneurs challenging traditional business models.”

And on the other side: Heads over Heels identifies and screens female CEOs who are leading businesses that are scalable and ready to scale up. The business has to demonstrate it has revenue and customers. The CEOs have to be fully committed, and, ideally the company has a board (one critical success factor for high growth businesses).

Having a board shows on the part of the entrepreneur, a willingness to engage and be collaborative with advisors, says Alex. Boards also help mitigate early stage risk and provide transparency, discipline and accountability: “reduces chasing butterflies and maintains focus”

Heads over Heels runs three events a year, bringing in three CEOs each time. The events run for about two hours. Each CEO pitches her business and must ask the connectors in the room for specific connections, explaining why they want them and how they see them as important to progressing the business.

“We have around 250 super connectors and every event is oversubscribed,” says Alex, who, having put the time with her cohorts into getting the presenting CEOs pitch perfect, can confidently say that each CEO at the end of the night always has a full “dance card” of  targeted contacts.

Over the years, in her role, as business screener and coach, Alex has learned about that power of asking: “Clarity and the courage are two characteristics we coach our CEO’s on: We work with them to build a clear and simple picture of their business, identify the activities for near and medium term growth, and then to ask our connectors for the specific connections they need to deliver. It’s a rigorous discipline and works every time.”

But don’t, counsels Alex, ask for something vague and general. Well-connected people won’t put their hand up when an ‘ask’ is not concise.

“As a business owner you need to come in and say, for example: ‘I know you’ve worked with these three top PRs. I want to meet them and this is why I think they can help me do what I need to get my business to the next level’.

“That is a much more attainable, discreet task, and one people are more likely to take on.

Alex has found that connections may provide the feedback businesses need to “fail fast”. A good company can use negative feedback from customers/suppliers to pivot the model or park the idea away all together and pursue something else. Fast failure, she says, is early and quick learning – it pushes entrepreneurs to be successful.

As the interview draws to a close Alex touches on the impact of her Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence award. Day to day, she doesn’t register significant change, but she does feel some sort of “responsibility”.

She feels the recognition has brought with acknowledgement and the ability to influence in and outside the sphere in which she operates. No question, the Award, has been a defining force for her to access new networks in business as well as other sectors: “That access has been enormously powerful, providing a great personal branding. The sort of branding that has its own cut through which is a gift in my current role where success for the business means more people’s lives are healthier.”



  • Fabian Dattner

    Fabian Dattner 5 years ago

    Interesting to see a clever, well recognised leader also see the culmination of their work as the lives of the people they influence/touch/help being better. In the last 4 years, I have asked over 450 women what they believe the real purpose of their working life is and the consistent answers include: to make the world better, to make the lives of the people we serve better, to help where I can, to make a difference. I have asked almost as many men and the answers are often around achieving what I can, seeing an idea to fruition, supporting my family, creating the lifestyle I want. Nothing wrong with these answers but it leads me to wondering who do we need in significant leadership roles, right now, most. Thoughts?