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Top paid female executive on growing a business
10 July 2015
Maxine Horne (above) is Vita Group’s co-founder and CEO. Initially founded as Fone Zone just over 20 years ago, the Brisbane-based Vita Group has around 170 points of presence nationally.
A company that differentiated itself early on from its competitors by building itself on customer service rather than volume and price, Vita Group’s continuing success has put its CEO on BRW magazine’s Top 100 Executive Rich List for the first time this year.
Maxine, who is also writing a book on the “lessons I’ve learned in business and leadership through the mistakes I’ve made”, was in Sydney recently to speak with her publisher. Ruby took the opportunity to catch up with her and discuss what it takes to start your own business and grow it.
“Think of the hardest thing you’ve done and multiply it by 10,” explains Maxine of starting out in business.
“You also have to have a propensity toward risk, be tenacious and be willing to surround yourself with experts, people who have more and different skills to you,” she continues.
“When we began it took us three to four years before we brought on someone to focus on the business financials. I think if we’d done that earlier we would not have made some of the mistakes we made.
Maxine Horne was born in Wales. Working class, she was brought up by her grandparents predominantly and remembers being quizzed by her grandfather about when she would be getting a job: “I was nine. My grandfather had a huge work ethic. When I was 12 I lied and said I was 14 to get my first job. It was in a hair dressing salon sweeping up hair. I also worked in a corner shop, did some baby sitting and delivered pamphlets. I realised very early that if I wanted something I had to work for it.”
In fact, as a young girl, Maxine was driven to work for socks: red versus white socks.
“The school uniform was grey and red and students could wear red or white socks. Red didn’t show the dirt as much but every other girl in the school wore white socks. If I wanted white socks I had to earn the money myself to buy them.”
It goes without saying that socks aren’t what have kept her interested. On holidays she’s not the sort to lie still on a beach. Yoga, especially that final 15 minutes, stresses her out. She’s a goal setter in everything - her personal, family, social, health, work life – and she firmly believes no one works just for money.
“Money is a hygiene factor. As long as there is enough to live on it’s not going to become an issue. It’s only when there’s not enough to live on that it becomes an issue.
“The three things that keep people engaged at work and in life are purpose, mastery and autonomy. Purpose is what someone is trying to achieve. Mastery is about getting better in the process. Autonomy is having the freedom to use the skills they have and are learning.”
Maxine’s experience of business has been to strive to get better. In the doing of that her business got bigger as it got better and with that choice came others, including the realisation that if she wanted a life and success in business she had to learn to give away control.
“Having 40 people reporting to you – no one wins in that situation. If you want to remain in control and the kingpin then your business will remain smaller or you forgo having a life and build a rod for your own back.”
She continues, “no matter what size your business is you have to think about strategy, structure, people, systems, processes.”
Thinking about these five key words and the order in which they must be tackled, Maxine gives the example of a business deciding to double in size.
Firstly, there must be a plan on how you are going to achieve that goal.
Following that, you need to look at your existing structure and decide how that structure will enact the strategy: what new or reshaped resources, etc. will you need?
People are the next consideration, along with where they will go in the structure: what are the skills that are needed, what is their will (willingness to achieve), do they fit the organisation’s values and goals, what new hires, for example, may be needed?
If the people and the organisation are to operate effectively and grow to the goal of the strategy, you then need to tackle the systems: are the correct systems in place to support your people to do their jobs?
Finally, the processes that surround the systems and support their operation must be assessed and modified if necessary.
She has seen businesses that have circumvented strategy and structures, and gone straight to the people part of the process – for example, hiring family and friends.
What happens, she asks, when it’s time to have the hard conversation - because perhaps your brother who is head of operations is not doing what you need him to do? Do you have the conversation or move him? The answer is usually the latter and now that person is in a new job and the structure, further modified without thought for how it fits with the strategy, begins to buckle.
According to Maxine, messing with the process - not beginning with the strategy and working through structure, people, systems, processes – can cause problems.
Vita Group is a provider of mobile telephony, telecommunication and technology solutions and goods through retail outlets, small business and an enterprise channel. The organisation employs around 1700 people and has evolved, like the industry itself, from selling mobile phones to dealing in a plethora of technology projects as well as the professional, managed services that wrap around these.
“It’s tough and there have been tough times,” says Maxine, who doesn’t believe she is in the phone business but the people business.
“I engage, lead and provide people with purpose,” she says, “and as a leader you must never underestimate the shadow you cast”.
“People don’t notice what you say but what you do. If there are tough times, take the emotion out, and put on the game face. It’s important to understand the impact you have as a leader. And you have to be tenacious. There’s always a way to do things.”