Leadership Down Under: The British expats of the Australian business world

The UK can be proud that we are a net exporter of talent in retail. Indeed, when we look at some of the world’s largest and most complex retail transformations, the leadership behind them has often been British. No more so than in Australia, where the majority of retailers are led by British expats (with the odd South African thrown in for good measure!). My colleague Sam and I have just returned from a whirlwind trip to Australia where we had the pleasure of meeting several of these British CEOs – and seeing the resoundingly positive results of their labour.

No more so than in the grocery sector, where under Archie Norman’s and current Southeastern Grocers CEO Ian McLeod’s initial leadership – and now with John Durkan at the helm, who joined from Carphone Warehouse and Safeway Stores – Coles is rapidly overtaking traditional market leader Woolworths. When you walk into the Coles head offices, the sense of energy is palpable and the direction is clear to all, much like Sainsbury’s in the early years of Justin King’s leadership. Most importantly, their customer-centric focus is now being translated into stores, with no better example than the new concept store in Melbourne’s Coburg North suburb, which has nearly half of its floor space dedicated to fresh produce and outstanding store design and aesthetic. In the UK, we can learn a lot from them – and certainly, Coles is doing everything it can to ensure it is prepared for Aldi’s continued onslaught into the market – and for Lidl’s forthcoming entry.

Coles is not alone in its success story. Under former B&Q MD Ian Morrice’s leadership at wholesale and liquor business MetCash, sales revenue has grown over 5% since 2013, with a significantly enhanced package of operational initiatives, and products centered around customer requirements (and especially, increased enhancement of the fresh offer). The latest addition to the expat leadership community in Australia is John Dixon, former head of M&S general merchandise, who is set to write the next chapter in department store David Jones’ future. These moves don’t come as a surprise; as Simon Susman, chairman of David Jones and Country Road owner Woolworths South Africa, told us: ‘At David Jones and Country Road, we are particularly proud of our home-grown, local talent – and create exceptional leadership teams by complementing them together with selective overseas talent where required… our ability to move talent from region to region strengthens both the organisation and the individuals within it’.

Coles’ concept store in Coburg North has nearly half of its floorspace dedicated to fresh produce

However, slightly more below the radar to us in the UK, there are a number of authentically Australian-led retailers who are making the leap onto the global stage. The Cotton On Group impressed us in particular as a retailer that has grown to over 1,300 stores – and is quietly colonising markets from South Africa through to Singapore with its on-trend, accessible approach to fast-fashion – all driven by a largely home-grown Australian leadership team. The brand has real soul and authenticity – and we expect to see them gaining a substantive high-street presence globally in years to come.

Cotton On isn’t the only Australian brand moving into the international arena. Jeweller Michael Hill is steadily rolling out across Canada and the US with an exceptionally high quality, design-led product. Similarly, luxury cosmetics brands Aesop and Jurlique are making their mark globally with their different take on naturally inspired, botanically-focused brands that emphasise the experience as much as the products.

‘At David Jones and Country Road, we are particularly proud of our home-grown, local talent – and create exceptional leadership teams by complementing them together with selective overseas talent where required… Our ability to move talent from region to region – and in particular to go on to lead divisions within the Group – strengthens both the organisation and the individuals within it.’ – Simon Susman, Chairman of Woolworths South Africa

Likewise, in leisure, Australian brands such as Village Cinemas, Ardent Leisure and Crown Resorts all have well-established and growing international businesses. They have a particular focus on expanding stateside and into Asia. No doubt Australia’s role as a global tourism destination has made its leaders in the leisure division well-equipped to step into new markets across the world.

For too long, we have seen Australia as a net recipient of talent, rather than a market that we can learn from. With the upcoming arrival of Bunnings in the UK, I wouldn’t be surprised if we continue to see more retailers out of the Southern Hemisphere showing up on our high streets in the very near future. Next time you’re passing that side of the world, it is certainly worth spending more than a few days absorbing the retail and leisure scene – you will be impressed!