Bakers Delight co-founder Lesley Gillespie on leadership, family and getting a degree

When it comes to education opportunities that create good leaders, co-founder of Bakers Delight Lesley Gillespie says “anything that opens up your mind” is a good thing for your business acumen. 

“You’ll always hear about the Mark Zuckerbergs and Steve Jobs that dropped out [of uni], but nobody ever talks about the ones that finished their degrees,” Gillespie says.

Speaking to SmartCompany this week about her involvement in the Monash University’s Global Leaders Summit, Gillespie says her own undergraduate degree in science and a diploma of education from the university were incredibly valuable to her in starting Bakers Delight, despite not being directly related to the business. 

“I think one thing is doing a degree requires a bit of work ethic, and requires resilience and discipline. It set me up for starting a business,” she says.

Gillespie co-founded Bakers Delight with her husband Roger Gillespie and the business now operates more than 700 bakeries in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US, the vast majority of which are franchised. 

The Gillespies recently handed the chief executive reigns of their $614 million business over to their daughter and son-in-law, Elise Gillespie and David Christie, in a move Lesley Gillespie says was made after the pair “earned their stripes” over a number of years.

Having been in conversations with students and the university about leadership in the current business climate, here’s three takeaways from one of the nation’s most prominent retail entrepreneurs about what’s truly important for running a successful business. 

Read more: “She’s the delight and I’m the baker” — Roger and Lesley Gillespie’s entrepreneurial love story

The value of new connections

One of the drawcards of this week’s Monash conference was the opportunity it gave Gillespie to meet people, including other alumni from the university. 

“I thought I’d come here and meet people I wouldn’t usually in my everyday life,” she says.

“From people who graduated in 2010 to me, in the 1970s.”

She says the nature of business is that often you get “bound up” with your other responsibilities, but forming new relationships with people outside your circle is incredibly important.

“It’s important because it’s not only fun, but because you meet people, you make connections, and you meet people who you might be able to benefit and benefit you,” she says.

The importance of asking and doing

“On Monday, I gave a talk and was on a panel about being ‘career-ready’,” Gillespie says.

One student put her hand up with a direct request.

“One young lass, she said, ‘I would really like a job at one of your Bakers Delight stores’,” she says.

Gillespie says she doesn’t see nearly enough young people putting themselves forward to get what they want like this, but appreciated the approach. She says she was happy to be able to do something tangible to help, rather than just discuss leadership.

“I’ve passed her name on,” Gillespie says.

Day to day, Gillespie says her approach to tasks is about towards knowing “that I’ve done as much as I possibly can without being stupid,” and says tackling the most urgent tasks first is a big priority.

She says seeing the franchise network and individual business owners grow has been hands down the most enjoyable part of building the Bakers Delight business. She has a strong focus on how others develop, and says the team around her is so strong that if she wasn’t involved, “they’d miss me a bit” but would be able to carry on.

Family leadership lessons

The Gillespies may have passed chief executive responsibilities on to the next generation, but Lesley says emphatically this has not been an automatic process.

“It wasn’t cold turkey, like, ‘you’ve been fluffing around travelling and now you’ll be CEO’,” she explains.

Instead, Elise Gillespie and husband David Christie have previously told SmartCompany they learned the tools of the trade over several years.

And Lesley Gillespie says the transition is an ongoing conversation.

“We formalised meetings every week, with the four of us. Our son leads up the Canada team, and we would have a monthly meeting with him,” she says. 

Gillespie is clear in prioritising work ethic and discipline as key elements of a successful business person, and when it came to finding new chief executives, her family had proved themselves, she says.

“They all showed commitment, talent and ability,” she says. 

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