Influencers & Profiles

No room for failure: How Chris Burns created KeyInvest

Yolanda Redrup /

Name: Chris Burns

Company: KeyInvest

Location: Adelaide, South Australia

For Chris Burns, failure wasn’t an option. He always knew he’d be a successful entrepreneur, because in his mind there was no other option.

A single dad of four Burns had been working as a manager at Citibank, when in 1998 he decided to launch his own financial and retirement services business,  KeyInvest. The business specialises in lending, investment bonds, retirement living and insurance services.

Burns decided to start his own business as a personal challenge.

“I loved the banking industry, but for me it was about striving to build something for myself based on my experiences. I wanted to build a corporate family. I knew we’d be successful, but I needed some key people to come along and build the culture,” he says.

To get the business off to a good start, Burns poached three men he knew would be a good fit for the company.

“For me it comes down to people from stable backgrounds. All three of these gentlemen had stable relationships and professional lives, had outstanding reputations and all had completely different skill sets to my own,” he says.

“Two of these men are still working with me and the other sadly passed away seven years ago.”

The business is now turning over $10 million and has 70 employees. Burns says he always imagined it would be this successful.

“I had some grandiose ideas and while it’s gone in different directions from when we started, I always knew it would be a sizeable, profitable business,” he says.

Burns talked to SmartCompany about how to retain staff, surviving the GFC and balancing the responsibilities of a father and business owner.

Mornings

Burns starts his day with a morning run or gym session, before getting his kids ready for the day.

“After exercising I come home and get the kids ready for school or university and then I head to the office.

“My first job when I start work is either being on the phone or in meetings galore. It’s pretty hectic,” he says.

Daily life

When Burns first started the business he worked with the three men he hired to bring in clients, but after a few years he realised he needed to stop working as heavily in the company and work on the business instead.

“It took a few years to really, really get it. To work on the business strategically you need to take three or four steps backwards and take yourself out of the company from an operational point of view, so it took a few years for me to see that was the best option for the business,” he says.

“Since then my job has been to work strategically on the business. There are times of highs and lows… so you need to make sure you’ve got strategies in place to address these times. We’ve been through the GFC and seen the sector go from very few regulations to many regulations, so you need to plan early rather than just being reactive.”

Now all the mortgage brokers working for KeyInvest manage their own client base and bring in their own business, rather than Burns being responsible for finding new business.

“We have strategic marketing tactics where we provide our brokers and sales staff with the tools for them to be able to market our products. So our place is to build the right tools for our staff,” he says.

One of the most important lessons Burns learnt early on was to ensure his interests were aligned with those of the staff.

“They don’t need to align their interests to me, because without them we won’t make money. Initially when you start a business you want everyone to take your line, but I learnt pretty early in the piece that’s not the right approach,” he says.

“The other lesson I learnt is that staff are numbers one, two and three when it comes to priorities. Without these people, you don’t have a sustainable business.”

Burns places high importance on company culture and building a positive working environment, so much so that KeyInvest has a current average staff retention rate of 10 years.

“We do lots of activities and we’re all friends both inside and outside of work. We do dinners, social things and have events all throughout the year,” he says.

“I find we do about five to six times more activities than any other company.”

Burns thinks the importance he places on culture comes back to his time as an employee of Citibank.

“There was an attitude of work hard, play hard,” he says.

“I also run a sales incentive program where there are five different categories, so it’s not all just for the best salespeople. We take the winners and their partners on holidays. We’ve taken them to Phuket, Hong Kong and Bali.”

Burns says the program works as an incentive and gets at least 80% of sales staff involved. The decision to have a variety of awards was a conscious effort to ensure more than just the best salespeople would be rewarded for their efforts.

“When I worked for Citibank I was lucky to win awards and we went all over the world, but it was only the best who were awarded. There were many people who worked very hard and maybe just didn’t have the same ability,” he says.

“You should reward people who take extra steps from where they ordinarily are and we’ve focused on that heavily from the day we’ve launched.”

To ensure he finds the right cultural fits for KeyInvest, Burns interviews every job applicant at least once.

“I’m always involved in the first interview and then someone else conducts the second interview. Outside of the skill level I look for cultural fit. If they’re not a cultural fit, we just don’t proceed, regardless of technical ability,” he says.

One of the more challenging times for the business was when the GFC struck, but Burns realised he had to change his mindset to move past it.

“We were having great time, but they weren’t normal times. The GFC made things more of a level playing field and now this is the new normal,” he says.

“The environment prior to the GFC was extraordinary, but this is the new level platform and you have to build your business from here. It’s about forgetting the past and moving forward in the new environment.”

Since starting the business in 1998, Burns’ proudest moments have been seeing employees win industry awards.

“Seeing people obtain industry recognition is always a proud moment. Often they’re people I’ve mentored for 14 years and they’re moments you just can’t put a dollar figure on because you see that you’ve had a positive impact on someone’s life.

“Other proud moments are when we get deals over the line. It could be something we’ve been working on for nine months and then the hard work pays off.”

Leisure time

As a father of four and business owner Burns doesn’t have much spare time, but when he does he plays soccer and enjoys going out for dinner.

“I have a healthy social life as well. There’s never a moment when I’m not doing something, but I’m the type of person who works best when I’m really busy,” he says.

“I’m like a machine when I’m super busy and then when I’m not busy I feel like I’m slacking off. When I’m under pressure I do my best work.”

Future

In the next five years Burns intends to grow KeyInvest’s loan book from $2.5 billion to $4 billion.

“It’s a pretty hefty goal, but something I think we can achieve. Our other goal is to maintain the staff retention rate. When you have business stability everything tends to sail a lot better,” he says.

Burns recommends other entrepreneurs adopt a similar approach to business as his own, and simply not see failure as an option.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen failure as a possibility. I did a challenge a few years ago and ran 52 kilometres up hills – four kilometres before the finish line I got a cramp and I couldn’t walk, but I finished anyway because all I could focus on was my kids thinking I’d failed,” he says.

“I work 100 miles an hour and you just have to believe in what you’re doing. If that means you have to work more hours to get it done or seek advice, that’s what you do. So many people get so far and so close, but just give up.”

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