Cosmetic entrepreneur’s cancer plan

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Gillian Franklin took her company Heat Group to revenue of $75 million in just seven years – but her recent diagnosis with cancer could present her biggest challenge. She talks about how she will manage her business and her illness to AMANDA GOME.

By Amanda Gome

Gillian Franklin Heat Group

Gillian Franklin took her company Heat Group to revenue of $75 million in just seven years – but her recent diagnosis with cancer could present her biggest challenge. She talks about how she will manage her illness and her business.

In 2000 Gillian Franklin set up the cosmetic distribution company Heat Group. Her aim was to distribute and market brands that would appeal to women who were becoming more confident and wanting to feel good for themselves, not for others. 

In just seven years, revenue grew to $75 million, and brands include CoverGirl, Max Factor, Bourjois, Red Earth, Elite and Ulta3.

In November last year Gillian was told she had breast cancer. While many in the business community were shocked and saddened, she characteristically had a different perspective.

Wednesday last week (23 January) she held a function on the 19th floor of PricewaterhouseCoopers in Melbourne, and in front of a room full of corporate associates, friends and family gave a remarkable account of her journey so far… and told everyone that she was about to lose all her hair. With their help she has raised $15,000 for the Breast Cancer Network Australia.

Gillian tells Amanda Gome that she has approached breast cancer with the same strategy with which she has grown her business – with planning, resilience, courage and a sense of humour.

Gillian is happy to answer your questions. Email [email protected] (see one reader’s comments below).


Amanda Gome: You were diagnosed with breast cancer in November. What did you do first?

Gillian Franklin: I had a very close friend who was a doctor. She had cancer and for two years I was her supporter. I rang her and she came over with champagne, chocolates and a kit from the Breast Cancer Network Australia. She told me this is all you need. I was so impressed with the kit and I decided I would have a cocktail party and raise money for them before I lost my hair. I did know about BCNA because when I was on the board of the Grand Prix we had sponsored the organisation and I was very impressed with it.

You must have felt very scared.

No. I never thought that my life was at risk. I immediately thought about what medical support am I going to get so I can get through this quickly. I am always totally focused on solutions, so rather than thinking I want less personal time or less work time, I thought how do I do this so it’s part of my life?

So you decided to include the management of cancer in your life – not plan your life around its management.

Yes. I got a medical team that didn’t patronise me. They didn’t tell me I had to change. They asked me “what’s your goal?” I told them my goal was minimum distraction to my life and they listened and began to work with me.

So then what did you do?

I began to plan. I was able to schedule later medical appointments at 5.30 to 7.30 after work. I also had a great oncologist who game me a concoction of tablets so that I had no illness after my first chemotherapy treatment. I was taking 15 pills a day and so was able to go straight back to work after chemo.

I picked the locations for the radiotherapy so that it suited my lifestyle and work. I had also planned to have radiotherapy in the morning after the school drop-offs. But I was told I might need a power nap for an hour after the treatment, so I rescheduled those for 4.00 in the afternoon, and thought I would work later.

How did you tell staff?

We have a monthly meeting, so as part of the meeting in November after I did the business presentation, I presented a PowerPoint called “Gillian’s Plan”. I told them I had been diagnosed with breast cancer and that it was on my left side and it hadn’t spread. I told them that this was my plan of action. I told them who my medical team was and what we had planned. I told them what I required from them to support me so there was no impact on the business, and I told them the good things I had learnt so far.

The good things?

The good things are the net savings I will make on not having to spent time and money on my hair for six months. My hair will always look perfect with a wig. That could save me as much as $700 and I am going to go out and buy a fantastic pair of shoes and call them my cancer shoes.

I also told my staff what they could do to help.

And what was that?

I told them I didn’t want to hear their cancer stories. Imagine hearing 10 a day! I told them to focus on their KPIs and deliver the budget. I said don’t assume anything about my health and don’t tip toe round me. Let me take the lead and I will send out regular communications and keep you informed. I told them to stay positive and focused and if they wanted to communicate to send emails and notes.

Have they been able to do that?

Yes. They have been wonderful. I can’t believe what people have written to me telling me I am inspiring and motivating. I have kept all their notes.

How did your shareholders respond? (Shareholders include Geoff Morgan and Carol Schwartz.)

They were amazing. They have just been very concerned for me but never asked about the impact on the business. They know me and just assumed I would handle it. They asked what they could do to help, and sent me flowers and chocolates and books, and called all the time.

How about your family?

One of the things I learnt the most is how amazing my children are. Imagine a mum sitting down to tell her three daughters she has breast cancer. Sam (who is 16) cried at first but then she and Ashleigh (20) and Nicole (18) asked me what we could all do to help me get over it. They were so amazing and supportive and strong. Wayne my husband responded the way that I knew he would. He is such a solid rock.

You are very resilient.

I have had a number of things happen to me which were very challenging and character building. My brother was murdered in South Africa. Then recently my mother came to Australia. I had waited so long for her to join us and I was so excited and thrilled that my girls would get to know their grandparents. But she died within a week of arriving here. I think these things can build your resilience.

I tell my kids too bad you are walking home in the rain with heavy school bags. Parents who wrap their children in cotton wool can make a major mistake.

So business as usual. You were talking about floating your company…

It is still too early for a float. I have always said I will give shareholders a return, but maybe it will be private equity or a sale or a merger. But the more I look at public companies the less I want to go public. There is onerous reporting and the company can get very caught up in external events – look what’s happening at the moment to the sharemarket – that are very distracting for the business.

So what is your goal?

It is a market share game so we have to grow faster than our competitors. There is no point growing at 10% a year if our competitors are growing at 11%.

We are very busy with our six brands and making sure they all achieve growth.



Janine from the Aussie Breast Cancer Forum writes: Hi Gillian, I am very sorry to hear that you have breast cancer. I have to say it is wonderful to read your story. Your perspective and attitude are inspirational. I also have breast cancer and I am the adminsitrator of the Aussie Breast Cancer Forum which was set up to help Aussie (and Kiwi) women with breast cancer to communicate with each other, share experiences, information, etc. Unfortunately, many of our members are struggling and so I wish there was a way to help them gain a little strength and control over their situation – to think a little more like you do. Thank you for sharing. All the best with your treatment and beyond. I hope you breeze through it.

Christie Nicholas at Moose Enterprise writes: I read your interview in SmartCompany. It was a real shock to hear your news, but very inspiring to read your attitude. Having worked with you for a brief time at the Heat Group many, many years ago, I am sure it will only be a minimal amount of time before you overcome your next hurdle to reach even greater heights. A lot of business women out there are counting on you to show them how it is done!

Catherine Cervasio from Aluxe writes: I have just read your interview and passed it to several colleagues, including male – all of whom I know will be inspired by your courage, strength and “matter of fact” strategy to dealing with your current challenge. What a woman! Personally I found your comments very inspirational.

Janet Metcalf at CPA Australia writes: Just a quick email to say good on you for getting on with things while you are sick. I have had cancer since May, and I now only have one-and-a-half weeks to go with radiotherapy (having completed chemo at the end of October). I have continued to work fulltime as much as possible throughout my entire illness, and I appreciate just how hard it is for you to do likewise. All the best with your treatment, and I wish you the best of health going forward.


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