Why Peter Cleary keeps culture first

Peter Cleary is the managing director of Zinc, a brand promotion, design and marketing business which has worked with some of the country’s biggest brands, including Coles and Nissan.

The company is one of the fastest growing SMEs in the market, and is turning over revenue of at least $14 million.

But Cleary says he didn’t start the business the usual way – he wanted to create a place where he would love working. Everything else followed. He spoke to SmartCompany about starting a business with culture in mind first:

I was working previously in a listed company. I learned some terrific lessons on what to do, and what not to do. It was culturally very different from what we have now.

I had six months of leave. During that time, I drafted a business plan for the type of company where I always wanted to work. That’s how Zinc was created in 2005.

Several clients contacted me during those six months. After those six months, I explained what the business plan was, and it started with the culture. Creating a great place to work. I wanted to attract people who shared my values.

I think that’s a sustainable, long-term profitable option. In many ways it was a social experiment, and it’s proven to be the right way.

I still have that business plan in my top drawer. I look things up from time to time. We wanted to build a place where we can trust the people we’re working with, and where we share the same values.

I wanted a specific list of benefits. I never wanted to work on my birthday; I wanted to have six or seven weeks’ holiday a year. I wanted to work where we all trust each other, and we give a damn about each other and our clients.

The problem is you have to spend a lot of money to get clients. The other thing is I’d made four or five acquisitions in the company I was in. I saw what happens when businesses reach a certain size. They outgrow their original infrastructure.

I’d seen too many businesses fall over because the owners focus on stuff that wasn’t essential.

We started Zinc with a 200-seat phone system. We had a team of 20 guys on day one, with one client. It was like sitting in dad’s jacket pocket and we just grew in to it.

It was a high-risk business strategy. But it’s worked, because in the next year we’re getting close to turning over $28-29 million in revenue. I don’t think we’d have this type of business if we weren’t doing something different.

We had some challenges from a capital perspective. We had a fair amount of seed capital, but this was a couple of years before the GFC, so when that hit we remained strong but it was a challenge. It’s only now in the past year where we can sustain ourselves from a working cashflow perspective.

The other key thing is attracting key people. Trying to attract the right calibre of people, who have the same values. We want people who can push themselves and aren’t afraid of making mistakes.

When we started, we had a five-year plan. We passed that a couple of years ago, and we’re slightly behind from a revenue perspective of where we’d like to be. But we’re 12 months from having the place where I always wanted to work.

We have regular culture meetings. We always ask everyone, how can we make this a better place to work for you? Everyone votes on the benefits. We have one benefit where, after working here for five years, you get $1500 and a week off to do something you’ve always wanted to do.

I can see myself being here a number of years. Perhaps once the passion wanes and it’s not as challenging, but in the next few years I can’t see myself doing anything differently.

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