Naomi Milgrom, the owner and executive chair of The Sussan Group, spoke about the four pillars of her leadership style to a packed audience of men and women celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Melbourne Business School’s Women and Management Dinner.
Milgrom, whose is personally worth about $375 million according to BRW magazine, is notoriously media shy. So LeadingCompany is excited to bring you insights into Milgrom’s leadership, specifically addressing the great difficulties faced by the retail sector.
The three brands in Milgrom’s group are Sportsgirl, Sussan and Suzanne Grae. In assessing Milgrom’s wealth, BRW assumed that the revenue of the group, which was about $500 million in 2010-11, will have suffered similar falls in revenue, profits and market capitalisation as comparable retailers. As a private company, the group is required to file a financial report to the regulator annually, not quarterly like listed companies.
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Milgrom described the conditions her companies face: “Our businesses, like so many others, are entering a new age. Traditional bricks and mortar [retailing] faces its most serious challenge from a combination of difficult economic times, political uncertainty, over-supply, a generation of more frugal consumers and, of course, a global shopping environment, 24/7.”
However, she maintains that the following four pillars of her leadership style will be as effective into the future as they have been in the past.
1. A culture that supports women
A workplace culture that supports women is no accident, Milgrom emphasises, even in companies like hers where both the employees and the customers are primarily women. Of the group’s 4,500 staff, 95% are women. But unlike other fashion companies, the CEOs of all three retail brands are women, and women make up the majority of the senior management level.
“A culture that supports women doesn’t come about spontaneously; it only happens when the leaders of companies create policies and initiatives to stimulate such a culture,” she says. “In my experience, mentoring women into leadership is fundamental.”
And an imperative for national productivity in Milgrom’s view.
Milgrom mentored the CEOs of both Sportsgirl and Sussan, Elle Roseby and Carole Molyneux, into their leadership roles, and supported them during and after they had children.
“The CEOs of both Sussan and Sportsgirl were able to choose flexible work arrangements after their maternity leave,” she says. “Other people in management, including myself, joined together to support these CEOs through this time.”
Flexibility is not a favour, she says. “It is a compelling business strategy that promotes productivity. We measure work performance in results, not in time at the office, creating a relationship of trust that actually increases productivity.
2. A beautiful work environment
Four years ago, Milgrom commissioned a new headquarters for the group in Cremorne, Victoria. With 5,000 square metre of offices, a private art gallery, 3,000 square meters of car parking, a corporate dining room, boardrooms and studios, the premises was designed by Durbach Block Architects. It took two years to complete, and won two architecture awards.
“What I am trying to achieve is a unique working environment that is beautiful, functional and inspirational,” Milgrom says. “As we spend so much our lives as work and as we want to promote ideas, creativity, I became convinced that a different kind of workplace would support our different kind of culture.”
The retail sector faces huge problems retaining staff and developing talent – for most, working in shops is a short-term job. Milgrom wanted to communicate her own passion for her businesses and to make a workplace that her staff loved.
She specified a “bright, healthy” space, contemporary design and architecture, plenty of modern art and views of the landscape. “It was important that it expressed the things that I find uplifting.”
3. Management by conversation
Milgrom long ago rejected the authoritarian model of leadership, believing that it stifled innovation, creativity and agility.
“Hierarchies and authoritarian approaches are not conducive to the free flow of ideas,” she says. “They also default to the conventional. They tend to prefer to do things as they have always been done.”
“The rigidity of hierarchy is totally inappropriate for the fashion business, where we have to adapt quickly to capture new ideas and constantly reinvent ourselves.”
She talks with her staff, encourages them to say what they think and to try new ideas. “I do recognise that as a leader I do not have all the answers. And therefore the best way of arriving at a solution is to bring together a diverse inventive team so that we can aspire to excellence.”
Pride in work comes in part from supporting causes that matter to the staff, which is also a priority for Milgrom. Leaving staff to select the cause and to determine how they want to help has resulted in the three businesses choosing different causes:
Sussan works with the breast cancer network of Australia; Sportsgirl campaigns against eating disorders in young boys and girls and helped the Butterfly Foundation establish a wing for patients with anorexia at the Westmead children’s hospital in Sydney; Suzanne Gray is in partnership with the White Ribbon foundation against domestic violence. She says: “People want to be proud of the organisation they are working for, of the contribution they are making.”
4. A focused pursuit of excellence
Partnerships with world leaders in store design, retail innovation, brand building is one way Milgrom uses to challenge her businesses to achieve new and higher standards. Two of its Sportsgirl outlets have been revamped into “flagship stores” designed by British architects, HMKM, each with 12 defined areas for consumer to explore.
“Two flagship Sportsgirl stores have won international awards,” she says.
“We have enlisted Mary Portas, who you will know as Mary Queen of Shops, as a creative collaborator for our brands.”
Mary Portas, the host of a British TV series called Mary Queen of Shops, troubleshoots struggling fashion retailers by injecting glamour and sex appeal back into them.
Milgrom says: “We are constantly looking outside for examples of excellence and we enlist world leading authorities, collaborators and advisers of models for our businesses.”
Milgrom is confident that her leadership style will continue to give her the skilled staff, agility and innovation to overcome the challenges facing the retail sector, and keep her brands relevant in the future.