my career habit

Erica Hughes interview - Managing Director and Founder of Slendier - How I moved from a corporate to startup career

October 11, 2021 Steve Kimmens Season 1 Episode 1
my career habit
Erica Hughes interview - Managing Director and Founder of Slendier - How I moved from a corporate to startup career
Show Notes Transcript

Erica Hughes - Managing Director & Founder of Slendier (a global health food company) - shares experiences from her extensive corporate career as a senior executive in financial services and not for profits.

Erica explains how she made the move to running her own successful startup - Splendier.

And whether she would have taken the leap earlier in her career.

Go to the website for tips and tools for the content covered in this episode of my career habit with Erica Hughes.

my career habit is the podcast where professionals share how they have taken control of their career to support the life they want to lead. 

Each week Steve Kimmens interviews professionals to share my career habit – the experiences, skills and insights that have helped people to make their job work for them.

Erica Hughes:

And when you have like really a life-changing sort of event or series of events like that, you do really, you sit back and you go, well, if I wanted to do anything, what would I do? And maybe it's time to do something that's quite different. Maybe it's time to do those things that I've had really wanted to do since I was in my twenties, because who knows how much time we all have.

Steve Kimmens:

Welcome to my career habit . The podcast w here professionals share how they've taken control of their career to support the life they want to lead. I'm your host, Steve Kimmens. And each week I interview professionals to share my career habit. The experiences, skills and insights that have helped people to make their jobs work for them. Today's guest is Erica Hughes. Erica is the managing director and founder of Slendier, a global health food company. She shares experiences from her extensive corporate career as a senior executive in financial services and not-for- profits, how she made the move to running her own business, and whether she would have taken the leap earlier in her career. Let's get on with the podcast. Welcome to the podcast, Erica. Thanks . Great

Erica Hughes:

Thanks so much Steve, Yeash its great to see you. Yeah . I'm delighted to be here with you.

Steve Kimmens:

I know you from Westpac and then you've gone off to setup Slendia food group, so what is slender food group?

Erica Hughes:

Slendier is a health food company based here in Australia, in Melbourne , and we export to Southeast Asia, China, the Middle East, Europe. We have offices in Europe and warehousing in Europe, and we have plans for the future for the US. The main ethos of our company is just to produce really wholesome all natural health food. So we don't have any additives at all, it's all absolutely delicious. And we sort of scoured the world for the best products and the best recipes that fit with our ethos , and we bring them to market , and we've expanded the range quite significantly and we have some new products.

Steve Kimmens:

Fantastic, so I knew you at Westpac. How did you get to Westpac? What was that career story?

Erica Hughes:

I started in banking. I started , as a grad trainee many years ago now and sort of worked my way up to some fairly senior positions. And , I had a desire probably in about my mid thirties to do something different from banking. I was fortunate enough to get a job as the chief operating officer for the baker, heart a nd diabetes institution, Melbourne. So a very large cardiovascular and diabetes research Institute and, you know, it was a fabulous experience, but the key thing I probably took out of it is you learn a lot i n, in your corporate career and those skills are in fact quite transfer . So you shouldn't be scared to sort of know that you actually had a lot of skills and tools in your little backpack, and you can take them to another organization. From the baker, I went to V eda, which is a big data credit bureau company and ran the credit bureaus a nd, w as part of the team that took i t t o private equity privatization, which is a fabulous experience. For me, I sort of didn't really quite know what to do, when that experience ended. And I probably spent about five, six years doing a bit of consulting. I stepped back into banking, which is when we met each other, but there was always for me a desire to do something different.

Steve Kimmens:

When you're talking with Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute. How did you make that transition? Was that something through network connections or you were just looking for those types of roles to seek out that COO role?

Erica Hughes:

Yeah, for me, it was sort of two- fold. I really wanted to see if I could have a senior role and be good at it in a completely different industry. And I was looking for something that was a little bit more giving back then perhaps , bank core banking can be, so I was really looking for an organization that did good for the world. It's just a bent of mine . I like those types of organizations. I like organizations that have a really ethical bent, and so for me, it was sort of the ideal opportunity I went out looking for a role, so that was sort of the best of both worlds. It was quite a senior role. It had some things I thought I could do quite well. It had some things I had absolutely no idea about and I needed to learn, and it was a good organization that does a lot of good for people.

Steve Kimmens:

On that subject of the world and doing good for mankind. So the World Banking Group, that again, would be like a really interesting organization to work for?

Erica Hughes:

It was absolutely fascinating that that sort of happened to me by accident. So in my time at Veda , we did some collaborations with an organization called TransUnion , which is big credit bureau in the United States. They also had the credit bureau in South Africa and they were looking for programs around micro finance for disadvantaged communities in South Africa. And I helped with that. And then from that , I did a similar program. So setting up micro finance programs in Southeast Asia, those sorts of programs do best when you actually have a credit bureau infrastructure. So very much linked to back to what I had been doing at beta.

Steve Kimmens:

When you went back into, the banking world in NAB and in Westpac, did you find that those experiences changed how you approached those GM roles that you then made your way into?

Erica Hughes:

I think your attitude changes a little bit. When you've had a wide range of experience, I think you don't get astied into the climbing, the corporate ladder dealing - big organizations being banking or any big organizations are quite political. And I think the more senior you get, the more time you spend managing politics, playing politics than actually doing much work, and I think when you've had a range of experiences and particularly some experiences in third world countries, your perspective is, I'm not sure I really care much about that political game .

Steve Kimmens:

Did you set a time limit in terms of when you were in a role or was it kind of a natural thing in terms of an opportunity came up or there was a decision point to move on to something else?

Erica Hughes:

Generally, I would say just opportunities come by for me, some of it has, has been, you know, more luck than may sitting down thinking I can't it's time to go and do something else or that sort of thing. So a little bit of both for me to be honest with you Steve.

Steve Kimmens:

Yes, it's interesting because part of that is luck, but also it's your looking for certain things and you're seeking out certain opportunities and because you've sought out different opportunities earlier in your career that then opens doors later on.

Erica Hughes:

Yeah. Networking is incredibly important , and staying in touch with people throughout your career is very important and being open , and I think when you do sort of do a couple of different things , you have a reputation for that. And so people will week you out.

Steve Kimmens:

Was trying to find work-life balance, was that something that was a focus for you through those different roles?

Erica Hughes:

Definitely. One of the reasons why I did the world bank role and why, one of the reasons why I spent a number of years just consulting for different organizations was purely for work-life balance. A lot of roles I've had have involved an awful lot of travel and that can get exhausting. In fact, I think I spent three years and I was on on a place every week for those three years, so that gets quite exhausting. Back in those days I was a single mother. So I raised my two kids on my own. And that gets exhausting and trying to put all of those different parts of your life together is quite hard. And so seeking out work-life balance and, one of the reasons why Slendier is very attractive to me, it's just the the whole ethos about just, take care of yourself. Think about you for a minute as opposed to trying to juggle all the balls that we all have to juggle a ll t he time.

Steve Kimmens:

Yeah, and so with Slendier how did you make that transition from senior executive in the corporate world to running your own business? How did you take that?

Erica Hughes:

Well , running my own business is something I have wanted to do from a very early age. Um, if I had have had the money and probably been braver in my twenties, I would've done it then. Okay . It was sort of a collision of desire and just some life events. So after I left Westpac, I spent some time consulting to work out what would be, what I wanted to do next. At that time , within the space of probably any about four or five months, my husband was diagnosed first with cancer and then with Parkinson's disease, that was a great six months , and I took a year off to care for him. Actually, he got through the cancer, which was great Parkinson's though, obviously is an incurable disease. So that's just something that we live with and we've adjusted our life to . And when you have like really a life- changing sort of event or series of events like that, you do really take a step back and you go, well let's, if I wanted to do anything, what would I do? And maybe it's time to do something that's quite different, or maybe it's time to do those things that I've had really wanted to do since I was in my twenties, because who knows how much time we all have left.

Steve Kimmens:

So then it was, I knew I wanted to start a business, and I went looking at at different businesses and absolutely put my, corporate sort of thinking hat on. Right , so looking at what would be the fundamentals of the business , what industries , what, and within those industries, what would interest me , but also what's the growth opportunity what could I bring to the table, that sort of thing.

Erica Hughes:

And I looked at a range of different opportunities. I put a bit of an advisory team around me, so like a business advisor and accountants, and obviously you need your legal team as well, and I took the approach where I would look at buying branch, which is what we did, so I bought the Slendier brand, and thought it had a huge amount of potential, and it was not doing well in areas I thought I could really bring some skills to the table. And I must say pretty much everyone told me not to do it, but I did it .

Steve Kimmens:

Okay. So that's great, because when you were talking before about being braver in your twenties , and that thing, which I think is interesting because it is a massive risk to go out and do something like that and potentially all those people on your shoulder saying, oh, don't do it. So were they saying that in terms of, oh, this is a big risk and you know, there's a lot of money that you're putting on the table in terms of making this successful.

Erica Hughes:

Yeah. All of those things. So, you know, it's a big risk. You don't know anything about food, you've never worked in FMCG. You have to put upfront capital and there's ongoing capital requirements. If you are new into owning and running a small business, your chances of getting bank lending up pretty slim. It's a complex business as well. Food in general is a complex issue. There's a range regulatory and compliance requirements. You've got manufacturing, you've got logistics, you've got warehousing, you've got international trade. So it is a complex business. And so the advice was, "Erica, find something a bit smaller". I remember someone saying to me, why didn't you do a childcare center. For a lot of people I'm sure owning a childcare center would be fantastic, but not for me. I was confident enough and I guess I did find my inner bravery and I went, I can do this and I'm going to do it.

Steve Kimmens:

Yeah, you're doing all the analysis , but you're kind of those big decisions where you're not going to have all the answers until you're in there. So yes. And it's that thing, you know, that the , the Rumsfeld quote of the known knowns, the unknown knowns and the unknown unknowns until you're in there, then it's like, oh , I didn't know about this stuff.

Erica Hughes:

Yeah . Yeah . There was a lot of those .

Steve Kimmens:

I suppose on that, would there be anything around that deal or anything where you were like, ah, it would have been great to have known this or to have looked for this sort of thing beforehand?

Erica Hughes:

Look, I think probably some of the hardest things may, will be, would have been , the cultural nuances , we deal with a range of different , countries. And so actually understanding , the cultural nuances, not just in dealing with business people, but also in understanding consumers around the world. I hadn't really thought that through very much, I thought, you know, a consumer as a consumer, as food is food , but actually it's quite different around the world. I think that's probably being one of the hardest things and then sort of getting up to speed with international trade and logistics has also been quite a steep learning curve.

Steve Kimmens:

And , I know from, with some contacts of mine in FMCG that getting deals domestically into Woolworths and Coles is incredibly difficult. That it's a ruthless world. It's a very difficult world to get into , and there's so much competition to do that as well.

Erica Hughes:

Huge competition. Look, I think the thing , with Coles and Woolworths, is you've got to play the long game. You know , it takes a long time , range reviews happen once a year. You may or may not even get a meeting for a range review because as you can imagine, the competition's huge. So the number of products they're selling is huge. You've got to really present top notch stuff like, well , we can't go in with just anything , and you've got to be very, very well-prepared, but it's a long haul. We've been very successful with both of those organizations and we have very good relationships with them, but it's a partnership, you have to meet their requirements as well. You have to make sure your products are there on time every week because they can't have empty shelves. So you've really got to understand their business model as well and understand how you can be a great supplier to them because that's going to help you , you know , once you get a few listings, if you could, you sounds good, you support the marketing, you support them in their marketing of your products. And you're a good supplier in terms of delivery on full and on time all the time. Then when the next conversation comes, you've only got good news to talk about. And that's the aim.

Steve Kimmens:

Would that mirror some of your experiences in terms of being a senior exec in different corporates? Maybe not the complexity of that relationship, but in terms of managing stakeholders, maybe that's a bit simplistic in terms of the complexity of those sort of relationships with distributors.

Erica Hughes:

Well, again , it comes back to the conversation we were having about the more senior you are, the more you just sort of dealing with corporate politics, right ? That's all stakeholder management and stakeholder relationships . And , if you're delivering a project, you've got to understand the stakeholders, this project could be incredibly important and would be incredibly important. So how do you understand their business objectives? So you can be, delivering everything always comes back to delivery on your promises , and maintaining those, those really good relationships.

Steve Kimmens:

You were talking earlier in terms of your brand, you know, from, from a corporate career perspective and that , would you say that one of those key career habits, to always deliver , and that transfers really well when you're running your own business , and dealing with all of those different partners or suppliers.

Erica Hughes:

Oh, absolutely. And it comes back to having transferable skills. So complex business , senior role in a bank or the world bank or wherever or running your own business. The complexity, what you're trying to do is stand back and check all the bits of a jigsaw puzzle and put them together and deliver the beautiful picture. And that it's the same, no matter where you are, you're just trying to take something that's complex, simplify it down, make it fit and , and provide something good to your stakeholders or to your consumers.

Steve Kimmens:

And it must be really satisfying developing a product that really helps people and to get that feedback from people that it's making a difference for them.

Erica Hughes:

We do a lot of newsletters and blogs. We obviously do a lot of social media and consumers love to give you feedback which is great because that's the best market research that you can ever have, but sometimes people will just reach out to you. A woman just emailed me the other day and just forwarded a blog that we'd written about maintaining good mental health through this awful year. And she just wrote one sentence to me, which just said, thank you so much for helping me. And it was like , lovely , and so when you get paid back like that from all around the world, you think it's good.

Steve Kimmens:

Yeah. It's making a real difference for people. Has this been a constant trajectory up in terms of growth for the business and progress, or have there been moments where it's been, oh, you know, I'm not sure if this is going to continue progressing or have I made the right decision in terms of trying to take this business forward?

Erica Hughes:

Every day. Small business is a 24 7 job, so you are always thinking about it. And , one of the good things about having multiple markets and multiple channels is that you are diversifying your risk somewhat , but there is risk everywhere. Of course you worry about what if we lost Coles or Woolworths, or we're in a lot of the big supermarkets in Europe, if we lost some of those , those things worry you. Small businesses is full of worries .

Steve Kimmens:

And coming back to that bravery piece, and coming back to those people who were saying, oh, do you want to go off and do try something smaller to begin with that? This is always going to be a challenging area because if it was easy, everyone would be trying to do it. And that it's a challenge because the statistics are most small businesses fail , like to really get cut through and establish something is a real challenge because lots of people don't get that far.

Erica Hughes:

Exactly, and it's true, a lot of small businesses do fail , but an interesting thing to note is that most small businesses fail at about the five year mark and actually do in the first year that because it's , you can get a business to a certain point and then you have to grow. The market will tell you that it's time to grow, your customers will want more and more and more from you and those growing pains , are equally as difficult as is the initial journey to start it up.

Steve Kimmens:

And would you say coming in from the corporate career, is that something that would help you in terms of those growing pains or is that something you've always had on your radar in terms of being aware of the, kind of the stages that the business would need to go through?

Erica Hughes:

A little bit of both, corporate career, you do learn that skill of thinking very strategically doing the analysis in the hard thought around here are 20 opportunities, if you can't afford to fund 20 of them, which ones are you going to go for , and so I think that's again, one of the transferable skills that strategic thinking ability and the ability to stand back, the hard thing is to take the emotion out of it, any business it's your own is your baby and you are the parent and we'd love to absolutely do everything. But sometimes you can't, sometimes you have to say, that's not for this year.

Steve Kimmens:

Before we jumped on the call, we were talking a little bit about COVID and lockdowns and the impacts of that. And one of the things that you mentioned was that your team had been working from home actually pre all of this from a couple of years ago.

Erica Hughes:

Absolutely. We started with an office in that very traditional way and I just noticed a lot of the team have kids at school and they used to come rush into the, come in, looking all flustered trying to get to work on time after they're done the school drop off and navigated their way through traffic, I just sort of thought to myself, we started with, don't come in, you don't feel that you need to be here at nine, come in when you're comfortable coming in. And then I also noticed, because we worked through a number of times zones they'd often hop on the email or hop on the phone at seven or eight o'clock at night, I offered it to them. I said, how would we all feel if we just all worked from home? I'll set you up with the equipment and everything. And like the next day everyone started packing and I was like, okay. And so then it becomes, how do you maintain your team culture when you're all working remotely and for us once a month , back when we were allowed, we all used to get together , and we'd have a team meeting and then we'd eat, being a food business, we'd all have a beautiful lunch, usually that our in-house cook prepared and sharing food is, is a great way to bond with people. Obviously over the last year, the face-to-face interactions haven't sort of gone ahead. And so it's, when we do get together on our weekly zoom calls, it's spend half an hour just chatting about how you're going, who has had a haircut, who's kids have managed to get back to school, those sorts of things. So you've got to maintain a team culture and you've particularly got to do that when you've got people all over the world, so you have to put in that effort so that people have a personal connection, not just, "has this ship landed in this port yet?"

Steve Kimmens:

Yeah, I was having a conversation in another podcast episode where we were talking about that sometimes in corporate life, the separation between personal and work , can be very definitive because people want to keep personal and work separate, but the challenge with that can be, you don't necessarily understand the other people around you that well, and what we were reflecting on was often in the teams where we've been at our best being in a high-performance team or however you want to describe it. It's because we've actually understood one another , and there has been a personal connection between us as a group. And it's not necessarily to say that you have to share everything about your past or whatever it might be or what you're currently doing, but there's an understanding so that if someone's having a bad day or they've got other stuff on or whatever it might be , that people will feel comfortable to share that and that they feel comfortable to raise things that might not be popular because they know that people trust one another and that they get on,

Erica Hughes:

Oh, that's incredibly important, incredibly important. And you've got to sort of encourage the team to be brave enough to say if they don't agree with something or they think that's not the right decision so that all of these things are very, very important. I think in corporate, there's not enough of thinking about that. It's a little bit too much about delivery.

Steve Kimmens:

Yep, and would you say that's one of the benefits of running your own businesses. You can shape that and you've got, control's not quite the right word, but you can actually, rather than being in the inner Goliath of an organization and trying to craft a team or craft a team culture or department culture, you can do that within a business.

Erica Hughes:

Yeah. It was one of the key reasons why I wanted to run my business. And as you go through your career, that desire grows because the culture will be what you want it to be and what you set and how well you behave and how good a leader you are and to be able to craft something that you really want and to see everyone flourish in that environment is the best feeling that you can possibly have.

Steve Kimmens:

So thinking back to yourself earlier banking career, if you were giving yourself some career advice, would it be hey go and do something, be brave, be courageous, go and start your own business in your twenties.

Erica Hughes:

Yes. That would be the, you know that thing where you write a letter to your 18 year old , my letter would say , take that risk and be a little bit brave because it will be okay. That's what I would tell my 18 year old self . And so I would, if someone in their twenties who was thinking, should I shouldn't , I , my advice would be, yes, you'll never know unless you give it a go , but put a strong team around you because it'll be hard.

Steve Kimmens:

Would you say some of those career habits that you developed for your corporate career in terms of, so it's that always deliver , build a network, would there be other things that you've kind of developed over that time, which have come in really handy?

Erica Hughes:

Coming out of banking has been quite handy because you have to have no matter what business you go into, you've got to have pretty good, or you've got to have very strong financial skills. You have to understand all the leavers of your business , you've got to understand pricing models , you've got to understand cash-flow intimately as cash is king in a small business. So I think , that's certainly a skill that you need and you're going to have to develop or you're going to have to have very strong partner that's got that or advisors that have got that. That's probably, I think the key thing , that has come out of my corporate career that's been the most handy. Probably the other thing is just that strategic thinking ability. And this is, sometimes you think, well, would I, would, I have had those skills in my twenties , and possibly not to be honest with you , you need to have very big corporate jobs to actually hone some of those skills, particularly thinking strategically and trying to navigate everything. And this is sort of the trade-off with, if you do it when you're young, but you can learn a lot through, you'll learn more probably through having your own business because you just have exposure to so many different things, whereas a traditional career path, it's like where you go do this for three years and then you might go and do this and then you might go and do that. So you will learn an awful lot quite quickly,

Steve Kimmens:

I suppose there's the Steve jobs, commencement speech of looking back and suddenly all the dots join up and it's like, oh, you know, all of these things now make sense because they now allow me to do the thing that's in front of me right now.

Erica Hughes:

Yeah . Yep . That's exactly right. And that's certainly how it feels to me. I think sometimes , if you were looking at sort of my career path from the outside, you'd sort of think, wow, that was sort of a windy road , and in many ways it has been a windy road, but I really feel that I've landed where I was meant to land eventually.

Steve Kimmens:

Fantastic. Well Erica , thank you very much for your time. You've been fantastic having you as a guest,

Erica Hughes:

It's been great to be on and very, very best of luck with your new adventures as well Steve it's fantastic.

Steve Kimmens:

Yeah. Thank you very much. Yes. I would say it's the steep learning curve and the challenges along the way are certainly true. And not to be too much of a plug, but we should make sure we check out in the aisle, keep our eyes peeled for the Slendier products.

Erica Hughes:

Yep or www.slendier.com, always available online.

Steve Kimmens:

Perfect, awesome. Thanks Erica .

Erica Hughes:

Thanks Steve it was great.

Steve Kimmens:

Thanks for listening to my career habit, to subscribe to the podcast and listen to other episodes, head to mycareerhabit .com .