In this My Business Q&A we meet Gareth Thomas, whose is kicking serious goals with his Sydney-headquartered display marketing franchise business, Lifetime Distributors, and proving that Australians still love to buy books.
Thomas is CEO of Lifetime Distributors, a fast-growing display marketing franchise company with 140 franchisees, an annual turnover of $40 million and four million products sold to date. Lifetime Distributors supplies workplaces in CBD and regional areas with a selection of books, cards and other gift products, and has enjoyed considerable success in CBD areas where workers are time-poor and regional areas that don’t have access to gift products. Lifetime Distributors services over 38 000 workplaces every week and Thomas says his is one of the few publishing companies that is defying the current retail slump by pursuing alternative distribution methods.
“People have been spouting nonsense about the demise of the book and we see sales growing all the time,” argues Thomas. “It may of course be that the book industry isn’t all that great at giving people what they want, because when they do – look at 50 Shades Of Grey – no-one talks about the death of reading books. Make no mistake, Australia loves books.”
My Business: What’s the one thing you wish you’d known before you started in business?
Gareth Thomas: That it is outputs/results that matter and focussing on processes often gets in the way of getting results. You get no rewards in life for hard work, though generally it is required; what makes the difference is decisive strategic clarity and that’s what needs focus.
MB: The most important person in my business is... because ...
GT: My customers: these are woman mostly, and men who go to our display boxes in their break time and buy our books. We believe that people shouldn’t have to pay a large amount of money for good things and we work to repay our customers’ loyalty.
MB: Best tip for managing people?
GT: Be clear about what you want and what the standards are. The leader’s job is to lead, and that does involve telling. Also, don’t confuse delegating anything with abdicating responsibility for it.
MB: Who do you most admire and why?
GT: In Australia John Borghetti seems to have a powerful combination of vision, drive and grasp of the detail and Virgin is a pleasure to fly with. Outside of business, my stepson Richard who, with Downs Syndrome has fewer choices than most, puts much more happiness into people’s lives than most of us ever do. I see him at work at Hornsby’s Blue Gum Bistro and am amazed how much he remembers the customers.
MB: What’s more important in business: passion or preparation? Why?
GT: The world is changing – new thinking is truly needed and people are engaged in the issues, but you have to look outside of the daily media diet to find it. We are in the business of ideas and often the nicer things in life, so I tend to look at a lot of sites for ideas. The New York Times is marvellous for that, and another favourite is Rupert Murdoch’s own Twitter stream, I don’t agree with everything he says, but it’s remarkable how across most of the big issues he is and his succinct missives are testimony to how useful Twitter should be.
MB: If someone gave you $100,000 and said, “invest this in your business by the end of the week – or lose it” what would you do?
GT: We would go on television advertising for more franchisees and distributors. The ones we have never leave and we are desperate for more people to join our self-employed network.
MB: How do you foster and express creativity?
GT: I think my colleagues know that by definition they are respected and their views are not only needed but are demanded. A lot of questions and blue sky thinking, then boiling that down into “who is going to do what now” makes it all work. When people know that they are going to be heard and agree on what a good outcome could be, egos are generally dropped and they enjoy the process. Largely, I just ask a lot of questions.
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