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CEO: 5 Things I've Learnt

by Ben Whitley
CEO Update - 5 things I have learnt in my first six months at Edwards & Co 

I met Mark, founder and director of Edwards & Co, through our better halves. My wife, Bec, and Mark's husband, Christian, are good friends who met via Instagram. They are both content creators who have developed loyal followings by giving a relatable insight into parenthood's daily highs and lows. 

My first interaction with Mark was when Bec and I were invited to the launch event of the Oscar Mx way back in 2019. I was completely blown away by Mark's passion for his creation – he is a genuine 'product guy' who instinctively has an eye for blending design and function. His passion was infectious and led to me thinking; I would love to work with this brand one day. 

As Bec and Christian grew closer over the years, Mark and I would see each other more regularly. In 2020, we spoke about his vision for the brand and where he thought it could go. Mark wanted to step back from the day-to-day operational side of the business to focus on innovation, improvement and R&D of the Edwards & Co product range. 

I worked for a large multinational health and beauty brand for seven years and had led the New Zealand operation for three years. I was ready for a new challenge and knew I wanted to work with an NZ brand in an early growth phase. I told Mark I thought I could contribute to the Edwards & Co story, and we agreed on a plan for me to take on the CEO role. 

I started in February, and we are – incredibly – in August already. I have spent the first few months of my role getting up to speed with the baby industry across New Zealand, Australia and further afield. I have inherited an incredible team of hard workers passionate about seeing Edwards & Co succeed and want to be a part of the new phase. 

Our team has been swamped. In the first half of the year: we have launched new products; dealt with a couple of COVID lockdowns; travelled up and down New Zealand and Australia to meet our community at baby shows and expos; have onboarded new team members; as well as work on some super-secret projects which we can't wait to share with our customers. It's been a whirlwind six months, and here is what I have learnt: 

1) Vision and culture are two of the most effective leadership tools in our toolbox.

I knew from the first day I walked into Edwards & Co that the culture was unique. Our team is deeply committed to putting people first - customers, colleagues, and partners - which shines through in our team's energy to their roles. As the organisation scales, we must keep the essence of what we are now, so articulating what we stand for will act as a scaffolding for how we make decisions, recruit, and work together in the future. 

There is nothing more galvanising than describing a vision of what the future looks like and how we will get there. Being open and sharing business performance and growth ambition gives everyone across the organisation context of how their role contributes to the broader objectives of the business. 

2) Cash is king

I came from a well-funded, listed multinational where cash was never an issue; we were obsessed with P&L performance. The significant change for me was to understand the importance of cash flow. In our business, we are often paying our suppliers several months in advance of receiving stock. Having a paper profit is essential but carefully managing cash flow to ensure we stay on top of our ability to pay the bills is crucial. 

3) Talk to as many customers as possible 

Your customers will never be backwards in coming forwards. When you're new to a role, your customers will quickly tell you the things they love and the things you can improve on. I've made a conscious effort to deeply understand our retail partners business, asking as many questions as I could, as well as working on our trade stands to talk directly with consumers. This communication has been a valuable experience in understanding who Edwards & Co customers are and how we can better serve them. 

4) Find experts who can cover your skill gaps

Primarily my experience is in sales, marketing and strategy. While I've been able to run my fresh eyes over the business and highlight a few quick wins, the role of a CEO within an SME is so much broader. Health and safety, warehousing, logistics and e-commerce are all areas we have engaged experts on to give us advice on best practise and industry standards. So we can focus on what we are good at, and our partners can cover and build our knowledge gaps. 

5) COVID-19 disruption is here to stay 

We all felt that at the start of 2021, we were heading for a large scale opening of international commerce and movement. In reality, we have been heavily disrupted with the Trans-Tasman travel bubble switching on and off, snap lockdowns and the subsequent cancellation of baby shows. Our commercial planning must be stress-tested under possible COVID scenarios, and I don't feel that is going away. 

A key theme to our business plan is our approach to digitisation. Enabling our team to work remotely, identifying cloud services to create efficiency, automate to reduce our manual process, improving our online experience for customers during a significant purchase decision. Our digitisation is universal and creates constant questions across all functions of our business. 

Summing up, my first six months have been all about getting up to speed. With my feet under the desk, there are so many exciting projects to get to work on, and I can't wait to share the journey and progress with you. 
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