ValiantCEO Interview

June 22 - ValiantCEO Magazine interview with Mike Fowler. Discussing post-pandemic strategies, leadership and last mile topics.

ValiantCEO Interview
ValiantCEO Interview with Mike Fowler | Scrutinise

From the ValiantCEO Interview - June 2022

We are thrilled to have you join us today, welcome to ValiantCEO Magazine’s exclusive interview! Let’s start off with a little introduction. Tell our readers a bit about yourself and your company.

I am the Chief Commercial Officer at Rendr here in Australia. My career has spanned many countries across eCommerce, payments and logistics. I am a father of three amazing kids and am passionate about finding solutions to challenging opportunities, building and empowering high performing teams in the tech space.

2020 and 2021 threw a lot of curve balls into business on a global scale. Based on the experience gleaned in the past couple years, how can businesses thrive in 2022? What lessons have you learned?

To succeed in 2022 and soon financial year 2023, you need to be nimble. With interest rates continuing to rise, inflationary pressures mounting and capital markets hardening, you need to be intensely prudent. Especially in forward planning and resourcing. 2022 is seeing pandemic tailwinds normalising and there hasn't been a better time to be more strategic and focused - narrowing your scope. 2020 and 2021 have clearly demonstrated that monumental change is not only possible, but can and does occur. It's also redirected resources to wellness and life balance for which I hope stays the course through the current downturn.

The pandemic seems to keep on disrupting the economy, what should businesses focus on in 2022? What advice would you share?

As retail leaders, we often focus on low-hanging fruit. Low-hanging fruit isn't generally a strategic opportunity. It is more often what we have lacked doing or in many cases should have been doing all along. Things like enabling access to as much of your inventory as possible, shipping from store or reducing last mile costs by accessing inventory closer to the customer with same-day local delivery. These have commercial outcomes and add significantly to the bottom line while reducing red ink on the P&L and improving your sustainability results. Prior to 2022, a large focus was on payments and in hindsight, this might not have been as important as we thought. 2022 and 2023 are about supply chain and when you focus on what you have already in your network, you can reduce wider network impacts and headwinds that are persisting.

How has the pandemic changed your industry and how have you adapted?

Same-day and on demand delivery were considered a luxury or nice to have. Since the pandemic, They’ve now become table stakes. When we look at the future, almost all retailers accept that customers will demand same day delivery within the next two years and we're seeing a transition from days to hours to meet expectations. Retail understands how competitive the last mile can be for the business and businesses that are taking this head on, such as PetBarn and The Reject Shop are winning in spades. It's not about what is stopping you, but how we continue to prioritise legacy improvements over commercial opportunities. In the downturn, few customers will care that you upgraded your ERP or warehouse management system. But if you can get their orders to them by tonight, at an affordable cost or free, they'll come back again and again. This is how to win at retail.

What advice do you wish you received when the pandemic started and what do you intend on improving in 2022?

I remember a round table discussion that we had with the customer advisory board of Australia Post as the pandemic emerged overseas. We hadn’t known what was going to happen just yet and were certainly overly optimistic as omnichannel retail and pure play leaders. At the time, I was leading the growth team at Mosaic Brands and we had just successfully transformed nine iconic Australian brands to department store formats. I knew apparel tops and bottoms would be affected, but the casualisation of clothing and rapid move for older populations to online were completely underestimated. We now see this holding strong and steady and perhaps the most enlightening is how successful we were moving quickly to essential and home products at just the right time. This saw a bottoming of apparel while products like air fryers and sold pillowcases saw explosive growth. This would have only been possible in the department store format which had just launched.

Moving forward, being more agile and taking bold action has proven itself. Focusing on people and their wellness has also emerged as key to sustaining a high performing team.

Online business surged higher than ever, B2B, B2C, online shopping, virtual meetings, remote work, Zoom medical consultations, what are your expectations for 2022?

The future of retail is channel agnostic. Customers don’t see a brand as online and in-store. Table stakes have completely changed. Exposing online customers to in-store inventories has become a massive competitive advantage. Brands like PetBarn are seeing ⅓ of customers choosing same-day delivery options and this extends to how we do business as well, whether through a video call or in person.

I expect this synergence  between physical and virtual worlds to continue while growth in retail for 2022 and 2023 will largely come from physical stores. American trends of curbside and drive through pickup will emerge. Logistics will emerge as the key driver of commerce.

How many hours a day do you spend in front of a screen?

Not as many as you might think. I’m an early riser and very much used to working both US and AU hours. I tend to work through the most challenging problems in the early hours and spend about 25% of the work day in front of screens. I’m also a people person and like to have as many meetings with others in person or even on the phone. Perhaps I can land on 4-5 hours of screen time out of 10-12 work hours.

The majority of executives use stories to persuade and communicate in the workplace. Can you share with our readers examples of how you implement that in your business to communicate effectively with your team?

This is a great question. As a people leader there is a great migration from intelligence (IQ) to emotional (EQ) and now decency (DQ). Intelligent people often rise through the ranks to management positions. To move beyond a mid-level and senior management role, you must be extremely self and organisationally aware. In tech, to sustainably lead a high performing team, you must focus on decency and treating people well, supporting them. Knowing when to step in, knowing when to give space. To move beyond this to successfully manage managers, leaders, key stakeholders, and boards, storytelling is compulsory. This isn’t persuasion. A great executive uses mission and purpose to align their teams to common goals. Clear goals or company values must have themes to be purposeful. Your teams must then develop their operational framework and performance indicators to deliver the steps to these goals - ultimately to deliver to the mission. My process is similar to a great sales process which focuses on the next step or stage - it also happens to bring others on the journey together and this incremental change and transformation is much easier over small steps and multiple stories.

Business is all about overcoming obstacles and creating opportunities for growth. What do you see as the real challenge right now?

Business starts at recognising opportunities - you may call these obstacles, challenges or problems. Across all industries there are massive supply chain challenges and technology also remains a great obstacle as well. The key to success is to make this a matter of will and not be limited by your own obstacles. The real opportunity is to focus on what you have and what you can do. When I contemplated leaving Afterpay and the payments space to solve challenging problems in logistics, the problem was delivery. There were massive implosions across logistics networks as capacity was hindered with rapid growth in eCommerce. Over time this has improved and a plethora of delivery companies have emerged to help solve this challenge. At that point, I realised the challenge wasn’t delivery or customer expectations. The problem is clearly technology. Legacy or pre-API systems that don’t talk to modern eCommerce, POS or warehouse management systems.

The good news is, there are now dozens of companies that have solved this by integrating legacy technology and connecting it to modern APIs. Companies like Comestri, Fluent, enVista, Viare, Cin7 and many others across product, inventory, shipping, and order management. This has massive commercial implications from a sales perspective. This is why it’s a matter of will - choosing to utilise legacy systems today and getting them to work vs. being stuck in a digital roadmap led by those systems.

In 2022, what are you most interested in learning about? Crypto, NFTs, online marketing, or any other skill sets? Please share your motivations.

I love learning and have always been a proponent of learning and development programs internally as well. At the moment, I’ve been working a hybrid schedule in and out of the office and have enjoyed the many podcasts on eCommerce, digital marketing, and leadership topics available today. I have been inspired by so many leaders, SMEs and entrepreneurs across all verticals. Lately, I’ve been learning a lot about what’s known in Norway as “The Doorstep Mile”. In Norwegian, the word for this is dørstokmilla, the doorstep mile. It is a psychological barrier that we have to get over in order to go outside (or metaphorically ‘to get started’). This idea is fascinating to me and I’m a firm believer that you should take the first step first or in some cases, take the last step first in  order to get started and have a better result. Like starting with a press release before you’ve codified a product or project.

A record 4.4 million Americans left their jobs in September in 2021, accelerating a trend that has become known as the Great Resignation. 47% of people plan to leave their job during 2022. Most are leaving because of their boss or their company culture. 82% of people feel unheard, undervalued and misunderstood in the workplace. Do you think leaders see the data and think "that's not me – I'm not that boss they don't want to work for? What changes do you think need to happen?

I think we as humans have had to become more accustomed to change in a rather short period of time. This has normalised uncertainty and made it much easier for people to change. So many businesses are also not listening to their own data. For employees, this means the only way to keep up with inflation or get a pay rise is by changing employers. Checking Glassdoor and other employment resources, you are definitely seeing people moving more often and this has further downward pressure to drop even lower. Attrition can be good. Let’s not focus on retention, but by building great environments where everyone is heard and has a voice. Where life balance is valued equally to the bottom line. Where promotion is more common than being hired over. The crazy US tech salaries that are 2-3X Australian for like roles is not sustainable and is now changing to be the great layoff. Let’s get roles rated and banded globally and be fair to people within the same global function to their peers. Let’s reward existing staff automatically to inflationary adjustments and be transparent about remuneration. As leaders, let’s be realistic - doing the opposite isn’t resulting in cost savings but poor culture. Culture is about coming to work wherever that may be.

On a lighter note, if you had the ability to pick any business superpower, what would it be and how would you put it into practice?

To be able to attract the best talent. So many school leavers have ideas about equity and bonuses before they’ve even gotten started. It’s become the norm. Attracting talent is getting more and more expensive and to become an employer of choice without having to resort to 4-day work weeks and in-house yoga would be a tremendous result. To attract the most talented team members would be a game changer and also an affirmation of doing people leadership and business right.

What does "success" in 2022 mean to you? It could be on a personal or business level, please share your vision.

I believe in a future where local businesses are empowered to compete in the digital economy. Where the tools and resources are available to all to be able to rival the biggest companies customer’s experience. Within 2022 and moving into 2023, I see local commerce emerging and supporting vibrant and thriving communities. Where leveraging national retailers locally, allows local retailers to succeed and access the same cost structures through network effects. Where brands can be built and succeed in a local radius.

The future of commerce is local.