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Democracy by design: Seeley International’s secret is company-wide brainstorming

Matthew Smith Reporter

Democracy by design: Seeley International’s secret is company-wide brainstorming

Published 21 August 2013 21:23, Updated 22 August 2013 14:03

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From salesman to executive chairman: Frank Seeley fosters an inclusive culture where all staff can contribute to product design.

Mid-Market Awards 2013 | Environmental Innovation in the Mid-Market: Seeley International

It was at one of Seeley International’s regular company-wide innovation sessions that the idea for a new type of water management system was conceived. If it was solely left up to engineers, the system – modelled on an umbrella where water flows off a convex surface – might never have been developed, says the founder and executive chairman of Seeley International, Frank Seeley. The traditional water management system in air-conditioning units – essentially a pipe with holes – would eventually block up with salt, so Seeley took the design problem to the broader group, including sales, corporate development and administration staff. “I opened it up to the floor and someone said, ‘You need something so the water falls off like an umbrella’. And I said, you’re right!” he recalls.“Engineers are necessary in our organisation because they show you things, but they’re not all that imaginative,” he says.

No such thing as a stupid question

Seeley International is Australia’s largest air-conditioning manufacturer and has some of the most energy-efficient cooling and heating systems on the market. This year it launched the world’s first six-star range of gas heaters based on Energy Standard ratings. Its Breezair Icon series is the most energy efficient evaporative cooler on the market.

Still in the hands of the Seeley family and founder Frank Seeley, the Australian manufacturer is responsible for developing Australia’s first all-plastic portable air conditioner and ducted rooftop air conditioners. Its brands include Breezair, Braemar, Coolair, Convair and Climate Wizard.

The company-wide brainstorming sessions, where everyone in the organisation is invited to bring ideas to the table, are an important feature underpinning the company’s culture of innovation, Seeley says. While engineers newer to the organisation may be sceptical about a non-specialist’s opinions on industrial design, he says it works because it’s now part of the organisation’s culture. “The board and the older engineers are all part of it so everyone gets excited about [the new ideas],” he says. “We say there is no stupid question or idea.”

An engineer in practice

Seeley’s journey from a salesman of portable metal coolers to starting his own company in 1972, with the idea of manufacturing plastic portable coolers, lends insight into his approach to innovation. Seeley never had a formal education as an engineer; he calls himself “an engineer in practice”.

He was a school teacher before he changed careers to become a salesman. But then when his employer started taking a bigger cut of his commission because he was selling too many units, he decided to start manufacturing cooling units on his own.

“I didn’t know how to build the coolers but I understood how they worked and went from there. I was always called upon to troubleshoot with the systems when something went wrong. As a salesman I figured you have to know your product inside and out in order to sell it.”

Now Seeley has a turnover of around $112 million and employs 324 staff, three-quarters in Adelaide, South Australia, and the remainder in Albury, NSW. The company has sales offices in each Australian mainland state capital city, the United States, Britain, Italy and France. Seeley says his goal for the business is to be generating $1 billion in revenue by 2020.

Competitive from home turf

While Seeley buys some components from overseas, the company still manufactures most of its products in-house. Frank Seeley’s aggressive pursuit of vertical integration and supply-chain management has enable the company to keep its manufacturing facilities in Australia. “To be competitive you must do two things: innovate and automate. We used to have one person operating modelling machinery; now, one person looks after four,” he says.

In addition to the company-wide innovation sessions, Seeley points to his executive role, which is split from the operations of the business, as another key to maintaining the organisation’s culture. “Twenty years ago I put in a managing director and from then on I’ve headed up innovation. I have an executive role in relation to innovation and I have about a dozen people who report to me and that’s what we are solely focused on,” he says.

The company has produced 185 patents including environmentally conscious cooling systems such as evaporative cooling systems and energy-efficient ducted gas heaters.

Seeley won’t rule out the possibility of one day becoming a listed company on the Australian Stock Exchange, but at this stage he is happy to keep the ownership of the company in private hands. “Private company decisions get made quickly and you can get behind them and make them work. The time might come to float, but for now the private model works,” he says.

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About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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