Five tips for entrepreneurs from Flight Centre founder and rich lister Geoff Harris: Cultivate personal resilience; Design your organisational structure for humans

Caitlin Fitzsimmons Online editor

Five tips for entrepreneurs from Flight Centre founder and rich lister Geoff Harris

Published 24 January 2014 11:41, Updated 27 January 2014 12:22

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Flight Centre founder Geoff Harris recently stepped down as vice-president of the Hawthorn AFL club after three years. Mal Fairclough

As founder of Flight Centre, Geoff Harris made a fortune valued at $800 million on the 2013 BRW Rich 200. He was also an early investor in Janine Allis’s Boost Juice and still holds a small stake in parent company Retail Zoo that will be divested if the sale to Affinity Equity goes ahead. Harris is also an investor and director of Top Deck Travel in the UK.

BRW ran a story on Harris’s involvement with social enterprise STREATearlier this week. He was also kind enough to share with BRW readers the lessons learned from his own career and his advice for entrepreneurs. Here are his five tips.

1. Cultivate personal resilience

“The key things you need [as an entrepreneur] are a sense of optimism, an absolute resilience/persistence, you just keep at it and at it until you overcome obstacles,” Harris says. “You need a risk mentality so if it doesn’t work it’s not the end of the earth, just a part of the learning curve.”

2. Learn to give constructive criticism

“I was probably a bit lenient as a boss, too much carrot and not enough stick,” Harris says. “I didn’t look people in the eye and tell them directly if I thought they weren’t doing things correctly: hence they weren’t learning from me as a leader even though they didn’t want to hear what they needed to know, so I think I could have been tougher in that regard and more direct. That was my worst failing as a leader, but everyone’s got weaknesses and you learn as you get older.”

3. Design your organisational structure for humans

Flight Centre is famous in management circles for its model of assigning employees to “families, villages and tribes”. Flight Centre chief executive Graham Turner, the co-founder with Harris, elaborated on this management philosophy in an interview with BRW last year. (The idea is linked to research by Oxford professor Robin Dunbar on the most functional social structures of both wild chimpanzees and humans).

Harris has used the same model in his work with social enterprise STREAT.

“[At STREAT] we’ve certainly adopted the team-based structures that Flight Centre had with families, villages and tribes, with teams of six, groupings of 30 and then ‘tribes’ of about 150,” Harris says. “It’s really breaking up a company into smaller units like country towns where people know each other and that sort of team-based structure has been talked about ad nauseam.”

4. Pick the right industry and follow youth trends

Harris says if he were going into business as an entrepreneur, he would look for service industries that are in a growth phase.

“I’d adopt Richard Branson’s line that you look at industries that your kids are already into and things that can grow,” Harris says. “I’d also look at things you can do without loads of people, especially in Australia because the labour costs are so high. More service industries, because people get older and wealthier they’re prepared to pay for services.”

Harris, who is still a major shareholder in Flight Centre, says travel is still a good industry for entrepreneurs.

“Travel’s a very resilient model and we’re lucky we invested in it,” Harris says. “People will put off a house renovation to go on holiday and they won’t put off a holiday if there’s a recession; they might shorten it.”

5. Consider social enterprise

Harris says the social purpose behind STREAT – to provide employment for homeless youth – is something that fuels the passion of employees and can create a “cult-like following” among customers. But if you can’t be one, maybe you can join one.

For example, PricewaterhouseCoopers has given STREAT the contract to run the café in its building in Melbourne and Harris says this has created a high level of staff engagement for the consulting firm.

“If companies handle it correctly and get buy-in from their staff, like PwC, then staff get the warm fuzzies and it’s win-win – but it has to be properly communicated.”

 

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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