Last week, Bunnings managing director Mike Schneider joined Australian Retailers Association CEO Paul Zahra on the ARA podcast about how he began his career in retail, what a typical day looks like for him – and why he reckons he has the best retail job in the country. Here is an edited excerpt from their conversation. Paul Zahra: You’ve been at Bunnings for 16 years and held various roles since becoming managing director in 2016. How has the company grown over that time to be the ic
iconic brand in retail that it is today? Mike: It’s, it’s a great question. When I joined Bunnings back in 2005 our full year revenues were around the $4 billion mark and it’s certainly grown significantly since then, you know, it was 2015 as a business, we hit a billion dollars on the bottom line for earnings. But it’s a really unique business. I think the thing that I love most about Bunnings is that the connections are there in terms of the things you want to do around your home, but it’s also our really unique connections to the community. The most common question I get asked when I say I work for Bunnings is: “Which store do you work in?” And I really like that. To me, that means [people] don’t see a big team and lots of stores. You see a local business in your community supporting the community, providing the products that turn houses into dream homes or help you run your business more effectively. To me, we’ve occupied a unique place in the community’s mind for a really long time leading the organisation. Leading the organisation, it’s a great privilege because the thing that we work hard to do is continue to make that a reality for our customers and a reality for our team, and obviously the suppliers. Household goods retailing led the monthly rises across the industries in July, ABS figures show. PZ: I want to go back to where it began. What was life like growing up for you? Was a career in retail always on the cards? MS: Oh, absolutely not. I grew up in North Ryde in Sydney. Dad’s health wasn’t the best, so I was always going to need to get out and get working as soon as I could, but I also believed in the importance of a good education. I went to a couple of high schools in Sydney and then onto the University of New South Wales, where I studied to become a history and English high school teacher. I think if my memory serves me correctly, Paul, we both spent a bit of time at Target! I started my retail career at Target and I have really, really fond memories of Thursday nights and Saturdays socialising with my mates, learning a few things, but I really did love the vibe of retail. I really love the connection with customers. I love working with other team members. As I progressed through my tertiary studies, I realised that the classroom probably wasn’t for me I’d sort of fallen into education as a little bit of a plan B. I didn’t get to go to the university that I first chose to for a number of reasons, so teaching sort of presented as a logical option. But when I didn’t love the classroom, I was fortunate to have a store manager who said, “Would you consider a traineeship with Target?” So off I went and started my Target traineeship and they were very generous in letting me complete my degree and worked around my studies. I had a leader who believed in me and gave me opportunities. And when I finished my traineeship, they sent me out west to Dubbo. I did a store opening for Target in Dubbo in 1993, which feels like five lifetimes ago, and stuck with it for a while. The industry’s now evolved a lot and back in those days, it was almost an expectation that you would [have to] be a certain age or have a certain amount of experience behind you before you moved into store management. But being young and doing a few different things, I was really ambitious to get ahead, and I just didn’t see that Target was delivering that. (So) I answered an ad in the newspaper for a job at a retail bank. and the transformation that they were under and the bank turned out to be Westpac. And it was part of the Bob Joss era of turning the bank from this old bureaucratic credit-driven model into something that was more customer-facing in ‘95. I joined the bank and had a fantastic five-year run working in retail banking, consumer banking strategy, and finance and HR, and travelled from Sydney to Perth to Adelaide to Melbourne. It was funny, you know, it was Christmas. What year would it have been? I think it might’ve been 2001 and or even maybe 2002, but I was in Bourke street in David Jones which is a business owner, which is a business that’s dear to your heart, Paul! You know what Christmas in retail and particularly department store retailing is like, it’s a magical place. And here I was doing, one corporate lunch after another, you know, wining and dining clients, which was a nice thing to do, but it’s pretty soulless. You know, you have lunch and head home. And here I was standing in David Jones going, “I really do miss this magic. I really miss all the retail has to offer.” And over the years, I’d sort of flirted with going back into retail and the right opportunities weren’t there. I had a young family, I had a mortgage, there were the practicalities of life, right? And, you know, careers aren’t a fairy tale of one thing to another and I needed to provide for my kids and my wife. And that was really important. And I reached out to a few people at The Warehouse Group, the New Zealand retail business. They had bought a few bargain chain stores here in Australia, and were trying to do a turnaround. They were happy to take me on as a regional manager in Victoria. And I did that for a few years before going back to Sydney with The Warehouse Group. I was having a heap of fun. I was doing some HR work. I was doing retail ops. I was traveling around visiting stores, all the stuff that really energised me. But it wasn’t a business that was performing as well as, as its owner would like. And eventually the decision from the Warehouse Group board was to sell the Australian business to private equity. I met with the private equity people and I have deep respect for people that work in private business and private equity, but what they’re asking me to do was slash and burn and close stores and rationalise – it sort of flew in the face of my value set. I love creating jobs. So many of us in retail are the beneficiaries of the casual-into-part-time-into-permanent-into leadership roles. And I love seeing that growth. So I made the choice that going ahead with private equity wasn’t going to be for me and went through a few recruiters I knew. I was interviewing for a couple of different roles and a role at Bunnings came up in 2005. So I came to Bunnings as regional manager or state manager for New South Wales and the ACT and close to 16 years later, here I am doing what I do. I’ve been doing this for five-and-a-bit years, and I think I’ve certainly got the best retail job in the country and maybe the best corporate job, because it is a brand that people relate to. It’s a brand that’s very down-to-earth. It’s got incredible people. Just before is podcast Paul, I was signing long service letters. And I signed a couple for, for people with 50 years – five decades of service in the business, another half a dozen that were 30, 35 or 40 years. People put down roots and grow at Bunnings. I love that. And I’m really fortunate to be a part of the team. Leon Walley and Annie Young are team members at the Bunnings store in Bayswater, WA. PZ: That’s amazing. And there’s a lot of similarities in both our careers. It’s a conversation for another day, I guess. Given you studied to be an educator, do you find that you still use those skills to this very day in your job? MS: A hundred percent Paul. I think as leaders, our first job is to coach and develop. So I’ve always found it really important in what we communicate and how we educate our team. It’s about setting the right context, whether it’s our strategic frameworks or the strategies we have for a 12- or 24-month period, the ‘why’ is really important. You’ll know from your time as a CEO, you visit a store and you ask why something’s happening. And the team will look at you with the sort of incredulous look and you realise that someone’s told them, “Mike said” or “Paul said” and there’s no context for the decision and the rationale. So that context is just so important. All of us in the leadership group at Bunnings have what I would call ‘a teaching load’. We have a number of future leader programs – there’s our trainee leader program, a Bunnings management program for our emerging senior leaders and then an advanced management course for our more senior leaders and all of us speak and teach parts of the curriculum for those programs. So I still get my fix of classroom time! PZ: I want to now talk about a day in the life of Mike Schneider. What does a normal day look like for you? What’s on the agenda? What time do you start? What time do you get to bed? MS: It varies day-to-day and I think one of the great things – perhaps it’s a bit of a curse of being in a really senior leadership role – is just the diversity. You know, my routine is no routine and I really struggled with my first executive appointment at Bunnings was 2007. I became general manager of the operations network. And when I was running my region in New South Wales, there was a great routine. You knew which stores you were visiting and you worked your way around the state Moving into a national role, you’re pulled and pushed in lots of different places. And being managing director, it’s probably 10x on that. So there’s no one-size-fits-all. If I’m out in stores, it’s always very early starts because our operational teams get going at 6-6:30 in the morning and you want to be there when the store is open. And you know, we like to get teams together over a meal at the end of the day to have a bit of a chat about what’s going on in the business and listen and learn. Obviously with Covid, particularly with the requirements to wear masks in offices, it’s a bit more practical working from home. So that flexibility has been good and helped inform my thinking on how I want our support teams to work flexibly in the future. But there’s a lot of reading. There’s a lot of ground you have to cover every day. There’s a lot of detail. And that saying ‘retail is detail’ is true, whether it’s the boardroom or the shop floor, you gotta be across the detail of product price, sales, margins costs – all those things that are really important to drive the productivity loop of your business to be successful. The absence of travel has been a blessing and a curse. You know, I don’t miss the sort of trip to Sydney for a one or two hour meeting and trip back, and certainly much more purposeful when we think about travel, but the importance of human connection is so important. The last time we were down in Melbourne, we caught up with a few other retailers over a bite to eat. That sort of connection and engagement’s really important because it’s the best way to share ideas and thoughts, but I think we’ve become far more comfortable with technology. So that’s, that’s improved productivity. The danger when you work from home is that ‘working from home’ becomes ‘living at work’, and you gotta be really careful to sort of strike that balance. I love what I do and I feel it’s as much a hobby as it is a career, I never feel tempted to clock watch. I’ve got a very understanding partner. My kids have grown up with me doing quite broad roles, so they’re used to Dad turning up at odd times and not being around at other times, but you make the most of the moments that matter when you’re away from work. And most importantly, you need to have fun when you’re at work. I say this a lot at Bunnings, if you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, I challenge you to find the thing in life that’s going to make you feel happy, because when you do that, the money won’t matter and the hours won’t matter because you’re feeling very satisfied in what you do.