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In the Mind of the CEO: Caroline Elliott, CEO, KOOKAÏ

How Elliott’s complementary skills in structure and process helps company’s creative MD

Caroline Elliott describes her first days on the job at Australian owned fashion brand KOOKAÏ in 2017 as a “baptism of fire.”

Only one week earlier she’d impressed co-owner Rob Cromb, who told her to “come on board and work out what you can do.”  He’d then flown to France, birthplace of the KOOKAÏ brand, trusting the former business owner to see where she could contribute.

“One thing he said was ‘stay away from the product’,” she recalls.   
Rob (KOOKAÏ co-owner with Danielle Vagner) is Managing Director of KOOKAÏ.   He and Danielle grew KOOKAÏ from a Chapel Street shop importing the Parisian label to a vertically integrated business based in Melbourne, with factories in Fiji and Sri Lanka, 39 boutiques across Australia and New Zealand, and an additional 160 boutiques throughout Europe (following KOOKAÏ Australia's acquisition of the global brand in 2017).

Caroline is the company’s first senior management hire since its beginnings in 1992.

TGF: Caroline, how did you spend your first weeks at KOOKAÏ?

Caroline: I spent that time talking to people. There were a few key areas I chose to focus on. While it was an incredibly successful business, it had no real structure and process to it. Because I have a finance background, I’m all about structure and procedures whereas Rob is all about creative and the brand and the product.

TGF: What were some of the areas that needed structure and process?

Caroline: Because Rob was so involved in the business as an executive Managing Director, everyone relied on him to make decisions, so people weren’t being accountable or taking responsibility for the decisions that they should have been making. So, I did quite a bit work early on to empower those department heads to start making those decisions, and to trust themselves.

TGF: How did you go about that?

Caroline: The different departments were all working in silos, and not really working as a team. So it didn’t really take much to bring them together. I organised fortnightly department head meetings that they’d never had before, - so there was sharing of information across departments. That was beneficial to all of them, and then they could make informed decisions. Once they all worked more collaboratively I found that decisions started to flow.

When I came on board, I set about having an internal strategy around how we can do things better as a group, how we can work together as a group; it’s not a company strategy because that’s set by Rob, but an internal strategy to make sure we’re all driving the bus in the same direction.

TGF: What responsibilities has Rob found hard to let go of?

Caroline: When I came on he had 19 people reporting directly to him, which was ridiculous; so I did a restructuring of all the positions. He had regular contact with lots of people in the organisation;  I think it was hard for him to then not have that and still feel like he wasn’t losing control of what was going on.  It’s just taken time for him to realise that the business has become better, and it’s operating better, but that’s just a time thing.

TGF: How do you go about growing and developing your people?

Caroline: A lot of people who’ve been here for a long time, they didn’t know what they didn’t know. They haven’t worked anywhere else other than KOOKAÏ.  They started on the shop floor. We do a lot of recruitment from the shop floor into head office. So, we’ve done a lot of work just developing leadership skills with people, doing some work managing people, and understanding how to work collaboratively as a group.

TGF: You came into an established business with long-time owners. Has there been conflict?

Caroline: We had a few moments of conflict. Rob hates structure and process, whereas I’m all about it. But he does realise that the business needs it.  I have stayed away from product, in terms of choosing what product goes in. We don’t agree on all things, for example we haven’t agreed always on staffing or structure or things like that. When you’re in a role like mine, you do have to remember it is the owner’s business, so they do have final say; but I will always give my opinion. We can agree to disagree, but a lot of the time we do agree.  He certainly seeks my opinion on a lot of things.

TGF: Tell us about how you and Rob communicate with each other.  

Caroline: We have offices next door to each other. Rob’s not a structured person, it’s very free flowing. I will book a breakfast meeting with him every couple of weeks, but because he’s an executive Managing Director he’s still very involved in the day to day business. In our head office we have our design team and our buying team, our main pattern makers and our sample makers, and Rob spends most of his time with that team; whereas I sit with the support team, with the retail team and the finance.

We’re both in the office unless one of us is travelling so it’s quite ad hoc. We don’t have a formal meeting every week to discuss things, it’s just whenever we need to but because we are a “just in time” deliverer of product (we deliver into stores every week), it’s very fast moving…so we just talk all the time. It’s not a very structured relationship but it seems to work. I really keep the operations running and Rob makes sure the right product is getting into store.

TGF: What would you say to owners or founders of business thinking of taking on a 2IC?

Caroline: I think it comes down to trust, you have got to be ready to delegate. Rob had never had any senior management in the business until I came on board. And we’ve subsequently brought in a CFO (Chief Financial Officer), a general counsel (legal) and also a CIO (Chief Information Officer); all of whom have taken on group roles which means they work across the global business.

It’s been quite a job for Rob to let go and delegate and it just comes down to trust at the end of the day. I think it probably took about three months for Rob to understand what I could do and what I could bring, and the benefits of that. I think for owners of businesses, especially those who’ve started from scratch, it’s very hard to let go of the baby.

TGF: What’s been the secret of KOOKAÏ ‘s longevity in the industry?

Caroline: You’ve got to have a good product.  KOOKAÏ has been very true to its customer base. We know who the customer is, and they’ve been very loyal. One thing I’ve noticed is its culture, KOOKAÏ has an extraordinary culture. There are girls who’ve worked here for 10 years and they look like they’ve only just left school. The head of HR is really the keeper of that culture. There are ingrained values that are documented and displayed all over the office and everybody is expected to live and breathe those values, and we spend a lot of time training around those – including in all the decision making we do.  So for someone (like me) from a finance background who’s all about numbers and figures and the bottom line that’s something that I definitely learnt coming into KOOKAÏ, how important making sure the culture is right.

TGF: You’re on a lot of boards, any tips for those considering applying to a board position?  

If you’re seeking a board role do your due diligence, because the role of director can be fraught with all sorts of dangers. So, do your due diligence particularly on the chair but also on the other directors who are involved, because you could have to make some fairly sticky decisions sometimes – and make sure you’ve got an interest in whatever it is, whether it’s an organisation or a charity of a business or whatever, just make sure you have an interest in what’s going on, because it takes up a lot of time.

Caroline’s GREAT EIGHT, answers to our eight getting to know you questions: 

Recommended book:  Anything by Tim Winton, Good to Great by Jim Collins and Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson.

If you could co-author a book with anyone in the world who would it be, and what’s the book title?  Richard Branson, I love his free-flowing attitude and focus on customers. I don’t know what the book title would be.  

Best piece of advice you can share?  Don’t languish under bad leadership, it just stifles your development. All you learn from bad leaders is what not to do, not what you should be doing.

What's been your lowest moment, and how did you recover from it? I started a sushi manufacturing business. I’d started it from scratch with my brother. When Ansett [Airlines] went down and S11 [Melbourne inner-city blockade] happened, the bottom fell out of the market, because we were the major supplier to the events and the hotel industry. We had to put it into voluntary administration. We had 25 staff.  I ended up on the front page of the Herald Sun which was very much a low point. I just wanted to pull the doona over my head and hide but  I didn’t have that luxury, so I had to get up and keep going. What I learnt from that really set me up to do what I’ve done ever since then, which is going into businesses which are going through some sort of change, be it divesting or investing – so while it was horrible at the time, it has set me up for the career that I have today. 

How do you relax? I relax by reading, I love reading trashy magazines, and watching a good Netflix series back to back.

What’s a fun fact that’s not widely known about you?  I’ve bungee jumped off the Victoria Falls Bridge (between Zimbabwe and Zambia), a long time ago.

What do you think is the secret of success? The late Richard Pratt, the founder of Visy Industries, once said the success of business is easy – just spend less than you earn.  If not that, then you’ve got to have a great product or great service that people need, and great leadership.

What is your prediction for 2025? I think the way we shop will be very different. We probably won’t be trying on clothes as we do today where you have to go into a store and take them off, we’ll just have avatars of ourselves on our phone and we’ll just be scanning the clothes and we’ll be able to virtually try them on.


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