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David Johnston blog 1

People, planet and purpose: the core values of this Sydney MD

"We need the large companies to push the barrow of sustainability"

Ask Weleda Managing Director (Australia) David Johnston something spiky about new competitors in the organic and natural skin care industry, and he’ll swing the conversation towards his passion for biodiversity and native bees.

The lifelong vegetarian prefers discussing how humans can change the way they live to protect the planet. Competitors? They’re a welcome addition to help bring forward sustainable packaging options.

So great is his passion for nature, David redesigned the Australian headquarters of Weleda, in Warriewood, NSW, to include a floor to ceiling green wall.

Tell us about your redesigned space?
What we had previously was still good, everyone was fine but it felt more closed in. One of the things we are trying to do is to let more light in. We made it all glass, and we worked on the petitions so they were pods.
Everyone has their own pod but they hot desk if they want to, but people like to have their own space. It’s open but they’ve got their privacy. Each is 1500 mm high, so I come in the morning and see hands waving, and if they want to stand up you can see them, but if not, they’re just in their little space being able to concentrate if they want.
I don’t think people like open plan that much, but everyone is different. You give people a bit of both, there are common areas where they can come out, or they can go back. I just do what I think is right. Like the curves, to soften the space, and all natural materials.
The Green Wall gives a sense of relaxed atmosphere and we’ve opened that space up (all the way to the top floor), and I thought it would be noisy with the kitchen below there, but it’s a happy noise.

David Johnston blog 2
How long have you been Managing Director?  As long as (Swiss company) Weleda has been in Australia…10 years. I was doing a presentation and going back over the staff, and counted that four of them are still with me from those 10 years with the company, two were 9 years,  two were 8 years,  two were 7 years, two were 6 years, two were 5 years, and two were 4 years! And it was lovely to see that continuity of the growth.

What are your three main areas of focus as MD? People, planet and purpose is the way I try to do it, and it’s the Weleda way as well. You need to make a profit to be able to do those things well, rather than doing other things to make a profit.

What are challenges of managing a company that has a European base?
  • Because our ingredients are as natural as you can get and don’t have any preservatives (and so they have dates on them), it’s getting the right stock at the right level at the right time, to grow at the right pace. I intentionally contain good growth, so I can always maintain supply. Even if I could or wanted to grow larger, I try not to too quickly. We’re in a nice balance.
  • I get autonomy now, because I’ve proven I can do it. I don’t work well when micromanaged, so they leave me alone now, and now I’m able to contribute to things over there as well.

What are the skills needed in a leader for culture to thrive? Openness, listening, and that sense of being real. I don’t believe a leader is there to be in charge, or to even be up front, or to be at the back. It’s to be there to ensure everyone is moving forward with purpose, with clarity, knowing the direction and supporting each other through those things. In my office there’s one piece of paper that says something like ‘I will to try to make sure that I give enough room for my people, I know I can stifle them, so I am trying to allow them to have the space.’ I read that to them so they know that’s what I’m trying to do. It gives them permission to be vulnerable, like (researcher) Brené Brown.

Is that why you booked for your team to see Brené Brown at The Growth Faculty event in July?
Yes, and other things. Last year I thought ‘I need to get more input. I’ve been going for a while, I haven’t done many courses.’ And just that thought triggered this avalanche. I did a 10 month writing course, I did a leadership course, I did curriculum, I did brand building, I did holistic decision making, and at one point I thought How am I fitting all this in? It wasn’t hard, it was just that you could if you wanted to.

What’s your work schedule? You said you work from home sometimes?
I work harder often at home. It’s the ability to apply myself to different things without disruption. I’m home on a Monday. Tuesday we have a focus/news meeting, and everyone comes in and says what their focus is for the week, and what news they’ve got (after mindfulness practice). Then there are little meetings. Wednesday tends to be a little bit more of that, sometimes a longer meeting if it’s marketing, or people coming in. Thursday, if I need to I’m in, then I’m out, and Friday I work from home.

Tell us about your attitude to competitors?
Last year I was asked to present at an industry event on ethical sourcing. I asked myself, 'why am I presenting on this?' And I thought, because I want everyone to do it, because then they will be doing good things in the world, and looking after humanity and also looking after the environment. We need the large companies to push the barrow of sustainability because trying to get out of plastic packaging is really hard to do. But, the moment a Proctor & Gamble, or a L'Oréal, say “By THIS  time you will not give us ANY plastic that isn’t from recycled”, then everything starts to change. I don’t focus on competitors, I love going to our farms and seeing what we’re making. We’re watching what we’re growing, how it’s grown, how it’s harvested, when it’s harvested.
In Turkey for example, we initially converted 30 farmers to become biodynamic suppliers, we guarantee their income, even if they have a failed harvest. It’s now up to 300 farmers.  

What about companies that do “greenwashing” (appearing natural/sustainable when not)?
I think a lot of people also want to do greenwashing. They want to be seen to do the right thing, but greenwash is what they do. For example, they want to put their recycling bin out, but they won’t wash out the containers they put in there.  They won’t do the work. So it’s all a consciousness. Green washers will greenwash. 
We’re a member of the Union of Ethical Biotrade., which is really incredibly unique, and there are only two skincare companies in the world now, and I’d love a lot more. It’s fair trade gone to the next level by a mile. They audit, on an ongoing basis, producers to ensure that everything and everyone along the entire growing, manufacturing, and harvesting phase is treated fairly, given the right wage, and the indigenous community is consulted so the land is returned to how it should be.  

What’s exciting news for Weleda this year? Product wise, Skin Food is beeswax, lanolin, camomile, rosemary, calendula, sweet orange and pansy. If you go back to (the founding story of) us being medicine, Skin Food was created for that. It’s our iconic product. Soon we will be releasing three other products in the Skin Food range.

Thanks David, now the GREAT EIGHT (8 getting to know you questions we ask everyone interviewed for The Growth Faculty):
  1. What’s a book you’d recommend? Theory of U by Otto Scharmer on change management
  2. If you could co-author a book with anyone, who would that be, and what’s the book title?  I’d paint a story of possibilities, with people I felt a connection with.  
  3. What's a great piece of advice you could share? Work on yourself.
  4. What’s been your lowest moment, and how did you recover? I started last year with a neck brace, a boat up on a slip with water pouring out of its hull, and a DUI, so I didn’t have a car. I viewed it all as an opportunity to grow. Slow down. Accept and allow. (Interesting side note: The neck injury was from an accident in the shower, while using the chin-up bar David had installed there!).  
  5. How do you relax? I swim, I meditate every day, I consciously make sure I respect myself and deal with myself in a way I’d deal with a friend I cared about.
  6. What’s a fun fact that’s not widely known about you? I have a boat, but I only learned to sail a year and a half ago, when surfing became too painful, too much effort for the benefit.
  7. What’s the secret to success? Be true to yourself, be consistent, be open, be honest.  
  8. What’s a prediction for 2025? There will be dynamic changes that will make the narrative of the way people have been viewing the environment, and the way we live and work, lead us to become more conscious of what is really needed to enjoy life.

Weleda started in 1921 as a pharmaceutical laboratory, with its own medicinal plant garden. Today it's a world-leading manufacturer of holistic natural cosmetics, as well as pharmaceuticals for anthroposophical (philosophy started by Rudolph Steiner) therapy. Its headquarters are in Switzerland. If you're in education, and would like to find out about Weleda's work in encouraging schoolchildren to look after native bees in Australia, look at its Weleda Bee B&B Hotels website