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5 secrets to success from Katie Page, Harvey Norman CEO

08 December 2020

As CEO of Harvey Norman and one of Australia’s most powerful women in business, Katie Page says as a girl growing up in regional Queensland, she was told she could do anything.

From a very young age, her father would encourage her to read the Business section of the newspapers, and from that early insight she has grown to lead an award-winning retail giant for 30+ years. Along the way, Katie married Harvey Norman founder and Executive Chairman, Gerry Norman, and with the strength of their partnership, they transformed it from a single store in central Sydney, to now more than 220 locations in eight countries.

At the latest Meet the CEO on 10 March - an exclusive Q&A style event for UNSW alumni - Katie shared details of her personal journey, including a number of key factors she believes have been crucial for success, both for her, and the organisation.

Girls must be empowered through family and education

I was brought up to believe I could do anything. I was one of four daughters, and my parents were both fantastic people. We didn’t have a lot of money but the family and community piece was really important for me. As a bank manager, my father’s job meant we moved around a lot. When in Brisbane I attended Brisbane State High School – a strongly feminist school. The headmistress and her deputy were very strong on making sure their girls could do anything... my family and that education piece, were the most important things to frame what I am today.

The benefits of blending the business with the personal

It’s very hard for people to do this – Gerry and I are such different people and we fight like you wouldn’t believe, our arguments are the stuff of legend. We’re also comfortable having the hard discussions, though. People leave the room because they can’t cope with the hard discussions Gerry and I have together, but we see it as a healthy thing.

In this day and age, founding families, where husbands and wives working together, is not the thing. But all of our own money is in this company, we are the major shareholders, we’re going to work like you wouldn’t believe to make sure this is successful. We’re probably going to innovate a bit more than companies with boards that haven’t got skin in the game and haven’t ever been retailers.

The importance of being 'hands on' at any level

You cannot be in retail and not be hands-on. You can’t sit in a boardroom or an office in Sydney running stores in all these other countries and know what is going on– someone from a government department once said ‘please don’t tell me you’re in the minutia of the retail business’ and I said, yes I am, and that’s why we’re so successful.  We’ve got to be able to understand what the trends are: where should we open, what is the future of our company?

I spend a lot of time with global manufacturers and their design teams – not just their CEOs or the boards, but with their thinkers. We have some of the biggest brands in the world in our stores – Microsoft, HP, Apple, Samsung, LG, Electrolux –  I’m in their head offices all the time and I insist that their design teams come to those meetings so we can see where they’re going.

Your people and your balance sheet will get you through a crisis

The GFC was particularly hard for us but we did not lose anything. We worked on our business strategy to enter emerging markets. We have also been through SARS in Asia, so COVID-19 is not new for us.

It is essential to keep investing in your employees. During the GFC, Harvey Norman had 600 people working in Ireland and the company chose to support them throughout the financial crisis. We’re now doing really well in Ireland and achieved a 20.3% profit increase.

It’s also important for businesses to have a strong balance sheet. Many people are dismissive of a balance sheet when times are great. But we’ve been through a lot with 65% of our stores in country areas – we’ve been through droughts, floods, cyclones and bushfires within a short period of time. However, we feel reassured about the future of our company because we have a strong balance sheet.

Never neglect your physical presence

People say department stores are dinosaurs, but I can take you to Selfridges, Brown Thomas, the Westin family group and you’ll see the best retail of your life, and you’ll spend a fortune. Five years ago, it was obvious there was no money being spent in physical spaces; all these companies around the world were spending all their money on digital and online. Consumers, and I’m a consumer, were going to these physical stores and being bored to tears.

Today’s mindset is everyone’s going to shop online, and have this wonderful life buying dresses from their living room that look bad on them and need to be adjusted.  I don’t care how you shop with us, but the experience has got to be seamless, no matter what. It’s what makes your business work to your customer’s advantage. It’s not either/or, it’s all.

Watch the entire Meet the CEO interview with Katie Page and Mark Scott AO, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education.