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Thriving as a leader when your staff worry that you’re young, female and new

/ Mar 05, 2013 13:53PM / Print / ()

Thriving as a leader when your staff worry that you’re young...

Eliza Brown has been CEO of All Saints Wines, a 150-year-old wine business, for eight years. But when she stepped into her late father's role as a pregnant 31 year old, a tremor went through the staff. Within six months, through a combination of layoffs and staff leaving, the 50-person team had dropped to 22.

"My dad died on the Sunday, and I stepped into the role on Monday. A lot of people left because they suddenly had a 31-year-old girl telling them what to do. It was upsetting at the time," Brown tells Women's Agenda. "A lot of people, including lots of women, kept asking me if my brother Nick was coming back from uni to run the business. Apparently a woman couldn't run the business, so he was therefore the youngest who could. It was really disheartening. But it spurred me on even more."

Prior to stepping into the CEO role, Brown had been working in the marketing team in the company following a career in Melbourne with advertising firm JWT. "I stepped into the CEO role because I was here on the property. I knew the staff and what was going on," says Brown. "My talent has always been organisational skills, trying to persuade people to do things that I need them to do in a timely manner."

She has since built the team back up to 50 people. "You have to think through what the business needs, take your time and understand the structure," says Brown. "In small business you try to fill the holes because you're doing so much, [you need to] have planning around whom you hire and where you really need to grow."

Recruitment, along with Brown's organisational skills, proved critical as she focused on restructuring the company once she'd stepped into the leadership role. She steered the company to focus on developing a strong unique selling points, including a high-engagement wine club focused on customer service.

"Seventy per cent of our business is direct to the wine club. It's the largest winery-owned wine club in the country. This allows us to focus on customer service as a key element of our business. Only 10% of our business is through distributors," says Brown. The remaining 20% is cellar door sales. "You can have an excellent product but Australians are very service orientated. So if you have a bad team who doesn't understand the wine process and people, it's an issue."

The direct distribution model works well for Brown, especially living in regional Victoria. "I talk to lots of women who are interested in moving to the country but are concerned about raising their kids out here as there are fewer facilities," says Brown, who is expecting her second child in a few months.

"But as so much of our work is online these days, you don't feel isolated. You have the internet and communities of women to support you."

Eliza Brown is a finalist in the NAB Women's Agenda Leadership Awards. See the full list of finalists.

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