November 7, 2023

Chasing the common good….

Wellness industry trailblazer Radek Sali shares how an impact-driven philosophy has supercharged his business, investment and personal successes.

The famously smiley Radek Sali is not one for management platitudes. Rather, he is evangelical about a style of compassionate leadership that unlocks the individual purpose and whole-life wellbeing of others. As chairman of Light Warrior, the B Corp-certified investment office he co-founded after presiding over the $1.7bn sale of vitamin maker Swisse Wellness in 2015, Sali sees selfcare and empathy as critical fuel for driving up social and environmental value as well as profit. “You need to love yourself before you can love others and then, in turn, be inspired to leave the world a better place,” he says. “The thing that keeps me awake at night is wondering how people feel working with us,” he adds. “Are they happy? Do they feel like they have real purpose? If people feel inspired in the workplace we are going to have a much happier society, let alone higher performing businesses.”

This dedication to company culture as much as growth planning is what led to Swisse appearing on multiple Great Place to Work lists during Sali’s eight-year tenure as chief executive, wherein he expanded the product range from a couple of items to more than 300 and grew turnover 40-fold. He says his greatest satisfaction comes upon hearing from an employee’s loved one that they are a more contented version of themselves as a result of working with his firm. “I remember the first organisation I took note of growing up was Virgin because it looked creative and fun—everyone wanted to work there,” he recalls. “It always made logical sense to me that you get better [business] outcomes when you are driven by purpose and make that fun for others to be a part of.” Since then, he has co-owned a company with Richard Branson and is an Australasian representative for the legendary entrepreneur’s B Team social justice initiative.

HEALTH TO WEALTH

In Sali’s experience, physical vitality and a calm mind are essential to meeting the high expectations of the corporate sphere. He says: “We’re happier when we’re healthy, and the basis of that for thousands of years has been nutrition, mindfulness and movement; if I didn’t have those three fundamentals, I’d never have been as successful as I have.” It is hardly surprising, then, that the local branch of US-born wellness event platform Wanderlust now falls under his purview, while he has also invested in electrolyte brand Hydralyte and health testing kit provider myDNA.

Wanderlust Australia seems to represent an evolution of the mission Sali originated while at Swisse, this time selling plant based supplements as well as ‘mindful living’ experiences. With the celebrity endorsement strategy he pioneered in the noughties having become industry standard (after effectively transforming a pharmacy label into an aspirational lifestyle brand), he believes consumer brands now need to meet a higher bar of authenticity. “We try to build connections and uplift people with a family-friendly event format where alcohol is not a driver of the experience, and we’re seeing satisfaction ratings like 9.8 out of 10 because people are fundamentally moved,” he says. Wanderlust’s influencer roster includes the likes of Byron Bay-based surf musician Xavier Rudd and his wife, yogi Ashley Freeman-Rudd, who certainly seem to embody holistic living rather than simply perform it. The brand is also defined by its commitment to a lighter environmental footprint, using vitamin-D derived from fungi rather than sheep’s wool, for example, and omega-3 extracted directly from fast-growing algae rather than the overfished marine life that eat said algae.

A MATTER OF MINDSET

When it comes to Australians’ mental health, Sali believes we could make gains on the Japanese—the world’s longest-living society—by taking time for meditation. He says: “When you learn to calm your mind and accept that the negative voice in your head is just another part of you [rather than your whole identity], you find you can give your all to a situation in the present rather than staying caught up in self-doubt or replaying the last difficult conversation you had.”

Of course, even Sali’s enviable career has not been free of risk or disappointments. In 2020, the George Calombaris-helmed restaurant empire in which he had a majority stake collapsed while the dust was still settling on an underpayment scandal that his team had uncovered and remedied. He believes it is important to talk openly about failure because not doing so can lead you to “freeze up and miss opportunities for future success”. He adds that many businesses “need to act more like sporting teams where feedback is seen as a gift,” both in terms of congratulating staff on a job well done and commending those who have the bravery to call out their own mistakes so that others can learn from them.

In both his entrepreneurial and community commitments, Sali thinks deeply about the mark he is making. The La Trobe University scholarship that bears his family name seeks to help young Indigenous people in the Shepparton area to obtain a business degree without having to leave their hometown. He explains: “My father, who grew up in Shepparton, was the first Albanian to go to university here in Australia and that made a massive difference to his life, so we as a family wanted to support that legacy of education for underrepresented students.”

LIGHTING THE WAY

His father, an integrative medicine pioneer, looms large when Sali reflects on his biggest inspirations and mentors. Another is Jane Tewson CBE, co-founder of major UK charity Comic Relief and Melbourne community development group Igniting Change, which he currently chairs. “Jane is the greatest social entrepreneur I’ve ever known, and as a society we should be supporting leaders like her better,” he says. “I’ve learned so much from the frontline heroes at Igniting Change… I’m now obsessed with fusing community work into purpose-led business so we can try shifting the dial on the greatest issues facing Australians.”

The principal avenues for Sali’s obsession include the impact funds held by Light Warrior offshoot Conscious Investment Management (CIM), and the philanthropic Lightfolk Foundation, which focuses largely on overcoming Indigenous disadvantage. In just four years, CIM has become one of the country’s major providers of social housing and specialist disability accommodation, and recently financed the return of 47,100ha of ancestral lands to traditional owners in south-west Queensland as part of a leading-edge carbon farming initiative. Needless to say, Sali is both an optimistic and solutions-driven member of the Australian Climate Leaders Coalition.

He says: “[At first] it proved hard to find impact-driven organisations that delivered commercial returns as well as social and environmental ones, but by really listening to the people who feel the issue you’re looking to solve and offering extra support [beyond that of a passive investor], you can start to make a difference.” CIM was recently listed among the region’s top 20 per cent of responsible investors for the second consecutive year by the Responsible Investment Association Australasia.

Currently splitting his time equally between commercial and nonprofit activities, Sali is clearly not content to sit on the sidelines. With Light Warrior’s riskier ventures, he seeks out a majority stake so he can refine company culture from the inside, since he previously found himself doing the same amount of work as a minority shareholder anyway. “You’ve got to give your all,” he says, adding, “you can’t bring half your best and expect to see the best outcomes.” If his business highlights thus far are anything to go by, Sali should bottle and sell his own unique brand of energy and ambition.

Originally published in The Luxury Report, October 2023. Images courtesy Wanderlust Australia.

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