October 4, 2016

Wolf Blass and Andrew Abercrombie share their journey to the top

Leadership... it’s not about being right the first time, it’s about being resilient. Wolf Blass and Andrew Abercrombie in conversation.

This content was produced in commercial partnership with NAB and the Financial Review, and owned by the Financial Review.

Sparks were bound to fly when Wolfgang “Wolf” Blass, the 82-year-old winemaker and founder of Wolf Blass wines, met Andrew “Drew” Abercrombie, the chairman and founding director of FlexiGroup. Both are charismatic men with plenty to say. Despite their very different career journeys in industries that couldn’t be more disparate, they agreed on many things.

Firstly that CEOs should not be rewarded when they fail to perform as leaders, says Blass.

Abercrombie revealed he actually fired himself as chief executive of FlexiGroup (“don’t worry, I wrote myself three letters of warning so there wouldn’t be any trouble,” he quipped.) “I got the business to the point where I didn’t think I was doing a very good job anymore and I found someone else who could do a better job than me.

“Not only did it allow the business to run more efficiently, it allowed me the opportunity to step back and do what I do best, which is the bigger picture stuff, the innovation ­– to grow the business.”

Blass, who revolutionised wine marketing and packaging with the now famous Blass “bow tie” and different coloured labels for different varietals, sells 60 million bottles a year worldwide. But he says money has never been a motivator.

International image

“Winning is everything and having this international image which we have created selling 70 per cent of our products overseas, that is the motivation,” he says. “Building a brand in the shortest possible time which Wolf Blass has done against … companies which are 150 years old. We are number 2 in China, number 1 in Singapore and Hong Kong. Number 2 in England. I always had an international mind-set.”

Abercrombie, who grew FlexiGroup into an ASX-listed company with a market capitalisation of $1.26 billion, says he aspired to wealth but not riches.

“One of the reasons I always aspired to wealth was purely choice, not a matter of seeking status in society. Purely to give me choice. I’ve always thought that choice in life was the most valuable thing you can possibly have, apart from your health.”

Wolf Blass’s leadership takeaways:

▪ “If you have, among your executives or your people, a rotten tree, clear the guy out. Because sooner or later it will hurt you. There will be corruption in the system. Sometimes I left people next to me – they were no good, they were not cooperative. I can only say this cost me a lot of money and energy because I had to fix the things after the event.”

▪ “If you’re not hands-on you will fail. If you think you can make a fast buck in the shortest possible time you will fail.”

▪ “You have to have emotion in you and the passion that you should achieve the impossible. Even if it’s not possible at least you’re going to have the drive, the ammunition behind you and the imagination to start revolutionising things in order to move forward – otherwise you’re becoming a status quo.
Drew Abercrombie’s leadership takeaways:

▪ “Three or five-year plans are pretty much a waste of time. By all means have a dream and a vision, an aspiration. But it’s very rare that you arrive at the place that you originally envisaged.”

▪ “You can’t afford to be demoralised. In my opinion success to a large extent is about vision, aspiration – but above all resilience, because you’re going to be smacked in the head time and time again. Unless you’re prepared to get up off the floor and have another crack, you’re never going to make it.”

▪ “Create a happy, safe space, where people smarter than you can help build the business. I call it leading from behind, and I regard it as certainly the key to my commercial success. Find people who are smarter than you, and create a space where they’re happy to contribute.”

This first was originally published by the Financial Review on 28 September 2016.