Gerry Harvey says he hasn't personally sold any whitegoods at his Harvey Norman stores in 20 years, but Australia's richest retailer remains a salesman at heart. The co-founder and executive chairman of the listed electrical goods and furniture retailer believes being a salesman is a state of mind. "Am I still a salesman? If you mean selling fridges on the floor, no, I stopped doing that a long time ago," he says. "But if you mean being involved with the business and getting my hands dirty - I do that. I never forget who I am, and that is a hands-on sort of person."
Harvey is the public face of Harvey Norman, the company he founded with Ian Norman in 1982, and the successor to retailer Norman Ross, which the two men founded in 1961. Through the decades, and even after Harvey Norman floated in 1987, Harvey has never stopped being an entrepreneur, making little practical distinction between running a single store and what is now an international operation with franchised and company-owned stores in Australia, New Zealand, Slovenia, Ireland, Singapore and Malaysia.
It is a point of pride for Harvey that he remains involved in running Harvey Norman, taking direct responsibility for senior appointments, monitoring their performance, meeting regularly with his executive team and insisting that "no property deal goes through unless I'm involved in it".
Long before management consultants wheeled out the "staff-engagement" bandwagon, Harvey recognised the benefits of being a visible chief executive. He regularly visits Harvey Norman stores, where he enjoys chatting with staff.
Harvey's motivations run deeper than a fondness for a chinwag. He believes he gets to understand his business better by talking to his employees, and equally that it's important for his employees to have the opportunity to hear from the boss.
"I'm interested in hearing what the sales crew or the cleaner have to say," he says. "I make a point of doing that [communicating with employees], and if you lead by example, others [managers] around you start doing it too."
Harvey retains the salesman's touch - gregarious, spontaneous, interested - and believes that many successful entrepreneurs and chief executives eventually shun such familiarity.
"I see a lot of people become [too] important, and that goes for entrepreneurs as well," he says. "They can be the worst offenders when they reach the top, they just become bloody arrogant.
"I never want to become . . . self-important. The majority of people are seduced by success; not just in business, but in any position people get to. It would be foolish of me to say I'm not seduced a little bit, but when you become totally seduced, you become ineffective."
Harvey believes his down-to-earth attitude to leadership has resulted in a "tangible culture" at Harvey Norman which has contributed directly to the company's success.
The chairman of executive search firm Watermark Search International, Nick Waterworth, doesn't doubt it for a moment. He has noticed a clear shift in what his clients expect of a chief executive. In the 1990s, he says, the focus was on management skills, particularly financial and operational. Today, the focus is on leadership rather than management, with a much broader range of skills and attributes. Sales skills figure very prominently.
"Sales is now an extremely important part of the chief executive's job," Waterworth says. "It's a critical function."
It is not uncommon these days for a sales director and local sales manager to be accompanied by the chief executive when meeting a potential client. "In both large and small companies, chief executives are expected to be involved with major customers as well as securing new customers," he says. "Companies are more successful at expansion - whether it's moving into new markets, forming new joint ventures or securing new customers - when the chief executive is involved."
Some sales skills may not necessarily be recognised as such, but a chief executive who prefers to describe talking to shareholders or a roomful of analysts as investor relations is selling, he insists.
Equally, securing and retaining staff in the current skills market places a high premium on a chief executive's selling skills - communicating the company's vision, motivating and inspiring staff to stay with the company, and championing a distinctive company culture.
"In the past, most employees would be grateful to have a job, but people are more questioning now," Waterworth says. "A chief executive has to be able to very consciously communicate the company's vision to employees, 'This is what we do, this is our purpose, this is where we're going'.
"There is that old phrase, 'management by walking around'. When people see the chief executive out and about, walking the floors and pressing the flesh, that visibility is incredibly powerful."
Visibility is something that John Symond, chairman and chief executive of Aussie Home Loans, has in spades. The unmistakeable front man for the business he started 15 years ago, Symond could have taken a back seat when he appointed a new senior management team in June to steer Aussie into its next phase of expansion as a diversified financial services group. But Symond has more spruiking to do.
"I've always been a salesman, and I always will be," he says. "I no longer do direct selling, but whether it's speaking to the media or getting in front of my sales team or meeting with my state managers, I'm still very involved."
He believes being a good salesman is the key to success, "whether you're a church minister or flogging home loans".
Symond may no longer personally sell home loans, but there are plenty of other things for a hands-on chief executive to sell. "I'm talking about selling the dream, motivating and inspiring our team to achieve, and sharing the vision with all our employees so that they understand what we're doing and where we're heading."
He believes his high-visibility leadership style has helped create a "customer-centric" culture at Aussie. This customer focus, imbued across the organisation from mobile mortgage advisers to the senior executive team, has enabled Aussie to grow in sync with the needs of its customers, he insists.
The continuing expansion of Aussie's branch network and the extension of product lines - Aussie has added car and personal loans to its burgeoning line-up of home loans, home insurance and credit card products - has transformed Aussie into a full-service financial services provider.
Symond reasons that no one understands customers better than a salesman, which is why Aussie has been able to change its business model every four or five years without alienating its customers or jeopardising the Aussie brand. "We minimise risk by ensuring that we understand what customers want from us."
As any successful salesperson will attest, selling yourself can be as important as selling your product or service. That is a proposition to which Brisbane entrepreneur Sarina Russo, founder and managing director of education, training and recruitment group, Sarina Russo Group, subscribes.
She is an indefatigable self-promoter and is one of Queensland's best-known business people. Her companies generally bear her name - Sarina Russo Job Access, Sarina Russo Schools, Russo Recruitment - and her portfolio of Brisbane CBD office buildings are mostly self-named.
A driven self-publicist, networker and philanthropist, Russo is a Queensland media staple. Migrating to Australia as a five-year-old with her Sicilian family, working life did not agree with Russo. She was fired from a string of secretarial jobs before starting a typing school in 1979 with a handful of students and two part-time staff.
Today, the Sarina Russo Group has an annual turnover of $75 million and its founder takes every opportunity to celebrate her success and to urge others to emulate it.
Russo's website includes photos of her with Prime Minister John Howard and former United States president Bill Clinton, she is a popular motivational speaker, and has written an autobiography, Meet Me at the Top (Crown Content), "a story about the power of one woman's self-belief, a power that lifted her from failure to superstardom in business".
Russo says she was thrust into selling when she had to drum up clients for her new typing school. She didn't realise it at the time, but she was "a born salesperson".
"I got into selling because I had to sell my own courses. I developed those skills because I believed in myself and I believed in my product, and I became the best salesperson money can buy."
The Russo group operates primarily in its home state of Queensland and, for the past eight years, also in Victoria, having won federal government contracts to provide job placement and apprenticeship services.
The expansion of the group into several businesses has meant the devolution of management authority, but Russo remains the salesperson-in-chief and still attends meetings with clients and prospects. "I am synonymous with the Sarina Russo Group," she explains simply.
Russo also ensures that proposals going out in her name pass muster. "We tender for massive government contracts. I make sure that our tender process is professional, that there's a team behind it, that we can deliver what we promise."
Russo sits on a string of government, industry and charity boards. However, the board appointment which has arguably meant the most to her was an invitation to join the board of the Packer family backed Challenger Financial Services Group as a
It signalled the endorsement of the business establishment, which despite her flamboyant success has not been readily forthcoming.
"It's been one of the most exciting experiences being a director of Challenger," Russo says, adding that what made her attractive to the board was her "entrepreneurial skills and ability".
Russo believes that selling is beneath many of her fellow chief executives. "The word 'sales' has a bad connotation with some chief executives, but unless you have cash flow, you haven't got a business, and the way you get cash flow is selling," she says.
Three sales pitches from the C-suite
1. Selling is now a key task for the chief executive, whether it is to customers, staff, or to shareholders. Company operations are more successful when the chief executive is directly involved.
2. By having a salesman's understanding of what customers want, chief executives can minimise risk to companies - especially when they are making changes.
3. Successful chief executives warn against getting too arrogant to be a salesman for the company.
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