Blackmores CEO Alastair Symington: "Surround Yourself with Diverse Talent"

Alastair Symington

The Blackmores CEO says he constantly feels outside his comfort zone – and that’s just the way he likes it.

Current role: Group CEO and managing director, Blackmores
Tenure: Three years, seven months
Age: 50
Previous roles: Senior vice-president – APAC, Latin America, Middle East and Africa, Coty; regional vice president – APAC, Latin America and global distributor markets, Procter & Gamble; managing director and general manager, Wella China.

How do you define good leadership?

It’s ensuring you have a clear vision for the team and you’re surrounding yourself with talent that is diverse enough to be able to achieve the best possible results.

When you look at diversity, are you thinking about the make-up of the team or the diversity of the thinking?

It’s a bit of both. It can be cognitive, ethnic, gender – the richer the mix, the better. We operate in 13 markets across Asia and one of the things we talk about a lot is that the leadership group should mirror the consumers we’re serving.

Are you satisfied with the diversity you have now?

It’s always a work in progress. From a gender point of view, Blackmores is in a pretty good place – 60 per cent of our board and about 50 per cent of our executive team are female. The one area that is always an opportunity for an Australian company is ethnic diversity. We want to develop and cultivate talent inside our organisation and allow people to reach their ambition and potential.

When you were hired as CEO of the health company in 2019, Marcus Blackmore – the former chair and son of the founder – said companies do too much box-ticking when it comes to hiring CEOs and forget about gut instinct and people skills. How did you win him over?

I was living in Dubai at the time so I only had a couple of opportunities to meet Marcus face-to-face. The second meeting we had was in a restaurant and I met Caroline, Marcus’ wife, as well. It struck me that Marcus and Caroline were both conducting the interview so for me it was more about just being myself. No matter how senior you are or how important you think you are, at the end of the day you’re just like everybody else so having that humility and ability to connect with people is always important.

Marcus Blackmore is a very vocal shareholder. How do you balance the needs of shareholders with your customers and employees?

Our major shareholder [Blackmore] has about 20 per cent of the shares and almost 60 years’ experience with the company but there are plenty of other shareholders who also have their say. We try to make sure that we treat all shareholders equally where we can… You can’t please everybody and you’re not going to be able to reach a consensus across all those varied stakeholder groups but you have to do what you think is right for the company and for the majority of shareholders and stakeholders. The skill of a public CEO is being able to balance all of those groups. If you get pulled in one direction too often because someone is louder or they have a strong point of view, that can lead you down a path where you’re not bringing in collective thought and using that to inform decisions.

Is that the hardest part of your job?

I think it is. Ken MacKenzie, the chairman of BHP, once said, “When you get to the position of CEO you think you’ve reached the top of Everest but actually, you’re only at base camp.” You’ve had 20 or 30 years of experience as an executive and you’ve been very successful up to a certain point but the world of CEO is very, very different to that of a senior executive and a lot of it is stakeholder management.

One of the things that’s really important to all stakeholders is ESG. You’ve linked about half of your bank loans to sustainability and environmental targets so you’re rewarded with lower interest rates if you meet those targets. How are you tracking?

We’re on track to meet those sustainability linked targets and our KPIs are linked to that. We set ourselves a goal of net-zero emissions by 2030 back in 2020. We were in the middle of closing out an acquisition of a manufacturing site in Victoria, down in Braeside, and we decided that rather than baulk at setting those targets – because being a manufacturer, the emissions and energy usage are much higher than if you’re sourcing products from contract manufacturers, as most brands do in our industry – we wanted to set them. The sustainability linked loans with our financiers were a good way of aligning with our company KPIs, too. We know that if we hit our targets internally, we will then be able to deliver on our commitments as part of those loans. Our carbon emissions are down by four per cent in the last 12 months; half of our waste was diverted but now it’s up to more than 64 per cent. The linked loans are on 50 per cent of our banking facilities, which gives us enough skin in the game without overcommitting ourselves.

Do you think companies need to link targets to financial outcomes?

Absolutely. I’m a big believer in you get what you measure. Gone are the days of profit over the environment. It has to have that triple bottom line – profit, people and the planet.

Pre-pandemic, Blackmores had jaw-dropping success in the China market. It must have been so difficult to see that opportunity fall away. How are you re-engaging with China now that borders are back open?

We’re full steam ahead. There’s still so much potential in that market. Our business has shifted a lot since 2015 and 2016. We had what I would call a once-in-a-generation event, where we saw [President] Xi Jinping and the government encouraging their citizens to get a passport and go and visit the world. I don’t think we’ll see that wave of travel as much as we did back in 2015 but the good news is that we’re expecting student numbers to return back to the levels that we saw pre-pandemic. It’s an opportunity for Blackmores to re-engage with those students and travellers inside Australia but we’ve also been building strong capabilities directly with the China market.

How do you look after your own health? I understand you’ve run the Great Wall of China marathon and hiked the Kokoda Track?

I turned 50 this year so I ensure that I focus on four areas – it’s mental, physical, emotional and social. For me, physical is really important. I get up most mornings at about 5.30 and do a high-intensity training class or walk the dog or go for a surf. Variety is really important and that hour and a half in the morning is my time and an investment in my physical health. The emotional side is the interaction you have with those around you. For me, it’s about being fully engaged in the moments that matter most. If you’re in a conversation, then you are in that conversation and not distracted by other things. That’s a big challenge for us in a digital world.

People really know when you’re not in the moment, don’t they?

One hundred per cent. It could be a shifting glance; it might be asking, “Could you just repeat that?” Focus and attention on the individual is really important. There’s no more important time than right now.

Were you always determined to be a CEO? What was your plan?

My father was a senior executive at ExxonMobil and our family moved every three years. So I grew up in different environments, different cultures and different communities. That made me the person I am today. My primary objective was to continue to live my life with those different experiences. I was always ambitious and very goal-orientated but my goal was not to be a CEO. That really only came into focus later in life, when I could see there was an opportunity. For me, it’s always about stretching yourself as far you can go. Get outside your comfort zone. I’m still climbing that mountain.

Do you still feel outside your comfort zone?

A lot, yes. More often than not you’re feeling outside your comfort zone as a CEO. How you deal with those situations and how you manage yourself both internally and externally is part of the skill of being a good CEO.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give a brand-new CEO?

Be curious and open-minded. Asking the right questions is a real indicator of a good CEO. It’s not always having the answers – it’s actually asking the right questions.

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SEE ALSO: Australian Museum Director Kim McKay on the Importance of Teamwork

Image credit: Marc Nèmorin

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