19 February 2020
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We built this business on rock'n'roll

Peter Switzer and I started our business in 1983. Over the years we built our brand – the bedrock of our business. Like most fair dinkum Aussie business owners/entrepreneurs, we rolled up our sleeves and did the hard lifting, day after day, year after year. Our values were cemented into our brand: the principles of fairness, transparency, honesty, trust. These values are part of our business DNA. When we went through tough times, we rolled with the punches and kept persisting, coping the losses until the good times rolled back. 

In those days, Switzer was largely a content business – supplying editorial to newspapers, radio and TV stations but we had developed a strong brand in the business and finance space. In 2004, by popular demand, we opened Switzer Financial Planning. Our point of difference was “no commissions, no percentage fees, no product flogging”. We were pioneers in the industry. And it was hard work educating Australians that paying for advice, on an hourly rate basis, worked in their favour. Many people said they preferred paying commissions (even three times as much) because they didn’t have to pay directly from their wallets. It was equally hard having employees in the business who were paid good money to do their job but were delusionary in their belief that they built our business and therefore they could walk away with our clients. One of them in particular got his Australian Financial Services Licence on our time and walked out the door with $200,000 in fees. And we rolled with the punches yet again.

On Sunday morning on a plane back from Melbourne, where we have city and suburban offices, I was reading the cleverly headlined article in the Fin Review “Hayne leaves insurers running for cover”, I recalled my own experiences with CommInsure over the years. No matter how bad the storm or tempest that did damage to my house, CommInsure always tried to knock back my claim until I did such a song and dance that they paid to get rid of me. That’s not how insurance is supposed to work. 

Then I recalled a time in NZ where Peter was the keynote speaker at a conference for an Australian insurance company. That night we were invited to the awards dinner, where we sat at the main table. To the embarrassment of our host, when one award winner was asked if she’d like to say a few words, she coarsely spat out: “I’d like to thank all the suckers who buy life insurance.” In the light of the Fin article and the revelations of the Royal Commission, those words of this inebriated insurance saleswoman still ring clear.  

I can’t help but wonder when brands like the banks and insurance companies started to lose their way. 

Over my publishing days, I’ve written and/or published numerous books. One of them was The History of AMP – not the most scintillating story but I like to think we did a great job with the end product. My involvement with writing not just one but two of these books is known to few. I’ll keep this story for another day. My point in raising AMP here is that I spent quite some time in its archives, unearthing rich history that link the then AMP Society to the core of Australian life. The motivations of the founders of AMP were indeed noble ones – to help widows and children. And the archival history reveals the amazing work that was done by the Society through its early days and right through both World Wars. But then it became a publicly listed company and the public relations machine flew into full swing, with everyone but the widows and children the target of strategy and concern. “Sell more policies, get more commissions, rope those suckers in.” Because they were now being assessed by the stock market, agents were enticed by fat commissions to write more business, get more profit. 

Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock, spoke some interesting words in a recent letter to shareholders: “The time has come for a new model of shareholder engagement – one that strengthens and deepens communication between shareholders and the companies that they own. I have written before that companies have been too focused on quarterly results; similarly, shareholder engagement has been too focused on annual meetings and proxy votes.”

There is too much apathy of all sides of the equation – and that contributes to corporate rot.

Fast forward from AMP and a few years on Switzer won a valuable contract with another publicly listed company. This time it wasn’t a financial institution but it had the same cultural problems. On signing the contract, we were lunching with key executives, one of whom asked me for the name of the PR company who built our brand. He commented on the market perception of our brand, having done their market research before getting into bed with us. They were quite impressed. On my revelation that we’d never used a PR company and that the brand was a reflection of the values of the owners, they looked amazed – but they didn’t get it. 

You can’t ‘bluff’ a brand, you build it. You can’t create truth, you breathe it. The DNA of Switzer is from Peter and me, and from our parents before us. It’s what’s in our children and their children. You don’t artificially construct DNA – you breed it and you hope to attract the same DNA with people you hire in your business. It doesn’t come with clever advertisements and jingles, puffed up press releases or wining and dining journos. It lives and breathes in its owners or custodians. And if the guardians of the brand fall asleep, the brand starts to rot and no amount of PR can help it recover. The recovery process requires those at the helm going back to a company’s DNA, to its origins and to resuscitate the purpose for its existence. Our purpose is to lift the financial understanding of Australians and our values are wrapped around that purpose. We don’t chase money; money chases us.

In a much-watched Ted talk, organisational consultant Simon Sinek points out that people buy not what you do but why you do it. Great brands such as Apple, Virgin and may I be modest enough to add Switzer, historically were driven by something more than just flogging stuff. It’s about the rock solid relationship with the customer and delivering on that relationship. It’s about dealing or rolling with every customer as if they are your loved Mum or Dad, Nanna or Poppy. It’s about the widows and children. It’s about doing what’s right.

As that great lawyer in The Castle summed up: “There is no one thing. It’s the vibe of the thing. It’s all part of it. That’s what I’m getting at and that’s my point. It’s the vibe.”

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