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In Conversation: Gillian Franklin’s Guide to Leadership

With only $200 in her back pocket, Gillian Franklin arrived in Australia almost 35 year’s ago and would go on to have a successful corporate career and become the founder of her company The Heat Group, with annual retail sales of over $100M.
It’s safe to say Gillian is one of Australia’s entrepreneur success stories. From corporate heavy hitter, to start-up founder, to successful business women. Driven by the desire to run a business that encapsulated her personal values, The Heat Group won the rights to Procter and Gamble brands Max Factor and Covergirl, and managed the distribution for those brands in Australia for more than a decade. The company now has over 100 personal care brands in their portfolio.
Gillian is known for her passion for supporting women in the workplace, and is often found sharing her business experience, leadership skills, financial acumen, strategic thinking, and values-based lessons, through formal and informal mentoring initiatives. Gillian attributes her success to working incredibly hard, networking, and always surrounding herself with inspirational people.
So, we caught up with her before October’s WILS event to discuss what it takes to drop everything, go it alone and build a multi-million dollar business.

Can you tell me a little about your journey from Corporate Exec to Entrepreneur?

I was in a corporate role for more than 20 years when I decided to become an entrepreneur, although at the time I didn’t associate my next step ‘as an entrepreneur’ per se, it was more that I wanted to have my own business. The benefit to me of having worked in the Corporate world was that I had been exposed to a high level of professionalism with systems and processes and so I was committed to taking these disciplines into my new (albeit little) business. From the outset I established a professional Board (who were also shareholders) and established good foundations in our business processes to set us up for future growth and success. I don’t think Heat Doward would be as successful as it is today if I had started out without this experience under my belt. Having said that, it was still a very daunting experience knowing that you were now totally reliable on your own personal success to pay the mortgage and indirectly the mortgages of your staff – a very different kind of pressure.


What inspired you to make the move and what advice do you have to others who have just started a new business?

It was the late 1990’s and consumers around the world were challenging companies and brands to have “values” that were true to their brands and their behaviours (remember consumers throwing bricks through the Nike windows when they discovered the product was made in sweat shops in China?). It made my think about what kind of company I wanted to be proud of and how I could be more in control of my own destiny and my values. I was also passionate about supporting working women, especially working mums, and had recently launched the “Self Made Girl” programme to encourage young women to be financially independent. These two things encouraged me to resign from the safety and security of my corporate job and go out and create my own company that could be commercially successful but also contribute to society in some way – hence the Heat Group was formed with a passion and commitment to supporting women. This has been very rewarding and the advice I would give to others is take the plunge but with a robust plan, and most importantly surround yourself with great expertise that you can draw on, either as a Board or mentors/advisors, as you will experience many unforeseen hurdles, and wisdom from more experienced people is invaluable. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!


What have been the biggest challenges you faced since starting The Heat Group?

Learning about the importance of cash flow. In my previous corporate roles, cash was readily available – this changes dramatically when you have your own business. The other challenge is finding the best people. Whilst we would all say we know this, the success of any company is directly linked to the quality of your people and this is often not recognised or taken seriously enough especially in a smaller company where individual performance can be so material to the outcome. And attracting the best person when you are a small company can also be difficult, so you need to find compelling reasons for the best to join your business. I did this with very competitive, relevant and attractive benefits that went beyond the salary, for example I offered full pay for 3 months maternity leave – and this was 18 years ago when it was unheard of!


What has been the most rewarding aspect?

Influencing the culture and values of the company. Integrity is very important to me and so having the authority to frame how we work, what kind of people I want to spend my day with and what values we work by was key for me. Your company becomes an extension of who you are as a person, which is very rewarding.


What is the best advice someone ever gave to you?

When preparing any contract, assume that the relationship will sour, and review the contract again in fine detail, with that perspective, to make sure you are completely protected in the (hopefully very unlikely) event that it occurs, before you sign. This doesn’t come naturally to me because I am an optimist at heart, but this approach has helped me out on numerous occasions.


What advice do you have for other women in the corporate sector who dream of running their own business?

  1. Surround yourself with people who are more experienced than you, as Board members and mentors

  2. Never compromise on the quality of your team

  3. Do your financial plan assuming at least 20% of your plans will not eventuate, and ensure you can still survive and be successful under these circumstances.

  4. Cash is king


Our main theme this year is Empowerment. What does this word mean for you?

Empowerment means being able to make your own choices and not compromise on your values, in a way that delivers both success and happiness to you. Being true to my values in everything that I do is very important to me. No exceptions. Empowerment is also about accountability, because ultimately, if empowered, you are fully responsible for your performance.


How do you, as a leader, seek to empower your staff?

We have a WIP process that is focused on KPI’s, learnings and achievements with a report that is presented to each manager by their team member at every meeting covering each of these topics. This is important as it empowers people at all levels of the organisation, gives them direction and recognises their contribution to the overall company goals on a regular basis.


What is your advice for other leaders and business owners when looking to empower women in their organisations?

Make it clear that employees are rewarded for outputs, not hours worked. Women are often so guilt-ridden about the need for flexibility and this is both unfair and unnecessary. Women should feel proud of their achievements and they should be rewarded for their performance and deliverables. In my experience, if you trust them, for example to work from home if required, they will repay you in spades. Loyalty and respect are key requirements for success in my view. And from a commercial perspective, as working women are the most important economic segment of the market (after all, they spend more in the economy than any other demographic!), it is in all of our interests to empower women and make them more successful.


Why do you think larger organisations still struggle with gender equality, especially in more senior roles?

I would like to approach this question differently and rather than consider what the organisation should do, consider what women can do to achieve more success.

a) I feel that women today still sell themselves short. They don’t push for the promotions in the same way men do, don’t demonstrate corporate courage and are not as experienced negotiators. Ask for the promotion and network to achieve it – don’t wait for it to be offered.

b) Due to pressure on their time at home, it is important women need to plan, as best as possible, to have adequate support for their non-work duties, so they can deliver what is expected in the corporate environment- be that home help or flexibility in their role.

c) I encourage all women to have formal and informal mentor relationships, who can develop the skills they are lacking, to help them be successful (on their terms). Women should also join as many business groups as possible to expand their networking with business leaders. Above all, think of yourself as a brand that requires marketing.