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Steering the family business into the age of technology

Steering the family business into the age of tech

Sitting down with Pippa Hallas is a bit nerve racking. Pippa is not your average CEO. For a starter she’s the grandniece of the company’s founder and namesake, Ella Baché and she’s the third CEO in her family. That’s a lot of pressure. She laughingly says, “the first generation makes it, the second one maintains it and the third one blows it.” Having been at the helm of the 65-year-old family owned business for 10 years, clearly, she is far from blowing it.


But it hasn’t been an easy journey. Her entry into the company came after making a career for herself in marketing, both here and overseas, and it was while she was back in Australia after a stint overseas that a role in marketing opened within the family business. Her last name and her entry into the company made a lot of people nervous. That very famous last name, synonymous with the brand itself went against her. “It was probably the hardest few years in my life in terms of working. It completely went against me. I just created a lot of fear inside people for all sorts of reasons that wasn’t my intent, it was just my last name.”


A short three years later, Pippa was promoted to General Manager, a move which created even more discord within the company. She states it was a difficult time and credits surrounding herself with people who believed in her and her vision for the company as what got her through. “I created my own tribe as they say and brought my own people in and made sure people were aligned to me and believed in my vision, and believed in me.”


By the time she was promoted to CEO, just a year after the General Manager appointment, she concedes it wasn’t other people who held her back. The board had placed complete faith in her. It was her own sense of self-doubt, her own incarnation of imposter syndrome. “I was really comfortable with the head of marketing title that I wore. But as soon as you said CEO, I just felt like an imposter so it probably took me a good three to four years to really feel confident that I could wear that title without being an imposter.”


As I listen, I think about how confident, down to earth she is and how accomplished she is in her own right, there’s nothing about her that would lead me to think she’s ever had a moment of self-doubt. Here is a woman that took the helm of a family legacy and steered it confidently into a sea of change and did it with conviction, to me it looks as though any sign of self-doubt has been firmly left in the past.


“I just felt like an imposter so it probably took me a good three to four years to really feel confident that I could wear that title”


Ella Baché was established back in the 30’s by its namesake Ella and Pippa’s grandmother Edith in a time when women didn’t work, let alone get university educations and start skincare businesses in foreign countries. Being bold and taking risks is clearly etched into Hallas’ DNA. She speaks of both women reverently, with respect tinged with awe at their achievement in a time when women were ‘homemakers’ long after the children left home. “Ella and Edith (are my inspiration) because they were so ahead of their times. Ella, for example, went to university. She wanted to be a doctor, at a time where no females were allowed to be doctors, so her fate took her down the pharmaceutical route and graduated as one of the only women, back in the turn of the century. She had an arranged marriage which she ran away from, so she constantly had to keep re-inventing herself. If you talk about empowerment, she empowered herself to live here and design her in life, which was very rare for someone of that ilk.”


Coming from beauty industry royalty, and a family dynasty that dates back 65 years, might lend itself to laziness and entitlement, but clearly Hallas has felt none of this. “I think growing up in a family where work and hard work is one of your values, I just think that you don’t even think about it, it’s in your DNA.”


Hallas is no stranger to hard work. The beauty industry in 2019 is a different beast to what it was 20 even just 10 years ago. Competition is fierce and the pace of technology rapid and pervasive. The pressure to look younger is ever present for women. “Innovation is probably how I spend half of my time, whether it’s working with different people on new treatment innovation, new techniques to treat the skin, new products, new ingredients, new ways of doing things, new ways of communicating, new ways of teaching people because we run a college. So, we’re constantly looking on our future.”


“I think growing up in a family where work and hard work is one of your values… you don’t even think about it, it’s in your DNA.”


Hallas’ vision doesn’t just stay focused on her work. Creativity and thinking out of the box are clearly what her years in marketing has brought out in her. There is no clearer example of her vision than her support and encouragement for a then 16-year-old Jessica Watson, the youngest woman to sail solo around the world.  The company, her peers and contemporaries all discouraged the idea, but Hallas stuck to her gun and sponsored Jessica and her boat, aptly named Ella’s Pink Lady on her journey. “At the time everyone thought she was mad, and we were mad. I fortunately saw something in Jessica, which people who didn’t know her so well just didn’t understand. I knew, the good Aussie tradition that someone deserves to be backed and have a go. That’s the approach we took and before she even started, I had the media and everyone ringing me, telling me how stupid we were. But that moment when I was seated on a boat when she sailed back into Sydney Harbor and the whole world was watching her, it was awesome, and that was a risk that paid off.”


“One of my greatest lessons was learning to say no… if it’s not an amazing yes, then it’s a hard no.”


I wonder what it would have felt like to give a young girl her dream and to really boost her accomplishments in the world. It reminds me that Hallas herself is a mother to two young children, 7 and 4. I bring the conversation back around to how she balances the pressure of being a CEO with the demands of a young family. It is no surprise that she, like every parent, struggles to balance the two. “I don’t prescribe to work-life balance because I think it’s a lifestyle that we choose to do. One of my greatest lessons was learning to say no. I’m one of these people that suffer bad fomo. I’m always like, yeah, I want to be involved, but I’ve really had to learn if it’s not an amazing yes, then it’s a hard no, and there’s nothing in between because my diary’s so important and if I’m not here, doing things that really matter than I should be with my kids.” I am impressed that Hallas has dispensed with the idea of balance because I feel the term implies that there can be separation of both in order to have contentment, satisfaction and success in both. The more we talk the more I feel she is a truly modern leader.


Hallas also knows that to survive in her industry and indeed to thrive in it, she needs to be at the forefront of both leadership and technological change and it’s not just a matter of automating process and that’s it, she also knows she needs to be an adaptive leader. “You, as a leader have got to be able to constantly learn about these new areas, whether it’s artificial intelligence, or machine learning or whatever… you’ve got to pick the right things for your business, and know where to automate. And then on the flip side you need to get the best people around you that can do the stuff that computers can’t do… being a good leader and getting the best out of very different people and building a great team.”


It’s hard not to be impressed with someone who understands that the most important part of technological advancement is to lead people through it and to bring them along the journey. It’s clear her emotional intelligence levels are high. When asked she explains she thinks that this is the advantage of being a woman in the workplace, the years of being encouraged to use and express emotional intelligence rather than to shy away from it.


“I think women have an advantage in a way because a lot of it is emotional intelligence and the ability to work with so many different people. I heard very recently that for the first time there’s four generations in the workplace, so we have to be able to adapt to all different types of people, to engage them and influence them and bring them along the journey. So, I think only emotional intelligence is going to get you there.”


I know that I have only just scraped the surface of her journey and her story, and I look forward to exploring more of her thoughts, and the thoughts of other great female leaders, at The Empowered Woman 2020.



Written by Dana Lightbody, Executive Director, The Leadership Institute