Head of Commercial & Strategy fresh produce at Coles
Interview by Dominic Moore
Tom has over 15 years of strategy design and delivery experience, both as an external consultant with Bain & Company and as a leader and manager of internal strategy teams (most recently the corporate strategy teams at Coles and Treasury Wine Estates).
He currently heads up the Commercial & Strategy function for Coles’ Fresh Produce business unit, with a particular focus on developing longer-term strategic partnerships with Australian growers and improving product availability and quality for customers.
He holds a MBA (Honours) from London Business School, a Post Graduate Diploma in Applied Finance (FINSIA) and Bachelors of Commerce and Arts (Melbourne University).
CAREER RELATED QUESTIONS
What is the best thing about your job?
There are three things that I genuinely love about my job:
The purpose: At its simplest, our team’s objective is to ensure Australians eat more fruit & veg every day, either by improving the product quality, making it more affordable, and/or improving its availability. That’s a pretty compelling reason to come to work.
The immediacy: One of the great things about grocery retail is that the decisions you make and the projects you land can affect 10 million Australian households tomorrow. The proximity of that opportunity is both humbling and inspiring in equal measure.
The people: My days involve meeting growers on their properties to learn more about their business, engaging with our store team members to help make their lives simpler and working with the Produce business unit team to solve problems and get stuff done. Their collective passion for the industry and knowledge of retailing is deeply infectious.
What is the most challenging project/problem you have worked on either as an external consultant or an internal strategist?
A few come to mind, and they all share one common feature – i.e: delivery success require behavioural change.
It’s all too easy in Strategy to simplify implementation steps down to a few bullet points on a slide, but in most instances whether or not any real change lands comes down to your ability to inspire /influence / coach individuals and teams to behave differently to their existing norms.
That is always challenging.
What advice would you give someone transitioning from a consulting firm to a role in industry?
Three key things, based on personal experience and observation:
Choose your industry very carefully. The ease with which you can move across industries on consulting assignments doesn’t reflect reality. This is a critical pivot point in your career and it’s important that you’ve really thought through what you enjoy and which industries are most likely to deliver that for you. It’s not impossible to change industries as you get further down the track, but it gets a lot harder post consulting.
Be humble. At this point in your career you’ve probably had several years of being told by your consulting firm that you / your firm are amazing and capable of amazing things. While that might be true, not all of your colleagues in your new industry might view your background with the same level of enthusiasm, particularly if they’ve had a bad experience with external consultants. You’re going to have to work with these people for the next few years, and your ability to build effective relationships with them will be more critical to your success than your amazing PowerPoint / Excel skills.
Deliver results. In large corporates it can be easy to get lost in the maelstrom of office dynamics and changing priorities. If you can ignore the noise, and focus your “true north” on constantly delivering results, you will enjoy a long and prosperous career in industry.
Who has influenced your career the most and why?
I’ve been fortunate to work with great mentors throughout my career, but my line manager at the firm I worked for in London deserves particular recognition. He championed my application to the Executive MBA program at London Business School, and then provided flexibility and support around my working arrangements during the program. I gained so much from that MBA – professionally and personally – and it wouldn’t have been possible without a very supportive line manager (and wife!).
What is the favourite piece of advice you have received and from whom?
My father once told me that it’s ok to be sceptical, but never cynical. In corporate life, especially in strategy where you are constantly dealing with ambiguity, I think that’s particularly useful advice.
As a child what did you want to be when you were older?
A lawyer or a politician. As a young child I think I may have been overly-impressed by Michael J Fox’s character in Family Ties, Alex P. Keaton. Fortunately his break-out performance in Teen Wolf didn’t have the same impact…
What are your three favourite books and what are you currently reading?
Top of mind, my three favourite books are:
The Crossroad, by Mark Donaldson VC. Much of the management literature on leadership and team building can be pretty hokum – with the better ones often written by authors outside of academia or business (e.g. sports, exploration). This book made me think more about how to recruit for, and lead and manage high performing teams, than any other.
Hitch22, by Christopher Hitchens. The Hitch was wonderfully entertaining, provocative and frustrating in equal measure, but without peer in terms of mastery of the English language. Cloudstreet, by Tim Winton. I could quite happily read this book over and over again, and I suspect I’d still pick up new things with every reading.
For the last few nights I’ve been reading Hugless Douglas with our 18mth old. Hugless Douglas’ adventures have been a staple favourite for our three children!
Who is your personal or business hero/heroine and what quality do you most admire in them?
Hero is a pretty strong word, but I greatly admired the leadership style and direction that Michael Clarke brought to Treasury Wine Estates. Organisational decision-making effectiveness is a material source of strategic advantage, and he remains one of the best I’ve ever seen at it.
Who would you like sitting next to you at a dinner party and why?
My wonderful wife, Amy. She’s interesting, challenging, funny, beautiful and after all these years still seems to enjoy my company – what more do you want in a dinner party companion?!
What is your favourite quote or motto?
Quoting President Kennedy is a terrible cliché, but there is a line from one of his less-famous speeches that genuinely moved me the first time I read it, and it’s stayed with me ever since. It’s from a speech he gave at Rice University Texas, in September 1962, at the height of the space race with the then USSR.
In justifying the enormous cost and effort that would be required to put a man on the moon,
“We choose to go to the moon and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, and because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills.”
To this day I still find the idea that there is virtue in consciously choosing to do the hard, bold things in life – not just the easy – incredibly inspiring