Staying a start-up

Chris Beer, Founder, CEO and MD of George & Matilda Eyecare and 2018
Runner-up for Boss of the Year, talks about his start-up strategy and how
it affects his EA relationship, with Chief of Staff editor Bennet Nichol.

Tell me about how you came to start George & Matilda

I started from the ground up in the industry and worked my way through night school. I started as an optical apprentice, and I’ve been in the optical industry for 34 years now. My last role before George & Matilda was as the Asia Pacific CEO for Luxottica—which owns companies such as OPSM and Sunglass Hut, and operates 600 stores in six countries.

After about 13 years of running the Asia Pacific from Sydney, it hit me like a freight train. I said enough is enough. What am I doing in all these hotel rooms? It gets pretty lonely spending all that time on your own.

I promised my wife I would take six months off. After three months she told me I’d only had about two days off! There were a lot of people wanting to talk about Asia, the culture and transformation in the retail world.

There were a couple of big exciting roles back in retail and I had to make a choice, did I want to go back to the corporate world? I think it was good for me, and I was good at it too, but at the same time there was always an entrepreneurial side to me that used to challenge the corporate world. It used to frustrate me that corporations weren’t as entrepreneurial as I would have liked.

So, behind the scenes I quietly decided to research and develop the opportunity of George & Matilda.

Starting a company is never a seamless process. What were some of the key challenges you faced, and how did you overcome them?

Trials and tribulations come up every day! It’s how you deal with them that makes the difference. I’m fortunate enough to have experience starting up big companies overseas so I was able to understand what I would and wouldn’t do when starting from a clean slate.

We created an environment where we could do the things that we were the best at, and for the things that we weren’t we found people that were really good and partnered with them. We have a mindset where we don’t look for suppliers, we look for partners. This also goes for how we put our team together. We hire people for their profile. People who are enthusiastic and want to make their mark on the world, and grow with a company that is growing quickly.

We have created a community—all of my team members are shareholders in the business. Everyone has skin in the game and everyone is committed to creating the best possible experience for our customers who come into the practices, and for the partners who trust us. That’s been an interesting learning experience for me.

How do you keep the momentum of George & Matilda going?

One of my team members asked me, “So, when are we going to stop calling ourselves a start-up?”

Our office is in a loft in Surry Hills in Sydney. It’s open plan, no-one has an office, no-one is pressured about where they sit. It’s fast, energetic and things can happen really quickly. I didn’t know the answer to my team member’s question. I thought about it overnight, and I called a meeting the next day. The answer to his question was that I never wanted to lose the start-up mentality. I don’t want to lose the start-up culture, because of the energy, speed and passion that comes with it.

What we agreed on in that meeting was that we would change our ambition every year to a size and scale that always makes us feel like a start-up. We’ve changed our business ambition far beyond the original thesis, so that now our long-term goal is to remain as a start-up.

It’s a different mindset, a different model with lots of trials, tribulations and stress. But it’s more fun rolling fast than maintaining market share.

Does this strategy affect the way you interact with your staff and in particular your EA?

Yes it does. Our whole approach means that all of our goals are public. We share openly and transparently with everyone. It’s a transparent culture, but it’s also a culture where you’ve got to deliver, and if you don’t it’s very public. So there is also peer accountability.

There’s no hierarchy or bureaucracy. Anyone can wander up and talk to me about anything to get things done quickly. My EA, Kristen Chicktong, is part of the executive team. For me, it’s an extremely close working relationship and it’s one that enables me to go faster. She is involved as part of my strategy, and the strategy team. She brings a different perspective and she’s very clever.

By her being fully involved and part of my executive team, she has a very clear insight that enables me to go faster. Because she has full access to what I’m doing and what’s on my mind, she can quickly prioritise who and how people fit into my diary and that’s important.

It really helps in making sure we can be faster, more efficient and more effective. She’s invaluable, I see her not as an EA but as a business partner.

How do you and Kristen work together on the day-to-day?

The first meeting I have every day, whether it’s physical or remote, is with Kristen. We recap anything that’s outstanding and align our priorities. We go over what’s new, what’s changed, and what’s important for the day.

Kristen’s work is flexible, she’s got a young family so sometimes she’s in the office and sometimes she works from home. I ran Asia from Sydney, so I’m very comfortable working virtually.

During the day I like to talk rather than send emails backwards and forwards. We regroup in the middle of the day, and then—with respect for her family time—we do a recap at the end of the day. By doing that she can be more effective, and answer emails for me. People think it’s me! The closer we are and the more we talk, the more productive I can be.

Do you relinquish full control of your email to Kristen?

I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t do it. Kristen has full access to all my emails, diary, schedule logging—sometimes my emails are on her screen so she can look through spam and junk that she will file. That way when I’m looking at my emails I know the ones that I need to look at. She knows the ones where people are sending me stuff that I don’t need to read.

She has full access. The longer we work together, the more she understands the strategy and can prioritise more effectively. I usually don’t go to bed at night until I’ve responded to all of my emails. We’re a fast moving organisation, so I don’t want any of my team waiting on a response from me. There are emails where Kristen and I talk about what needs to happen, and usually she will respond for me.

How has your relationship with Kristen evolved?

It’s a relationship that I value very highly. When I started George & Matilda, and it got to the point where I was keen to have an EA to help me, I sat down and said here’s how I want it to work. We started that way from day one, but there’s no question that the more you get to know each other, you learn how to work together better.

I think being open, transparent and upfront about what success looks like, and what it doesn’t is important. Being open and honest with each other helps things go much faster.

How was your Executive PA Awards experience?

The night was excellent. I didn’t know I’d been nominated for the award! It was a privilege to even be nominated, and being an award recipient was very humbling.

I don’t do what I do for awards, I do it to grow and develop people and create value. I’m a person that’s hungry to learn and I’m very conscious of how you grow and develop as a person and how you can help other people realise their opportunities. It’s great to see so many people that have done amazing things get recognised. It was a really well-run night.

Chris Beer was Runner-Up for Boss of the Year at the 2018 Executive PA Awards.

George & Matilda Eyecare
Founded in 2016  George & Matilda Eyecare, which is now Australia’s fastest-growing retail eyecare & eyewear community, has 50 practices located in all major cities and continues to grow. With Chris’ hands on values-driven leadership and proven record for driving revenue & profit growth in Australia, he has attracted the best team and partners to build a community to help people, test their eyes and help them see better.