Gavin Ward on the art of flight


Running a business is like piloting a plane; you can be flying high one minute and crash landing the next. Office Brands CEO Gavin Ward takes us through the processes of staying airborne and landing softly.

Gavin Ward is a pilot. Sure he can fly a plane, but he has also proved himself adept at steering a business. In fact, he has a long and storied journey through heavy clouds and blue skies: he has run large organisations including Leading Edge Group where he served for 21 years and The Australian Music Retailers’ Association (AMRA). He also served as General Manager – sales and marketing for Akai Electronics.

That’s a lot of navigation and even more experience. If running a business was measured in flight hours, Gavincould fly a light plane to China, where he is currently procuring business for Office Brands.

It was his time at Leading Edge, which really proved his mettle as a leader/pilot. When Gavin arrived there, the company was a two-man operation. When he left the Australian franchised buying group operation expanded to cater for 10 different vertical markets including Computers, Electronics, Digital Photography, Telecoms, Jewellery, Lingerie, Golf, Books, Video and Music meeting the needs of over 1500 franchised stores and a broad base of over 450 suppliers.

So when he went to Office Brands, Gavin knew a thing or two about growth propositions, which is exactly what this supplies company wanted. In fact Gavin has been tasked with swelling the office products industry under three franchise banners.

One is Office National, the predominant brand with 100 stores across Australia. Office Products Depot is a brand bought from New Zealand, which has 30 stores in the land of the long white cloud.

Then there’s a separate entity entirely. O-Net is an unbranded proposition for specialist and smaller operators.

Gavin is also charged with overseeing the Office National brand in Africa.

When he left Leading Edge, his goal was to take some time off and learn how to fly a plane. He did that. He is a man up for a challenge. However the lure of the business challenge is always one that a CEO can’t ignore.

“I took a bit of time off and learned to fly an aircraft but to be honest, I really enjoy the buying group business. I love working with individual franchisees who in their own right are well motivated and have good independent opinions of what they need to do to succeed in their business.”

So Gavin once again found himself in a leadership position facing unique challenges that a franchise entity throws up.

“The challenge is to understand the needs of all those businesses in so many different markets,” Gavin says. “The opportunity for retail or business-to-business or online are quite varied. To be able to understand all those challenges, to be able to create a philosophy and a best fit approach creates and adds efficiency and provides a market power that they couldn’t otherwise obtain.

“The challenge is to create a system which can give franchisees reputable, high quality performance, not only for their own business but in the service that they offer their clients.”

The chiefs at Office Brands had already started the process before Gavin arrived. The board had made a significant investment in an IBM e-commerce platform. It is the same platform used by the Good Guys, Office Works and National One in the USA. It is a powerful system designed to meet the needs of customers

“That customer first ethos permeates the whole organisation,” Gavin says.


That ethos is one thing Gavin didn’t have to change when he entered the company. What he did want to do was improve the team environment.

“I believe greatly that people are a massive asset to the company and I believe that each member of the team needs to understand what the objectives are of the business as a whole and of its component parts. This way they can work to achieve the goal together. So when we talk about our merchandising, our marketing teams, our operational teams or IT, whenever we have an objective within one of those parts of the business, we always let everybody know what those key goals and achievements are to see how each team member can change their part of the business to help to support those goals.

“The responsibility for continuous improvement flows across the team as much as it does within the individual areas of responsibility. My role in that is to create efficiency through really good process and an outcome focus. We are focused on an outcome, an objective and a timeline. This increases our ability to get to market with the initiative that we need to be competitive quickly.”

Another change Gavin has implemented is to expand the company’s digital presence. Though the board had already activated change, there was a great deal to be done to expand the marketing.

“We have a new marketing manager and a new digital agency which we’ve appointed and we have a new brand specialist which we’re using to update our image.

“We’re working with some databases with individual members who track their sales through our web facility.

We’ve got 143 individual front facing websites. We have those under different brands; there is a lot of customisation for each of those people. So people who are into workwear or furniture-wear are customised. We’ve created an ability to vary the proposition for each end user to be sure that if we’re dealing with a large corporate or individual the system meets the needs of that entity.”

Expansion of this type means a focus on quality and the ability to deal with customer needs on a day-to-day basis. This is necessary, along with the expansion of product offering when the stationery market is in decline.

In fact the entire office supplies industry has had to rethink their proposition. This is where Gavin’s expertise and navigation skills really make a difference: to see the future of the industry.


“The stationery market is in decline, this means our growth has to be through category expansion. This also means seeking different clients including pushing into local government and large commercial enterprise.”

Gavin is in discussion with overseas distributors to source new product. He is also creating a logistics capability to help Office Brands become cost competitive and fill the needs of larger organisations that are looking for ways to reduce cost but to maintain quality.

The other main challenge, and one that is shared by all franchise-based businesses is how to engage the franchisees and keep them on message. The most important element of this is personal contact. Office Brands hosts an annual AGM and expo where they talk about plans, directions and strategies for the year. They do this in each state.

“There is nothing better than hitting the road on a regular basis and getting in front of the customers and really hearing about what they do.” Gavin says.

“Every time we engage at that level there will be elements that come out about how we can improve the organisation and move forward. The customer first ethos is very, very important to us. So as we move forward, as our data gets better, as our range gets better, we can solve each challenge and the challenges behind.

“One of the very important things we need to do is to understand through our business intelligence systems and our one on one conversations why some customers are doing better than others and how to communicate those strategies and successes into other organisations so that they adopt them and lift their performance.”

This is a competitive industry, but what sets Office Brands apart is its customer ethos and dedication to quality.

The company is also in the hands of a more than capable pilot who can steer through the turbulence and make sure the skies ahead are as clear as can be.

With an impressive annual turnover of $445M and 160 outlets, Office Brands members enjoy productive and profitable businesses, backed by a hard-working Support Office and supplier network.

With an impressive annual turnover of $445M and 160 outlets, Office Brands members enjoy productive and profitable businesses, backed by a hard-working Support Office and supplier network.


Business First is a peer-to-peer magazine: written by CEOs and other high level executives, with interviews with some of the country’s best leaders.

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