Leadership: Entrepreneur Megan Quinn

Entrepreneur Megan Quinn says good leadership is about engaging with the customer and staff. Photo: SUPPLIED.

Entrepreneur Megan Quinn says good leadership is about engaging with the customer and staff. Photo: SUPPLIED.

Entrepreneur Megan Quinn is a self-confessed ‘people person’. “I love nothing better than to sit down face to face and get to know the person I am speaking with,” she says during our interview in Bendigo.

Leadership, says Quinn, is about listening and working with your team. Having a keenness to understand human behaviour and people has held her in good stead. She has launched and sold successful businesses here and abroad for more than 20 years. She was one of four cofounders (her friend Natalie Massanet, Massanet's husband Arnaud, and her former husband Mark) of the global online fashion retailer Net-A-Porter. Each had their own defined role, which ensured key drivers were in place well before launch. Quinn was responsible for packaging and marketing and ensuring the customer experience was paramount.

It opened online in June 2000 with investor backing of less than £1 million, but NET-A-PORTER quickly and successfully established itself as a luxury fashion brand with high levels of customer care. Today the company reports more than 2.5 million people view its online pages each month.

While Quinn  moved on from the enterprise in the early 2000s, her creative input and business insights helped set the groundwork for innovation and creativity in the online retail space, despite not having previously worked in retail.

The business was later sold to the Richemont Group for £360 million and “now some company valued it at well over a billion pounds a couple of months ago”, Quinn adds. “We always had big aspirations but you can only hope.”

Even with dreams and desire to achieve, it is customer experience that is paramount to business success, she says. “I think that’s why it worked so well,” she says. “We knew what we wanted to receive in terms of customer service … a genuine smile a random act of kindness its good for the community, its good for business and its good for the customer.”

With Net-A-Porter the founders set a high bar for customer experience, with all purchased items delivered wrapped in exquisite packaging. Their business model included subsidised mailing and free shipping on returns. It was a “compelling business model” that was costly for the business but would offer good will to the customer.

To succeed you have to have to have an affinity with your team and customer. You want them to feel wanted and cared for. - Megan Quinn on leadership

To achieve such global success, Quinn says, was the result of bringing emotion into the business equation.

“To succeed you have to have to have an affinity with your team and customer. You want them to feel wanted and cared for,” she says. “(But) that relationship has to be two way - you cannot expect staff to be professional and divine if the customer is rude. I always build meaningful relationships ... and I cherish them and they help me and they enrich my life because they make my working life easier.”

Little did Quinn and company know then the impact their creation would have as a magazine format for the 21st century. Its success, and that of subsequent other online retail outlets, continues to spark a lively debate with bricks and mortar operators who denounce e-commerce as causing the death of storefront shopping. It’s a debate not worth entering into, says Quinn, who firmly believes business owners should always remember customer buying should be experiential and not just transactional.

“KPMG in its report on the future of retail says there is a retail spend of $272 billion annually in Australia, of which $15.3 billion is spent online, which is nothing. Online is not killing people’s businesses, people’s businesses are being killed because they haven't reinvested and are not selling a pertinent product or reinventing themselves.”

Raised by a hotelier in Queensland, Quinn says her family upbringing has been paramount in her achieving business success.

“I realised early on that business was a 24-hour thing and how important staff are in the journey and how important relationships with customers are and how important relationships with suppliers are,” she says. “All of that was ingrained to me.”

For more than 20 years Megan Quinn has succeeded in business. Photo: SUPPLIED.

For more than 20 years Megan Quinn has succeeded in business. Photo: SUPPLIED.

Quinn called on this experience years later when she was living in the UK in the early 1990s. The recession was biting hard and she was one of many made redundant in a downturned job market. True to style she saw a gap in the job market - a high-end cleaning service. The business, Partners in Grime, was later sold for a profit and as a going concern.

“I started that as a dare after losing my job in advertising because of the recession,” she says. “I paid somebody £300 to show me how to clean because I didn't know how to … I am a real throw down the gauntlet type of person, but my remit is always to be the best and to exceed customer expectations.

“When you set yourself high standards and you exceed their expectations then you are always thinking what the customer’s needs are and you are focusing your business on that. I love a sustainable bottom line but I found the way to get that is through the hearts and minds of the customer.”

However, Quinn says, it wasn’t easy starting up a business, no matter the size.

“It was very full on for Net-A-Porter, as with every business there were cash flow issues. The dotcom bust happened around that time but we were able to learn from other people’s mistakes such as sweeping up their distressed assets at a highly reduced price. So while we had a lot of challenges we had a lot of opportunities,” she said. “We had great investors and we had a great founding executive team that balanced the left and the right hand of the brain right from the beginning. I think that is one of our unique attributes. The feedback we got from customers and the word of mouth we heard, we knew we were addressing their needs and there was a ferocious appetite for us to feed.”

Replicating the business model now would “cost an absolute fortune”, Quinn says, especially when including social media into the business mix, as today’s brands have to be global.

“It (social media) didn't exist when we started ... but it certainly does add another cost.”

Q&Co, a boutique consultancy, is Quinn’s latest venture. She is regularly engaged by directors and CEOs to help them reconnect with their customer, increase performance and understand the balance between a return on analytics and the bottom line. “There has to be an absolute balance of the two,” she says. “It is beholden to business to actually understand what their analytics are and what they are telling them. You need to break down big data and watch what trends are happening globally, having that macro view is important so you can be proactive rather than reactive. However, you also need to make that pertinent for the customer and for the staff and bring them on the journey. The front end is balanced with the very hard-working back end and the front end must be as experiential and meaningful as it can be for your customer and staff.”

Re-engaging with the customer should always be important for senior management and board directors.

“There’s a lot of stuff you do not learn about at business school - basically you are either an empathetic person or you are not. I naturally like people but not everyone does and that is great as they have other attributes. So many boards, C-suites and staff have lost sight of this because of the short-term vision of the public company model that exists. This is something that I feel has certainly worked for both of the companies that I have started in negotiating process and structure, sometimes I could strangle process, as it is so stifling.”

Open communication, actually caring for and nurturing staff is paramount and it engenders that authentic relationship and ... enormous loyalty - Megan Quinn on leadership

When she is not busy raising her family, the youthful Quinn, who recently turned 50, is also a sought-after guest speaker and has a become a consumer advocate behind the scenes through her work as a non-executive board director for Speciality Fashion Group and UNICEF Australia and previously sat on the boards of Harrods, Net-A-Porter.com and Fitted for Work, which helps women find sustainable work. Trying to achieve a work-family-life balance makes some women, Quinn says, “still scared to put their hand up … women can innovate and reinvent.”

“I think I am completely more relevant today than ever before because of my empirical background, however if it weren't for Net-A-Porter and if I didn't feel comfortable with people and in expressing my views a lot of businesses would have put me out to pasture.”

To Quinn, good leadership is about leading by example and caring for people. Mutual communication with staff at the front line of customer engagement builds a robust business.

“Open communication, actually caring for and nurturing staff is paramount and it engenders that authentic relationship and it engenders enormous loyalty. Leading by example is never asking someone to do something you would never be prepared to do yourself, and never being too big to pick up a broom and really, actually walking the walk with them. So when we do fall down we are continuing that walk together until we know how to do it better,” she says.

“But I think leading from the centre is better than leading from the top. It is probably the way I work better as it keeps me more in tune to learn from staff, as well.”

Understanding your own personal brand and reputation is also paramount to success.

“I think my reputation is that I am an avid thinker but a good team player. I am a genuine communicator and I like people and I want to share and help businesses. I think the reason that I resonate with people is because I don't think I am superior to them, nor do I think I am inferior to anyone. So, I figure this is all a pretty level playing field and I am just walking the walk with people.

“I think people can relate to that honesty and I hope my brand is a ‘work in progress’.”

And success for Quinn will always be in the fine detail.

“It’s an absolute that the minutia is what differentiates a good company from a great company. It’s that good anticipation of every touch point that person has way before they came to you and way after, so you need to keep them engaged so they will keep coming back. You need to think ‘how can I make this easier and better for the customer’ so they are positive when they speak about you both virally and in person… that’s what’s so invigorating about being in business.”

Read previous articles in Fairfax Media's series on leadership: 

Part 1: From battlefield to boardroom: Ben Roberts-Smith

Part 2: RAI's chief executive Su McCluskey on putting regional areas in the spotlight.

Part 3: Regional Arts Victoria CEO Esther Anatolitis.

Part 4: Goldfields Australian Football League Commission's Sue Brown.

Part 5: Quotes on leadership from world leaders past and present.

Part 6: Karden Disability CEO Karen Robinson

Next: Haymes Paint's David Haymes on leading a family business..

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