When I established BWD on a desk next to my bed in November 1990, I never imagined that my little business would grow out of the home office to a big old heritage house in the neighbouring suburb where the roof leaked and where possums slept in the stationery cupboard. Then to an office in Sydney’s CBD and finally to Brisbane, Auckland, New York and Arizona.
Some years ago, I attended a webinar where one of the panellists was doing a doctorate in ‘cultural geography’. He was inspired to pursue this topic when he first thought about the cultural narratives that attach to people’s front and back yards. The front is what’s presented to the outside world and it’s often neat, sterile and uninteresting. But it’s what goes on in the backyard, where life is lived, that’s where the real and important stories are.
I think it’s a good analogy for what we at BWD are trying to do. Which is, in essence, uncovering emerging risks and opportunities in our clients’ backyards. We help them understand what these are, advise on how to measure and monitor them, then, through our reporting and fabulous designed communication, bring them into the front garden for the world to see.
As a business founder, I have to be careful not to tell ‘war stories’ about how we did it in the old days. As a former journalist, lecturer in literature and lover of language, whose natural mode of communication is storytelling, that’s difficult. So I do try (not always successfully) to avoid dwelling on BWD’s past. But one of the challenges in moving from a small to medium-sized business, especially when you’re doing that across geographies, is keeping the culture that was the very thing that made you successful in the first place.
“One of the things that I realised early on, and particularly after starting BWD, is that business is one of the most powerful agents for change in society.”
When I left journalism and joined Westpac to run its corporate publications, many of my friends, particularly those I’d worked with in South Africa under apartheid, saw this move as ‘selling out’. But one of the things that I realised early on, and particularly after starting BWD, is that business is one of the most powerful agents for change in society. So when we say our purpose is to partner with business to shape a better future, we truly believe that by opening our clients’ eyes and minds to their impacts, risks and opportunities, we can do just that.
This belief is articulated through our purpose and through our values and the way our people ‘live’ them. Take Ambition. We’ve always been ambitious and taken the risks required to be trail-blazers. It’s how we got into sustainability in the first place. We’ve had many successes along the way. And a couple of failures. The challenge with being a trail-blazer is, of course, to use a cliché, to celebrate your successes but learn from your failures and be prepared to move on.
Then there’s the value we place in being Imaginative. I am proud of our design team and the way in which we have always used creativity to make the complex simple. The design function at BWD came about when the chairs and CEOs whose annual reports we were writing asked us to do the design as well, because they didn’t want to have to deal with two agencies.
We outsourced this function for two reporting seasons and then hired Katrina Pitkin (KP as she’s known to all) who set up the design studio and is still with us almost 20 years later, though now based in Queensland. It was Katrina and Chin Yee Lam, who’s been with us for well over a decade but who has also moved back to his original hometown of Penang, who introduced infographics into the business. They have become one of the hallmarks of our success.
Finally, we pride ourselves in being Informed and Pioneering. These values are exemplified in the intellectual and strategic skills our Australian management team have brought to the business, and with the opening of our US operation under the leadership of our US CEO Alex Gold. Reporting has always been in our DNA, but they have provided a rigour and discipline to the strategic value reporting offers, enabling us to bring to life the claim that we are true leaders in this field.
Purpose and values, as we so often tell our clients, are what drive an organisation’s culture. But culture is also informed by less clearly defined factors: the way we treat each other, respect differences, understand responsibilities and manage expectations.
As a family business (my husband, sister-in-law, sister and children have worked or are working in it), we’ve prided ourselves on a culture where all felt part of a big, noisy, argumentative, but warm and open family. Some of that is lost as we move from a small to medium business but, as the founder, I hope we can keep the fun and sense of adventure which has made BWD a good place to work.
Let me finish with a quote I came across recently from Winston Churchill, (old-fashioned, yes, but a wordsmith like no other), that I think is particularly pertinent to a group hoping to shape a better future.
“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.”
Thank you to all our wonderful colleagues and clients. May we continue to find inspiration and excitement in what lies ahead.