Well travelled

CAITLIN SYKES
Last updated 05:00 19/02/2013
Sir William Gallagher
Bruce Mercer/Fairfax NZ
Top table: Sir William Gallagher.

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When Sir William took the helm of the family business from his father, Bill Gallagher senior — famed inventor of the electric fence — it was a 10-man operation. The Gallagher Group has since carved out a space for itself as a local and global market leader in animal management, security and fuel pump solutions, with staff now numbering more than 1000 and annual revenue at almost $200 million.

This year the Gallagher Group turns 75 and here Sir William, an elder statesman of export, muses on leadership, innovation and travelling with a purpose. 

What do you enjoy most about leading a company?

I work pretty long hours, but I do it because I enjoy it, not by neccessity anymore. It hasn’t been for years. 

It all comes back to the basics; the three reasons why we work. For most people probably number one is job satisfaction. 

Number two, is working with nice people, and having nice people in the right place. You need square pegs in square holes and round pegs in round holes. It’s getting that right, and it’s easier said than done. 

And the third objective is getting paid. Money’s not neccesarily the objective, but money’s the score card. If you don’t make it you’re not doing something right. 

You travel the world four our five times a year. Is that something you enjoy as well?

Yes, but one thing I learnt long ago is you want to get a narrow specialty and try to be number one in the world and then you take it to the world. If you’re going to take it worldwide you better get used to travel. 

And the marketing — getting it into the hands of the end user — is by far the most difficult challenge. Once you’ve got the product made and working right you’re not even half way there. Most of the value is between the factory and getting it into the customers’ hands. That’s really what I do and that’s where the travel comes in. It’s travelling with a purpose that’s fun. 

The company is turning 75 this year. What are the keys to its longevity?

There’s a very interesting book written by Hermann [Simon], a German guy, which was called Hidden Champions: Lessons from 500 of the world’s best unknown companies. He lists about 10 criteria and we actually fit about nine of them. The message there was narrow specialty, take it worldwide and long term leadership. I’m only the second head of this company. 

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You’ve also got to build a team. Be a coach/manager, not a dictator. But don’t get paralysis by analysis. Someone’s got to make a decision. 

How do you foster a culture of innovation?

In research and development, we’re probably 115 all up. That’s about as big as it’s ever been. That’s what keeps you ahead of the bunch. It was only 15 years ago the total staff was just over 100, let alone having that many in research and development. 

In terms of patents, which are one measure of innovation, we run to several hundred. That’s what I call putting booby traps in the path of the followers. 

It’s a bit like a James Bond movie where you’re out in front and you’ve got the baddies behind you. [A patents is] like squirting oil on the road and throwing out tacks for the followers to blunder into. A few will blunder into it and it will stop them, but the smart ones will swerve around it and keep coming, but it will slow them down.

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