Margot Spalding steps down as head of Jimmy Possum

Jimmy Possum managing director Margot Spalding is stepping down as boss of the furniture business she co-founded 20 years ago.

A CEO will lead the Bendigo-based family business into its third decade of operation as it looks to export its products to Asia, Europe and North America.

Under Spalding’s leadership Jimmy Possum has become a national brand, with an annual turnover of $20 million. It has shops in four states and a dominant online presence.

After 20 years at the helm of a family business, which she founded with husband and co-director Alan, Spalding says it’s time to go back to where she started - “designing and making beautiful things”.

Son-in-law Boris Bielert, currently legal counsel and senior project manager, will take over as CEO.

“It is time for me to step down … or move sideways! … but I am not retiring, never, I am simply going to do other things within the business and go back to where I started with design and sourcing beautiful fabrics,” says Margot, adjusting her trademark big and colourful eyeglasses.

“I have wanted to step aside for a while but the timing wasn’t right and we (Alan and I) hadn’t found the right person. Then Boris showed an interest in joining the business. Along the way we knew he was the right person and for the past 12 months or so we have been working towards the changeover.”

While some heads of family businesses wrestle with knowing when to leave or naming a successor, Spalding says succession planning has been an integral part of Jimmy Possum’s business plan as it changes to a multi-generational family business.

“It is wonderful and a relief that Boris joined us as he has the skills needed - he knows business, has a legal and commercial background and is open to ideas. A business needs to stay fresh and reinvigorate, it is time to move into the next stage of the business.”

This will include, she says, assessing the number of bricks and mortar stores around the country following the successful establishment of its online retail stores at www.jimmypossum.com.au and at www.jimmyout.com.au. It will also continue with its strong social media presence.

“People are more savvy when they come into a store nowadays, They have done so much more research and compared brands - they shop via websites, Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook. It’s good that people are more empowered in knowing what they want, but at the same time it is harder for sales staff to stay across all other brands out there. Having completed their homework, customers are happy to buy online,” she says.

As the business prepares to move into exporting by exhibiting at Asia’s premiere outsourcing platform, the International Furniture Fair Singapore, in March, a review of products is also on the agenda; with Spalding keen to source new decor items from international manufacturing partners.

“It is hard to source products here in Australia as manufacturing is diminishing. Fewer people care if a product is not Australian made so much any more. So we have to source some items offshore.”

Jimmy Possum’s manufacturing will also be assessed, but there are no plans to downsize its manufacturing plant in Bendigo.

“One of the things I am most proud of in the past 20 years is our apprenticeship program,” she says. “We have had 70 apprentices ranging in age from teenagers to people in their 40s completing a furniture making apprenticeship. We are privileged to have been able to employ and help so many people.

“We care that it is a family business, and we care about our employees. We want people to work here and we are rewarded with people having been with us a long time.”

Jimmy Possum started in a shed in the Spaldings back yard in Harcourt in central Victoria in 1995, with just one employee. Alan did the furniture design, the employee the making with Margot quickly learning how to finish the products. Today they employ more than 100 people.

In 2006 Spalding’s business nous was acknowledged when named Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year. She is a sought-after guest speaker at functions across Australia.

One of the things I am most proud of in the past 20 years is our apprenticeship program ... we have had 70 apprentices ranging in age from teenagers to people in their 40s...

Jimmy Possum co-founder Margot Spalding

In creating and maintaining a highly successful business, the Spaldings are showing that families, especially stepfamilies, can work together and succeed.

The couple each brought three children into their union, and later had their seventh, Lucy.

Five of their seven children and extended family members are employed in senior leadership roles. Boris is married to Georgia, the creative director. Jessica is the artist in residence, Eliza, who is currently studying her Master of Accounting leads the finance team, and husband David Hughes look after retail operations and Emily is retail leader. Todd, until recently, design and development leader as he spends more time on his own Bendigo business, Honeyeater. Youngest Lucy and eldest sibling Sam are “not with Jimmy, yet!”, says Margot, hopeful they will eventually join the Jimmy Possum team.

The question remains on who will head Jimmy Export, she adds.

Having successful and creative children in leadership roles within Jimmy Possum taking ‘parenthood’ out of the equation when talking business hasn’t been a challenge, Spalding says, with each child “honestly working harder than anyone else in the business”. She says it was important for her and Alan to identify and acknowledge the skills of each child who expressed an interest in joining the business.

“It wasn't a given that they would work in the business, just because their name is Spalding or Carrington,” she says. “Each has had to highlight what skills and attributes they could bring to a business and everyone has their different skills and interests.

“But we are lucky that we are very tight and we really do enjoy spending time together. As a family we have strong values and that is reflected in the running of the business and what we produce.”

Margot says running a family business requires discipline, determination and vision, with clearly defined ground rules. There’s no special treatment for family employees with each having to adhere to business plans, goals and performance.

“Two of the 1000 most important and pressing things in business is to know how to run a business and having good HR systems in place,” she says. “With those in place you have defined boundaries.”

Regular meetings are held, including the annual think tank in which the business year is reviewed, future plans considered and mapped out for implementation.

Spalding says it’s sad but not all family businesses work. “We knew to be successful we had to have a family charter and constitution. Family Business Australia is an invaluable resource,” she adds.

As a family we have strong values and that is reflected in the running of the business and what we produce.

Jimmy Possum co-founder Margot Spalding

Jimmy Possum remains unique in today’s market with all support functions, including design, manufacturing, marketing, freight and ICT remaining in-house, which ensures all department’s “operate as a cohesive unit”.

Work talk can happen at a social occasion, she says, acknowledging that it’s hard to separate business from pleasure when so many family members are invested in its future.

“We are a creative and lively bunch. We care about the product, it’s our name and a reflection of us.”

With nine grandchildren and more to come, it is possible another generation will soon be involved in running Jimmy Possum. “Never say never, as we have plans for the future and intend to be here for a long time,” she says. “I am proud that we have created something that as a family we can all enjoy and take an interest in, and I am proud of what all of my children have achieved and become.”

Meanwhile, Margot Spalding’s departure from the boss’s chair will be marked in true Possum style with a party next month. For such a colourful and passionate character anything else wouldn’t seem proper.