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The business owner making work/life balance a priority

Peter Cleary - Zinc founder

While everyone is talking about the work/life balance, one man has gone out and actually created a business designed to offer its workers just that.

The Robert Walters Employee Insights Survey showed that the majority of sick days that are claimed by workers aren’t actually because they’re sick. 47 percent call in sick to look after a family member or friend, 33 percent said they called in sick to attend to personal errands, and 28 percent said they needed a mental health day. Reading these figures, it’s not surprising that so many people are talking about the important of work/life balance and flexibility in the workplace.

Not so happy camper

When Peter Cleary found himself going to work every day not feeling inspired by the environment and wondering how it was impacting on his life, he decided it was time to change. “I was working in a large, multi-billion dollar company with offices all over Australia and Asia-Pacific, and it was a pretty good place,” says Cleary. “The individuals were great, but there was just no life. I could have come in and be missing an arm and someone would say ‘oh, you’ve done something to your hair’. It was a very sterile, corporate environment.”

Despite earning good money and having the responsibility of managing a large team, Cleary was finding that he was disappointed with the environment around him, and as a consequence, not enjoying coming to work. “I really didn’t have much control over things even though I was general manger of that division. With 2,500 employees you can’t really impact the culture,” Cleary explains.

After deciding it was time to go, Cleary experimented with different careers before coming back to where he’d originated, promotions. “It had never been something that I’d wanted to do, so I thought I’d look at other things. Then I had about a dozen guys from where I’d left call and say that they wanted to know what I was up to. I also had some clients call and say that they couldn’t do anything morally or legally for a period of time but they would be happy to chat after then,” Cleary explains.

He began to work on a business plan for his own promotions company but decided early on that the most important thing to focus on was work culture. He says: “Where I had previously worked was a good company, but there were still politics and games and people building fiefdoms, so that was one of the things we wanted to make sure we weren’t replicating here.”

Balancing act

Eliminating rules and strict work hours was one of the first things to go at Zinc, the newly created brand promotion company, when it started in 2005. “We do have to put something in our employment contracts, but we have pretty flexible work hours so we don’t have sick days, per se. If someone needs time off, they take time off, we don’t have doctor’s certificates or reasons,” Cleary explains, acknowledging that it must come with trust. “You don’t do it arbitrarily, of course, you need to talk to your team and say hey, I need two days off here. We also don’t have titles, or offices, everyone’s in an open plan. We don’t have a dress code. If I have to explain to someone what to wear and to dress appropriately, I’ve probably hired the wrong person. It’s very much common sense, basically.”

Finding the cream of the crop

In ensuring that they do employ people who understand the culture from day one, potential recruits go through a vigorous process. “We want to attract the best, develop the best and retain the best people. That’s our people philosophy in a nutshell. So in attracting the right people we’ve got a pretty detailed process that we go through with our preferred recruiting partner and our own process which involves four to five interviews, normally, including culture interviews, as well as assessing someone’s education and technical attributes,” Cleary says.

Spending this much time on recruitment might seem unusual but it pays off in the long run. “One of the reasons why we don’t have performance-based pay is because I think that’s lazy management. You don’t hire someone to do a role and then incentivise them to do it well. I think if you hire the right person at the start they should have an internal motivation to do the job well.”

Important in keeping this culture going is keeping the team small, so despite Zinc’s successes (it now has a turnover of nearly $20 million as well as offices in Melbourne, Sydney, New Zealand and China), Cleary aims to keep the company within a manageable size to ensure they can maintain the culture. “We had always planned to get the company to around $30 million, so whatever size team is needed to sustain that, that will be it. After that we’ll see what happens. If you continue investing in the culture and the people and the systems that we have, you should get better solutions for clients, and then you continue developing,” Cleary says.

Happy as Larry

When the benefits working at Zinc include free lunches, breakfasts, a drinks fridge, a regular masseuse and financial planner for staff, hiring a beach house for staff and a ‘birthdays off’ policy, it’s not surprising their retention rate is over 90 percent. But Cleary does acknowledge that it doesn’t suit everyone. “Absolutely we’ve had staff take advantage. You’ve just got to manage that candidly, directly and quickly,” Cleary acknowledges. “We had an example where an account manager misrepresented where he was going, he actually went to a movie or somewhere else during work hours, despite saying he was going to a client presentation. We can’t have anyone being that duplicitous. The moment he came back to the office, we let him go. You’ve got to be very honest and upfront, we have to be very consistent in what our expectations are, and then you’ve got to be very even with how you deal with people. Trust is the glue that binds the organisation together, and you just can’t break it.”

Attracting and retaining the best people for the job is clearly why Zinc’s clients are happy with the work they’re receiving, and include names as big as Coles, L’Oreal and Nissan. “I think we’ve got a level of passion and commitment that’s very high, which clients really like. I like working with people like that, so our clients would be no different,” Cleary says.

With the money, the clients and the talented staff coming in, it’s easy to see why this formula works. But as Cleary says, in the end it’s about the company ethos. “Life’s too short to do something you hate. Why I love working at Zinc, is because it’s real. I don’t have a corporate game face; the way I am with my family and friends is the way I am with my teammates here, it’s the way we are with our supply partners, as well as our client partners. You’ve just got to be real, you’ve got to be who you are.”

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