Brisbane Icon Cathie Reid’s tips for building an Epic business

Cathie Reid AM, one of Australia’s most successful female founders, shares her advice for building a winning business – and living your best life. 

Cathie is one of Australia’s leading businesswomen, having been inducted into the Australian Businesswomen’s Hall of Fame and named in the Australian Financial Review’s Top 100 Women of Influence. Appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her services to healthcare and philanthropy, she’s the co-founder of multiple Australian healthcare companies, including Icon Group and Epic Pharmacy Group. 

Valued at more than $2 billion, Icon Group is the nation’s largest cancer care services provider, operating centres across Australia and in Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Vietnam and New Zealand, while Epic Pharmacy Group delivers pharmacy services to the hospital and oncology sector from more than 30 locations across Australia.

As if that wasn’t enough, she also serves as Deputy Chair of the Australian Federal Government’s Cyber Security Industry Advisory Committee; is a Board member of the Brisbane Lions; and has even booked her seat to travel into space as one of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic future astronauts. 

It would be a severe understatement to say Cathie knows a thing or two about growing a business – and at the Brisbane Business Hub’s latest ‘On the couch with…’ event, she shared some of the wisdom she’s picked up along her journey to the top. 

A good business partnership is like a marriage… sometimes literally

After first crossing paths at university, Cathie and Stuart Giles randomly ran into each other again years later in a Melbourne laneway, shortly after Cathie divorced her high school sweetheart (who, she laughed, turned out to be “not such a sweetheart after all”). 

That chance meeting was the beginning of a successful partnership, in both life and business, that recently saw the power couple celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary.   

“We got engaged on a Wednesday and bought our first pharmacy together the following Monday,” she told the Brisbane Business Hub crowd. “It’s interesting, because when we ran into each other in that laneway, we didn’t exactly do any comparative business strength profiling. It was a little more organic than that. 

“But years later, we did the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment together, which is now called CliftonStrengths. When we did that exercise, the facilitator said we were the most compatible founders she’d ever come across. She said we had very complementary skill sets in business, and we were actually better together than either of us would have been apart –  so it was freaky that we were married, as well. 

“Back in the early days, when we were starting out, the narrative we used to joke about was that Stuart would do the deals, and then I would turn them into reality. He would go and sell our services to a hospital or a nursing home, and then he would come back and tell me what he promised them, and it would be up to me to build the operational plan and figure out how we were going to deliver. He’s a strategic, big picture thinker, and there’s nothing he loves more than making a transaction, whereas I tend to be more practical. 

“I think that’s the secret sauce to what we’ve been able to accomplish. You need a co-founder who complements your skill set, because if you’re identical, you don’t get as much benefit from working together. You double the work capacity, I suppose, but that’s it.” 

Cathie Reid

Perhaps because of their own connection, Cathie and Stuart know the importance of building strong relationships with business partners and investors you can trust. 

“It could be because we’re married business partners, but Stuart and I have always likened a business partnership to a marriage,” Cathie said. “That’s why the most important thing when you’re looking for investors is to make sure you take the right money, not just any money. 

“That can be really hard if you’re desperate and you need money. But if you take the wrong money, that can be worse than having no money at all. Because there will be tough times. There will be times when you don’t meet your forecasts, and things don’t work out the way you sold it to your investors. And when that happens, you need to be comfortable enough with your investors that you can say, ‘Okay, this has happened and it isn’t quite what we expected, but how can we plan to get through this?’

“You need to have shared goals, and you also need to have shared values. Because if you don’t agree on what you’re trying to achieve, and you don’t share any common values, life’s going to be hard. You might get the money, but boy oh boy, you’ll have to sell your soul for it.”

Take every opportunity to look at the world from a different perspective 

Living an epic life like Cathie’s isn’t something that will just happen to you – you have to put yourself in position to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. 

On the couch with Cathie Reid

“We all get presented with opportunities all the time, but it’s about how deliberate you are in understanding what your goals are and putting yourself in the right environments,” Cathie said. 

“It’s about seizing the opportunities that you get, and it’s about pushing yourself and thinking about how you can play a bigger game. Do you want to accept the status quo, or do you want to break some eggs and change things? Live with no regrets. You don’t want to get to the end and go, ‘Oh gosh, I could have done so much more’.

“One of the personal mottos that I’ve always adopted is that you should take every opportunity to look at the world from a different perspective. I started out in pharmacies, and if I’d only hung out in the pharmacy industry, going to pharmacy events… well, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I would only ever have heard about what was happening in the pharmacy industry. 

“But if you get out and embrace different industry events and conferences, if you’re constantly asking, ‘Okay, what’s happening over there?’, ‘How are they using tech?’, ‘What are the latest innovations in that industry?’, then you can repurpose those ideas and bring them into your business. It’s about pushing the boundaries.

“I think a lot of my approach stems from the fact that I could have had a really boring life. I’m actually incredible grateful that my high school sweetheart turned out not to be a sweetheart, because if I’d gone down the life trajectory that I was on – buying into a couple of suburban pharmacies, taking the career break to have a couple of kids, maybe buying a pharmacy in the next suburb over – things could have been very different. 

“After my divorce, I could have wallowed in that, and just been bitter and twisted and decided that I was going to define myself for the rest of my life by something that happened when I was 27. Or I could go, ‘Well, that happened,’ and then put it in a box and move on.”

At some point soon, Cathie will get the opportunity to truly see the world from a new perspective when she heads into space with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. 

“We sponsored a business breakfast Richard was speaking at years ago, and he was talking about Virgin Galactic at the time,” she said. “I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘Oh my god, how amazing would that be? That’s the ultimate way of looking at the world from a different perspective.’ 

“I leaned over to Stuart and said, ‘I would love to do that’, but there was no chance of that happening at that stage. We’d never taken any money out of the business other than for living expenses. But a few years down the track, things had changed, and Stuart had remembered what I’d said, and he bought me a ticket for Christmas – which was a bloody hard gift to live up to, let me tell you!”

Cathie isn’t quite sure when she’ll be exiting the stratosphere, but you should watch this space. 

“They’re set to start flying next year, and there are a lot of people who are in the queue ahead of me,” she said. “You never want to be a queue jumper, but at the same time, less than 10 per cent of all of the people who have signed up are female. I feel like they’re not going to want to send up space ship after space ship full of middle-aged white guys – hopefully they’ll go for a middle-aged white chick!” 

Yes, the future is female 

Despite the fact that men hold 90 percent of the senior management positions in Australia’s private capital industry and attract the vast majority of funding, Cathie senses that the tide is turning – and female founders should take advantage of that. 

“The body of evidence is growing to illustrate that female founders are actually very investable,” Cathie said. “They’re lower risk, they need less capital, and they actually deliver better returns. If you’re a female founder, regardless of what business you’re in, you should arm yourself with that research and those statistics, and make it part of your deck.” 

On the couch attendee asking a question

A 2018 report by the Boston Consulting Group, for example, found that companies founded and co-founded by women had considerably better financial returns, generating 10 percent more in cumulative revenue over a five-year period despite starting off with less than half the average investment in companies founded by men. 

Similarly, a 2016 Kaufman Fellows Report found that privately held tech companies led by women achieve a 35 percent higher return on investment and, when venture-backed, bring in 12 percent more revenue than companies founded by men. 

“If you see people’s eyes start to glaze over when you talk about this,” Cathie said, “then you should cut your presentation off as quick as you can and walk out. Because they’re not your people, and you need to find the people who are actually interested in hearing that – the people who say, ‘Oh, that’s really interesting, let’s hear more’. 

“The good thing is that you’re starting to see more and more male-dominated investment firms who are starting to realise this. I look at Quadrant, who were our initial investors in Icon, who have now made a series of very successful investments into businesses with female founders, and have been very public about how good investing in female-led companies has been for them

“So if you’re a female founder, go in armed with the facts and figures about why backing you is actually a smart move and is going to make them money.”

Things won’t always be epic 

From the outside looking in, Cathie and Stuart’s rise to the top of the business world might look like a straight line – but they’ve had their ups and downs. 

“In 2008, when the Global Financial Crisis hit, we were $35 million in debt,” Cathie said. “The only thing we had going for us was that we weren’t property developers, who the banks saw as higher risk, and we at least had cash coming in and we still had a business. 

“But we would literally go home and say, ‘How do we get up and do this again in the morning? What is the pathway out of this? Whose turn is it to sob on the couch, and whose turn is it to pat them on the back and say it’ll be okay?’ 

“It would have been much easier to throw in the towel than to continue. The thing that stopped us was that we had 330 people working for us at that stage, and while it would have been easier for us to give up, it wouldn’t have been easier for them. It would have put their families in jeopardy. And for our patients, it would have been so disruptive to their care. So that’s what kept us getting out of bed. We just kept putting one foot in front of the other and got through it.”

Despite their business’ troubles, Cathie and Stuart kept their cards close to their chest – only their accountants knew how bad things really were.

“There seems to be a movement at the moment where you have to be transparent and open about everything,” Cathie said, “and that is important, but I actually think it’s better to do that after the event, when you can talk about what happened – good or bad. 

“The reason so few people knew how bad things were at the time was because we were the only people who had to know, and we were the only people who could actually do something about it. If we’d gone into work and said, ‘Oh my god, it’s so stressful, we don’t know how we’re going to survive’… we just would have been putting an undue level of stress and pressure on people, without them having the ability to influence the outcome. And that’s not fair and that’s not reasonable. 

“It wasn’t even like they could have left and gotten another job, because no one was hiring at the time. So I think that’s something to be cautious of, when you want to tell your people the warts-and-all story – are you just doing it to unburden yourself, and is that helping or hindering you? 

“If we told all of our customers how bad things were, it would have just gotten worse, because they would have left us and gone somewhere else. And our employees wouldn’t have been able to do their jobs properly, because they would have been so stressed. 

“When you go through difficult times, by all means, get help. Find people you can talk to, and people who can support you. But your customers and your employees are probably not those people. It’s your trusted friends and advisors who need to have your back at that time.” 

It’s not about the money

Sure, this might seem easy to say when you’re the co-founder of a company that’s worth more than $2 billion. But Cathie is adamant that if all you want to do is get rich, you probably won’t get rich.

“It sounds so trite to say this, but it’s never been about the money,” she said. “The metrics we use within Icon are about patient impact. If you build a big enough business that impacts enough people, and you run it sensibly, then it will turn into something of value. 

“If we’d said, ‘This is the timeline to reaching a billion dollar valuation…’ Well, who wants to be part of that? Who wants to sign up to build something that just helps someone put a billion dollar sticker on their business? 

“Our motivation is to deliver the best care possible to as many people as possible, as close to home as possible. For instance, if you wanted to get radiation oncology before our centre opened in Mackay, you had to come to Brisbane, and you had to stay there for six weeks to be treated for 10 minutes every day. Queensland Health would pay for you to do that, but it’s a lot like being in hotel quarantine. You’re there in a hotel by yourself, away from your family and friends and support network at the time that you need them most. 

“We put our centre in Mackay, and now a person in that situation doesn’t need to travel anymore. They can stay at home and they can have the treatment in Mackay. And that’s what makes it worthwhile. Because I can tell you, it’s not the billion dollar valuation or anything like that. 

“The thing that stops me in my tracks every time is when someone will come up to me and say, ‘My mother was treated at one of your centres, and it saved her life’. Or, on the flipside, when someone comes up to me and says, ‘My mum was treated at one of your centres, and unfortunately she didn’t make it, but I need to let you know that the care your team gave my family made a really horrible time that much easier’. 

“That’s what I’m proud of. A billion dollar valuation is nothing. It’s the impact you can create that matters.”

From CEOs to rising stars, Brisbane’s business leaders and innovators are heading to the Brisbane Business Hub to share their knowledge with our community. To register to attend one of our free workshops and events, visit businessinbrisbane.com.au/workshops

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