Objectives of desire

Gillian Cossey knew all about the theory of “management by walking around”. It was management
style she liked and, in January 1996, one that she thought would work well in her new role as general manager of the St Marks Breast Centre. What she didn’t expect was to find herself practising it quite so literally. It was not just that she didn’t have an office; she didn’t have desk or chair either. There was simply no room for them. The breast centre, with staff of 12 headed by its founder, breast surgeon John Harman, and with an annual turnover of $2 million, was bursting out of its rooms in Auckland’s ‘Harley Street’ enclave in the city’s eastern suburb of Remuera. It was mere 27 months old and New Zealand first: multi-disciplinary centre providing complete range of breast health services under one roof. That scope combined with top quality clinical expertise and excellent service had helped create the very conditions in which Cossey found herself – and was the reason she’d been employed. When she had been approached to take the newly created managerial position, she recognised Harman and his centre immediately. It was combination that had fascinated her for years, and been the basis of her thesis for her MBA from Auckland University – entrepreneurship and fast growth companies. She believes solving the problems that so often beset the two and sabotage their potential business success is very particular challenge.
An entrepreneur is very special kind
of person,” she maintains. “They’re highly visionary, highly skilled, and difficult to work with.” Harman, she says, was the classic entrepreneur. “The true entrepreneur’s problems are usually people related. Their drive and passion make them impatient and intolerant of those who can’t share their dreams. They become impatient if things don’t happen fast enough. They also don’t understand that other people aren’t as committed as they are. And they have huge energy level because of their drive towards their vision. The result is often high staff turnover because they can’t tolerate those who won’t keep up.”
Cossey’s very first meeting at the centre was casebook example: staff meeting where frustrated surgeon and his unhappy staff were at loggerheads over all that he perceived was going wrong. He had earned reputation around town of being impossible to work for. But what made Harman different, says Cossey, is that he knew things had to change if his business and vision were to succeed, and was prepared to change to help that happen.
Harman says of himself, “I am very aggressive person, cancer surgeon. My skills are as surgeon and entrepreneur. Most doctors don’t want to have boss. Therefore, it’s difficult to create corporate structure. I have very little in management and human resources skills. I have incredibly high standards. I don’t say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ enough. Gill does. She has been,” he says, “essential to the business. I’ve had to accept that there are different ways of doing things. To accept that people don’t work as hard as me, otherwise they would have gone out and done this themselves. I’ve learnt to delegate.”
The results have been impressive by anyone’s standards.
The St Marks Group is now made up of three medical companies – St Marks Breast Centre in Remuera, St Marks Woman’s Centre in Glenfield on Auckland’s North Shore, and BreastScreen Auckland and North, the Government-contracted breast screening programme for the northern region, the largest contract area with 92,000 women eligible for its services. Staff numbers increased from 26 in March 1997 to 53 in March 1999 and numbered more than 75 by the end of 1999.
There also is board of directors. Annual turnover is now $10 million and profits rose 250 per-cent between March 1997 and March 1998 with further 80 percent increase over the next 12 months. In 1999, the St Marks Breast Centre Charitable Trust was established to provide funds for education and research into breast cancer.

Fast growth tryout
Gill Cossey’s previous experience of fast growth was not just theoretical. In 1982 she started small business in animal-shaped babies’ highchairs designed by her husband, Grant. What began as cottage industry, grew and grew, doubling in size every year.
She began an MBA and soon realised that what she and Grant had was typical high growth company. Then in degree project on enterprise marketing, she formulated plan to take over well known and respected manufacturing firm making nursery furniture. Laloli Bros was 50-year-old company started in the baby boom years following the end of WW2. But the realities of the commercial market had changed. “When I began my project in 1986/87 the firm was tired,” Cossey remembers. “It was reaching the end of one of the lifecycles all businesses go through. Only one of the brothers was left and still involved and he was in his 80s. They couldn’t cope with the huge changes – the market had become very competitive; there was competition from imports and from new companies like ours.”
The venture capital advisers to the course were impressed. They told Cossey she had everything needed to make her project reality. The only other things required were nerves of steel and ruthlessness. She laughs. “I’ve developed the nerves, but not the ruthlessness.” The takeover was friendly: the Cosseys kept an office for two of the old guard for year – “how could we abruptly break habit of 50 years, coming to work every day, and besides, they had wealth of knowledge”. Overnight their company tripled in size and turnover. That created their greatest problem: raising finance from the bank.
“The bank didn’t believe any business could triple in size like that and survive. What I learnt from that experience,” she says now, “is that I didn’t go high enough in the bank. I went to the local manager who was due to retire and he didn’t want to jeopardise his pension. Banks are good these days,” she adds, “but it still boils down to faith in the person.”
The furniture industry was in trouble when Gill Cossey was approached to join the St Marks Breast Centre in 1995. Imports and the high value of the New Zealand dollar were crippling the industry; even good operators were closing or struggling.
There were other catalysts for change. She was chair of the Auckland Furniture Manufacturers Association and on the executive of the National Furniture Manufacturers Federation, and knew the federation was looking for new president. At the same time, the building their company operated from was sold; the new landlord wanted to negotiate new lease.
She talked to John Harman and thought he was “amazing”. She knew very little about medicine but could see the health sector was changing; and it looked lot more interesting than furniture manufacturing at that time. quick decision was needed. She said “yes”. She and Grant closed their company, although they still own the name and their product continues to be manufactured by another firm.

Hit the ground running
In her new job Cossey soon learnt that she had to run as fast as her boss if she was to keep up. At the same time she had to convince him that his many good ideas had to be implemented in stages, not all at once.
“My job is about understanding the entrepreneur: where he wants to be, what his goals are. And to help the staff understand the entrepreneur, that he’s not tyrant but passionate person. When the entrepreneur realises that you understand them, then they are more likely to let you put those structures and systems that are needed in place, so you can achieve their ideas and visions.”
The two most pressing problems that needed her attention first had to be done together – improving staff morale and putting the new systems in place and ensuring they worked properly.
More space was needed to achieve either, so she moved administration into small building next door. But even with the new structures in place, not everyone was happy.
“Even now, the hard

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