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In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, you’ll hear from Dean Salakas, CEO of The Party People, on seeing change as an opportunity, coping with growth, and evolving as a leader.
Dean is the Chief Party Dude of The Party People, a business he and his brother bought from their mother in 2007.
Before taking on the ownership, Dean and his brother worked in the business in various positions, from driver to retail assistant to website manager.
Following the completion of his business degree at Western Sydney University, he went on to work at Woolworths as a Business Analyst for nearly 7 years, while also running a DJ hire company.
Dean is now an accomplished speaker, a Board member of both eTail Australia and Online Retail Summit. He has also pitched The Party People to the investment TV show, Shark Tank.
In this episode we talk about:
- The full background to him and his brother buying The Party People from his mother;
- Being the first Google and Bing customers, and leading the business to triple digit growth, and all the challenges that brought;
- How he developed a culture that change is an opportunity; and
- How the business survived the COVID-19 pandemic through innovation, communication and engagement with customers.
Connecting with Dean Salakas
You can connect with Dean via LinkedIn
Books and resources
- The One Minute Manager – by Kenneth Blanchard Ph.D and Spencer Johnson M.D.
“I call myself the Chief Party Dude. I always wanted to be a CEO, and now that I'm there, I don't take it too seriously.”
- My mum certainly was innovative, so obviously there's some family history there of pioneering.
- We were super early to launch online – click and collect just made sense because we had a physical store. Actually, shipping was pretty difficult back then because there were no e-parcels and there was no postman coming around to pick up the parcels from you – you had to drop them at your local post office. So there were no real shipping mechanisms, so pick up in store was the obvious, easy option for people to buy from us online.
- As such, we learned along the way and developed this mindset that change was really good for us. As we could see change happening, we became early adopters. The internet was new and everything was cool. We got excited about how we could adapt and take advantage of the situation.
On dealing with COVID-19 as a retailer
- When COVID hit, we were down about 92% on sales. The first thing that came to mind was, how do we take advantage of this change?!
- Within a day or two, we realised there were customers coming in, the 8%, who were buying hand sanitizer, but they were also buying arts and crafts, things to do at home in lockdown, or buying a bakery.
- Even though we thought we were quite agile and innovative, that was quite a challenging time. But we found our way through it. We looked at all these changes and genuinely saw them as opportunities, not threats.
- We realised that we had to buy stock better. We had to react better, by stockpiling the right products or those we thought were going to keep going up in sales. We asked questions like, “What existing products are currently at lower than future price that we can load up on now?”
- No doubt my competitors were naturally thinking, “Oh, the costs are going up. This is ridiculous” rather than going, “Well, how do I take advantage and get ahead before everyone else does?”
- We started brainstorming trends. So my team, my store managers, my operations manager, I got them all in a room. We brought them on the journey, got them motivated and they helped drive the change as well.
On dealing with change
- In theory, my team should be fatigued with the amount of change I throw at them, but that's not what's happening. They've come to expect that for starters, but the fact that they're on the journey all the time is a big difference from change for change’s sake.
- And obviously there is a track record over time. The fact that we keep winning, it gets them motivated. Because when they see the shiny new toy that I throw at them every time, they probably have some track record there that it actually works out most of the time.
On the challenges of triple-digit growth
- We came up with a formula of a cost to service and that formula then allowed us to scale.
- So we just took our budgets off, all our advertising and said, as long as it hits this formula, we'll spend as much as we can on advertising to get orders. I didn't realise how powerful it was until we started accelerating and started getting triple digit growth. And really the challenge wasn't, how do we get customers? It was, how do we handle it?
- The setback there in the growth was that we didn't have the capacity for it. And by capacity, I mean, in a lot of areas, it was a constant battle for the operations, where they were saying that because of the business doing more volume, they needed more people. But then we didn't have enough computer stations. So we had to get a few more. But then we didn't have enough space for those computer stations.
- It just kept spiralling and it just spiralled out of control. And we actually did get to a point where we had to shut down the whole online operation. We turned it off! We lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. We just couldn't cope with the volume. Four months later, we had the same problem. I had to shut it down again.
- I said we'd never do it again and so the third time we got it right. This is going to sound really simple, but planning for growth was the solution. We needed to plan better. We needed to start planning for our peak by knowing when to recruit, when to buy stock, what stock we needed to buy, how we were going to forecast etc. And then the contingencies – what happens if we do more than we expected? What happens if we do less?
On evolving as leaders
- We've had to evolve as owners. We've had to learn how to delegate and learn how to build teams.
- I've learned to adapt how I deal with situations based on the situation itself and I think that's probably the skill I've learned that's helped me the most, which is communicating effectively at a high level, but then also being able to communicate at a detailed level. Communicating at those high levels builds confidence so that people would trust me and the decisions I make.
- That's probably something I've learned about myself personally, that if I love something and I'm really passionate about it, it's almost like I learn it quicker.
- Leverage your strengths, but outsource the things you're not so good at.
- I'm always asking other people that have got multiple board roles and have been CEOs of companies about what things I need to think about and how better to tackle certain situations. So I'd say I don’t have one particular mentor, there's multiple ones for different situations.
On the art of communication
- The thing that I always got told when I was at Woolworths was pretend you're talking to your grandma. I found myself catching myself going into detail and I would think about that phrase.
- If you're talking to the CEO and you're the Technology person, you need to really just simplify it, keep it short, sweet and succinct.
- Founders and CEOs love to talk about all the details of their business. And often you're thinking, “I'm losing interest in you, because they're just going on about details I really don't care about.”
- So keep it high level and then go into the details later. People think the opposite, that you’ve got to give them all the features so that they realise your product is really cool. But in reality, most people just want to hear the basics first to get drawn in with a few USPs that make them different and really then start to go, “Oh, I want to learn more” and then go from there.
On becoming a business owner
- I get asked this a bit and I tell them the same answer. “Don't do it! You're crazy. It's not worth it.” Here’s my thinking why. If they do it anyway, it actually probably means that they probably have what it takes. And if they listen to me, it means they don't.
- Too many people go into business, and most of them fail. There's many reasons for it, but personally, I think the biggest reason would be grit. When we had to turn the website off, probably half the people would've given up. Hundreds of thousands of dollars, losses racking up. It was heartbreaking. We went through that twice.
- At the time, we were running two shifts – daytime and nighttime. I was working massive hours. Unless you're saying, “I'm going to make this work no matter what,” and got a huge level of motivation, it's not going to work. And no matter what business, I've never spoken to a CEO that hasn't gone through tough times.
Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders
- See change as an opportunity. I think that's a real key to make change your competitive advantage, because change is inevitable.
- Nothing's going to be successful for any period of time if it doesn't change. So what might work today won't necessarily be the best way forward tomorrow. But I think if you can make change a source of competitive advantage, it'll future-proof you as a business.
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