Julian Clark was determined to do anything other than work in his family’s luxury hotel business, the Lancemore Group. Now he runs it. He says the leisure customers in his boutique properties are looking for more than a recharge. His promise is ‘moments of bliss’.
John: Well today I’m in Melbourne where I’m joined by Julian Clark, Julian’s the CEO of the Lancemore Group, it owns and manages boutique luxury hotels in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, Lancemore is a family Company but Julian was determined never ever to work in, let alone to run and yet here he is after a sparkling career in Europe in management consulting, strategy and finance at the helm of the family Company.
So today we’re going to talk about how that came to be, that Julian now finds himself not only doing this job but how he goes about innovating around his customers in one of the most competitive sectors in a world that’s becoming more and more demanding and he’s got to be more and more purposeful and we’re also looking at what really drives Julian and his Company beyond making a buck, we’re also going to get finally a few tips from an industry insider about how he finds and books the best boutique hotels at the best prices right around the world, so with that, Julian welcome to Customers Matter.
Julian: Thanks very much.
John: So yeah, you obviously grew up in Victoria as well as your family was getting into this and but you ended up working in London for many years, so what was your path, you know, where did you study at school and at university and what did you study and why and how did you end up in London?
Julian: Alright, so I went to school in Melbourne and then I went to Melbourne Uni, in Melbourne and did an Arts Commerce degree there and I remember . . .
John: Left and right side of the brain?
Julian: . . . yeah, exactly in fact interestingly enough I always said I did Arts for the passion and Commerce to get a job and that was kind of how it was and I think I became more interested in the Commerce side, what I like is kind of dreaming and doing, and interesting you say left and right side of the brain, I’m literally 50/50, although you know, in this job you tend to get pulled more to the logic than the creative you know, a lot of the time, but interestingly I value the creative side rather than the logic side of my brain more if that makes sense, so yeah I went to Melbourne Uni, did that, took a year off in after 3rd Year and did an exchange semester over at Georgetown Uni in the States which was great and I mean they’ve got the School of Fine Service over there which was you know, really stimulating to be in that environment, it was a lot of fun, I wish I had a year there, it was also you know, that was the, so I’m late 30s, that was the Gore Bush election and you know, so Clinton being President, being alumni at Georgetown came and spoke, Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State came from Georgetown, went back to Georgetown to teach International Relations, so that was kind of cool . . .
John: So it sort of opened you to a world I guess, had you travelled as a kid or as a . . .
Julian: I had, yeah, yeah, I’d probably travelled quite a lot so dad’s work took him internationally and he used to cash in a First Class air fare that was there and he’d get a couple of Economies and we couldn’t afford to do the whole family travel but I’m, I’ve got three sisters and they’re all eight, ten and twelve years older than me, so I got dragged along and at the time I really probably didn’t want to get dragged along if the truth be told, but when you look back, you know I’m not sure whether that sparked the passion for travel but it was probably what ended up coming there, so I went to London, to answer your earlier question, I moved to Sydney when I came back and got a job in banking actually and then met a girl and she came from the other side of the world so I decided I’d follow her over there and that didn’t work out and so I decided to come home after a few years, so.
John: So when I asked before what sparked the early passion, obviously there was a girl here but in terms of your appetite for work and your management consulting, tell me, how did you get into that and was that a passion play originally . . .
Julian: Yeah, yeah I think, you know it’s always important to try and work out your life and so my 20s were about working in, I mean I worked in four industries by the time I was 27, all in similar roles, so I always chose a career that had transferrable skills . . .
John: So what were those industries?
Julian: So I worked in banking, insurance and online sports betting and hotels, so they were fairly eclectic and you know obviously I stayed in the one that I’m most passionate about, but you take a bit from every one that you work in of those ones so yeah . . .
John: So Julian, can you tell me about the sort of businesses you were working with in London and Europe and I guess in particular, when did you start thinking about that relationship between businesses and their customers?
Julian: Okay, sure, so I started off when I finished my degree going up to Sydney and I worked at Westpac there and we did some rotations and thinking about when I first had customers, actually my job at Westpac was in a strategy team, but that strategy team was a small SWAT team that was 100 per cent about how do you improve the customer experience, so that was my job for you know, a couple of years and then . . .
John: Any secret thoughts you can share? What did you take out of that?
Julian: Oh, a lot, I mean if it was a simple answer, you know, everyone would be doing it, it’s not a simple answer, look I think the secret source is focus, prioritise focus, tick off, continue and do the next thing, you know I think the biggest mistake that anyone makes when you’re trying to do something is trying to tackle too much at the same and in doing so really hardly shift the needle on anything and so . . .
John: And specifically as it relates to engineering a customer experience, how do you go about knowing what a customer even wants?
Julian: Well there’s two ways of looking at that, the way that a large corporate would do it is to do all the market research and then you know, curate an experience coming out of that, I think way is the entrepreneur’s way which is to intimately understand what those customers want because you’re one of them in many ways and maybe combine it with some conversations with your team and with customers and start thinking creatively about what you can do and I don’t think either are right or wrong, I think they both have their place, but yeah, when you looking at customer experiences, I mean what I tend to do is my natural modus operandi of how I work is to gather a large amount of information and try and synthesise that, so I go on study tours and things like that, I read, well I read an enormous amount of our customer satisfaction, so with the tools that exist these days, I see every single customer review that comes through at any of our hotels and I read it, you can read them fairly quickly, so then you take a deep dive and you try to create a new customer experience along the way.
John: So at 27, you were in a kick arse job, you’ve worked in Sydney, you’ve worked in London at a high octane super successful start-up turned monolith, you’re now helping at a global strategy for an insurance business, so what brought about the change, what was the decision . . .
Julian: But why come back to three hotels in regional Victoria [laugh] . . .
John: Yeah, precisely.
Julian: It was interesting, when I spoke to my dad about it, he told me not to be an idiot and not kill my career, I think I’d gotten to, well, the first question is why I leave London and where do I go and that was an easy answer, I came over to experience different things, I always like experiencing things and so you know and so I came over for that experience and I came over there for a relationship which was no longer in existence, so I had a couple of years over there and I loved my time, but anyone who’s in London will know that the weather isn’t exactly Australia’s weather and I remember vividly looking out the window, my next step was quite clear, I was either going to be going and being a regional manager for one of the regions, it was in this regional strategy manager where I’d go off and lead a division in Poland or something like that and neither of those were all that exciting to me truth be told . . .
John: It’s funny you should say that, I once got offered a job in London with a broadcast company and they were running 12 hours shifts and I thought summer or winter, it’s the same as being in a coal mine, you know, you go down before dark and you come up after dark . . .
Julian: So I looked out, at that stage, London skyline wasn’t what it is today and so we were in the city and I was on the 10th floor or something like that, at which stage you could see everything and I was looking out over St Paul’s and it was 3.30 in the afternoon and it was dark and I’d been working 12, 13 hour days, an hour to get to and from work in the dark, going there, getting home in the dark, the work was invigorating and challenging and interesting but I kind of thought I don’t know if this is, now’s the time to go if I’m going to go.
John: Julian, tell me, you’d determinedly avowed not to be in the family business, why didn’t you want to be in the family business and what changed your mind?
Julian: Look I grew up fortunate, both my parents were middle class, I grew up in a private school education and I had no interest in basically just getting everything spoon fed to me to be perfectly honest, so they always taught me the value of hard work and a buck and you know, they put everything, my parents put everything on the line when they started their businesses and they were fortunate but they are in a different position now and that changed when I was growing up and I was never, yeah I never wanted a free kick, so that what was why I never intended to work in the business, it wasn’t anything to do with the industry, that was the main reason . . .
John: And what changed . . .
Julian: . . . and then I looked around and to be perfectly honest, I’d had a chat to a few people and I was fortunate enough to be mentored by some really great people and I decided that I didn’t want to give 30 years of my career and then be worked out whether you know, judged on the next reorganisation or the next you know, the quarterly earnings or something like that and decide that I’d given it for the wrong reasons along the way, so you’re always going to be disposable in that regard and so I decided that, it was a mix of that and doing something you’re passionate about, so I thought I’d give travel, you know, hotels a go and the first, it was on a you know, the first year was we’ll give each other a year and see if we like each other and . . .
John: So this was you and your dad, I mean . . .
Julian: . . . and mum and dad so . . .
John: . . . so how did you negotiate, how did it work . . .
Julian: So I said to them you know, I’m going to come home and I was thinking, how do you feel about me working for the family company and the initial response as I said was don’t be stupid, you’ll kill your career and I said I don’t think I will, I’ll have a year there and if you like me and if I like you, we can consider staying and if I don’t I’ll just go back doing what I was doing, so it’s not exactly fatal, as a 27 year old, I didn’t have kids, I didn’t have a mortgage, you know all that sort of stuff, so there were no pressures at all in that regard, so, I think the other thing is when it’s a family business, you grow up in it, so I’d worked in the business from Year 7 till Year 12 every single school holidays, I had to go work there, I say had to, I didn’t always want to but of course you had to you know . . .
John: You know what I’ve got to get my son doing in his school holidays [laugh] . . .
Julian: . . . and they were really keen to teach us the value of a buck and hard work along the way, unfortunately I didn’t learn many maintenance skills which mum was always disappointed about, so I did that and then of course you always think about what you’re doing, about how it relates back to the family business so I wanted to have a crack at that and you know, it wasn’t just a handover, I mean mum had been, it was actually mum who’d been MD for 21 years and it’s not easy to hand over after 21 years and building three properties yourself and all of those things which she had done and . . .
John: So tell me, because you described the state of the business when it was founded . . .
John: . . . by the time you returned to work in it, what had it become, what had occurred over that time?
Julian: So we’d moved to three hotels and so we’d moved into the boutique hotel space as well as we still had a strong foothold in the conference scene and that had become a lot more competitive also, to be perfectly honest, so we opened, you know we kept on innovating and then at that stage, both of my parents were getting older and they didn’t have the same energy and drive to take that forward, so we’d probably stagnated for a few years truth be told and we had to diagnose that situation, and I was always very keen, you know, the easiest thing to do is to come in and just try and impose your own thoughts, I wasn’t CEO when I came in, I was working in sales and marketing and strategy and I just spent some time paying homage to learn the business from top to toe to start off with . . .
John: So the three properties that you . . .
Julian: So they were Lancemore Hill, Lindenderry at Red Hill on the Mornington Peninsular and Lindenwarrah at Milawa . . .
John: And can you describe those for those who may not have . . .
Julian: Sure, of course, Lancemore Hill remains an events driven property, half an hour from the airport, an hour from Melbourne, 275 acres, 150 of bush, so it’s quite a rural feeling property . . .
John: Stunning . . .
Julian: . . . in many ways and in fact we’re about to do a multi-million refurb on it and we’ll probably rename it The Farm which is obviously a colloquial aspect to it there and yeah, it’s a beautiful spot and it’s in our family’s hearts too, my sisters grew up there, my parents had it for 10 years before we bought on that land etcetera, etcetera, so you know, we’ve been there every Easter for 40 years, so that gives you an idea of that. Lindenderry was different, Lindenderry was a 40 room boutique hotel on the Mornington Peninsular and Lindenwarrah was up in the King Valley in Milawa just opposite Brown Brothers there, 40 rooms also, so we were definitely down the more boutique end and more regional states, Victoria . . .
John: So you came and what did you bring to the table, it sounds like you brought perhaps the next generation thinking you’d been working as a corporate strategist so you were starting to, you were seeing things a bit different and it looked like there was a bit of a baton passing opportunity as it turned out . . .
Julian: Yeah and it’s easy to, look, I know what I thought I brought at the time which was I thought that I brought a different perspective and they thought too and a more strategic outlook on things, what also transpired I think is there were two other things that I brought, one was an energy and drive which you have at the start of your career but you don’t have at the end of your career naturally, so that was a big thing.
John: So this was about a decade ago?
Julian: Yeah, well exactly a decade, exactly, so . . .
John: So tell me what’s happened over the 10 years, how’s the Company grown?
Julian: We’ve now got eight hotels in different jurisdictions so I think that that’s the most obvious physical thing that’s changed but . . .
John: So for people who might be listening or viewing and never had a Lancemore experience, how would you describe what it is that they can expect, what’s the experience at Lancemore . . .
Julian: So I think one of the things that they can’t expect is a cookie-cutter experience, no Lancemore hotel looks identical to another one, so I always say it’s about the outcomes that people feel, look we hope that they feel that they get a personalised experience, we hope that they feel that they’re dealing with real people, that take an interest in their stay and are passionate about what they do. Nothing’s the same but the core outtake hopefully is that they’ve had a really high quality stay, we’re not a brand in the boutique space that’s what I term you know, young and achingly hip, that’s not what we aspire to be, we’re fairly confident in our own brand and most of our customers are also, they’re not the same demographic in terms of age or anything like that, it’s quite eclectic in that regard.
John: So Julian, you’ve now got kids, how many?
Julian: Three under four. [laugh] . . .
John: Wow, you’ve got a growing company, in our business, we’re starting to work with companies to help them uncover their sort of intrinsic values, you know their purpose if you like before profit, not taking away from profit and we’re a bit on that journey ourself as well and I guess I’m wondering given your phase and stage in your career and your life, what’s the bigger picture for you and for Lancemore, what are you passionate about beyond making a buck?
Julian: Oh I think there’s a, if you think of a ven diagram, there’s obviously overlap or obviously I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing but there are differences between the Company and personally, but I start off with the Company, I mentioned dad was a management consultant, what I didn’t say is what he did, but he did a lot of vision of values so they’ve been core to us since we started and they’ve evolved over time obviously as we have evolved and the marketplace has evolved, but we recruit everyone on the basis of those values, they’re in our performance appraisals, I think values and visions can either be the biggest load of BS or they can actually be extraordinarily powerful and we hope to have the latter and it’s a constant journey about how we hardwire that into our system and . . .
John: And what are the values that matter to you and the Company, where’s that alignment?
Julian: So our vision is probably, there’s certainly some alignment around our vision and our vision is to be the best actually, so I’ve always been relatively competitive in that regard and I’ve always felt that if you’re going to do something you may as well have a cracking and give it your best shot and so it’s very much around that and then helping people be the best that they can possibly be, I think when we look back, we’ve been around for 30 years now, you know, I think when we look back, the people we’re most proud of and of the people that were ready made walked into our Company and made an impact, the people we’re most proud of is who joined us and this isn’t just a statement it’s true, you know that joined us on our journey and that came in and they may have started as in F&B and worked up to a general manager role, you know through different areas and they’re the people that are the legends in our Company in many ways and then we’re the ones that are most proud of, but they did things that they didn’t necessarily think that they could do, so that’s the one that you look back on with pride and we use the word pride a lot, I mean I mentioned you know, I won’t say my parents’ age but do the maths, I’m late 30s and so their motivations now are very much around a successful business but also pride in that business too, right and so we’ve always been that way built but it’s even more pronounced now, so that’s one thing where the barriers overlap . . .
John: What’s the business’s higher purpose?
Julian: Yeah, I think, but that’s what a vision’s for right, so our stated vision is definitely that, so therefore, which I mentioned before, referenced before, it’s all about allowing people to be their best self and then it’s interesting, the other part of it it’s not in our stated vision, is there are times when you get really involved in your business and you don’t experience it like the customer, I always try and stay in our hotels as regularly as I can, like a customer and sometimes that’s the best time because you know, Four Seasons used to have a tagline that said where life was perfect and when you’re talking about the leisure customer, there are those moments of bliss that are not always in people’s lives and I think that’s what people take holidays for, right, it’s not just to recharge, it’s the moments where life feels perfect and whatever that is for you, you know for me sometimes it’s just sitting under the stars, you know, looking at them with a glass of wine in hand at 11 o’clock at night, when it’s just perfect and you’re at peace and there’s serenity in your life and you know, those things don’t come along the whole time, so I think that’s the other aspect when it comes to our leisure side of our business that you know, enabling those moments of bliss.
John: Finally I promised at the outset that you might share some insider secrets, so I’m obliged to ask you about how you go about finding and booking the best boutiques at the best prices around the world and I know you’ve got quite a methodology there Julian . . .
Julian: Yeah I’m a bit of a geek at heart in these things and of course hotels are something that I’m passionate about and so what I tend to do is I look at a few reference sites and they may be for example Mr and Mrs Smith, Tablet, Kiwi Collection, i-escape, some of those ones and I will cross reference that with their ranking on Trivago which sort of you know, pulls together all the online rankings of the OTAs and then cross reference that with Trip Advisor and then have a look at rates and location at the same time and then eventually you choose one, so it’s painstaking to be perfectly honest, it’s exciting to start off with because you’re looking at all these new hotels, particularly if you’re going outside of Australia, you sort of know all the Australian market but outside of there, that you’re getting excited about and then after about a week or so it starts to become more painful but what it does mean is that you never stay in a bad hotel and that you know, obviously professionally is a good thing, hints and tips that you can pick up from the places, but it makes for a better trip too.
John: So of course I have to ask, what hotel experiences are you loving at the moment and why?
Julian: I was down at Saffire Freycinet a month ago and that’s a pretty special place, I’ve been planning to get down there for a while and . . .
John: Down in Tasmania?
Julian: . . . yeah, it’s unbelievable, you know it’s obviously not affordable for [laugh] everybody. I’m a big believer in non-starchy service and I think they do that very, very well . . .
John: Non . . .
Julian: . . . non-starchy, you know I think the old school five star incredibly formal service is no longer what the luxury customer is after, it’s certainly not what I’m after and I think they deliver that to perfection so I like that and equally you know, we were talking before, I have just spent the last week down at Mornington Peninsular working down at Lindenderry and you know, you don’t have to pay a couple of grand a night to have an amazing experience, I mean some of the experiences that you can get by you know, just going and having something to eat or drink in these spaces are truly special, so I’m probably doing slightly less international travel with three kids under four these days, but rediscovering everything that Australia has to offer has been superb in the last few years and reminding yourself that a lot of people justifiably travel half the way around the world to come to what’s in our backyard, so they’re two things that I’m really loving right now.
John: Julian, thanks very much for joining us today.
Julian: Thanks John, appreciate it.