As the CEO and majority shareholder of major engineering and building consultancy firm, Censeo, it’s fair to say that Kate Middleton took the road less travelled.
Thirteen years on however, Censeo is thriving.
Nationally, Kate heads up a large of team of engineers, building and operations consultants and contractors, is planning an expansion of the business into the UK, Asia and North America, and is constantly reflecting on and evolving the business model to meet clients’ needs– (even if they’re not aware of them yet).
Kate also (somehow) makes time to unwind, spend time with friends, renovate her house and partake in philanthropic ventures.
And though she’s conscious “not to be the hero” and attempt to “do it all”, Kate’s ambition and drive is undeniably extraordinary.
Kate won the ’emerging entrepreneur’ gong at last year’s Women’s Agenda Leadership awards. We check in with her to get an update on the past 12 months and her plans for Censeo in the future.
Who or what inspired you to acquire Censeo?
Having previously been a Senior Manager within Insurance & Investment, I understood implicitly that the only way to truly influence my sector was to be in a position where I was calling the shots in terms of attitude and behaviour; and the best way to do that was to be in a senior leadership position where I was not beholden to the internal politics often felt within large organisations. To achieve this, I purchased an existing player within the Insurance Loss Adjusting and broader Engineering / Construction space.
On a personal level, I was tired of being paid significantly less than my male counterparts despite being a strong performer; and I felt disenfranchised at seeing Senior Leaders (typically male) with poor ethics and management capability rise to the top, just because they had racked up a long enough tenure.
Sometimes you have to throw a grenade in an established sector…and I hope that grenade will be me!
Can you give us an update on the past year, since winning the ’emerging entrepreneur’ award?
We have had a stellar year. Revenue is up 48%, work in in progress up 1700%, legacy debt down by 60% and we have doubled our team. I have also recently appointed a new COO from a large industry player which has been a massive coup.
We have also successfully implemented the Geo-radar arm of the business which enables us to complete structural investigations through the use of technology; and opens us up to big contract opportunities within the commercial property and asset maintenance space, not just in Australia- but globally! We are already exploring international opportunities and I am meeting with key insurers and claims management business in the UK next month (September).
Being acknowledged through last year’s award really gave my team and I the drive to live up to the accolade and make sure we are constantly pushing to be leaders within our space.
What does an average day look like for you?
My days vary depending on interstate travel, meetings, networking, raising capital, speaking and mentoring engagements, going to EO events (Entrepreneurs Organisation), meeting with my management team or catching up with existing and prospective clients.
I am however big on rituals, so the key tenants that never change are that I practice mindfulness in the morning; have a light healthy breakfast, I always read something that I haven’t read before (like a Harvard review). I tackle the difficult conversations and emails in the first half of the day; and am religious about checking our CRM and XERO a few times a day so I know exactly where new sales, revenue received, cash flow forecasts etc are at. If you are not across the numbers then you are not across your business.
What unique skill/s do you have that have helped you grow and be successful?
A few days ago one of my friends who is an Oxford educated lawyer, turned CEO, called me “plucky”; I loved that because it sums me up perfectly– courageous and always finding myself trying to make the best of precarious situations.
I have always had a very distinct ability to ask myself and my team the hard questions; and have a keen eye for how to solve big business issues.
For example, in a corporate context I was that manager who identified issues or improvement opportunities (sometimes even in departments outside of my direct line of management, much to others horror) and would put forward recommendations for how to improve. Then I would take things a step further and be like a dog with a bone until I was heading up or working on the project that made the business change. It’s not enough for me to have an idea; I want to see it executed.
In the context of Censeo I have taken the approach of understanding what our clients biggest business issues are (financially & reputation-wise), and instead of focusing on Censeo’s existing service offering; my team and I are seeking to find ways to solve problems, that sometimes our clients don’t even realise they have. For instance, our GPR initiative. We believe in some insurance claims scenarios we are going to be able to reduce a claim lifecycle by 6 weeks (great for the consumer), and save insurers up to $10,000 per claim on inspection costs.
How do you manage the daily juggle?
I feel very proud to have created a lot of flexibility for myself, and my team. Both of my companies work via a remote operating model so I have the freedom to put in a 15hr day if I need; or work a few hours and spend the rest of my day taking care of other projects- like mentoring one of my mentees; overseeing our house renovations; getting a good dose of time with my girlfriends by attending a networking lunch, being actively involved in philanthropy – or feeding my brain & soul by studying & reading.
I’m also very mindful not to be a hero and try to “do it all”; I outsource what I can. I understand that not everyone is able to access flexibility- but if I could put a call to action out to any employers reading this article; get on board with flexible work options, you will be rewarded 10-fold by managing your people to outcomes. The other key element for me is that I do live with an incurable neurological disorder that leaves me physically unable to walk or talk a few times a month; so flexibility, for me, is key to living with a physical limitation, and still operating at a high level.
In summary, for anyone reading who is not convinced with the case for flexibility – my engineering company Censeo is a 13 year-old business, and we have increased revenue by 48% in one year. My entire team work remotely / flexibly. Enough said!
What does the ideal future look like for you?
I want to have created enough leverage, financial success and company / personal profile to be able to deeply impact and influence policy, culture and legislation impacting the Financial Services and Construction sectors. My aim is to be a voice and catalyst for change; and build a pipeline of talent behind me who will continue to shape change long after I’ve retired. Sadly, there are still some pretty mean and non-commercial undertakings and behaviour that takes place in my sector; meaning that attracting and keeping female and diverse talent is difficult. The environments I work in are not always conducive or inviting for women to want to stay onboard. I desperately want to change that.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
No one is coming to save you. Simple, but remains a guiding principal in my life and business.
Embracing a strong sense of personal accountability enables me to boldly move forward, especially when times get tough in business; because no one is coming to save me, I have to solve problems and make things happen!
How do you look after your wellbeing and health outside of work?
I love listening to classical music and have it playing throughout the day when I’m working. I always carve out at least 30 minutes for a walk during the day to get a good dose of vitamin D; and I religiously start my day with fruit, black coffee and mindfulness meditation, then watch a Ted Talk or read a business article. I do all of this by 8.30am. For me the ultimate test of wellbeing is how in control of my headspace I am- because that really is the only environment that we operate within in life, where we do have absolute control and authority.
What advice would you have for other emerging female leaders?
You have to get along, to get ahead. In any business, the key to accelerating your career is through leverage, and the only way to gain leverage is through relationships.
This will sometimes mean having to get along with people who you find “less than” (in terms of their character & performance at work); but it’s important to keep the end game in mind. Ultimately, the more successful you become, the more influence you will have to create great change within your sector- and hopefully get rid of the culture that allows those offensive or underperforming people to get ahead in the first place. The key lesson to learn is how to navigate other people’s egos to get ahead.
Can you share a time when you ‘failed’ and what you did next?
The biggest failures and lessons I have encountered over the past 2 years are around people. For example, keeping the wrong ones around too long; or not taking my time to hire the absolute best person in the first place. The power that poor service and poor execution has on a brand, on your revenue and on your customers experience cannot be underestimated. I have learnt this the hard way in Censeo. We almost lost our biggest clients last year due to 1 rogue employee who just didn’t deliver. It’s amazing to think that a single person can have such a huge impact on brand perception and client engagement. From my perspective, I should never have been blind-sided by a great client like that- it is my job to have absolute visibility around how every single member of my team is performing; and it’s also my job to have such deeply entrenched relationships with my corporate customers that small fires can be put out before that become uncontrollable. Thankfully in this scenario I was able to salvage the client relationship. Business success really is a team effort and when one person isn’t performing the whole team isn’t performing.
- Hire slow, fire fast!
- Have a high degree of visibility and accountability across every level of the business (including yourself). KPI’s and behavioural metrics are essential.
- Insist on frequent and open dialogue with your customers; it’s very important to get a frequent pulse check.
What’s your favourite piece of tech and why?
Our new Geo-Radar, it’s pretty cool. It can scan 3Metres under a concrete slab in good conditions; I mean what woman wouldn’t want one of those? (LOL)
How do you think the world would change, if more women led?
My heartfelt hope for the world, is that by having more women in leadership; as a society, we could achieve more room for family, more room for creativity & innovation, more room for financial independence. Less of this “work / life balance” crap; and more “real life” mix.
I would also love to see the great divide between working and non-working women closed. Ultimately when we can get to a place where flexibility is embraced, equal pay is a no-brainer and appropriate representation on boards is achieved- it will mean that every woman will have the choice to participate if she wants to. At the moment, so much of a woman’s ability to move forward and succeed is deeply dependant on the social and financial situation in which she resides. There are lot of truly clever, amazing and ambitious women who have taken themselves out of the game out of complete necessity- not because they don’t want a great, rewarding career.