Style and Success
20.06.13 | Posted in People I Love
Tania Austin made her mark by growing the burgeoning Cotton On empire before taking control of fashion label decjuba. She talks exclusively to Emma Isaacs.
It’s three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon and Tania Austin is in her car. She’s on her way to pick her three kids up from school. We’re wrapping up our conversation as she’s jumping out of the car, her phone in that awkward position between her ear and shoulder, rushing to greet her kids in time. The school pick up is a daily ritual completed without compromise for Tania. And she drops her kids at school every morning too. But she is no stay at home mum. Tania Austin was named in BRW’s inaugural Women’s Rich List this year and was recognised as Australia’s richest woman under 40 in 2012. Now, the Managing Director of fashion label Decjuba, Tania built her estimated $55 million wealth as one half of the super power behind retail giant Cotton On. “It’s really important to me to take my kids to school and pick them up. It keeps me grounded. If my kids are happy then I am too.”
Tania grew up in Perth with her dad who worked as a Telstra Technician, her mum who worked for Optus as a receptionist and a younger sister. She says she grew up in a very normal, average family. “My parents had fairly normal careers; both my mum and dad worked and gave me a strong work ethic. I had a grounded upbringing and I try to instil the same values into my children. My parents were very present with me and my sister. They were really there when they were there.”
After school Tania went on to study psychology at the University of Western Australia. “I like the way the mind works, it really appeals to me. We’re all the same underneath, but our thoughts give us different results. The mind is absolutely incredible – it’s amazing how two people can come up with different answers after being given the same input.” Tania was considering becoming a clinical psychologist when she met her now ex-husband Nigel Austin.
When they met in 1991, Nigel had just started a little business called Cotton On. He had two small stores in Melbourne that sold cheap, cheerful women’s clothing. At the time, Tania and Nigel were both oblivious to what was to come. Tania moved to Melbourne with Nigel and they got married. Tania joined her husband at the helm of Cotton On and took on the product side of the business.
Tania doesn’t fit the extrovert, school captain, risk taking mould that business leaders often do, but she says she never accepts no for an answer. “I’ve always been strong willed and I love challenging myself. I like to keep things moving and think there’s always a better way. I think for me, becoming a business owner was a very natural progression, it was not a big leap.”
Tania and Nigel had big dreams for Cotton On, but never imagined it getting to where it is today. The Cotton On Group now includes Cotton On, Cotton On Kids, Cotton on Body, Typo, Rubi Shoes and T-Bar. There are over 1000 stores that span across Australia, New Zealand and 10 other countries. “Fairly early in the game we could see its potential. We wanted to open a number of stores, we knew we had a very strong idea” Tania says.
It’s hard to imagine what that kind of growth would feel like within a business, but Tania says that when you’re in it you just make it work. “It was purely organic growth. Yes, it was always a juggle, but when you’re busy and you believe in what you’re doing then you just get through it.”
For Tania and Nigel there were many a sleepless night, but Tania doesn’t look back on the time as hard. “Hard is not the right word. It was more of an exciting challenge – that’s what we both lived for – you don’t need much sleep in your 20s anyway!” she jokes.
Obviously they had some extra time and energy, because while Cotton On was growing into the retail giant it’s become, Tania and Nigel were growing their family too. They have three children together who are now aged five, seven and nine.
Nigel and Tania split five years ago and after the divorce Tania decided to cut ties with Cotton On completely. “It was the simplest, straightest decision to get out of Cotton On. I really needed a fresh start and wanted to challenge myself with something new” Tania says of her decision.
That challenge came with Decjuba. At the time, Decjuba was a struggling retail brand with six stores in Australia and two in New Zealand. It was founded in 2003 by Kookai owner Rob Cromb, who sold the brand quickly after founding to focus on Kookai. At an incredibly hard time for retail in general, many thought Decjuba was history, but then Tania Austin came along. Decjuba was exactly what Tania was looking for she says “it was a conscious decision to move into a different market. Cotton On was largely governed by price point, so it was refreshing to be able to work with expensive, beautiful, luxe fabrics and to appeal to a more mature market.”
Tania bought the business in December 2008 and it has seen nothing but growth with Tania at the lead. The label now has 26 stores across Australia and New Zealand and Tania says we’ll see a lot more from Decjuba in the next 18 months. “We’re on a growth path at the moment. We have a new store opening next week in Melbourne and one opening in New Zealand in three weeks too.” Tania has also developed a clear brand strategy for Decjuba, previously a brand that tried to be everything for everyone, Tania has brought it all together.
Perhaps the key to her success is the way she leads. At her stylish offices in Melbourne’s Collingwood, I could feel the warmth and happiness Tania has created for her team. The physical environment alone is sure to inspire her employees, Decjuba HQ looks more like a store than an office block. “It’s a beautiful warehouse; I don’t really believe in offices. The team work together so much, the space needs to be very open. I want to sell amazing clothes that make women feel good and look better so I need to create that environment for my staff. I want people to enter the office and be surrounded by racks of our clothes; what better way to inspire” Tania says.
You can tell Tania is loved and respected by her staff, her right hand woman and very loyal assistant, Lisa, tells me that Tania leads by example and is very hands on. “I’d never ask the girls to do anything I hadn’t done myself. I want to give my team the strength to do things themselves. I really believe they can do the job and it empowers them as well. They do amazing things and we all make mistakes. We make mistakes, own it and move forward.”
“I’m fairly, black and white with my team. We discuss things open and clearly. I’m up-front. I’m about empowerment; I like to give a clear brief. I’m always asking my team ‘How are we going and how are we doing’ – I measure everything to see what results we’re getting and where they come from” Tania says.
And although Tania is meticulous about reporting and measuring, like many business leaders, she’s always ready for change. “You need to accept change – change is always going to happen when you least expect it. I love change, it always takes you by surprise; just when you think you’ve got it all worked out; something sweeps you from under the rug. I think change is instrumental in leading a business; you need to keep moving and make decisions comfortably. Every decision leads down another path. If you become comfortable and everything stops, you’re going to go nowhere.”
Tania’s advice for other women is to ignore the word no. We all face setbacks – at work and at home and sometimes it’s really hard to push on. “No is one of the most over-used words in the English language and sometimes we’re not strong enough to overcome that. We all need to stop worrying about the nos and just keep going; they are irrelevant. We need to create the self-belief within ourselves and within others to push past the nos and drive on” she says.
Tania’s philosophies on many things scream that this is a woman who packs everything into life. When Tania took on Decjuba her three children were the challenging ages of two, four and six – can you even imagine what that would be like?! “I don’t like the word ‘juggle’ when talking about business and my family, as I think it puts parameters around things. My kids certainly come first.”
Three young kids and a booming business – Tania has also walked the Kokoda Track not once, but gone back three times. “I first got involved with, Nick O’Malley – he was a champion boxer and he was taking a group over to do the trek. As a Christmas present to my dad, I asked him to come with me. I got so much from the experience, both physically and mentally. I feel that if you can do that, you can get through anything, it’s simply putting one foot in front of the other.”
“When I came back I shared my experience with friends and they then really wanted to do it, so I had to back it up. Then the second time I made the same mistake again and there I was for the third year in a row!”
As one of Australia’s wealthiest women, Tania is determined to use her fortune to make a difference. She is a big supporter of various charities and is pragmatic about making sure her contributions go to people making a real difference. She also donated thousands of dollars worth of clothes to victims of the horrific Black Saturday fires.
Tania is focused on raising three very grounded children. “I want to pass on to my children a good understanding about their responsibility in the world. I want them to learn from me a good social conscious and work ethic and for them to have the ability to understand how to live a full life and to get the balance right to do so.”
I think Tania will accomplish anything she focuses on. She’s a great role model for mothers who want not only what’s best for their kids, but also want business or career success and lots of it. I actually don’t think she’ll accomplish what she’s out to get, I know she will. “I refuse to give anytime to failure” Tania says.
This article was first published in Latte, the Business Chicks magazine. It has been reproduced (namely cos I wrote it) with full permission.