Kyle Loades, The Innovator

Why a Chairman took his Board on an innovation journey.

 the chairman who took his Board to the Silicon Valley. Photo by Alberto Gobbato

the chairman who took his Board to the Silicon Valley. Photo by Alberto Gobbato

“I don’t want a Kodak moment”. NRMA Chairman, Kyle Loades, states this in no uncertain terms as he gazes over Newcastle Beach on a sunny Tuesday morning.

The Chairman is not talking about having his picture taken. He is referring to Kodak’s spectacular and well covered failure to adapt to emerging market needs. The immensely successful company had a remarkable 90% market share at its peak and was one of the world’s most prized brands. 

Its demise was rooted in its success. Resistance to change saw Kodak invent the first digital camera, only to bury the discovery in fear it would hurt its highly profitable film business. Canon and Sony saw their window of opportunity and charged ahead. By the time Kodak realised what was happening it was too late. Its market share and brand was in decline.

“It’s the ultimate story of disruption going wrong” Mr Loades says. “Avoiding a Kodak moment has been driving me as a leader at the NRMA to be forward thinking. You don’t want to be in a position where you know what you have to do, only to see someone coming in and doing it ahead of you”.

And so off to Silicon Valley they went. Mr Loades and the NRMA Board. In a quest to super charge the innovation culture they had kick-started 4 years earlier. And this is what they learnt.

Driverless cars will not be limited to Google’s campus

 In late Autumn 2016 the NRMA Board transported themselves to the San Francisco Bay area in a quest to learn how Google, Facebook, Tesla and Apple enables innovation and growth. What they experienced was a campus like environment with facilities set up for play and collaboration.

“It was incredible” Mr Loades explains. “The environment these people work in fosters creativity and the barrier to take on risk is lowered as a result. Fear and complacency are key ingredients to stagnation and demise. We learnt that trust and play is central to our innovation culture” Mr Loades clarifies.

When asked what stood out to the Board from the visit, Mr Loades describes the Directors all seeing Google’s driverless cars with their own eyes. “We knew driverless cars would impact our business model” Mr Loades explains “But it wasn’t until sitting in one we realised just how real that change is going to be. We need to plan now how we will meet this change of transportation in the future”.

Accepting risk

Innovation is reliant on the corporate culture embracing change and taking risk. Mr Loades has been spending time with his Board determining NRMA’s risk appetite. With the emergence of Uber, driverless cars and a future where fewer people own a car, the Board saw the importance of redefining their proposition to customers.

NRMA have got 2.4 million members across Australia. This makes them one of the country’s largest mutual organisations. No stranger to change making, its original purpose was a voice for motorists to obtain better roads. Today the company is positioning themselves as a mobility organisation.

“With the emergence of a sharing economy where fewer people may own a car, it is important for us to look ahead and see how we can add value to our customers. Our repositioning from a motorist focus to a mobility one is part of this transition” Mr Loades explains.

Slow moving oil tanker

The corporate culture that blocked Kodak’s potential to lead digital photography has motivated Mr Loades to clear the path for innovation within the NRMA. “Change starts at the top” Mr Loades says. “Trying to turn around a slow moving oil tanker can be challenging, as we learnt from Kodak. We have to both focus on the core business and look ahead. Sometimes you need external resources to help you reinvent the business. For us, a few years ago we partnered with Slingshot, an innovation incubator” Mr Loades says.

A successful product innovation from the incubator experience include Camplify, connecting RV owners and holiday makers. “We simply wouldn’t have come up with the Camplify idea ourselves” Mr Loades conceits. “As closely related as this service is to our business, we benefitted from an external perspective to help us address our customers changing needs”.

“More recently”, Mr Loades continues, “and on the back of a continuing innovation culture, we have developed a new petrol app with the potential to save customers $500 annually by enabling access to petrol prices via mobile phones”.

Morale and dollars

The Chairman describes the culture at NRMA as having both embraced and enabled the organisation to meet the opportunities of the future. “The moral among our people is frankly very positive” Mr Loades shares. “They all understand the challenges ahead and help us convert these into opportunities. It is an exciting time to be part of the transformation of the NRMA” the Chairman enthuses.

Change and innovation requires the structural support of budget and resource allocation, along with some serious time from the leaders of an organisation. Mr Loades explains the NRMA have got this covered.

“We have set aside a budget to invest in new innovative businesses. It is important to test and learn” Mr Loades explains. “You wouldn’t bet the farm on one punt, you identify a series of smaller bets and accept that some of them might fail”. Mr Loades agrees that corporations typically have a hard time accepting that some bets will fail.

“We have spent a lot of time as a leadership team focusing on our culture and determining how much risk we are willing to tolerate. Working with an innovation incubator has taught us how we can develop and execute good ideas. This has had a tremendously positive effect on our innovation culture” Mr Loades says.

 Kyle Loades with Cathrine Long discussing start-ups

Kyle Loades with Cathrine Long discussing start-ups

A Chairman’s advice for start-ups

Knowledge. It all boils down to understanding the business you are in and what the market will need in the future. Mr Loades confirms the conventional wisdom that knowledge is power. “No one knows everything, but the people who succeed are the ones who are able to find solutions and execute them quickly”.

A late bloomer to education, Mr Loades graduated with an MBA from the University of Newcastle in 2015. “I was one of those younger blokes who didn’t value education like I do today” Mr Loades shares. “I learnt on the job and from the people around me. It was only recently I experienced the benefits of more structured higher education” Mr Loades explains.

Reflecting on his leadership career, spanning 20 years with President and Chairman roles in for profits and not-for-profits, as well as a successful sale of his own disruptive start-up online car dealership to a listed company, Mr Loades remains humble. He reflects he wouldn’t have dreamt he would one day be Chairman of a market leading Australian organisation.  

With 12 months left with the NRMA, Mr Loades focus is on finishing this job and setting the organisation up for the future. When prompted about his plans beyond this, the Chairman becomes enthusiastic and a little coy. “This is an exciting time for business leaders and there will be many opportunities ahead. There will be winning and losing companies and industries. Both will bring with them their own sets of opportunities”.

Finishing off a flat white, Mr Loades offers one final piece of advice to aspiring leaders “You’ve got to have the right idea” the Chairman concludes. “That is a great start. Then you need the people and the processes to execute it better than competitors. Finally you must be agile and adapt to rapidly changing market conditions”. The writer carefully journals these final insights as the man who led his team to Apple HQ prepares to take on a new day as Australia’s mobility champion.

This article was featured in the Hunter Business Review in February 2017. 

 Cathrine Long, Director of Long & Co. 

Cathrine Long, Director of Long & Co. 

About the author:

Cathrine Long is the Founder and Director of Long & Co, an on-demand marketing consultancy specialising in brand and strategy. As a start-up targeting medium and large sized organisations, Long & Co’s aim is to create marketing that works and people talk about. Insights from leaders such as Mr Kyle Loades is intended to help Long & Co’s audience understand how business think about strategy and growth.