Safety first: The lawyer-turned-CFO leading digital transformation

At 34 years of age, John Blake has already forged three enviable careers. First, he set out on the corporate path as a lawyer, before stepping into investment banking. Nearly a year ago, he accepted a role as CFO of global technology company, SafetyCulture.

The Sydneysider doesn’t raise an eyebrow when questioned about switching between such diverse and complex roles, taking each new challenge in his stride.

“Ultimately, I always wanted to go on a detour that was more on the operational side rather than advising companies, and feel like I could go on and build something,” Blake says.

The company helps teams and workplaces improve the quality, efficiency and safety of their operations, digitising Covid-19 checks during the pandemic, and helping live events and sporting codes to reopen successfully across the world.

The CFO role was a good fit because it gives him a chance to touch so much of the organisation in growth phase. He’s setting the strategy for the company, spending a lot of time meeting with potential investors.

He’s been able to draw upon his global M&A experience during the next phase of growth, bringing strong experience in capital markets and strategic growth investments.

Prior to this role, he had forged a career as a lawyer at Freehills and then in investment banking with Goldman Sachs working in New York. The experience gave him a chance to work for companies like Airbnb, Spotify and Uber, transitioning them into the public sphere in an experience like no other.

After four years in New York, he returned home to Sydney last year as the pandemic prompted a corporate rethink.

Blake grew up in Sydney, studying corporate law and then found himself working in the venture capital and private equity world, focused mostly on IPOs, then handling the legalities involved in taking companies public.

Culture fit

Blake met Luke Anear, the CEO of SafetyCulture at a networking event. Anear grew up in Townsville, starting the business in his garage in 2004.

Blake jumped at the chance to be involved in the company as it strides into a period of phenomenal growth. He knew it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, taking the CFO role just shy of a year ago.

“We got chatting about his reasons for starting SafetyCulture, and it’s one of those great stories where we ended up working together,” Blake says.

“The goal for me when I came in was to be a really good strategic partner for Luke, and to understand his vision and where he wanted the business to go,” he says.

He adds: “I could really see the impact that SafetyCulture was having in all of these different industries. Whether it’s manufacturing, construction, mining or airlines, it’s a classic kind of horizontal software business that can design a solution for any team.”

What is SafetyCulture?

SafetyCulture joined the elite Australian unicorn club with a $2.2 billion valuation last year. The company has now raised an eye-watering A$310 million as investors come on board to be part of the company’s incredible skyward trajectory.

SafetyCulture includes iAuditor where teams perform checks, report issues and capture data; edapp.com, which delivers around 50,000 lessons every day across 90 countries and mitti, which has a primary focus on risk mitigation.

Customers include Coles, Coca-Cola, Unilever, DHL, Kmart and Cathay Pacific.

Late last year, the unicorn led an $8 million investment round in artificial intelligence start-up Unleash live, taking a minority stake in the video-based business that identifies patterns in CCTV footage across operations such as mine sites, manufacturing plants and solar farms. 

The key for the CFO role, he says, is making sure the people that hired are actually having an impact. “We’re fortunate enough to have the capital, but there’s always that risk that you’ve over-invested.

“When you’re in high growth phase, there’s always a temptation to add more people. But we’re really focused on making sure we scale thoughtfully,” Blake says.

The biggest challenge facing anyone in management is keeping staff motivated during a pandemic, he says.

“We’ve been in the high growth, investment mode, but the job is also about making sure that the people we bring into the business are having an impact in the right places.

“But once you articulate the vision, you’ve got to execute on it. It’s all about having the right people in the right seats,” he says.

This year, his focus is on the execution and expansion of the core business and provide support to the global offices in the Amsterdam, Kansas City, Missouri and Manchester in the UK.

“We love those cities because that’s where a lot of our customers are. For us, it’s about proximity and being on the same level as the customer, which is the focus of everything that we do,” he says.

“What we’ve learned through Covid is that our customers need us more than ever, but with that comes a lot of responsibility to make sure that we deliver the product for them,” he says.

“We’ve been able to invest the cost of the business and bring on 200 staff in the last 12 months, which is incredible.”

What investors want

Investors want a business with growth potential, with founders who have an idea of how to unlock that growth.

They want to know that there’s a really strong management team around them to execute the vision, and that’s part of my role. “It’s about putting a plan in place to make that a reality,” he says.

Blake is the first to admit he’s had a stellar career already at 34 years of age.

“I’ve learned from a small group of mentors, and stayed on that path, working out what’s best for me along the way. You’ve got to take a little bit of risk along the way and be hungry to learn, whether it’s moving to the US, or moving back to being part of a new business, which is now exploding into a huge part of the market.  

His parents instilled in him to take his education as far as he could go, and if you’re lucky enough to have an opportunity to take it and give it your all.

“I’ve taken that with me, and have tried to have impact somewhere, and feel good about what you’re doing.”

Outside of work, Blake has a new baby daughter with his fiancé, admitting he’s still figuring out how to be a Dad.