Brendan Hargreaves, CFO Officeworks

The benefits of flying off the designated path >

Officeworks CFO Brendan Hargreaves highlights why sometimes making a seemingly unconventional career choice can pay dividends in the longer term.

Officeworks CFO Brendan Hargreaves looks back at his successful finance career as a series of opportunities – both those that were taken and some that were missed. One career defining moment occurred in 2004 when he made an unconventional career move at Qantas. After nine years with the airline, and while serving as the general manager of finance, he was offered the role of general manager of supply chain and logistics.

“I actually turned down another great finance role in order to run a non-finance function,” he says.

“Everyone thought it was a surprising thing to do and didn’t understand why I wanted to do it. I knew that I could always come back to my core skill set of finance. I wasn’t going to suddenly lose my ability to be a CFO at some point in time. I was given a great opportunity that wouldn’t have been given to me in another business, without me earning my stripes again.”

‘I want to be the CEO’

Hargreaves also wanted to obtain line experience because his long-term goal was to become a CEO.

“I always said to people that I didn’t want to just be the CFO – I wanted to be the CEO one day. One way of helping me to get there was by taking on an operational role, off the designated career path in finance,” he says.

Interacting with entirely new parts of the business such as procurement, technology (IT), pricing and customer service, was invaluable. And by becoming a customer of finance, he gained transformational insights about how to be a better business partner when he did return to the familiar world of finance.

“For example, I realised that it is easy to tell someone that they need to go and cut 10% off the operating budget – but it is actually a lot harder to actually do it. When I have those kinds of conversations now, I’m empathetic. I also try to be more strategic and purposeful, by not avoiding these challenges in the first place.”

After more than 12 years with the national carrier, Hargreaves began to worry that he would primarily be seen as an ‘airline person’ rather than a finance expert with a diverse commercial skillset.

“I was also a bit burnt out after 12 years of cost control,” he says. “It had been a hard slog with the airline moving from a government organisation to a fully-fledged ASX listed organisation. In terms of the pace of change, it was relentless.”

When a former boss approached him in 2006 with an offer to become the group financial controller at the conglomerate private operational company Tenix, which had diverse businesses across defence, aviation, infrastructure construction and management, he took it. It was another strategic move as it rounded out his ability to learn new finance skills in yet another set of different industries.

Lonely at the top

Hargreaves took on his first CEO role when he became divisional CEO at ASX-listed Cleanaway Waste Management in 2017. The biggest takeaway was striking the right balance between being a growth-oriented business and a cost oriented one.

“My skills were around cost management and cost control – and I naturally over indexed on that, and we likely lost a bit of the revenue focus because of it. It means you have to work doubly hard on costs, and that can actually have a negative impact on the growth mindset of the company. You need to get the balance right between acquiring new customers, retaining existing customers and growing the business.”

It was not an easy time for Hargreaves, for a number of reasons – but he has no regrets. The business was going through a challenging period, and Hargreaves did not always have a trusted person to speak with. Undoubtedly the most difficult experience was when there was a serious health and safety issue, including one such time when a company vehicle was involved in a fatal accident.

“I still remember the day that it happened. I was sitting in my office and looking at my calendar one morning, thinking it was going to be a quiet catch-up day, when I got a phone call to say that there had been an incident with one of our vehicles,” he recalls.

“It sounded quite innocuous at first. An hour later, we found out that a mother and her young child had passed away. It was extremely challenging to be the face of the organisation during that time – and who was I supposed to talk to about that?”

The CFO as business leader

Hargreaves spent five years as the CFO of Village Roadshow Theme Parks between 2009 and 2014. His second and current CFO role began at the start of 2022, when he became CFO of Officeworks. The $3 billion business has 167 stores nationwide and more than 40,000 SKUs.

His current focus is on continuing to transform the base of the business, and to make the shopping experience easier and more engaging, thereby boosting frequency and basket size. An area of growth is in its offering of educational products and personalised gifting.

“We aspire to be a much larger business than we are today. Right now we’re in a midpoint: we are not a small business, but we are also not a big one when you compare us to other corporate retailers. We are a three billion dollar sales business, but Kmart is almost 10 billion and Bunnings is more than 18 billion. My focus is on making sure we stay relevant and grow.”

Whenever Hargreaves makes a decision as the CFO, he thinks about how it will impact all facets of the business.

“I think of our customers, team members, government and other regulatory stakeholders, as well as our shareholders and our board. Whilst I could make a decision that works really well for the profit and loss statement, it may not be the right outcome for our other stakeholders.”

He believes that the CFO role is evolving away from being strictly about the numbers to being a role that requires storytelling and insights. A recent conversation illustrates his point.

“I was talking to a peer in finance recently about some of the great work my general manager of finance and his team were doing at Officeworks. ‘Isn’t that your job?’ he asked me.”

‘I said, ‘Well, I look after finance, but I am also responsible for strategy, property, risk and compliance, legal, ESG and corporate affairs. While finance is a big chunk of what I do, my role is to help the enterprise deliver on its commitments, across all facets of the business.”

Hitting ESG targets

ESG was added to the CFO’s role when Hargreaves joined – prior to that it was not part of the CFO’s function. Under his leadership, Officeworks has continued to install solar panels, with more than 26 of its sites having rooftop solar installed, and another 20 stores to transition away from sole reliance on retail electricity this year. It is also drastically reducing the amount of waste that goes into landfill, with waste to landfill being reduced by eight per cent in FY2023, a twelve per cent reduction since FY2020 and runs a successful, front-of-store recycling program that is free for customers.

Officeworks has reduced its carbon emissions by more than 40% since 2015, and has achieved its 2025 emission reduction target two years ahead of schedule. The retailer has also planted more than 1.4 million trees and restored more than 1,900 hectares of landscape and habitat across Australia as part of its Restoring Australia program which will plant 2 million trees by 2025. Hargreaves says that he has gone from an ESG skeptic to convert in recent years, as he started to realise the scale of impact that ESG initiatives have for our team, customers, communities and shareholders.

“There was a time when I felt that some businesses were making decisions that over- emphasised their commitment,” he says.

“Notionally, ESG can seem to most people to cost money, as opposed to making money. However, making better decisions for the environment also makes good business sense. At Officeworks we have taken an approach here that says you shouldn’t have to make a financial choice between selecting a People and Planet Positive product (Officeworks’ sustainable product brand) and a product that does not have the same ESG attributes. They shouldn’t be more expensive just because they’re “green”. We’re trying to make the price the same, so that our customers don’t have to make a choice between the planet or their hip pocket.”

Hargreaves loves the challenges and variety his role comprises at Officeworks. While he is still keen to pursue broad business leadership roles, the single minded focus on becoming a CEO again one day, now is assessed based on a number of considerations, all of which have come from personal experience and the knowledge that has come from many years working in a variety of different businesses and roles.

“I haven’t made up my mind up on that. Over time, I think I’ve become wiser about the risks and opportunities that come with a CEO role. It’s not that I’m shying away from any of those things, but having lived through some of it, I’ve got a greater appreciation for the responsibilities it entails to a broad stakeholder base.

“Another benefit of working for Officeworks is that it forms part of the Wesfarmers Group, which means we have a privileged position of working with a tightknit group of leaders from the divisions and at Wesfarmers. The structure provides a unique network of trusted peers who can be confidentially consulted on business sensitive matters. So for example, we work together on business announcements and on risks and critical reputational issues.”

Top 3 Pieces of Career Advice > Brendan Hargreaves, CFO | Officeworks

Seek out diverse experiences

“I’m a big fan of the ‘school of hard knocks,’ as opposed to formal education. My top qualification is a fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. I don’t have an MBA. But if you look at my CV, I’ve worked in a bunch of different industries in a bunch of different roles, both operational and finance. Sometimes I’ve gone sideways rather than up.

As a result, people have trusted me to be more than just ‘the finance guy’. When I was appointed CFO at Officeworks, the Managing Director of Officeworks had the confidence to give me additional responsibilities, outside of finance, as part of my portfolio.”

Build a strong network

“Invest time in getting to know people within your company and industry – as well as outside of it. I’ve spent a lot of time making sure that I’ve kept in contact with a whole bunch of people that had no real direct impact or connection on my role at the time, but over time it has held me in good stead, when I have needed advice, support or the ability to connect with someone who has “been there done that”. Having a trusted adviser who you can reach out to when you’re faced with challenges and equally to share successes is important.

I have been given opportunities that may never have been possible, thanks to my network’s introductions. I now like to pay that forward, which is why I’ve just joined the board of the Financial Executives Institute (FEI), which is a mentoring and career coaching organisation.”

Be bold in your career decisions

“Don’t take the safe or easy option all the time. Challenge the designated career path. Trust that you’ve made your way through the organisation because you’re good at what you do, and don’t be frightened to challenge yourself. Have the confidence to test your abilities, because that is ultimately how you will strengthen them.”