Successful businesswoman Maureen Houssein-Mustafa is big on ambition, learning, people, and the will to achieve. By Richard Jones
The CEO and Founder of The Australasian College Broadway, the largest state-of-the-art college in Australia offering nails, beauty, make-up and hairdressing qualifications, started the business in 1994 with just $1600.
Despite the small beginnings, there were early signs that Maureen Houssein-Mustafa had the will to achieve.
Initially, she did it tough as a child, brought up in the 1960s in the rugged neighbourhood of Redfern, Sydney, to a Cypriot Turkish migrant family. She explains that her mother would lay-by clothes for her at nearby Grace Bros but that by the time she got them she had always grown out of them.
The upbringing and experiences left a mark and created a deep-seated ambition to achieve success and all the trappings that come with it.
Houssein-Mustafa started selling door to door, despite being only 13, and the sales lessons came early. For example, she sold more on wet days when she was a bit bedraggled and her raincoat was torn.
“That strong work ethic so common to migrant families was transferred to us kids,” she recalls. “I wanted to do well so that my parents would be proud of me.”
And Houssein-Mustafa certainly had a first-class initiation into the hows of business. From age 20 to 25 she worked for retailer Joyce Mayne.
“I had the most amazing education; money just couldn’t buy it. Once, my boss, John Thorpe (Mr Thorpe to me), asked me to terminate someone. I said I couldn’t do it. He said, ‘I’ll fix that’ and he then made me terminate everyone over the next three months; the strategy worked.
“I’ll never forget what he said to me: ‘Never say no when I ask you to do something because I pay you enough, and I don’t ask you to do anything illegal or immoral. Never say I don’t know. Go and find out’.”
Houssein-Mustafa was then ready for a new challenge and she opened her first beauty salon in Sydney’s inner west. Within a short period of time, and after some hard-learned lessons, she grew her business to five locations across the area before selling up to pursue a new direction, as the general manager of a major salon chain in the eastern suburbs.
Although she tripled the turnover in a few years, Houssein-Mustafa saw firsthand that staff training and high standards were lacking in the beauty industry.
These observations created the motivation behind starting the college despite only having $1600 and tiny, leased premises. Based on excellence, which remains the mission for her and all 47 staff today, the college now turns over $8.8 million per annum and is a major exporter of education.
More than 450 international and domestic students study annually in the premises in Sydney’s Broadway, and the recent expansion of the property will take that number to over 750.
“The basic thing is that I’m goal oriented, I always knew what I wanted to do and I know exactly where I want to go. And it’s all going to plan, to the point that I started exit and succession planning some three years ago.
“I’m 51. I’m not going to be around forever. If you sell a business you have to sell the management, too, and it must be solid management that’s been there for a while, not the last five minutes.
“When it comes to my own management style, it is about core values, honesty, and an open-door policy. That’s why there’s glass everywhere; our workplace is transparent, fair, equitable, caring.”
Houssein-Mustafa says some people accuse her of being too soft as a leader, but it is evident that this is not how she sees herself: “I treat people how I want to be treated myself.”
This first-generation migrants’ daughter is also proud that she has grown a multi-million dollar business without a university degree. She enjoys the irony that the College was the first private Registered Training Organisation (RTO) to win the New South Wales Training Provider of the Year Award in 2000 and the first private RTO accredited to deliver hairdressing qualifications in Sydney. Now the college will be Victoria University’s Sydney campus for dermal therapy and next year will deliver a degree in health science and an associate degree in dermal therapies.
When it came to personal development in the early years, Houssein-Mustafa was a self-confessed enthusiast of self-help books (Dale Carnegie and Anthony Robbins among them), anything to give her knowledge, though she has moved on to biographies. She is a huge fan of both Richard Branson and Dick Smith, while the book on her desk at present is John Maxwell’s 21 indispensable qualities of a leader; she regards it as a checklist for business success.
Houssein-Mustafa also works hard to create and maintain a successful, open and sympathetic workplace environment. She is proud of the way she creates a healthy work/life balance for her staff, and makes allowances for family needs and personal issues. And, while the college is brimming with young students, she insists that her key staff are on the mature side.
“I keep hearing that people don’t like hiring older people; well, I welcome them. They come with a wealth of knowledge. I don’t have to teach them how to conduct themselves in a corporate environment or how to be gentle with someone who’s just lost someone special.
“Younger staff tend to be more black and white and lack a little compassion. I think some of the X and Y gens are going to learn a bit of compassion by the time this recession is over. They’ve had a good run, and they are about to see the other side of the coin.”
People and culture
Houssein-Mustafa relies heavily on her people and the college’s culture. “There’s a very special culture here; I also have a secret to reducing staff turnover.
“When you want to work here, yes, you’re interviewed, but you are asked to come and observe us at work. Usually, it’s for two different days, because people can put it on for a day but generally that’s all. You get to lunch with a staff member one day, so you can see who we are and we can see who you are. So, I don’t hire people. My staff do.
“It means my department people are responsible for their hires. Once they’ve said to me, ‘Yes, she’s fabulous, I really like her’, then they are committed to making it work.”
Another important aspect of Houssein-Mustafa’s management style is that she doesn’t like people to talk about each other in the workplace.
“If someone comes to me to talk about another employee, I immediately call that employee in to discuss the issue. It sometimes shocks people but you only have to do it a few times… and people get the message. It’s part of our honesty policy, and it’s a key part of my management style.”
Houssein-Mustafa keeps coming back to her staff as a key driver for her success. She admits that for a manager there can be a fine line with staff and sometimes the return isn’t forthcoming.
“Basically though, I’m blessed with an amazing staff. I was once asked about the strengths of the business and I simply said, ‘My staff, that’s it’.”