Geoff Bell has been chief executive of Sydney Markets since 1999 after a career in the Australian Army in which he reached the rank of colonel. He served in a series of general management and leadership positions at increasing levels of responsibility, culminating in his appointment as commanding officer (or CEO)of an army unit of 300 people. He is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management and a member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
AIM: Running a fresh produce and community market seems light years away from the army. What made you decide to go into the world of business? How have you found the transition?
Bell: The transition was easy. Management systems are management systems, and if you are looking at outcomes, it doesn’t really matter what the outcome might be; you can adjust the system or yourself to seek and achieve it. Then, people are people. There is no difficulty translating a leadership role in one particular area into a leadership role in another. I decided to move into business because I had kids going into the later years of high school, my wife wanted to settle down and get back into the workforce and the family decided the time had come to stop moving around. So, we decided to put our roots down here in Sydney. I went looking for a job and was lucky enough to get this one.
AIM: How has the military shaped your management style?
Bell: The first thing is that the military is very focused on out-comes, so my management style is to look for the outcomes, to make sure that things are being done in a way that delivers what people expect.
I also picked up a whole lot of other skills from the military. I did a lot of national-level strategic planning, development of military capabilities and infrastructure, change management and change initiation.
Those sorts of things have stood me in good stead in the business world.
AIM: What has been the biggest management challenge for you as the first CEO of Sydney Markets?
Bell: The first was to get people focused on customers. We tended to be a little bit process oriented rather than outcome oriented, so I had to change the culture in the place to make sure we were focusing on customers and giving them the best possible environment.
AIM: How is the market adapting to the challenge of super-market chains pushing into fresh produce?
Bell: Woolworths has actually just come back into the market with a distribution centre here in Sydney. Coles is here as well, and the other supermarket chains, including the independents, source a lot of their produce out of the market. It seems to me that people like Woolies being back in the market is because they are able to ensure they can deliver the quality their customers demand. It’s the same across the whole retail fresh produce industry. We find small, independent greengrocers have customers doing the same thing: they want quality, they want service. The market, because of its nature and scale, is able to deliver that quality.
AIM: What will be the market’s main point of difference from supermarkets?
Bell: The market is able to take the produce from 20,000 growers around Australia and distribute it, not just to the supermarket chains but also to thousands of small businesses; greengrocers, restaurants, takeaways, hospitals. The markets provide an efficient mechanism for that process to work.
The supermarket chains have a difficulty when it comes to dealing with that multitude of growers. And there are cyclones and diseases and droughts that tend to affect the produce in certain ways that might not meet the supermarkets’ requirements. So, they are able to come back into the market along with all the other retailers and source the produce they require.