The adage "time is gold” may be a bit of a cliché, but not to Graeme Goldman, who is in the business of selling timepieces. Graeme is the founder and owner of Lion Brands, a multi-brand distributor of Swiss-made watches, and the love for this item grew in him since childhood.
“Ever since I was about seven or eight years old, I always had watches around and was always enthralled by watches,” Graeme began. He remembered his grandfather who had several of those timepieces. Back then, the young Graeme wondered why older people were so fixated on time.
Growing up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, they didn’t have television at that time because it didn’t arrive early in Africa. “For us, we would finish school at midday, and then we would have hours after hours where we couldn't sit in front of a computer or a TV set. We just played outdoors. So, we had six or seven hours to mark. I was always fascinated as to why adults were always worried about time. They needed to have this thing on their wrist, telling them that I had less time left. Whereas as a kid, time was irrelevant,” he pondered.
From an early beguilement of that object, it evolved into a hobby where Graeme was buying and selling second-hand Swiss watches during his teens. “I was always wheeling and dealing, swapping things, buying things, trading stuff, swapping a goldfish for a bicycle, all that sort of stuff for the friends of mine. So, to me, it was just an extension of my hobby,” narrated Graeme. Instinctively, because he wanted to make more as well as not lose on a deal, he continued trading until he became good at it.
After university, Graeme first worked in companies as a chartered accountant before he trudged on the entrepreneurial road. But because he was dissatisfied with the politics and unhealthy dealings in large corporations, he left the corporate world in 2004 and went on his own. “I decided to leave (the corporate) and not die wondering how it is to run my own business. I thought, ‘let's see whether it's worth it or not, whether I have the ability to do something or not.’ And it all started there,” was how he described his early beginnings.
The shift from corporate to entrepreneurship was an adjustment for Graeme. For one, he had to do everything by himself, from packing boxes in the warehouse to heavy lifting. Another adjustment is the lack of companionship, from having over a hundred staff members in the corporate, down to only about three of them in his venture, which meant not having enough people to bounce ideas off. “It's like travelling at 400 kilometres an hour, and then suddenly stopping and starting to walk. You feel the inertia pushing behind you, but there was just no momentum. So, it was the lack of having a sounding board, the lack of interaction with people, and the lack of advisors or people that you could lean on just for a different opinion,” Graeme expressed.
Not having any mentor when he started his business was one of the struggles he experienced in the early part of his journey. “That's why I joined EO Melbourne because I found it exceptionally lonely. There were a lot of other issues an entrepreneur faces that I never anticipated I would face, being shielded to a certain degree by big corporates,” he explained. Graeme found great company in his EO Forum. “To quote one of our forum members, 'we're like a band of brothers and sisters that no matter what, we are here to watch your back in a safe non-judgmental environment.' And to me, I've been lucky enough to experience that,” he said.
The main issue that Graeme realised business owners face is cash flow. “I wasn't well-funded,” he disclosed. The second issue, according to him, is staffing. And then, third is partnership issue.
“Staffing is hard,” according to Graeme. “Although I shouldn't complain. I've got a phenomenal core team around me that that have been here for a long time. So, overall, that core is fantastic. But as you get further out, it gets more and more difficult as to their understanding of how the business works. They have expectations of what they want to do, how little they want to work, and how much they want to get paid,” he added.
How Graeme approaches his role as a business owner is like being a captain of a rugby or football team. “It's not a matter of me sitting in some ivory tower dictating to people what to do. I still go score goals myself. I still have to be part of that team.” He doesn’t think of himself as a good leader or a bad leader. Rather, he learns from his previous bosses, retaining the good and refusing to pass on to those reporting to him the bad habits that he was a recipient before.
But the lowest of lows for Graeme is the betrayal by a business partner. He started his business with partners from overseas. But three years into the partnership, they had to part ways. “Their values were not quite the same as mine. Values are very important,” he quipped. Plus, he brought in a concept that was not as well accepted in Australia as it was back in South Africa. With his divorce from his previous partners, Graeme brought on board one of his colleagues whom he met through business. They became friends over time and set up three businesses: a retail store design venture; a wholesale import distribution Swiss watch business; and multi-brand Swiss watch stores.
It is also tough that the retail industry is a fast-paced world. One of the biggest challenges is marrying the retail experience of brick-and-mortar to the convenience of the digital technology. Graeme finds it frustrating to have old-school retailers that don’t want to change and are holding back the business. At the same time, it is an opportunity for him and his team to lead in the industry through innovation.
Since being a business owner takes so much time and effort from Graeme, he admits that he has not been a poster boy for work-life balance. He has missed out on several things with his children because he was working in the corporate and travelling during their formative years.
They are now grown up, and Graeme talked about them with a father’s pride. His youngest son has shown signs of interest towards the business world, with a lot of promise of becoming a successful salesperson. But Graeme still wants to give him the freedom to explore the world outside of their business, gather as much experience as he can, and choose what he wants to do in the future. “He needs to go out to the big wide world first. If he does come back, he was meant to come back. If he doesn't come back, that's life,” the father and business owner shared. For now, his son works part-time in their retail business. Graeme applauds his son’s interaction with the team because the staff don’t regard him as the owner’s son. “It’s a testament to his character,” Graeme said.
Even with the possibility of having a new generation taking over the business, Graeme still sees himself very much involved in his ventures. “You know, growing up, it was always, 'Oh, I'm going to get into a business. I'm going to get a job. I'm going to make money. And then, I'm going to retire.’ There was always this romantic notion of retirement. I don't see myself sitting on a beach one day, stopping from work. I see myself as always being involved in something to do with business, whether it's this current business with my son's involved in it or we sell it. Who knows what happens?” Graeme thought.
He knows that getting old will eventually slow him down. He might reduce his work days from something like seven down to four, and spend more time with his wife and family. While he still pictures himself working in the future, he will no longer be working like a madman as when he started his businesses.
Graeme also acknowledges the risk of the business falling apart without him there. So, he needs to put up a structure wherein they can still sustain itself even when he’s no longer around. “I'm not saying this because I'm very important. But, because it's me who runs a business, I sometimes forget that I need to separate the business from myself. I need to build the business in a way that it can operate without me there, which is possibly the biggest challenge. It's one of the biggest things that we were looking on for the next three years, which is to build the business around the team as around me,” he professed.
While he likes to do big-picture dreaming and plan long-term, Graeme believes that many things can still happen in ten years’ time, given the changing economic landscape, particularly in the segment where their businesses belong. But within five years, he wants to strengthen the brand experience of their customers in the actual physical setting and the online sphere. He hopes to have a dominant position in both online and offline platforms.
For those who also want to enter the entrepreneurial space, these are his words of advice, “It always takes longer than you think. It always costs more than your budget. You're going to have bigger and greater problems then you can ever believe possible. But if you don't give up and continue to believe in yourself even during the dark times, when you come out the other side and taste the sweet nectar of success, it's a truly pleasing time. You forget about the darkness you've gone through in the past. So, stick with it.”
Along with it, he cites the qualities of honesty, integrity and fairness as important tools in running a business. In the same way, he counsels others to be discerning in choosing and surrounding themselves with good people that have positive values. These qualities are some of the ingredients that brought Graeme to the road of success.
The victories, big or small, are what Graeme gets going. Whether it’s selling and exiting a business or assembling a great team, he sees them all as a reward for all the hard work he has put into his ventures. So, he takes time to relish on those wins. “With the passage of life and lack of time, we tend to let the successes go by unnoticed. As it's always human nature, we look at the negatives, the troubles, and the problems. We don't always look at the successes. Sometimes, it's just the small things that are right in front of you that are the most successful. When you sit back and reflect on those, it makes your work more than just a number. When they happen, they're sweet,” he remarked.
As every second is vital to complete a minute, Graeme takes on every success, challenge and learning event that helped mould him to be the entrepreneur he now is. He began his entrepreneurial walk early on, trudging a long, arduous path, which continues to this day, not knowing when it will end. With all his experiences, Graeme has been tested and strengthened by time. And he is set to spend the rest of his entrepreneurial journey doing what he is most passionate about, which revolves around time.