The hands-on leader: Scott Stavretis at Acquire BPO

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Scott Stavretis is the CEO of Acquire BPO and was previously co-founder and COO of telecommunications company Dodo.

Acquire BPO was established in 2005 to operate as a support centre for Dodo. Today, the company employs nearly 7,000 experienced professionals and operates from 12 locations in Australia, the Philippines, the US and the Dominican Republic.

Scott is a serial entrepreneur. He started his first business when he was 16 (an ISP on the Mornington Peninsula), and has since founded or run 11 business.

Highlights from the video include:

  • Scott is an advocate for hands-on leadership, and gets involved as much as possible: “I’m very much an advocate for hands-on leadership…The technology changes so quickly, business changes so quickly. You need to go back into each area and understand what the changes are otherwise you can’t have meaningful conversations about that area of the business..” (Video from 2:29)
  • Why Scott’s management team doesn’t have portfolio separation: “A lot of them are involved in not just Acquire BPO they may be involved in 1, 2, 3, 4 different businesses that I’m involved in. So that also keeps them very motivated, keeps them challenged, keeps them grounded as well. They’re always learning new things, and the right people absolutely love that and thrive on it.” (Video from 6:22)
  • Scott on why it’s so important to understand what drives your people as individuals: “You want them to go home proud… whatever it may be that gets their blood and adrenaline going. You want to tap into that, and you want to use all those positives to drive your business and help you.” (Video from 11:20)
  • How Acquire BPO have successfully expanded into Asia and the US: “What a lot of people do is fly a lot of expats around somewhere and go tell them to setup the same and replicate the same thing as you can in a foreign country. It doesn’t work.” (Video from 15:19)

The video:

The interview:

Steve Pell: Hi, I’m Steve Pell from Management Disrupted, I’m here with Scott Stavretis from Acquire BPO. Scott thank you for joining us, could you just give us a brief intro to what the business does.

Scott Stavretis: Absolutely. So Acquire BPO is a business process outsourcer.

We specialise in delivering contact centre solutions and back-office solutions for our clients, whether they’re in Australia or the US. We have a team of resources in offshore locations such as Dominican Republic and the Philippines where we find the right people and deliver them to our clients.

Steve Pell: Fantastic. How big is the organisation?

Scott Stavretis: We’re 7000 employees today worldwide.

Steve Pell: Fantastic. Let’s talk a little bit about your journey to this point. Not perhaps the traditional path that many people in the C-suite have, can you tell me about how you came to be in this position?

Scott Stavretis: Yeah sure, I started my first business when I was 16 back in 1996, it was an internet service provider on the Mornington Peninsula, and over that time I sold that business a few years later on. That’s when I met my business partner. He wanted to start Dodo which became Australia’s largest telecommunications business where I was the COO, and he was the CEO of that business. And that was a very great journey and I learnt a lot over that time.

Throughout the same era we started different businesses together, from sports betting to loyalty brands, and also ran a public company called Eftel which was a wholesale corporate telecommunications company.

And it was 10 years ago when we started Acquire BPO, off the back of the Internet businesses and telecommunication businesses to service that business initially. And then it naturally morphed into a BPO and an outsourcer. When other people saw what we built, they liked it and wanted to be a part of it.

Steve Pell: Scott can you tell me a little bit about your portfolio of businesses, I understand it is not just Acquire BPO that keeps you busy today.

Scott Stavretis: Absolutely, so there’s another BPO in the fold, SHORE Solutions which we purchased two years ago. There is Animation1 a 3D animation studio, there’s Degunt a cloud-based bookkeeping and Yomojo a mobile and mobile broadband telephone company.

Steve Pell: Once we get past the statutory obligations Scott, what do you see as your most important role as CEO?

Scott Stavretis: So I wouldn’t say there’s one important role; there’s a lot of important roles. We’re a people business, and we’ve got 7000 people, so it is about people leadership and management. But it’s trying to align people success with business success.

So having a clear vision for what we need out of everybody, what path we’re taking, what the journey is and understanding each employee and how they can contribute towards that, and what success looks like to them.

Steve Pell: You’ve got quite a different background running all these businesses and starting at such an early age. What do you think makes you different as a leader versus someone who’s gone down a more traditional path?

Scott Stavretis: I think the difference that I would have would have to be the fact that I have been across different businesses. I’ve started them myself, so I’ve had to be in each different area of that business.

So whether it’s software development or engineers or accountants or lawyers, I’ve had to do a lot of that work myself so I can have honest conversations, I can help coach and develop the team that we have across those different facets of the business because I have been there. I have had first-hand experience in a whole different range of things.

So to be able to keep people honest, to be able to ensure that I understand the lingo and the talk and can coach and through challenges that they may have. While I’m certainly not the subject matter expert in every part of that business, I can certainly help and have a meaningful conversation with them which I believe our management team appreciates.

Steve Pell: How do you stop yourself from micromanaging with that background?

Scott Stavretis: I don’t necessarily stop completely micromanaging; I do believe management should be quite hands-on and a very hands-on approach. I think as a leader we’re really a coach in the development of people. And so I think you need some level of micromanagement or hands-on management, I don’t want to ever stray away from that. I don’t want to be a hands-off manager, I do want to make sure that I am intertwined in different parts of the business.

I do get involved in different parts of the business over time, but I do consciously I make sure that I don’t step on people’s toes too much, and I really go in there with a view to help and to guide and to understand.

And I think every leader needs to continue learning, and so I do like to learn about each part of the business. The technology changes so quickly, business changes so quickly. You need to go back into each area and understand what the changes are otherwise you can’t have meaningful conversations about that area of the business.

Steve Pell: Let’s talk about managing for results. Are you a driver as a leader?

Scott Stavretis: Absolutely, you have to be. You have to know where you need to get as an organisation, what the challenges are, what that path is forward, what the strategic plan is. You need to ensure that you’ve got the right people in the right place at the right time to align with those results. And so you need to break that down to smaller chunks from your year budget to quarters to months and to weeks in some different roles as well.

So it needs to be outcome orientated, different people have different KPIs, different goals, different targets. You do need to drive and push people towards them if you want to have some hyper growth in the business.

Steve Pell: How is the growth in the business?

Scott Stavretis: The business is doing tremendously well; we’re constantly having double-digit year-on-year growth over the last 10 years.

Timing’s very important in business; it’s a great time to be in the BPO industry. So absolutely business is flying and the team is quite happy.

Steve Pell: Is the growth coming from Australia or overseas, where’s the growth coming from?

Scott Stavretis: The last two years we’ve probably diverted our attention to focus on the US market, so we’ve seen a lot of growth in the US side of our business.

We’re Australia’s largest BPO providing services to the Philippines currently, and we’re trying to move into the US market.

There’s a bit of a story that the US is a much bigger pie to have so we’re trying to get our piece of that. And we’re seeing a lot of growth, especially over the last 12 months and the investment we made in the last two years is paying off.

Steve Pell: Okay, Scott let’s change it up a bit, what do you think’s the worst piece of common management advice?

Scott Stavretis: I think the worst piece is that to achieve growth a hands-off leadership is the way to go. I’m very much an advocate for hands-on leadership. I think it lets you know different parts of the business. So there’s this whole approach that a leader should be focused only on the strategic side and very hands-off from day-to-day operations which I have to disagree with.

Steve Pell: It sounds like you’ve been quite successful at growing your leaders through the business as well. How do you balance your driving side with the desire to grow those people and keep them in the business for a long period?

Scott Stavretis: I think one way I’ve managed to keep the people in the business is by challenging them a lot; they’re very motivated and ambitious people. So first you’ve got to recruit the right people, and then you need to challenge and stimulate them a lot.

So a lot of them are involved in not just Acquire they may be involved in 1, 2, 3, 4 different businesses that I’m involved in. So that also keeps them very motivated, keeps them challenged, keeps them grounded as well. They’re always learning new things, and the right people absolutely love that and thrive on it.

Steve Pell: This is interesting, so you don’t have portfolio separation?

Scott Stavretis: We do in some elements, we’ll have a CEO that might head up a business. I’m the CEO of the main businesses, however, the head of corporate could be across a range of businesses, the marketing manager could be across a range of businesses, the CFO is involved in all of the businesses.

So no we don’t, we keep our executive team as a shared services team if you like. And then they’ve got their portfolios under them.

Steve Pell: Are you the pin that holds it all together, that keeps focus across the group?

Scott Stavretis: I certainly keep focus, I don’t want to be the pin that holds it all together. And the team has been with me for such a long time now that if I wasn’t here, I’d have very good faith that they would steer the ship in the same manner.

But you do need a leader, and you do need that guidance and everyone myself included, everybody needs to look and have inspiration from others as well.

Steve Pell: Where do you look for inspiration?

Scott Stavretis: I surround myself with the right people, different business networks I’m very involved in, and day to day I make sure that I’ve got different people that will keep me honest.

One of our corporate values is ambition, voice, measure your goals. I certainly talk about those with other colleagues, other business leaders. If all of a sudden they see you start pivoting then you know something’s wrong, so they do keep you honest in that perspective.

Steve Pell: Who’s taught you the most about leadership along the way?

Scott Stavretis: The most about leadership would be my business partner Larry Kestelman started getting a business together in 2001. So I’ve known him for a long time, he’s certainly a very strong people leader, and I would have learned that most from him.

Steve Pell: It strikes me as you’re someone who wakes up at 2 AM in the morning with a new business idea?

Scott Stavretis: Absolutely. I have new business ideas all the time. I try to actually put them out of my mind more so and focus on executing on current business things. That’s probably something else I’ve learned over time. Ideas are pretty worthless unless you can actually execute and deliver on them.

So it’s really picking the right ones and making sure that the few things that we want to do and want to achieve for the quarter or the year are the ones that we focus on and really nail down, execute and hit them hard. Unless you’ve got the resources and tools and time to do it all, there’s no point having all these crazy ideas.

So there is an element of focus, and that’s something that I’m learning over time as well.

Steve Pell: It also strikes me that you’ve got quite a good sense of self-awareness about what you’re good at and not so good at. Have you hired your management team specifically to compliment that?

Scott Stavretis: Absolutely. So some of the management team has been with me a long time, 10 years. We’ve had to add resources to it over the last few years as well.

They absolutely have to complement me; they have to be better than I am in that particular role. You want to make sure you’ve got subject matter experts in those fields. So absolutely you need to complement your weaknesses with their strengths, and that makes a good team ship.

Steve Pell: What are your weaknesses, Scott?

Scott Stavretis: What are my weaknesses? that’s a really good question. I have a lot, like most leaders.

I think it’s prioritising. Going back to what I was saying before, not putting my fingers in too many pies and being focused. So I am very very reflective and do understand that, but it is a weakness that we all want to go and do so many different things. I’m trying to make sure that I stay focused and grounded and stick to that vision.

But getting off track in that regard would be a weakness of mine.

Steve Pell: There’s some people who have a really strong view around focusing on improving on weaknesses, and other leaders have a view of forget about the weaknesses I’m just going to focus on the strengths and leverage these. Where do you sit on that fulcrum?

Scott Stavretis: I think you need to know the weaknesses, understand it but focus on the positives, focus on your strengths. Make sure you have the right people around you, make sure you manage the downside. So if you’re a leader that may not be strong on finance, make sure you got a really good finance person behind you and focus on the strengths. And I think that’s where you get the most growth out of your business.

We’ve only got so much time in the day, so really about focusing on strengths; I would err on that side.

Steve Pell: If we flash forward 10 years, and there could be another 10 businesses in the portfolio by then. But let’s say you’ve written a management book, it’s in airports everywhere, what would it be called, what would the title be?

Scott Stavretis: It would be along the lines of ‘Know Your People’. If it hasn’t been taken or hasn’t been written. I would try to find something catchier than that. It would be really about understanding your people, understanding what drives them, understanding what success looks like to them and how to align that success with your business success.

Steve Pell: Let’s jump into that a little bit, why is it so important to understand what drives them?

Scott Stavretis: If you don’t know what drives them then you can’t steer them in that direction. People come to work, everyone’s short of time, people need to be focused, and they’re going to be more focused. You’re going to get the best out of them if you know exactly what they want to do and what that success looks like.

You want them to go home proud to their families that I’ve achieved this, or they’re contributing to society in a way they want to do, or whatever it may be that gets their blood and adrenaline going. You want to tap into that, and you want to use all those positives to drive your business and help you.

You want to sort of forget about the negatives, not everyone is everything. So focus on those positive, focus on what drives them and get them excited by something. And if they can put that passion and excitement into your business you get wonderful results. And you just have to align it with success and what the business plan is. Tap into that somehow and you’ll get a very successful team under you.

Steve Pell: I’m imagining you didn’t necessarily understand that when you are 16.

Scott Stavretis: Hell no.

Steve Pell: When did you figure that out?

Scott Stavretis: I’m still figuring exactly out how to always do that, but it’s something that I’m sort of learning over the years.

It takes a lot of time to really understand, and people change as well. So you’ve got to stay up-to-date on what success is for them, and what motivates them. So it is work, but we’re a people business, leaders manage people all day long.

I didn’t get into business thinking that’s exactly what I’m going to be doing, but that’s certainly where I found myself that I have to be.

Steve Pell: How do you manage yourself, Scott?

Scott Stavretis: How do I manage myself, I’m fairly well driven myself. So I manage myself by voicing where I want to be and what I want to do, setting some clear guidelines, and then people around me keep me honest to what that is. Whether that’s internal to my executive team, I make myself accountable for whatever I’m working on as if I’m one of the executive team as well.

They’re all accountable for their parts of what they’re putting into our strategic plan. So I hold myself, and they hold me accountable in that way, and I surround myself with really good leaders as well that I can bounce ideas off, and take learnings from people wiser and smarter than me who and have been there and done that.

So I try to learn as much as I can off people. I’ll also read a lot to understand and improve my ways through their learnings.

Steve Pell: Is there one red flag that comes to mind, so when you see it in any business or organisation, you just think “that’s dysfunctional, that’s not going to work”?

Scott Stavretis: I would have to say that would be around transparency, around moving the goal posts.

As soon as I start talking to leaders, or even when other people pitch businesses to me or businesses that I’ve even invested in myself. When I start seeing the leadership start to pivot, as start-ups like to call it, I start to see that’s where problems exist. They’re often not honest with themselves that they’re not meeting their metrics, not meeting their guidance, not meeting whatever they set out to do. And then they they start to self-justify.

That whole self-justification I think really just gets businesses in an absolute panic and a problem. That’s the biggest red flag, as soon as the leader or other people in that team start self-justifying, it’s a disaster.

Steve Pell: This is really interesting – a lot of what you’ve talked about today around that accountability. But is being honest with yourself something that you think about a lot?

Scott Stavretis: Absolutely. Honesty, transparency, to myself and what we try to portray as an organisation as well.

Steve Pell: So you’re an Australian business with the vast majority of your employee base in Asia. How have you succeeded in doing this? Because it’s something that most Australian businesses who’ve tried have failed at over time. What makes you successful in doing it where other people have failed?

Scott Stavretis: Well first and foremost you need to put in a great leadership team. You need to put the right people in place, you need to have people in place with local on the ground knowledge. What a lot of people do is fly a lot of expats around and tell them to replicate the same thing as you have in a foreign country. It doesn’t work.

You need to find people with on the ground experience, a hard-working, laser focused leadership team. That’s number one.

And then number two I think as a leader my job is to make sure that I learn and understand the culture, how business is done there, all the differences that they have.

So I need to make sure that I’m spending more time on businesses abroad then I am in Australia. Naturally, I know Australian culture very well growing up here, I know how business is done in Australia.

I need to make sure my time is focusing and learning how things are getting done in Dominican Republic, what the culture is, how we get the best out of people in the Dominican Republic or the Philippines or the US.

So wherever we are it’s really understanding. The only way you can do that is by getting on a plane and spending time over there, spending time with people, spending time in the business community, to see what results are delivered. Historically, how that’s actually happened and really immersing yourself in the local culture.

So that means a lot of travel and spending a lot of time with people over there.

Steve Pell: Where are your offices offshore now and how many people in each of them?

Scott Stavretis: So most of our delivery centres in the Philippines, and specifically in metro Manila where we have 10 sites today. We also got offices in Dallas, Texas and in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

Steve Pell: Scott if we go back to day one, when you’re 16 starting the first business, what do you know now that you wish you knew back then?

Scott Stavretis: I wish I knew that investing in people is so much more important than what I thought it was at the time. Understanding people, understanding what drives them, as I said earlier. Really just focus on the people is the number one thing.

Steve Pell: Do you remember any particularly bad mistakes you made in that first business when you were in your late teenage years that taught you those lessons?

Scott Stavretis: Probably trying to do too much, so quickly I started my first business, and then started a couple of businesses after that. Spreading myself too thin, not having the resources, people, and financial resources behind me. It was very challenging and a lot of hours and a lot of work. Spreading myself too thin was a big thing that I learned.

Steve Pell: Interesting. Lets talk about hiring advice, do you have any good hiring tips?

Scott Stavretis: I’ve certainly spent a lot of time on it, you need to not have just one or two meetings, and a lot of people do give this advice.

I think, meet with the people in a couple of different scenarios. Meet with them in an office, meet with them at a bar whatever it may be, over a lunch, get to know them from different points of view.

You need to quickly move past the standard interview process; you don’t learn much from that. Everyone’s got their own preconceived answers, and so it’s really understanding people, so you need get them in different environments, you need to ask them different questions and focus on the person. Don’t focus so much on the role and skills; skills can develop, roles can change. Find the right people that will support you, that share the same values that you share, share the same values that your company has, and hire based off that.

Steve Pell: Do you have a favourite interview question?

Scott Stavretis: I do, absolutely, probably my favourite interview question is, ‘tell me about the last time you failed and why?’, this is really to understand if they actually recall and think about those failures and how they actually approached it. So if they can’t come up with it off the top of their head and they don’t really understand those failures, then they’re not learning and they’re not developing themselves. So that’s probably one of the key questions I do ask.

Steve Pell: Thank you so much, Scott, appreciate it.

Scott Stavretis: It was a pleasure, thank you.

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