Picture this. You’re at a Gourmerican burger joint chomping a cheeseburger, when an outspoken vegan friend starts preaching that you’re killing the planet. Last week, that same vegan downed a pricey glass of pinot before their flight to a far-flung destination, armed with their strongest mossie repellant and first aid kit. Anything amiss?
As a young boy, Matt Ball’s grandfather would take him down to the Coles supermarket at the Sydney northern beaches suburb of Mona Vale, where he would collect trolleys and talk to shoppers about their experience with the retailer.
Ball’s grandfather was Bevan Bradbury, who had served as managing director of Coles through the 1970s until 1982, and went on to become its chairman. His insights left a lasting impression.
“He instilled in me this relentless focus on the consumer and the customer,” Ball says.
It is a focus Ball believes has helped him immensely as he transitioned through his career from a series of marketing roles in telecommunications companies and Microsoft’s Xbox gaming division, to managing director of Australian and New Zealand operations of BlackBerry.
“Customers want to be able to talk to someone who understands them, from the end user to the CEO or CIO of a large organisation,” Ball says. “They want to be able to know that you’ve heard and listened.”
Ball joined BlackBerry as marketing director in 2011 with aspirations to take on the leadership role perhaps two to three years later. Those aspirations were realised early when his managing director quit just seven months after he joined, and her replacement left after just two.
Suddenly Ball found himself called up to lead the local operation – and at a time when its one-time ascendency as the smartphone of choice for business professionals had been under sustained pressure from consumer-born rivals such as Apple and Samsung. His promotion followed news of poor financial results, the laying off of 5000 staff, and the announcement that the much-heralded tenth version of its popular platform would be pushed back into the following year.
“It was a very clear turnaround brief,” Ball says. “I felt it was a challenge I was pretty interested in. I felt like I had a lot of the commercial acumen and strategic thinking required to help BlackBerry be successful. They were for me something I saw as really tangible attributes that were going to help drive forward the BlackBerry business.”
It is for this reason Ball believes listening to customers is an essential skill for any CEO. Whereas the challenge at Xbox was to attract consumers without upsetting its core audience of hard-core gamers, at BlackBerry it is all about winning consumer clients without upsetting its corporate audience. Ball says that takes an ability to develop empathy with existing and new target segments, and is something all CEOs should learn.
“Starting your business thinking with the customer in mind is a very marketing-oriented skill,” Ball says. “The other one I think is important is a sense of continuous improvement. As a marketer that is your job.
“Now taking that from a marketing context into a leadership context, I am constantly thinking about how I can improve the overall business, starting from the customer.”
It seems he has found some success too, tripling market share for the company year-on-year for its last quarter.
The biggest adjustment for Ball in stepping into the lead role has been ensuring that his operational skills have also been up to the challenge. It is something he addressed earlier in his career through an MBA, but he concedes there is nothing quite like managing a live P&L.
“I didn’t come from a finance background,” Ball says. “There's a difference between learning how to do it in a university to owning it, living and breathing it and being accountable for the outcomes.
“I was pretty upfront that that was something I wanted to further develop skill in, and have certainly had some strong help along the way.”
Ball has also strengthened his leadership skills through being part of BlackBerry’s global management team, and through his membership of the Australian CEO Forum.
The way up the corporate ladder
While marketing might not be the most common route to management, Ball says his career progression has been very deliberate, in terms of seeking experience in both corporate and consumer roles, as well as building his marketing skill set.
Ball’s first role upon completing a Bachelor of Business from UTS was as a marketing graduate with an Optus telecommunications reseller. After a few years he moved on to a marketing manager role at telecommunications company, WorldxChange Communications, and then on to Hutchison, where he helped to launch the ‘3’ brand in Australia, before moving on to various roles at rival operator, Vodafone.
During this time Ball completed his MBA from Macquarie Graduate School of Management, and also decided he did not want to get stuck in telecommunications companies his whole life. His next career move was to become the group manager of marketing and communication at the Xbox division of Microsoft, and it was from there that he was poached to take on BlackBerry’s marketing role.
“They desperately wanted to get into the consumer segment, so they liked the fact that I had carrier experience, enterprise experience and consumer experience,” Ball says.
“I thought it was going to take a lot longer around learning the nuances of a different industry. From my experience it is not something I see people readily do – cross the divide from a deep consumer brand into a deep business brand and back.”
Despite the demands of leadership, Ball says he maintains an active role in BlackBerry’s local marketing activities.
“I would like to think that if you did a quick research poll with the marketing team, they would say it’s refreshing to not have to educate an MD on how marketing works,” Ball says. “And me being involved with the marketing team highlights that marketing is important.”
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