CMO to CEO: How Nick Baker is transforming Reflections Holiday Parks into a profit-for-purpose enterprise

Former CMO and now chief of profit-for-purpose holiday park operator talks through the transformation journey he's orchestrating at the newly accredited social enterprise

Nick Baker
Nick Baker

When you’re looking to transform a business, it pays to have a former marketer at the helm, Nick Baker believes.

The one-time CMO of Tourism Australia and CEO of Outdoria is certainly living proof of this. Having joined Reflections Holiday Parks nearly 18 months ago, Baker has been steering the organisation on a transformative course towards sustainability and profit-for-purpose with two significant goals by 2030: To become a B Corporation; and to put $1.3 billion in economic value back into regional NSW.

Early milestones have been achieved. Earlier this year, Reflections became the first holiday park group in Australia to be certified as a social enterprise. In FY22, the group reinvested $9.1 million back into its 36 holiday parks and 43 community Crown Land reserves. It’s also introduced a network of social enterprise businesses to engage as suppliers to further bolster its social, cultural and environmental impact.

“My marketing knowledge has had huge impact. If a business is going through a significant transformation, having a marketer as a CEO helps enormously,” Baker tells CMO. “If you are a good marketer, you rarely sit outside the leadership circle and you’re always challenging the orthodoxy of how things are done. You’re always a major voice for the customer, and you’re also expected to have that understanding of shared stakeholders – far greater than almost anyone else.

“And you know how to communicate. All these are skills embedded in marketing. These translate when you’re going through period of change very well into leadership roles.”  

Of course, there’s the stuff Baker did outside of marketing and over the course of his career helping him too. The fact he’s chalked up operational experience as well as P&L oversight, plus board roles, were additionally important to his appointment at the holiday park operator.

“As a CMO, I’d advised getting involved in some form of board. It means there’s one less issue to be confronted with when you go into a CEO role,” he adds. “The other thing I’d say is many CMOs in this country, and particularly in the US, are still not prevalently across product – whether it’s technology or product in an FMCG business. Carriage over product and being integral in product design and development is super critical as well.”

The foundations of a social enterprise

For Baker, the current year has been one of transformation and transition from what Reflections as the business was before, to what it needed to be. Key to this was understanding what the CEO role required.

He sums up being CEO in five key elements: To build strategy; build team; find the money and financing; “communicate the shit out of the strategy to everyone”; and to hold people accountable and empower them to do their roles.

Reflections Holiday Parks also needed to reshape its broader leadership team, and Baker estimates 70 per cent of leadership has changed to undergo such a major transformation. He’s also made the distinctive move of appointing former Enigma Communications MD of advertising, Peter Chapman, as his GM of sales and marketing.

Reflections is governed by a board and operate an appointment instrument with Crown Lands in accordance with the Crown Lands Act.

“The leadership team now is not very strong from a tourism bent but is strong in terms of the sectors they managed,” Baker comments. “I have been able to bring that tourism focus and understanding of the tourism implications for the business.”

Change the business structure – from the platforms and management system, through to the model with which Reflections run the parks and a common strategic plan – were the next cabs off the rank. For example, under its traditional park model, some managers reported directly to the Reflections management team, while others were contractors. By the end of November, half of parks will have transitioned from contractor to employer model. By mid-2023, almost all will operate exclusively on an employer model.

“Most of the contractors are coming to manage inside our business, which is great, and the vast majority of staff are staying on,” Baker says. “This also means we can create hubs where we can employ people. For example, we have 8-9 parks in and around Byron Bay that were operating independently. This way, we can move people around more effectively and ensure people progress in their careers more quickly as we have many more openings.

“We can work across joint products as a group, and work together on how we engage with the Indigenous experience operators and local councils. It’s a very different model.”

As to the common platform required, Reflections has adopted RMS as the property management system across the organisation. Then there’s the settling of its fundamental position around nature and as a profit-for-purpose organisation. This is what drove the stated goal by 2030 to be B Corporation and to adopt a quadrupled bottom line.

“It’s not just a greenwash or doing a few nice things in certain areas but about being fully accountable,” Baker says. “Whether it’s purchasing, community activities or Indigenous engagement, all those need to be front and centre for us.”

Such focus gained Reflections social enterprise registered business status from Social Traders in November. Baker sees this both as a pivotal step forward in the transformation as well a major differentiator for Reflections Parks in market. He points out of the 23,000 acres of land Reflections oversees, only 4 per cent generates revenue. The rest is held on behalf of the people of NSW to manage and look after for recreational purposes, such as dams, walks or beaches. It’s a considerable amount of real estate to look after.

Credit: Seal Rocks cabin, Reflections Holiday Parks

“Profit-for-purpose is the first differentiator. Our second is this management of vast areas of land, which are used by 2 million daytrippers and people per year,” Baker explains. “The waterways in our reserves also function as recreation areas for nearby towns such as Tamworth and towns around them – people use them to come boating, fishing or to swim at the beach. We’re entrusted to look after the space from a conservation and ecology perspective – that’s a very different lens to most businesses.”

Baker’s second and third years as CEO are about execution and delivery. Not focusing on what other park operators in terms of onsite facilities is a major differentiator in his book.

“We’ve made the capital decision not to focus on lots of jumping pillows, splash parks, restaurants or cafés in our parks. Our parks are situated in some of the most natural scenery we have. Our focus is to get people out in parks and into the natural locations and communities they are in,” he says. “We prefer to say go to Simon’s Café in the local town or the local restaurant and then bring the councils and local communities in to market their region and their way of life. It’s an outward-focused approach rather than the other groups, which are looking to keep people in their parks by giving them more stuff to do and with built assets.

“We rely on nature to bring people in, therefore our linkage with Indigenous tourism operators, local food and beverage operators to experience operators is at the heart of how we differentiate ourselves, built on this purpose-for-profit motion.”

Education for bold decision making

These are bold decisions for a park operator. Baker says hefty education has been necessary to make transformation a reality.

“I remember when I first brought up B Corp, everyone was going, I don’t know what that means and they rushed to Google,” he recalls. “The organisation did already have a natural affinity towards putting money back into purpose and there was a broader understanding of the notion to do well, you have to do good.

“There was also an idea of quadruple bottom line. But it had not evolved to the extent we could therefore report in our KPIs across those four sectors. We knew we would need targets for the organisation that are measurable and were quantifiable as a result.”

Reflections is now working with an environmental consulting firm, Websters Group, to land on exact numbers it can use to understand the environmental cost of each customer in terms of energy, water and waste. The aim is to view this in the same way you would the revenue of a customer in dollar value.  

Another ambition in Baker’s sights is building a revolving sustainability fund inside the organisation which can in turn, contribute towards longer-term environment initiatives to help reduce energy, waste and so on.

From a customer engagement perspective, he also admitted nervousness across the business had to be overcome when engaging with customers around Reflections’ profit-for-purpose, quadruple bottom line ambitions.

“The interesting part when I first got here was the decision on whether we focus on the natural setting of where our parks are, in terms of consumer communications,” Baker says. “It wasn’t done – we only tagged we are in nature and the model was a similar model to the other park groups.

Credit: Reflections Holiday Parks

“What’s become clear, and one of the accelerants or unintended consequences of the pandemic, is this focus on sources of nature and importance of nature and environment, but also protection and sustainability of it. Consumers want companies that do what they say they do. We have talked about this for 20 years, but I do think people are now more likely to make decision based on these factors.”

What Reflections Parks is now looking for is the larger social pieces to define its path and set it further apart from the pack. As a comparison, Baker notes Intrepid’s brave decision to not promote riding on elephants as part of its B Corporation status.

“Next year, we will be looking for what it is that sets Reflections apart. Social enterprise is there, but how does that manifest not just in what we do, but can we find a way in which customers in our parks can also play a role? That is going to be an interesting journey next year,” Baker says.

“How we profile nature as well as protect at the same time is going to be very interesting. We have some interesting projects in this space and if we can get them to lift off, it will be pretty cool.”

Today, Baker believes the team has passed through the inherent nervousness when launching the strategy at the beginning of the year and is ready to charge forward. Strong relationships with NSW Minister for Lands and Water, Kevin Anderson, and Crown Lands, plus an energised board, are solid starting points for 2023, he says.

“The wonderful that’s happened is it’s come to be seen by everybody as the right path and the right time. Even though it still requires bravery,” he says. “There is a risk because we if we’re not going to be doing jumping pillows and things, we’re giving up on that family and small kids group, because they will gravitate towards those options.

“But we believe for other groups – older kids who want nature, bike paths, surfing lessons, or those wanting remote or wilderness camping, which we are big fans of, or school groups – we are a strong option. We are carving out a different group. We’re not just going to be holiday parks, we’ll have a lot of different components. That’s why we are being brave and there’s more trust in the decision we have made.”

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