Tony Falkenstein has been a CEO of companies for over 35 years, including subsidiaries of multi nationals, two NZX-listed companies, and for the past twenty years, his own family company, Red Eagle Corporation Limited.
His business philosophy is uncomplicated: “keep it simple, enjoy what you are doing, and make a profit”. With this philosophy he has grown the Red Eagle Group to an annual turnover in excess of $300 million.
Tony is well regarded for his long list of successes and his adherence to traditional business ethics and integrity, he is also well known for his generosity and his great passion for business education being the key to New Zealand’s economic prosperity - Tony founded New Zealand’s first business high school, Onehunga High Business School. Students are now going on to perform 30% better than others at the Auckland University business school.
Getfrank had the pleasure of sitting down over a coffee with Tony for insight on the following;
How would you describe your leadership style?
Probably other people wouldn’t describe me as this, but I’m really a benevolent dictator (laughs) but I only really dictate the major things, so I let people make mistakes and I encourage mistakes. I don’t interfere if I think it’s wrong and it’s not going to be a big deal, but if it is a big deal then that’s when I become a benevolent dictator.
I’ve been married for more than 30 years and we don’t have many arguments because if my wife wants to do things this way or that way I won’t disagree, but when it comes to a major decision I think I do have the major influence.
What is your definition of success?
Happiness, and I avoid things that won’t bring me happiness. I read something the other day that you never have to be stressful if you can pass it onto someone else, and I do. My wife will tell you that
I could be in the worst business crisis ever and I just tell her, I’ll then fall to sleep and she’s kept awake all night (laughs). Things that are bad in my life just get wiped out of my memory.
What are the three best books you’ve read?
One that changed me would be ‘E-Myth-Revisited’ , and the reason that changed me is that I had to ask myself what’s my talent, and my talent is creative ideas and being able to think outside the square.
So with that about 13-14 years ago I got out of Just Water International as I realised there were other people that could run the business as well as I could, and I just needed to sit on a beach in
Waikiki and dream up ideas and that’s what I did and I’ve only just gone back into Just Water. That’s probably one book that’s changed my life.
I’ve read every book from Al Reis and Jack Trout their first one was around positioning warfare, they’ve written a lot of books on positioning and they write so well and give you lots of logical examples over a long period of time and they’re really been big influencers for me on positioning our brand. I would definitely recommend them.
Beyond those, I read a lot of business magazines and newspapers.
How do you generate your most creative thoughts?
I’m very big on my sub-conscious I pick up a grain of an idea, or I’ll identify a problem and I don’t think about it consciously - and the next morning I’ve got a solution.
You also need to also ask yourself the question why people have ideas in the toilet and the shower and the reason is that it’s the only time they’re by themselves - the rest of the day they’ve got TV, music, kids, and work all going on around them and they just don’t have any time to think.
So for me I’ll go out for a one to two hour walk with nothing in my brain and it will be amazing how many things I’ll fix up and the ideas I come up with, and I just jot those down into my phone – just one word will do and then I continue walking.
What motivates you and how do you stay motivated?
I think I was just born this way, I don’t need any motivation I’m just ‘rip-shit-and bust’ all the time. I like keeping things moving and a lot just happens on impulse.
So to me it’s just drive, like when I kicked off the business school I wanted ‘business’ to be taught in the national curriculum, so I just ploughed through.
How do you get things done? Are there any routines, habits or personal rules that you’ve used to help you get to success?
I make decisions relatively quickly, I just get things done. I am a relatively tidy person; I prefer to be tidy rather than untidy. I also did an accounting degree, however I wasn’t a very good accountant so I moved into marketing but I’ve brought over some of those good accounting traits.
An example is when I moved back as GM of Just Water there were about seven key issues so I put each into their own little boxes and know that I’ve got something that’s going to deal with each of those problems.
‘We’ve got a problem, right let’s put it into a box’
Even if it’s going to take a long time to close at least you’ve identified it and it’s a high priority in my life and I also put a timeline on it.
What three attributes were most important for getting you where you are today?
My talent which is idea generation.
Being sensitive to people, I can read people pretty easily - whether they’re happy or unhappy.
Which ties into being introverted - I’m not good in groups I’m much better at one on one and taking the time with people like coming in each morning and going right around the company and talking to people – not just talking, but really listening to people.
What do you do when things aren’t going your way?
I’m pretty pragmatic, entrepreneurs think in the future. I won’t persevere if I don’t think it’s going to work, I will persevere if I do think it’s going to work and you have to weigh things up sometimes and go ‘hey this guy is going to be stubborn’ it’s just better to walk away.
What’s getting your arse out of bed at the moment?
Just Water, I love it. It’s just that ‘let’s get this bloody thing right’. I’ve put timelines on myself to get all the crap out of it – to get all the boxes ready to go.
What is the most important piece of advice you’d give an aspiring leader?
Think how you’d like to be treated, a lot of managers go and forget how they’d like to be treated. I think back to when I was in my early 20’s and remember clearly thinking if I ever run a company it won’t be like this.
Also if you look at a three year old, you never see an unhappy three year old, you can give it a spoon and they can turn it into a rocket or a car - anything they like. Unfortunately that disappears as they get into the education system with the old ‘1 and 1 equals 2’.
Inherently we are all very creative, and we can all do anything whether we’re fifty three or three, and it’s just recognising that and then finding ways. You just have to bring it out of yourself.
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