BComm ’84, DipMkt ’85
Always open to a good opportunity, Karl Schuster left his account manager role in Dublin in the late 1980s for Ogilvy in London and then Cape Town. He moved to loyalty marketing – and Sydney – in 2001 and is now CEO of Velocity Frequent Flyer, Australia’s fast growing data-driven and digitally-enabled loyalty business.
About Karl Schuster
Tell us about your education and career background
After secondary school at Moyle Park College in Clondalkin I went on to do a BComm in UCD where I focused very much on the marketing subjects. From there, I joined UCD’s nascent graduate school of business to do a diploma in marketing – we were based in basement offices at Earlsfort Terrace. It was a small, diverse group and we had a lot of fun.
After that, I got picked up by an advertising agency – Direct Concepts, which would become part of Arks Advertising – and entered the world of communications. I got to work with really creative and talented people on brands like Guinness and Shell.
I moved to London in 1988 for a job with Ogilvy, which at the time was the world’s greatest advertising agency group. And that was probably where I did most of my learning. Although we were dealing with national and international brands and budgets we were given opportunity and allowed to take risks. Ogilvy also invested heavily in development and helped you manage your career. It was a sensational place to work.
I spent four years in London and went from being a young account manager to an account director working on British Telecom International, one of the largest accounts at the agency.
Then, in late 1991, the CEO of the South African Ogilvy business was looking for an account director to lead two of the largest accounts in their Cape Town office. I always had an affinity for Cape Town and with Nelson Mandela having recently been released from prison it felt like a really exciting time to be there so I took that opportunity and landed in Cape Town early in 1992.
I was working for a small business unit and the general manager exited within a month of my arrival. I was asked to take over his role. I did that and was subsequently made managing director and put on the board of the Cape Town business when I was 29. Being able to see what happens in the boardroom and understand the more strategic issues of running a business was a big step up for me.
I had six really successful years in Cape Town. We grew the business, won awards and hired some great people. That’s when I really began to develop as a leader.
I met my wife Genevieve during that time, we bought a house and were really happy living on the tip of Africa. Then a former colleague who was now chairman of a global communications group asked me to come and run one of his businesses in London that was in trouble. I asked Genevieve if she’d fancy living in London for a couple of years, she immediately said yes and three months later we were there.
Following opportunity has been a characteristic of my career to date. I’ve never been shy about seeing an opportunity, believing there’s lots of potential and going after it.
After about three years, we were expecting our first child and were talking about whether we should stay in London, go back to South Africa or look at other opportunities. Serendipitously I was headhunted for a CEO role in Sydney for a company in the loyalty business that provided outsourced services for big banks and retailers. Loyalty marketing wasn’t something I was familiar with but my experience and skills were transferable. I’d run large accounts, managed senior relationships and managed significant budgets.
We moved down to Australia and really haven’t looked back since then. I got promoted to a regional role and we spent a few years in Singapore. We moved back to Sydney three years ago.
What is your current role?
Since late 2015, I’ve been CEO of the Velocity Frequent Flyer programme, which is majority owned by the Virgin Australia group so we’re part of Richard Branson’s empire. I was hired into the role to help transform it from where it’s been for the past 10 or 15 years into a platform business and to help drive substantial headline growth in terms of billings, revenue and profit.
We employee about 320 people, delivered AUD$400m of billings in 2018 and generated about AUD$130m in profits. My team and I have built the business up over the past three years and we’re halfway through what I set out to achieve. I’m aiming to do the same again over the next three years.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Back in the late 1980s, there was a mantra at Ogilvy that said “the people with the best people win”. That has stuck with me and I’ve always had a very strong people orientation in terms of my leadership style. My view is that if we get the right people, everything else will follow. So I’ve always tried to hire really great people over the years and most of the time I’ve got it right.
But you’ve also got to be very clear about your vision for the business and what the future looks like. If you communicate that vision clearly and regularly at every level so everybody knows the direction you’re pointed at and you’re all heading the same way together that will help maximise your chances of success. And that’s what I did when I arrived in my current role. I ran dozens of sessions with small groups from across the business where they heard from me exactly where I wanted to take the business and how I saw them fitting in to that vision. I also run sessions with new starters every month so they can hear it first hand as well.
I believe in holding people to account for what you expect of them. And you have to grasp the nettle if things aren’t working out. That’s been a big learning – if someone isn’t performing or there is an issue you have to deal with it quickly but in a respectful way.
What motivates you?
What motivates me most right now is making change happen successfully. Completing the plan for change and transforming all of our technologies, platforms, customer engagement and staff pulse scores really keeps me going. I was hired to do a business transformation programme and to drive the results of the business. We’re halfway through that and we’ve doubled the revenue and the profits. Seeing that through successfully is what I’m after.
Who or what has inspired or influenced you?
Four people have had a big influence on my career and my life. The one who stands out is David Ogilvy. When I did my BComm one of the books on the reading list was Ogilvy on Advertising. I bought it and read it from cover to cover many times and was hugely inspired by David Ogilvy.
And then I went on to work for him. He was in his 80s by then but was still chairman of the business. He did me a favour once – I asked him to help me retain a talented but idiosyncratic copywriter I had in Cape Town. A personally handwritten note from David solved the problem and the writer stayed.
People focus was an inherent management discipline at Ogilvy and a lot of that has stayed with me. There were three other leaders who hired me, trusted me or backed me to do things and that helped me move along. But in terms of someone I really admire and whom I can trace back to my college years, David Ogilvy would be the man for sure.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Because what I’m doing right now is so fresh and current and because I have achieved such a transformation in a short period of time it’s really exciting. It’s my biggest job so far and I’m finding it quite gratifying that I’ve managed to double the business in three years. I’ve had some serious challenges but we’ve powered through them.
But there have been many other things, including turning a little agency in Cape Town into an award winning, profitable, fast growing company at the age of 29. That was a big deal and we got lots of recognition in South Africa and internationally for that.
Do any mistakes stand out?
I have a very strong orientation towards talent and people and had one guy working for me who had been fantastic. I built a lot of confidence in him and about eight years ago gave him one of our biggest projects in Asia and left him to get on with it. Because I was busy on other major projects I took my eye off the ball and he was actually doing a really poor job. That project ran off the rails and it took me about three years to get it back on track. The legacy of me not being on top of that project was three years of pain! My learning out of that was you can’t afford to assume everything’s going okay. Even if you’ve got somebody you trust you’ve got to be across the detail.
What is your advice for success?
The first thing is to be bold, adventurous and fearless. Getting on a plane to London, to Cape Town or to Australia is never as daunting as it might appear. You need to take calculated risks if you want to succeed.
I also think being persistent is an essential ingredient for success. Looking back on my career I notice that when I’ve really believed in something when others didn’t, pushing things through and not giving up has been very important. If you’re not persistent you’re never going to get anywhere.
That said, you’ve got keep going with integrity. If you’re persistent and you annoy people you’re not going to get anywhere either.
Finally, work hard because I think that old adage about 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration is absolutely true. You don’t get anywhere without really hard work. Senior executives are looking for people who are prepared to put in the grind and go above and beyond.
What are your plans for the future?
There’s another three years of work here to get the business to where we want to be –and that’s becoming billion dollar business. That’s my short term plan but I am thinking about what’s going to happen after that.
Having lived in Cape Town, London, Singapore and Sydney I think my wife and I have one more move in us. Our boys will be in university and finishing college in three years’ time so we won’t have to worry about kids any more. The idea of living in Tokyo, San Francisco or Paris for a couple of years is really appealing to Gen and me.
So, the short term priority for the next three years is definitely on Velocity but after that going and living in a new city and doing something interesting for a couple of years is on our agenda.
How has your degree benefited your career and personal life?
It has opened up opportunity for me.
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD?
Making enduring friendships.
What piece of technology can you not live without?
My camera is my favourite piece of technology. It’s an Olympus OMD-EM1 Mark 1 and it goes perfectly with my Leica-engineered 42.5 Nocticron lens.
What are your pet hates?
Big egos and arrogance.
What are your main interests outside work?
Travel and photography.
Who’s your favourite writer?
Just finished John Banville’s The Sea and loved it. But Cormac McCarthy is my favourite author.
And what is your favourite band or musician?
Closet Metallica fan.
What’s the last exhibition you went to that you loved?
David Goldblatt’s photographic history of South Africa at Sydney’s MCA was fantastic.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
Cassoulet is my speciality.
What team do you support?
Third generation Arsenal supporter.
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
Cape Town, the mother city.
What are your insider tips for anyone visiting Sydney for the weekend?
The Bondi to Bronte cliff walk is a must.
Name three things on your bucket list
Visit Chile with my wife, a wildlife photography safari to the Okavango Delta in Botswana and to canoe a section of the Congo River with my two sons.
What charities or causes are closest to your heart?
The Starlight Foundation does amazing work with children who are seriously ill and kids’ charities have always been close to my heart.