Total success: Business and pleasure
TOTAL Success is a six-week Inquirer series written and directed by Ruth Ostrow – complemented by unique videos – that showcases six of Australia’s most influential and charismatic business leaders talking about intensely personal subjects such as death, love, friendship and God. This week, Harvey Norman’s Gerry Harvey and Katie Page open up on the power of love, in every aspect of their lives.
GERRY Harvey and Katie Page are curled up on the couch relaxing and talking about their favourite subject – each other – and the big question: what do I love about you?
Gerry: You’re beautiful. Intelligent.
Katie: You’re easy to live with, that’s really important. I don’t want someone that’s difficult, I love that you adore me as well. It doesn’t matter how hard I am on you, you adore me. And you don’t judge me.
You’re an orderly woman.
You’re OK. But you don’t look after your things.
But you’ve always known that.
Mmmm. But aside from that, you’re OK.
Like a pair of comedians rather than two of Australia’s most successful business people, they dissolve into laughter. The “dynamic duo” who head up retailing giant Harvey Norman are reclining on a couch bed, wrapped in each other’s arms and flirting like teenagers despite three decades of living and working together.
I’m staying with them at their resort, the Byron at Byron, where they own the hotel and Katie has a large property portfolio nearby. Although they are public figures, they’re intensely private about their personal life, but they have decided to grant me a rare look into their famously successful love affair.
This weekend they are entertaining Markus Miele, head of the Miele group, famous for its ovens and kitchen appliances, who is visiting from Germany. And celebrity chef Shannon Bennett is also staying with the team, to cook a feast that is being photographed for a book on Miele in Katie’s kitchen. It’s all hustle and bustle as the Harveys take Markus and Shannon to the famous Byron market to buy the freshest organic produce on a weekend that mixes pleasure with business.
We follow behind with our camera gear, but filming them on the move is often impossible because we can’t keep our cameras steady for laughing so much. Gerry’s droll one-liners delivered with perfect timing are pure comedy gold. She narrows her eyes and betters him. “Whoa!” laughs my cameraman at each electric comeback.
Gerry and Katie have been together for 30 years in business and in life. As chief executive of Harvey Norman Holdings, Katie, 57, oversees the management of 20,000 people worldwide, which includes their retail operations in eight countries, thoroughbred racing, tourism and hospitality. She is on the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art, was the first woman appointed to the board of the NRL, is a property developer and one of only three women running a top 100 companies. She also manages many offshoot companies such as Space Furniture.
She has raised two children with Gerry (he has another two from his first marriage to Lynette) and is an accomplished hobby chef, famous for her emu-egg cake.
Gerry, 74, in his spare time is one of Australia’s main growers of Wagyu cattle, and in the past decade he has become increasingly involved in breeding racehorses. Best mates with fellow horse lover John “Singo” Singleton, Gerry is now considered one of the largest breeders in the world, with more than 600 thoroughbreds in his stables. Together with family members, he owns Magic Millions, one of the largest and most expensive thoroughbred auction events in the Australian racing industry.
They are the only husband and wife team at the helm of an Australian top 100 company. Does that contribute to their success? Both are unequivocal that it’s a critical factor.
“We think we’ve got a unique thing happening here, and it strengthens outcomes,” says Katie. “We sell to everyone, and we don’t ever want our business to be solely run by men. And I don’t think anyone else wants that.”
Gerry agrees. He says running a business as a male and female team gives them an edge in understanding staff and female customers, and includes the element of nurturing that Katie brings.
“She’s a hard worker and is very dedicated to the things she’s interested in. She’s got a very good eye for detail,” he says. “We can walk into a Harvey Norman showroom and she’ll say: ‘It’s crap’, and I’ll be thinking: ‘Looks all right to me.’ “
He says as a woman, and a woman of great taste to boot, “she’s got the eye for detail”.
Neither is taking their position as business leaders — or as husband and wife — for granted.
“We are very privileged as a couple that we’ve been able to achieve these things and genuinely love what we do and love each other,” says Katie. “After 30 years of marriage we’re together 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and it’s extraordinary. It’s a bit like having open-heart surgery every day, the way we work together and our lifestyles. And yes, it certainly strengthens our company.”
It also strengthens their attraction for each other. The night before the interview at the hotel restaurant, I overhear Gerry whispering sweet nothings into Katie’s ear. She grows coy and her face softens into a blush. But the next day she is right back to the practicalities.
She says the company is run with the same kind of nurturing of relationships and family values they have. “If you have a look at our board and executive team, it’s quite extraordinary, they actually have the kind of background we have. We’re all good family people. And they are not just defined by what they do in this company. We make sure our teams are doing a lot for the community, which brings a sense of pride.”
For Katie, her period on the NRL board underlined her appreciation of how important sport is in communities, particularly communities that don’t have much. “We’ve done a lot, and make sure our teams are doing a lot for the community.”
Gerry’s philosophy is to make the work environment about far more than profit. “People don’t just come to work to make money, they need satisfaction,” he says. “They spend so much of their life at work, they have to have a sense of purpose and meaning. I try to develop others. I get a great deal of joy out of helping people who, over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time mentoring – and just trying to get them to another level.”
It’s a view widely supported by international research. Recently, a survey was reported that showed happier workers were 12 per cent more productive than standard performance, whereas unhappier workers were 10 per cent less productive than the base-line. This would confirm Gerry’s point that “care of the soul” is good for the bottom line. Other research by Gallup quantified the link between employees’ feelings and corporate outcomes, reporting that lost productivity due to employee disengagement costs more than $US300 billion a year in the US.
The couple lead by example and Gerry hopes their life-affirming attitude continues to influence their staff.
“You get that air of satisfaction from achievement,” he says. “It makes you feel good. We are only here for a very short time and so you’re crazy if you don’t go out and try to milk it to the greatest extent you can.”
As the adage goes: “Happy workers means happy customers.” A slogan the Harveys never forget.
The glow on both their faces when they talk about their workers, managers and the community shows how genuinely they are bringing love into the corporate world.
Gerry says: “If you do genuinely care about people and love them a little, eventually you all have this common goal about where you want to go. They see it and they believe it, and they become believers with you, and you can achieve wonderful things.
“It’s called people power. And the results can be way beyond even your most optimistic beliefs.
“I think it’s great for the bottom line, and great for us as individuals,” he smiles.