I don’t think you ever truly complete your parents’ expectations.
Born in 1975, Jim grew up in Armidale, NSW. “I grew up in a loving family. My dad’s a pretty special guy – he was a radiologist – and my mum was a pre-school teacher, which gave me what I would deem a really good early childhood with no lack of love.”
Following his three elder academically capable sisters meant Jim’s education was probably a little bit more frustrating for his teachers. He looks back on those early days realistically. “I wasn’t a bad child but I was a somewhat distracted one. My family was part of a closed secular religion which meant I had a predefined pathway, so I didn’t really focus on school as much as I should have. Religion was a very significant part of our lives, and it was my parents’ absolute reason for being.”
Jim openly admits that “I don’t think you ever truly complete your parents’ expectations, I don’t think anyone ever does. Perhaps parents expect too much of their kids at times. Most certainly, a lot of values that I have today, and that I’m now sharing with and guiding my children, have been derived from my parents.”
Who Jim has become, and how he has come to be there, are mostly definitely the product of his parents’ input. “My dad’s an incredibly bright man and he has an incredible humility about him. Very few people would truly understand his capacity. My mum was always positive, and told us to count our many blessings one by one, and she also worked on the principle of do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. So a lot of those things have certainly affected who I am today.”
Jim’s parents are community-minded and caring people who didn’t seek recognition. As Jim recalls, “for example they’d recognise families in need, and drop off groceries on their veranda, not knock, and not look to be recognised or take any credit. That sort of stuff is pretty powerful.”
As a country medical practitioner, Jim’s father is highly respected, which came from treating all people equally, irrespective of who they were. “Dad’s now 78, but he still goes out of his way to help people every day. He probably helps more people every hour than I do in a week.”
In retrospect, Jim was always going to work for his dad’s business. His father had set up a business for his sons and son-in-law Graeme, in hospitality supplies in Armidale, and Jim went to work there straight after school. Jim says “I remember my dad coming up the stairs the following morning after my last high school exam, and he said ‘James I think the Lord would expect you to go to work today’. Further education wasn’t part of the church, you just got on with it.”
At the end of 1995, Jim had a parting of the ways with the church – as he puts it “a coming together of heads, more than hearts”. Jim regrets the bridge with his family won’t ever be mended, given the church is pretty defined in their views. “It’s a challenge, of course, because my kids don’t have grandparents as such, but it also makes you who you are, so you’ve got to embrace anything that makes you a little bit stronger.”
Jim admits to desperate times and desperate actions to make that move away from the only life he’d known. “I broke into my parents’ house one Sunday, when my folks were at church, because I had no food, no money, and I knew my Mum would have prepared a feast, she simply was the best cook ever. While there, I opened the Sydney Herald and as the pages fell open, right there was an advertisement for exactly my job in Armidale, but based in Sydney. I rang the owner, who responded that if I could be in Sydney the following morning, I could have the job, if I was as good as I said I was.”
Having coerced one of his dad’s workers to give him a company car, Jim drove to Sydney, got the job, and drove the car home the following night, only to then hitchhike back to Sydney, and the rest is history.
The company which took Jim on was called Northpak, then owned by Lindsey Galloway and George Stavropoulos. Jim worked there for about six months, selling hospitality supplies to cafes, recalling that “they were very good to me. I followed one of their employees to a company called G&M Packaging, working for Burt Johnson and George Sofokleous, for two years.”
In time, Jim had heard about a company called Modern Teaching Aids, which sold great products to schools. All that quiet time in the school holidays sounded too good to be true to Jim at the time! Jim responded to a recruitment ad for that company, however the sales manager, Graham Kapinga told him he’d already had 70 applicants and didn’t really need anymore. Jim recalls “I really wanted that job, so I just made sure that he absolutely knew I was his guy. I made sure I was the person that influenced his day, and influenced his sleep. You do certain things out of fear and need, and basic competitive behaviour. There’s no downside in going hard at it and making sure you’re there to be counted; last man standing principle.”
Of course, Jim got the job working for Modern Teaching Aids in 1998, and was soon selling educational resources throughout a large area of Sydney and country NSW. Jim looks back on those days with great fondness; “I had the privilege of seeing some of the most extraordinary places, and meeting the most extraordinary people, many of whom are still good friends.”
Jim believes there’s no substitute for hard work. “You can have all the degrees in the world, but if you’re not willing to put in the effort, it probably won’t transpire into anything. I don’t expect my daughters to go to university. I assume they will, but it’s certainly not imperative to their success. The school of hard knocks is where common sense comes from, for sure. That’s probably one of my dad’s comments.”
In 2002, the business was bought by two English brothers, Neill and Simon Wiston. “They asked various layers in management about who they thought had a good eye for new product, and I was very fortunate that the previous owner, the sales manager and the state sales manager all put my name forward. I suppose it was just those little things that you do along the way which delivers that extra mile. The old owner, John Herrington, was leaving the business and he was taking with him a lot of good product knowledge and that critical eye for good product. I was fortunate… right time, right place.”
Jim was promoted to a product management role on the education side, and soon after that the retail product manager left suddenly, so he was asked to take on the entire product management role across all their channels. “That gave me a chance to be fully integrated into the business and to thoroughly learn all the aspects of it. That was in 2004. After more than a few all-nighters, and a lot of long weeks, I was offered a more commercial role, and joined the board in 2005.”
Jim has never asked for a pay rise. “My view is, if you work hard, focus on making your boss rich, that’s going to pay dividends for you.”
From 2005 through to 2014, Jim worked very closely with owners Neill and Simon, and a colleague, CFO Rob Davis. “We worked hard at building a really good business, and in that time, it more than quadrupled in size. Neill and Simon decided it was the right time for them to exit.”
Jim comments that “this is a business that’s totally vested in its customers’ needs. We have three core customers; educational institutions in our education channel; toy retailers in our toy channel; and parents and kids in our consumer channels. And our aim is to maximise and efficiently deliver what they’re all trying to achieve as their ultimate outcome.”
It’s a source of great pride that “next year is our 60th year, and I’m merely one custodian having been here nearly 18 years. Our business has multiple positive forces. We have really good supplier partnerships. We have great products, and great customers, with really great reasons for being.”
Jim describes the three channels of the business as having “a great, can-do attitude” and one where “we’re often delighted, and we’re rarely satisfied. Across all channels we think about what the customers are trying to achieve.” Modern Teaching Aids in the education sector is the most prolific business element, and the supply business into the toy retail channel and there are also businesses like child.com.au which is an education superstore for parents and a mail order business which supplies direct to consumers.
A self-confessed “big kid”, Jim believes this is an integral aspect of the business; “understanding the value in the concept of learning through play is very valuable as part of the overall mix. Kids like to play, and in turn when they play they learn. Good learners have greater chances of being strong, resilient adults who make good decisions. I like that we can play our part in that process.”
There is plenty of satisfaction for Jim in seeing the practical application of a product his team has developed, which allows customers to create some of the steps for children to take toward adulthood.
Jim oversees a company of some 230 staff in all. “The human component is never easy, because everyone’s world is their own. People everywhere want to be valued and acknowledged. They want to be part of a greater purpose, have some clearly defined objectives and understand why we are who we are, and where we’re going, and no one should be precluded from that. It doesn’t matter where they are in an organisation, the process should be enjoyable. I love seeing my colleagues having fun. It’s important.”
When asked how he motivates his staff, Jim goes back to the fundamentals of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. “It starts with a sense of belonging, safety, security and certainty. Being part of a team and understanding the business is going well and that it’s sustainable is all important. Allowing people to feel they’re contributing, and how that can be measured so they can understand their own success, is also critical.”
The overall sense within the business is that “we’re a team, we work to a common goal”. Jim’s delighted to boast that “we’ve got an incredible array of staff here. My colleague Len will celebrate 40 years with us next year. He’s been with the company since I was 8 months old! We’ve got long-serving reps on the road, like Harry in Adelaide, who last month celebrated 35 years, and other reps with 25 years. There are so many good, long term relationships.”
The underlying principle is that “business is about partnerships, it’s understanding what your customer really needs to achieve their outcomes, and also understanding what your suppliers can bring to you. If you have a vested interest in what your customer’s trying to achieve, you can find it, or create it and this business does it really well on both counts.”
Jim’s proud to claim that 63% of revenue last year was from either exclusive products or those which have been fully developed in-house. He notes “there are products in the business continually supplied up to today, from partnerships from before I was born. You then become a custodian of those partnerships and relationships. It’s that blend and respect of continuity that makes this business really successful in what it does.”
Of course, it’s not smooth sailing. Some big contracts have been lost over time, which really hurt; particularly when it can ultimately affect the ability to employ certain people or teams. As all small business owners know, “having the economic climate move around you and having to make hard decisions, that’s never easy.”
Success in Jim’s life is determined by multiple parties. He has investors, and other people to whom he answers, who obviously measure success in terms of profitability, but also want a good sustainable business. Jim explains his own view; “Wellbeing and working in that principle of ‘doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you’ means success in my mind isn’t purely monetary. People who are truly content quite often are happy with less and so my measure is more of a fabric. It’s about getting lots of little things right, feeling good about it, and making sure that you’re not burning anybody or anything on the way through.”
Giving advice to someone starting up a new business is a tough one for Jim, “because good business is osmosis, you’ve got to find something that you enjoy and if you can, find something that you love. Stick with it, really it’s never always positive, but if you focus on anything long enough, and you become empathetic to your cause, you will achieve success.”
When asked to nominate who he respects, Jim says, “There are a number of people in my life I respect and have a great appreciation for what they do. My darling wife puts up with me no end. I’m an abstract human being, to say the least. I also often think of my parents, and the contribution they’ve made to me. Those important virtues they extolled which have been instilled into me, make me who I am today, and I get to pass them on to my kids, which is magic.”
Jim also has much admiration for the business’ former owners; “Wim Hartman really built this business to what it became. He was a turning point and had entrepreneurial spirit. John Herrington, who bought a majority stake, brought a lot of value to the business, and the most recent owners and business partners for more than a decade, Neill and Simon Wiston who I respect to no end.”
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The business has been aligned for some time with Stewart House, a nearby charity at Collaroy which works with children who aren’t as privileged as many others. Jim notes there are 300,000 teachers around Australia, who often want to do something even more special, so every week there are ad hoc requests which the business does its utmost to support.
On a more direct basis, Jim recounts that “once a month we provide a barbeque here at head office and the staff provide a gold coin donation. The company gives some additional funds as well, and the staff chooses the charities they would like to support. Recently, we had an ex-staff member who lost her premmie baby, so she asked us to support what they call ‘cuddle cots’ which is specifically used when you lose a baby. Our barbeque ended up contributing more than 50% of one of those cots. We try to be a good-hearted organisation.”
- “Maximise the moments, and the rest takes care of itself.”
- “It starts with a sense of belonging, safety, security and certainty.”
- “There’s no downside in going hard at it, and making sure you’re there to be counted, last man standing principle.”
At just 20, Jim Craddock left his family home and church behind, drove four hours to Sydney with no money, no job and no idea about his future. It was a tough start, but twenty years later, Jim has gone on to be the CEO of the most successful educational resource supplier in Australasia.