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Andrew Rowe - Reflections on Founding and Running a Small Business

Andrew Rowe

Today I sat down with Andrew Rowe, Founder and CEO of Sustineo, to explore what motivated him to found the firm, how it has evolved over time, and the challenges and successes he faced along the way.

What was the vision that led you to found Sustineo?

In the decade prior to 2010, the year Sustineo was founded, the Australian international development assistance sector was characterised by the gradual acquisition and disappearance of SMEs helping to deliver Australia’s aid program.  A small group of very large multi-national engineering professional service firms dominated the market.  However, many in the sector, including clients, thought this represented a loss of firms that were really driven and committed to reducing poverty in our region. 

After experiencing the clear misalignment of organisational culture and a weaker commitment to development ideals and goals these large firms demonstrated, I thought there was an opportunity to establish a firm with values and aims consistent with those that drove the individuals who spend their lives working in development assistance.  For example, ethical business practices, making sure shared value, and spending our professional endeavours on improving our societies and communities.

How would you describe the company culture? How is that culture evolving?

Good question!  It is a great personal reward when I hear people describe Sustineo and our team in terms of their integrity, commitment, and passion for what they do.  Our culture is built around these characteristics, along with a spirit of true collaboration and team work.  We have quite an ‘intellectual’ culture, with lots of debate and ideas bouncing around!  But we also like to enjoy our day and workplace relationships – the occasional Mario Kart session in the Board Room, and regular World Cup Soccer sweep are evidence!

The culture is evolving as the firm grows and takes on bigger and more complex projects.  We are becoming more disciplined and methodical with our internal processes and procedures, reflecting our commitment to quality service delivery and recent certification against the ISO9001:2015 Quality Management Standard.

What has been your biggest challenge so far? Professionally? Personally?

Hmmm…there have been many!  Sometimes the personal and professional challenges overlap, and starting a business with the ambitious vision we had for Sustineo takes considerable personal commitment and a high appetite for risk. 

What has been your biggest success to date?

Easy – the current team is the best Sustineo has ever been!  To the extent that I can claim responsibility for bringing them together, that is my biggest success. 

What do you think are the most important qualities of a good CEO?

I’ve recently read ‘The Mind of the Leader’ by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter.  Rasmus is part of a global movement bringing the benefits of mindfulness into leadership and the workplace, and his belief is that leaders must be humans first – to be mindful, selfless, and compassionate.  By doing this, they can build the qualities that enable engagement, fulfilment, and meaning. 

This is absolutely true, and is the basis of being genuine, showing integrity, and generating commitment.  All else follows from these qualities.

Perhaps a close second is the ability to communicate clearly and with influence; to clearly see and understand a vision for where the organisation can go, and crafting a compelling narrative around that vision.

Oh, and not being an arse.

What is the future of Sustineo? Where do you go from here?

The future of Sustineo is more and more in the hands of the committed and talented team we have right now.  But I believe that one thing is almost certain – Sustineo will increasingly stand out for the extraordinary level of rigour and quality that characterises our work.  As the firm grows and takes on larger and more complex projects, this quality will be a consistent theme in contrast to our competition.  

For me, after 8-years as CEO/MD, perhaps the day will soon come to hand over the reins to another…

Do you have any advice for others who might be thinking of starting their own business?

Plan lots.  Be bold.  Ask for advice, listen carefully, then make your own decision and own it.

You will strive, fall, rise, lose, win, struggle, question your choices. 

But you will learn and grow as you have never known before.  Never forget the words of the bullfighter Domino Ortega translated by Robert Graves:

Bullfight critics ranked in rows

Crowd the enormous Plaza full

But only one is there who knows

And he’s the one who fights the bull.

Parting thoughts?

Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast!

Further information

Next week I sit down with Kyle Thoms, Sustineo's Executive Manager of Business Management. Follow us on LinkedInTwitter and Facebook for more posts like this!