CA knows the power of a good brand story
Karina McLauchlan, an Australian CA based in the US, talks about her role as vice-president of finance for famed shoe firm Shoes of Prey and why she thrives on the power of a good brand story.
- Based in Santa Monica, Shoes of Prey is an online firm which allows customers to customise their shoe designs.
- CA Karina McLauchlan loves having a brand in which she can immerse herself.
- After an early career in professional services, she really feels at home in a finance role in retail.
By Carolyn Boyd.
For a girl who spends her life immersed in shoes, Karina McLauchlan is awfully fond of footy. Such a fan is she that on the day we meet, she is on a week-long trip back from the United States to watch her beloved Adelaide Crows take on Richmond in the AFL Grand Final.
The Crows might have suffered a 48-point mauling by the Tigers at the hallowed Melbourne Cricket Ground, but for down-to-earth McLauchlan, the painful loss is just another chapter in her lifelong fan journey. She thrives on the stories created by the Crows’ wins, losses and near-misses.
‘A brand girl’
And that loyalty typifies a choice she has made in her career. In her own words, she is “a brand girl”. She loves the stories behind the products. “I love getting behind a brand; wearing it, using it, talking to people about it.”
It wasn’t always that way. Like many in the finance field, McLauchlan started her career as a graduate accountant, walking straight out of university and into PwC. Nine years later, she stepped through the doors of iconic skincare brand Jurlique, started in her Adelaide hometown by a German biochemist and a botanist.
(Pictured: Karina McLauchlan CA)
She knew then she had found her driving passion. Professional services, with its billable hours, had been a good career starter. But the tangibility of a physical product, one you can pick up and whose smell you can breathe in, offered McLauchlan the chance to feel a part of the action. She dived in head-first.
She still gets “really excited” when her current firm, the famed shoe firm Shoes of Prey, launches a new product. “I think that’s the coolest thing ever,” she says. “I love to track: ‘How many did we sell yesterday? Where are we selling the most of them?’ I used to love seeing the creative that would come out for a new skincare range.”
"It was a nice little complement to the fact that my work can be quite dry. Let’s be honest, numbers are numbers, and you’re staring at a computer screen most of the day. So to be able to break it up with getting involved and engaged with the company’s direction; like the creative work, I love that.”
McLauchlan moved to Shoes of Prey at the beginning of 2017. It’s an online company that allows buyers to tweak their base shoe designs for a custom look and size. For someone who was more into clothes than shoes previously, she suddenly has a big collection.
“I started at the company, and six months later, I owned 26 pairs of Shoes of Prey shoes,” she laughs. “I just totally got behind what the brand is doing; they actually joke all the time about how I’ve grown their sales. But Shoes of Prey are really all about the customer experience. They want to people to live and breathe what their product is doing.”
For a company with such a big reputation, the staff size is relatively small. There’s just 25 in the head office in Santa Monica. It's a tight-knit group: when a key investor required the Sydney start-up to shift to the US, 22 of the 25 staff relocated with it.
It’s a very unique manufacturing environment, because we’re not making a thousand shoes in one run – we’re making one individual pair of shoes, then the next shoe is completely different
Santa Monica, a coastal satellite of Los Angeles, was chosen for its climate and culture. “It’s got a bit of hustle and bustle, it’s got almost like a little CBD area, and it’s got beach and suburban area, beautiful restaurants; it’s a really nice place,” says McLauchlan.
With her experience on the executive team of a fast-growing startup, you might think McLauchlan’s trajectory is pointing towards general management. But she’s not so sure about that. A stint as an interim general manager at Jurlique “definitely highlighted to me that my passion is with numbers” she says.
Likening management to a baseball game, she says “the GM is the pitcher, I’m the catcher, and I’m there supporting her every move”.
At Jurlique, the global production base was in Adelaide, but Shoes of Prey manufactures in a regional city in China. That throws up a new challenge for McLauchlan, who has a team of five based in Asia, including one direct report.
“It’s a very unique manufacturing environment, because we’re not making a thousand shoes in one run – we’re making one individual pair of shoes, then the next shoe is completely different,” she points out. “It’s actually really hard for them to do the accounting for this non-traditional manufacturing process.”
The two countries are in completely opposite time zones – McLauchlan leaves her Santa Monica office just as her Chinese counterparts walk into theirs. And there are barriers beyond different languages, including culture, nuances of communicating and different accounting training.
“It’s definitely been challenging,” says McLauchlan, who has visited China twice since taking on the role. “I can’t speak a lick of Chinese, so I have to remember that these guys are meeting me on my side of the table, and that if their communication is slightly confusing, I’m the one who has to bend. I’m the one who actually has to find ways to meet them halfway.
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“I find a lot of it [comes down to] good writing; I have to be very careful how I set things out so that I’m making it easy for them to give me an answer in the language that is not the language they’re comfortable speaking.” The number one priority for McLauchlan is expanding her senior finance managers’ understanding of the business world outside of China.
McLauchlan doesn’t regret her nine years spent in various accountancy firms at the beginning of her career, including PwC and Adelaide second-tier firm Edwards Marshall (now known as Nexia Edwards Marshall), where she worked as the company accountant.
“What I got from Edwards Marshall, out in the real world, that has just been so valuable,” she says. “I probably went to them at a time where I was the most sponge-like, absorbing information. Doing four-and-a-half years there under 12 partners … I think that was probably the most technical education. It’s been incredibly valuable. I can tell that some of the work that I produce has a very strong CA professional services kind of theme to it, and layout to it, and structure.”
Opportunity to move
McLauchlan loves to grab hold of an opportunity, which is how she ended up moving to the US seven years ago. It all started with a desire to enjoy Halloween US-style. “It was really random,” she says. “I had a brother and some cousins over and I’d always wanted to go to celebrate Halloween in the States,” she says. “So I planned this three-week trip.”
At the time, Jurlique’s headquarters were moving from New York to Sydney, and the US office was shifting from New York to LA, to be in a time zone closer to Australia’s.
“I happened to have my vacation over that exact period where they closed New York and opened LA, and my boss said: ‘Would you mind spending some time in both New York and LA? Go to New York first, help them close up, and then go to LA after and help them open’. So while I was there, they were recruiting for the finance manager, and I went to the president and said: ‘Would you have me?’”
Initially McLauchlan gave America two years. “I started playing American sport, and building a life, meeting people. I started thinking, ‘I don’t know, I actually really like it here. I’ll just do one more year’,” she says. “And then one day I woke up and went, ‘This is my seventh year here’. “It amazes me how long I’ve been away. I left in my early thirties; now I’m in my late thirties ... Wow! How did that happen?”
And while McLauchlan has remained staunchly Australian on foreign soil – professing a soft spot for Crows forward Eddie Betts and getting up in the middle of the night to watch her beloved Adelaide Football Club compete – she has embraced American culture. She plays softball and American touch football, along with Australian touch football.
And once again, that devotion has made an impact. “That’s been a big part of why I stayed in the States,” She says. “Because I met people that way, and I had commitments.”
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Carolyn Boyd is an Adelaide-based journalist.