Damien Guivarra came from quite a unique and culturally diverse family, and he ascribes a lot of who he is to his parents and his upbringing. Damien developed a broad view of the world at a young age, became comfortable with change and like his father, is passionate about people and their dreams. It comes as little surprise that Damien is CEO at Silver Chef – a financial services company that embraces diversity and whose purpose is to help people achieve their dreams.
Damien’s purpose journey has allowed him to reflect on what drives him and SilverChef has given him a framework to express this. We sat down together to discuss how he has been able to lead a more fulfilling career and develop a business that is positively impacting people in the world.
- Learn how Silver Chef gave Damien a framework to express his own purpose and create impact.
- Discover why he identifies purpose-driven business as a key factor for success going forward.
- Hear how SilverChef creates support for its customers, staff and the hospitality community to achieve their dreams.
- Get Damien’s insights into how to lead and foster a culture that empowers people and progresses an organisation.
[Hatched] – Thanks for joining us Damien. To start off, where are you from?
My father got to university, played sport and partied then decided study wasn’t for him so he left, joined the army and went to Vietnam. He was a pilot in the army aviation so he was flying choppers or mainly fixed-wing aircraft on reconnaissance. So you know – flying over the treetops in Vietnam and what have you. He went on to have a twenty-five year long career in the army. So that’s why we kind of got looped in to traveling the globe from an early age.
There is this stereotype around ‘army families’ being quite strict. Was any of that true in your household?
Hmm. It’s interesting. In some ways, and I’m sure we’ll come to this, I ascribe a lot to my parents and I think I was raised in a really well-balanced, supportive and loving environment. I don’t think there was any language or framework you could put to how we were raised, but coming to Silver Chef, I kind of found my tribe and everything sort of makes sense.
A simple example would be ideas of diversity, inclusion and gender roles. My mother worked. She was a feminist. There were never any kinds of traditional gender roles in our household. So I never had this idea that females in any walk of life weren’t anything but equal. So coming into Silver Chef, you frame it as ‘diversity and inclusion’, it almost gives language to articulate what was naturally embedded in you as a person.
When you were a kid, did you particularly want to join the army? What did you want to be when you grew up?
I was never someone who had a clear view – that I wanted to be X when I grew up. Even in my career. I never said I wanted to be a CEO. I’ve probably always taken things as they come to a certain degree. I definitely didn’t want to join the army when I was a kid. I suppose, given Dad was in the army he played the traditional role as the disciplinarian. So as a teenager I probably pushed back against him a bit and the army never felt right because of that.
“Coming into Silver Chef, you frame it as ‘diversity and inclusion’, it almost gives language to articulate what was naturally embedded in you as a person.”
I took a while to work that out. I enjoyed school. I played sport. I probably didn’t apply myself too much academically. I left school and did 18 months of arts, majoring in psychology and thought that was interesting but couldn’t see a career in that. So I took six months off then came back and did marketing. I felt I had a bit of a creative side and liked business so I thought it would be a nice mix. That was probably about as sophisticated as my thinking got.
What kind of a learner were you? Did you enjoy the reading and writing of university, or do you prefer to learn by doing?
A bit of both. We were definitely a family of readers. So growing up, as a family we always had our heads in a book. Trolling through everything from good literature, to trashy sci-fi, to everything in between. So I liked books, but if I’m being honest, as a student I was lazy. I think I’m the type of person who applies myself to something I love or am passionate about as opposed to doing a degree for the sake of doing a degree. I think that goes to the Silver Chef story to some degree too. I think I’m here because it’s a passion and I believe in it. As opposed to it being a job that pays me an OK wage.
When we are at university we’re at an age when we are generally more idealistic – what were the big issues that bothered you back then?
I think I would articulate it this way – my university years were probably a bit of apathy really. I cared about things but I wasn’t the young activist getting up and doing much, but I think that because of the way I was brought up I cared for everything from the world and the environment, to an issue of my age group then which was poverty. I was the age group of Live Aid and Feed The World. It is kind of ironic considering what Silver Chef do with Opportunity International in getting people out of poverty. It is a huge part of what Silver Chef is about.
I think also for me, that is the ultimate gift I take away from Silver Chef – perhaps it woke me up to having true impact in the world. I think 12 years at Silver Chef and being aligned to purpose and values has made me a better person. It was all there but I needed a way, or a formula to express it. I wonder whether there are a lot of people like that. There are people who naturally do it, but there are probably a lot of people out there who have it in them but need to find that vehicle to express it.
What fills in the time between finishing university and coming to Silver Chef? What was the journey?
I started my working career in advertising in Brisbane before moving to Sydney for five or six years. After advertising I jumped across to a few client-side roles. The last place I worked in Sydney before moving back to Brisbane was at GraysOnline. I was the marketing manager there. That was actually a really fascinating experience as it was a real lesson in organisational culture.
They were in this massive transition. They were an old-school auction company and old-school auctioneers are what you think – blokey and full of testosterone. The old guy wasn’t doing his job unless he walked through the warehouse at least once a day swearing, calling people names and making someone cry. That was literally where it got to.
A new Managing Director had taken over and was transforming it from this old traditional auction house to this online e-commerce company. Trying to transfer the culture from shouting, swearing and drinking beers with your buddies to a modern organisation. The creaking and grinding and the effort it took to drag a culture such a far way was a real eye opener. It was fascinating.
That seems like quite an important experience you have had in your work life. Based on your experience, what are some bigger picture lessons or insights about where business is going?
I think it’s the obvious one – business is wrong in the world. The trust that people and communities have in business is at an all time low. You look at the Banking Royal Commission; look at BP spilling oil through the oceans… trust is at an all time low. I think you’re starting to see a shift now to impact investing. You’re starting to see people trying to cover their bases with CSR or ESG. That to me is a nice green parachute, but it is still bullshit. CSR essentially is a company ticking a box.
So, the true learning from this is that to be a successful business in the future, you will have to be purpose driven. Because that is going to be the baseline expectation of any citizen or person walking down the street. They are not going to do business with you if all you’re about is making profit or lining the pockets of shareholders. You’ve got to have a positive impact in the world. In five years purpose will be the norm. For us at Silver Chef, it’s about what comes after purpose because this will become a pretty crowded space. What is it? Is it impact? Is it meaning? The challenge from a business perspective is, how do we stay ahead of the curve?
“To be a successful business in the future, you will have to be purpose driven. Because that is going to be the baseline expectation of any citizen or person walking down the street.”
That is an interesting challenge. Like anything, purpose will become dated, even if it is a big differentiator right now. What do you think are the main challenges in the financial services industry?
For us, the challenge is being a B Corp and a publicly listed company. Trying to balance the two. That is a challenge because there is a journey we have to try and take on with our shareholders, the investment community and society. There is an assumption from large parts of the investment community that you have a choice. You either have purpose and you do good or you make good returns, and that is a tradeoff. We would argue that we will be a successful company because of purpose and doing good. It’s not a choice – one drives the other. So, there is a communication piece or communication journey we have got to take the market on, which is really interesting.
“We would argue that we will be a successful company because of purpose and doing good. It’s not a choice – one drives the other.”
The other challenge would be that as we grow, we hang on to our purpose, our values, our culture. That’s what makes this place tick. It is our competitive advantage. It is what allows us to have that positive impact, and scale is the enemy of that in many ways. Three-hundred people today versus three-thousand people in ten years time – how do you actually make three-thousand people feel like a village, a community and make sure we are all purpose and values aligned across multiple countries? That is one of the true challenges.
What is SilverChef’s purpose?
The greatest thing about the work we’ve done articulating our purpose with Hatched, is that you can go to any of our 350 staff across the globe they will tell you what our purpose is without a shred of doubt – to help people achieve their dreams. We’ve always loved the synergy of that purpose because it goes to our day-to-day business of helping hospitality businesses be successful and achieve their dreams; to helping our partners and our dealers drive more sales and grow their business and achieve their dreams; to our staff and giving them a wonderful, nurturing and supportive environment, and giving them the tools to go on and do wonderful things in their career. Or just to be happy doing what they are doing right now.
There is obviously then the application to what we do in the third world, helping Opportunity International lift people out of poverty and achieve their dreams. There is a wonderful synergy to our purpose across the whole spectrum.
How does that resonate with you and your individual purpose? If you had to articulate your individual purpose, what would that sound like?
I’m not very good at articulating my purpose, but I think it obviously goes back to my upbringing and my parents. It is something about helping people; seeing them grow and be successful, satisfied or happy. That’s part of who I am. So I think there is a nice tie into Silver Chef’s purpose about helping people achieve their dreams – it just connects with me and feels right (even though I’m horrible at articulating my own personal purpose).
When I started at SilverChef it felt like I’d found my tribe. Becoming a BCorp, you feel like you are finding your tribe. All of a sudden you’re talking, working and collaborating with like-minded people wanting to do the same thing in the world. I think that’s about having that positive impact but trying to do so in a way where we’re caring about everyone. As I said, that purpose is not just about making money to be successful. I also want our staff to be able to be wonderfully successful and achieve what they want to do along with our partners and our customers.
What do you think it was about your early life that made your personal purpose what it is today?
You’re raised in a certain way with certain values. That’s just who you are. But it’s not just a nice, neat framework where you can put yourself in that box. I suppose working at Silver Chef has kind of allowed me to not just articulate what that is, but has given me a way to express it. Our purpose journey has been a journey of discovery for myself as well.
I can look at the unique parts of my parents. Parts of their personality. Dad was a people person. He really had an affinity for developing young men and as he got older he coached boxing. All these young men were really drawn to him because he gave them time and coached them, but he also talked about life and helped them through problems. So that was a real learning for me that I have taken onboard.
I look at my Mum, and her nature of learning through books, but Mum was an activist in many ways too. She would tell stories of getting taken to dining-in nights in the army, and it being very traditional. But mum, being the feminist, would get into arguments with old, bearded generals about the role of women. I think Dad used to cringe in embarrassment and wouldn’t know where to go (chuckles). So you can kind of take bits from your parents and see how it fits.
“You’re raised in a certain way with certain values. That’s just who you are. But it’s not just a nice, neat framework where you can put yourself in that box. I suppose working at Silver Chef has kind of allowed me to not just articulate what that is, but has given me a way to express it. Our purpose journey has been a journey of discovery for myself as well.”
Yes the links there are quite subtle but also very clear. Are there moments at Silver Chef you have been particularly proud of at Silver Chef?
From a leadership perspective, you can’t help but look back at the people you’ve helped develop. I can think of people here who I was a ‘no’ at recruitment stage and they’ve gone on to do wonderful things. That’s always the thing that makes you smile – the ones that you had doubts about because they are the ones that have surprised you.
I think, and it doesn’t happen all the time, but when someone who has been here years leaves and they articulate to you that you’ve actually had an impact on them and you’ve helped them develop… those are probably the moments I’ve taken away with the most pride. Personal moments where I realise I’ve actually had an impact on someone.
Then I think there are a couple of particular moments, which I drew a lot of pride from. These weren’t necessarily things I worked on myself, but from an organisational perspective things like the Work Welcome Program. Actually stepping up and giving employment to refugees was just one of the coolest things we have done. There are some examples there of how purpose has helped Silver Chef have an impact on the people that work here and also on society more broadly.
Before you were talking about the decision that organisations often have to face around either being purposeful and having an impact, or making a profit. How, by discovering purpose, have you also been able to be more profitable as an organisation?
There are a couple of things. By being purposeful and being a BCorp you are better able to attract talent out in the marketplace. You’re out there chasing millennials who want a great career, want to be paid well and want to change the world at the same time. So you need to give them a vehicle to do those three things in unison. If you can do that you are going to win more talent in the marketplace. So purpose is the greatest attraction and retention tool you have got.
By being purpose-driven, by being a BCorp, we believe we have won more talent. That means we have got more productive, more engaged, more innovative staff. Happier staff, leads to happier customers. We have got an NPS of over 60, where the financial services average in Australia is 14, with the banks between -5 and plus 5. So 60 is an absolute outlier and that is because of the B Corp accreditation. Happier staff, happier customers, more engaged customers, more sales, more repeat sales, more profit and happier shareholders – a beautiful virtuous circle. So we can absolutely point that being a purpose-driven organisation leads to being a more profitable business.
That is coming from a macro view, but when you become a purpose and values driven organisation, the amount of discretionary effort you get from people also increases because they are showing up at work because they want to. They are not just coming to work and doing a job. The fact that every contract we write is helping someone out of poverty is a massive driver and engagement tool for people.
“By being purpose-driven, by being a BCorp, we believe we have won more talent. That means we have got more productive, more engaged, more innovative staff. Happier staff, leads to happier customers… we can absolutely point that being a purpose-driven organisation leads to being a more profitable business.”
You know, we had a horrible run in 2018. We closed a business down last year and that’s been the toughest thing we have ever done. But we got through that because we have got a strong culture and we are a purpose-driven organisation. I think that if we hadn’t had that we wouldn’t have gotten through that tough period. People want to stick this through cause they believe in it and see the potential.
How do you foster that sort of culture?
That’s a really fascinating question. We were lucky in a way, because Allan, the founder of the organisation built it on the back of purpose. Purpose was at the center of everything. That would be my preface.
Culture is this amorphous thing. I don’t think you can point to any one thing that drives it – it’s building blocks. So it is having a very clear and identifiable purpose that people can engage in; having your core values so you’ve got that framework and moral compass for people to act and make decisions with; and having the right environment – setting the tone from a leadership perspective, from the top. There is a whole raft of things that make up that culture.
But of course culture constantly evolves. So it’s not as if it’s a static ‘set and forget’. You are always working on it and you have got to recognise that it will always evolve… you just hope that it always remains strong. I’ve always thought that what you do for culture, what you do for people, always has to be pushed to keep improving and evolving. You’ve got to accept that you’ll never get it all right. You are always learning.
Sometimes leadership is the ultimate test of humility. You’re either admitting you don’t know something, asking for help, or saying sorry for doing the wrong thing. But what we say to people is that we know we don’t get it all right, we just hope we get it right more than we get it wrong – from a people and culture perspective.
“Leadership is the ultimate test of humility.”
Thinking ahead, what is it that you as a CEO want to leave behind for Silver Chef? I don’t want to use the word ‘legacy’, but what do you want to create?
In some ways, the answer is a kind of a business answer. You’re looking at where you get to in terms of growth, countries and profitability, which flows on to impact – pulling people out of poverty or whatever it is. The way I’ve always thought about it is, the company is bigger than any one person so you are the custodian for a time and you hope you leave it in a stronger place than when you got it. So you hope you have grown the organisation, grown profitability.
We haven’t just carried on with culture, we have improved strength in the culture and increased our impact. We don’t just help hospitality businesses through rent try buy, we have innovated and we do inKind. It’s amplifying. It’s multiplying. I could probably bore you for hours talking about where that would end up, but it’s hopefully leaving it in a better place than when we got it.
Thinking back to the Damien at university, is there anything you wish you were doing back then?
(Laughs). Yes, I would be lying if I said there wasn’t anything I wish I had already woken up to back then, but I think you’d be banging your head against a brick wall because your journey is your journey.