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Lizzi Whaley talks growth, leaders & building bridges

When the owners of Spaceworks put their company up for sale, then-employee Lizzi put her hand up to buy it – nine years later she's grown the company into a $10 million business, specializing in commercial office, retail, hospitality and hotel fit-outs. Lizzi's energy and determination know no bounds - she is at the helm of seven businesses: MD of Spaceworks Design Group, MD of Pop Up Now, joint MD of Room by Room, MD of Shave Union, International Chairwoman of Halo and Metalier NZ and Chairwoman of charity Take Ten. 

At the Nurture Change Business Retreat, Lizzi will be speaking about how to grow fast and not lose control.

Q. Who is a leader that you learnt something incredibly valuable from and what was the lesson you learnt from them? 
A. I have a number of leaders that I have learned from and I think I take a nugget of goodness from them all. Two big leaders would be Vic Crone, who is currently running for Mayor, and Frances Valintine, a client and now friend. What an inspirational lady. She has taught me the importance of people and culture and understanding how their emotional IQ can affect your business. A rotten egg can tip the balance and poison a business but, on the flipside, if you can work inside or understand someone’s emotional IQ you can work with them and grow them. In watching Frances, founder of Tech Futures Lab, I am reminded as to the importance of passion. She is so passionate about what she does and she simply radiates it. She is one of those people you love to be around and watch and learn from simply because she loves what she does and believes in her core mission.

Q. What lesson in business do you try to pass on to others and what does it mean to you?
A. Be passionate about what you do – it resonates with your staff and makes them want to work hard and it resonates with your clients who see your passion and want to work with you. Like Frances, my passion is my key driver – it’s what gets me up in the morning. It’s the sole reason I work as hard as I do. I am so lucky to think of work as a pleasure. I enjoy it, I love the people I work with and the clients I have.


Q. Who do you think is a great innovator and why?
A. So many NZ companies are great innovators. I think it’s the number-eight-wire mentality, the muck-in-and-get-it-done ethos. As designers, we are privileged to get to see the backend of businesses: we ask what their growth strategies are, where they want to be and where they have come from. This information is important for us to know to design a space for them that achieves these goals. It’s often the smaller bootstrapped companies that have the most creative innovation, whether it be process or product. We all hear about the big companies but I’m super proud of our SME segment for their innovation.

Q. What has been your biggest learning in business to date and why? How has it affected you going forward?
A. I have learned lots, and I reckon most weeks there is something new that comes up. But my biggest would be about three years into business, some seven years ago. I learned two major things: 1. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, and 2.  Good relationships are the lifeblood of a successful business. Back then, we had a significant large retailer as a client and out of the blue they were put into voluntary administration, owing us a crippling amount of money – six figures, which, for a business of then-three staff, could ruin us. The first problem was that we were working on their sites almost 95% of the working week and all of a sudden we had very little work. Luckily we scrambled around and pulled in more projects but since then I have always said that no one client should be more than 10 percent of our monthly turnover. Secondly, if we did not have good relationships with our suppliers then we simply would not have survived. We were honest with them all about our situation and they enabled us to change our payment terms and leverage them to trade our way through it – which we did, thanks to them.

Q. If you were 21 years old again and could do any career you wanted, what would you be and why?
A. This is probably a boring answer but I would be doing exactly the same thing! I started my career late, opting to work prior to going to university – I wanted to be sure of my choice. My first job was in the creative field for a paint company Aalto Colour. Here I developed my passion for art design and colour, which naturally lead into interiors. Spaceworks is my second ever job – so I landed right where I needed to. If I was going to say something slightly more exciting, I would love to design bridges…

Q.  What are you most excited about in attending the Nurture Change Business Retreat in Fiji?   

A. The networking – I met the coolest people at the last Retreat, who I have since worked with. And everyone knows the best business and relationships are made over midnight cocktails! 

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