Melissa Sangster is the CEO of All Vehicle Accessories. In what is a largely male dominated space, Melissa has run a successful business for eighteen years. From her early life as part of a strict religious group, she has come long way to now being a ground breaking business leader. She is also a talented singer. Here she shares with us her story so far…
GETTING STARTED IN BUSINESS
Jo Corrigan: Tell us about your early career.
Melissa Sangster: I went to study teaching and found [the] first year I hated it. I went into applied science but halfway through I got a job in the field I wanted to with Beiersdorf. Somehow I got a title of Sports Medicine Marketing Manager. I hadn’t done any marketing but I had done a lot of sports history. I looked after football teams, like Carlton, Essendon and St Kilda.
JC: What led to the decision to buy the business?
MS: Dad had the business Tow Bar City which just sold tow bars, and wanted to sell. He wanted to sell it to my brother who worked in the business but he wasn’t interested. I was like “I’ll buy it, I’ll buy it!”. But I don’t think Dad wanted to sell it to his daughter. I finally talked him into it. I had saved a lot [in previous jobs]. We negotiated a fee and they left some vendor finance in there because no bank would touch me!
GROWING THE BUSINESS
JC: You have expanded the business quite a bit since then?
MS: I wanted to grow it. That’s the only way I could see that I could survive in it. Opportunities came up. I bought out a competitor who went into receivership which increased our brand to four wheel drive bull bars. Other business [opportunities] came up which brought on another area of accessories. Then I went to look at a friend’s business, [who] I thought he did tail gates. As it turned out [they] made big tankers and just a small part was the tail gates. An even smaller part was wheelchair lifts and his GM asked, “What do you think about the wheelchair accessory line? We’re selling that division”. That worked with us but I didn’t think I could afford it but as it turns out…
JC: Where there’s a will there’s a way?
JC: What about other influences?
MS: I’d never had any formal [business] training or education. All I knew is what I’d gleaned out of my Dad over the years. I met a girl training at the gym and she invited me to come to this business group which at the time was called YEO, Young Entrepreneurs Organisation. You had to meet a certain criteria and I did and I joined. It really changed my life and it changed the business’ life by giving me some education and training, and a support network that helped me grow the business even more.
CHALLENGES ALONG THE WAY
JC: Are there any particular challenges along the way that stand out?
MS: When I bought [the wheelchair accessory] company one of the big issues that I faced was they were a union based workshop and we don’t have that in our business. I’d done a lot of work on getting the culture at AVA the way I wanted it. Someone could come with a lot of skills but if they didn’t fit the culture, I didn’t want them there. I pretty much said there is no union in this shop. I had to see out their EBA’s which were under union rules and that was a challenge. Now that [the EBA’s] are finished they’ve come under our banner and fitted into our culture and that’s good. They’ve seen what give and take is. [During the transition] I earmarked the ones I wanted to bring across. I interviewed them a couple of times and let them interview me. I didn’t want them across if they didn’t want to be there. All came across and they’re still here, except one’s retired.
MUSIC AND FUTURE PLANS
JC: You also sing. Tell us about that.
MS: It’s always been a hobby. One of the things with the church was kids learned to play a musical instrument . After dinner on Sunday you sat around and we played the piano or whatever and sang. Mum’s got this natural harmony and my Dad can play the piano. In primary school I got a couple of lead roles in a play and sang. I did things like that over the years, [and played] in bands, all for fun. I’ve been privileged to play with some really great musicians who get paid to do it.
JC: What about singing professionally?
MS: I guess the answer is I never wanted to rely on it, as in to make a living out of it. When I do it, it’s just the most amazing feeling. What I get, the energy from the audience is just unbelievable. Ask [friends and they’ll] tell you I look the happiest I ever do when I sing. And maybe there’s a fear there of rejection.
JC: So where do you see yourself in ten years time?
MS: I think entrepreneurially we are constantly doing and looking [to see] what’s the next thing, but never probably that far ahead. I don’t think I will ever retire because I see retirement as retirement from life. I don’t think the idea of retirement is real…you know ‘when we retire we will…’. I actually live it right now. I have a great life. I take holidays when I can and I have a bucket list and I tick it off. I am just not prepared to wait for this elusive thing when I don’t do anything.
“I don’t think I will ever retire because I see retirement as retirement from life.”
~ Melissa Sangster ~