Perception management

12/11/2009 - 00:00


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Brent Stewart takes a scientific approach to his role with Synovate.

Perception management

BRENT Stewart shows none of the obvious traits of scientistic tendencies.

There’s no white lab coat or thick-rimmed spectacles and his hair isn’t abundantly bird’s nested or combed over. He lacks multiple pens in a top pocket.

His passion is reserved and doesn’t require a whiteboard for explanation.

Quite the contrary. Mr Stewart is a fashionably dressed, jet-setting, surfer who works at the very top of a global business in the glamorous world of marketing. He just acquired the title CEO strategic units to add to his existing position of CEO of global business planning.

On the side, Mr Stewart has cultivated tastes in wine and is reacquainting himself with the guitar.

These are not the attributes of the geek hovering over a microscope.

Nevertheless, it is the scientific side of Mr Stewart that is secretly calling the shots in a career during which he has turned one of Western Australia’s most successful market research firms into a national player, and then become a leading part of multinational Synovate, a subsidiary of UK-based communications business Aegis Group.

A graduate of the University of Western Australia, he started work in the early days of The Marketing Centre for Mike Smith, eventually running that company before he left to establish Market Equity in 1992.

“I saw a gap in the market for a really commercially orientated market research business,” Mr Stewart said of his decision to go it alone and venture away from consulting.

“A lot of market research firms were academically orientated.”

From there he built a national business that was taken over by Synovate in 2005 when Market Equity was absorbed into the multinational and Mr Stewart became its CEO for Australia and New Zealand.

Since then his role has become bigger and more global.

Mr Stewart admits he was considering his future, including a desire to spend more time in Perth with his family when a change in Synovate’s leadership led to an expanded role, overseeing eight of the company’s 11 geographic business markets, as the new management implements its strategy.

While he’s excited by the change, he realises it will be a short-to-medium-term appointment.

Mr Stewart admits his face may not be that well known around Perth these days after spending recent years focusing on markets outside of WA.

This means that, even when he’s in town he’ll often work from home, keeping strange hours that allow him to keep in touch with global centres as well as better interact with his family. He has four daughters under the age of 10, including a recent addition to the family a year ago.

“That is what happens when you are away too much,” he jokes.

Outside of work, the marketing executive enjoys surfing, especially in Sumatra and Bali, and is heavily involved in rugby, a game he learned at school and played at club level for Associates.

Mr Stewart has been on the board of Rugby WA for years and lays claim to making the presentation to the Australian Rugby Union that put the Western Force into the Super 14 competition.

He has also held positions on numerous other not-for-profit boards, such as national work rehabilitation provider WorkFocus Australia, Rottnest Island Foundation, the Pearling Industry Advisory Committee, Golden Eggs and its national equivalent Novo Foods, as well as Relationships Australia.

On the commercial side he chairs Maxim Litigation.

Mr Stewart said one of the best parts of running his own business, especially when the business was smaller and more intimate, was working with young people and watching them grow.

“I miss that from working here (in Perth). I am still mentoring people but they are senior people in CEO roles,” he said.

As influences on his business life, Mr Stewart cites his former boss, Mr Smith, as a mentor as well as the strong role of his peers in the Young Presidents Organisation.

Currently reading The Snowball about Warren Buffet, Mr Stewart also is a big fan of management texts by doyens such as Peter Drucker and Barry Posner. The latter guru has established an empirical measurement of leadership, with a system of performance measuring metrics that clearly appeals to Mr Stewart’s left-brain view of the world, and honed in the analytical side of the marketing sector.

“If you can focus on them (Posner’s metrics) and assess people on them and, more importantly, develop people, even if it’s just 50 per cent (of the process), that makes more sense than some pop culture,” he said.

Clearly this scientific approach to work has been a key to Mr Stewart’s success, initially in market research and then managing a growth business. For instance, Market Equity developed in-house management information systems that have been integrated into Synovate’s global operations.

“What I get a real kick out of the business is when you can genuinely get efficiency and effectiveness gains.”

“It is the science of management. It is something that is demonstrable; you can actually prove it, as scientific methods strive to.”


Has technology changed your industry since you started Market Equity?
Massively. It is still undergoing transformation. In our foundation business plan, one of the lofty objectives was a computer on every desk.

If I went around everyone's desks today and had to do their job I would be on Struggle Street.
What does the future hold?
I have a job to do here. It is about bedding down this new leadership team and helping to steer Synovate globally at a time when there is a lot of change going on in the industry.
Beyond that there will be a time when I will be keen to spend much more time at home and focus on applying some of that knowledge to local business in WA.
I have, I think, at least one more gig in me. I am a bit too young to hang up the boots yet. As much as I love fishing and surfing you can't do it all the time."

Has Perth changed while you've been focused elsewhere?
Yes it has. What I have witnessed is how much more dominant the resources sector has become.

I think Perth punches above its weight in business because of the lifestyle. People stay here who otherwise would be furthering their careers in major commercial centres."
What is your favourite place in WA?
Rottnest: it is a testament to good governance that they have retained the public equity element of Rotto. It has to retain that old-world charm.



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