When Wittner CEO Catherine Williamson set herself the goal of becoming CEO at 35, she wasn’t counting on giving birth to twin girls shortly after her 34th birthday.
Cat wears the Visita Paisley Moss Green Sandal by Wittner
Was becoming a CEO a goal of yours?
“ It makes sense that you have your leadership team which is reflective of those who you're trying to connect with and communicate with, then you hold a moment in their hearts. ”
Wittner was founded back in 1912, by HJ Wittner. And walking the Wittner way is a philosophy that has stayed with the brand from the beginning. So tell me, what does this philosophy mean to you?
You used to be a Wittner employee, so tell me, what are your earliest memories of Wittner?
When I look at a brand, I need to see more than product. And you have talked about purpose. So can you talk to me about the importance of storytelling?
This is so critical now, because what is expected from us as you’re saying, what is wanted by the community, is to make sure that the brand resonates on another level with you. And that might be about alignment of purpose, alignment of values, alignment of beliefs, but something more than the just an item of individual service. And I think now where we’re truly in a global market, you can get anything from anywhere and there’s brands everywhere, there’s brands popping up every second – what’s so important is to build that connection with the community, and to then make sure that you are showing up for them. And so I just think storytelling is such a wonderful opportunity.
Wittner has over 60 stores and over 400 staff, and we were just talking about how tricky that is right now, given lockdowns and restrictions. So tell me about the company culture you've created and what you have learned personally about hiring great staff?
According to recent studies, around 373 million plastic bottles end up as waste each year in Australia. And I'm sure many of us know this, but repeating it, it's just quite shocking. One of the things that you have implemented is Wittner's new sustainability initiative, a highly anticipated recycled range. So tell me about this initiative and why it has been so important to you, and I also want to talk about how you banned plastics within your stores and you now use recycled paper bags and recycled eco boxes, which is a huge move. So let's start with the new sustainability initiative.
The new range was the first step in an overall focus for us in sustainability. And as a business, we haven’t just communicated it and put it to our customer so that she could understand what we were focused on. This particular sustainability range and the utilisation of plastic came from the team. And that’s what I love the most, that it was this idea that popped up in one of the meetings. Everyone’s like, ‘ah, how does that fit in with what has been considered of the paradigms within the brand, and the frameworks, how does that fit?’ And as we unpacked it, it was even more exciting, and it was even more aligned to us as a brand us and our customer.
And that meant when we did launch it, that the customer responded very positively and it was so well-received. In the context of COVID and the lockdowns, everyone is even more focused on the overall planet and our influence, and how every choice we make has an impact. So it’s something that is really exciting.
As you mentioned, we then applied that thinking to different parts of our business. And we know it’s a journey, we absolutely acknowledge that, and we know we’ve got quite a way to go. But we were very, very pleased to then ban the plastic bags within the business, rollout recycled and certified, which I think is just worth everybody as a consumer getting your head around and doing a little bit of research. Just make sure when you’re reading things that it is certified, that it isn’t just a statement out there, that it is actually being ideally independently validated. So that’s the line that we took, definitely with all of our packaging. It doesn’t come from any sort of deforestation and it’s all recycled and certified.
Linking back to us as a business and our purpose, we believe that we are here to support our community, and what does that look like? And sustainability is a really critical element. And if you take that, then there’s little decisions that pop up like our cleaning company. We changed cleaning companies because we wanted a cleaning company that used eco products, and that recycled. So I think it’s wonderful that more and more, everyone accepts that everybody has to change a little bit. And if everyone did that, they’re overall better off.
You are the mother of twins. And as you just spoke about, you basically had your twins and then you got the big dream job, so it all happened at once. And a lot of people talk about the motherhood penalty, which refers to the decline in income and perceived competence and chance for career progression that comes after a working woman has children. So have you ever experienced the motherhood penalty?
Personally, no. But it’s worth unpacking that in terms of with my friends, and my cohort of people I knew, as I was one of the later ones to have my children. So I absolutely saw it.
And so when I was pregnant and I was asking, what’s some feedback from other mothers who had transitioned back into work? There was probably two things that came out pretty clear, one, it’s most often self-select out.
So it’s us choosing often to take a lower level role, or reduce hours, or take an extended period out from the workplace. And if that’s what you want to do, absolutely do it.
The second thing was I caught up for coffee with some ex colleagues who had come back into work, and had taken that path, and one said to me, ‘it was the biggest regret I’ve ever had. Because I was then at a level where I was working with colleagues who are single, who have no responsibilities of children at home, and who are showing up with extended hours, and have a capacity that they could take on board other projects.’ So her advice to me was, you go the opposite and you go up, try and put yourself in a position that you try and get basically a promotion. Because it’s a level of bureaucracy and understanding that the higher you get up, the more you can manage your diary, for instance, the more that you can have some flexibility in your hours and your time. And that was probably the biggest piece of advice.
So when I then transitioned back into the workforce, I actually had the biggest projects I’ve ever had in my career to date. And it was ‘okay, well, I’m going to just keep coming and keep showing up. I feel really uncomfortable. I’ve got to adjust my life. I literally have to drive home to jump on the breast pump. But we’re here. We’re here, and tomorrow’s another day.’ So I think that for me is the critical thing, knowing that often it is your self-selection, and then choosing which works for you because you have to answer to yourself.
How do you keep it all together? How do you do the job, and be a mother? What keeps you sane and keeps everything ticking over?
I like to say I don’t keep it all together. Earlier this year I spoke at a Women in Leadership event and they gave me a topic which was, How to Have it All, managing stress and anxiety, and I just laughed. I absolutely laughed. We laugh still about it in my house. When I showed up, I said to everybody, “Look, I’ve been assigned this topic. They’ve asked me to speak on it. I’m happy to do it. I’m coming here as a CEO, I’m responsible for 400 people’s lives, I take that. I’m a mum, my children are three and a half years old, they’re identical girls. I feel a weight of responsibility with that. But I have been burnt out once that I admit in my life, and a lot of other times that I’ve become exceptionally close.” And I suppose I share that and I talk to people openly about that because it’s a work in progress.