Complete Office Supplies is Australia's largest family-owned and operated office products supplier. Recently appointed as co-CEO with her sister Amie, Belinda Lyone of Complete Office Supplies – or COS – spoke to us about their family’s succession journey as her father Dominique recently stepped away from day-to-day involvement.

This is Belinda’s story.

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For us our journey started when Amie joined Family Business Australia (FBA), then I also joined, and we started attending FBA events. We didn’t really know or understand that a plan would be required, and that there are so many elements to getting ready for succession. So that FBA exposure is what began the conversation that these things need planning.

Planning for a smooth transition

We needed a process that considered all the decisions that needed to be made in order to successfully make the transition smooth for everybody – for the family, for the company and staff.

I think Dad was observing us in our roles in the business, and we were passing a series of tests over many years and he was watching two things: firstly “are they capable”, and secondly “are they interested”. Capability-wise this just became more obvious over time, we got more and more experience, COS got bigger, and Amie and I got better and stronger.

I think the final test was when we bought Lyreco (a competitor business acquired by COS in 2018). Other than being involved in the negotiation, Dom was not involved at all in the integration of that business into COS. Amie and I personally led that project, and that was the final test that being joint leaders could work. Dom said “Okay. You have convinced me. Joint-CEO’s it is. Now let’s get some outside help”.

Engaging expert advice

We engaged Grant Thornton, developed a plan, started implementing the plan, and introduced board meetings which we never had before. We had a map of all the things we had to do, and you helped us out with things we’d never thought of before.

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The FREEDOM framework really helped us to understand what we don’t know, and which questions to ask. Some of those questions are uncomfortable to ask. There is a lot of respect around parent/child relationships and there is this feeling of needing to ask for permission in some cases, so we were initially watching our boundaries. But from a business sense, when it’s time for a generational transition, we have to ask some pretty uncomfortable questions and say some really uncomfortable things – the framework gives that permission.

Bringing our people along

Involving our executive team was also important. Once the transition plan became more “official” they were asking some really interesting questions that we still had not thought of. The smallest of details, and huge things as well. In particular for us, the executive has been together for 15 years and we haven’t had a new person during this time – it’s a very stable group.  With our father stepping into the Chairman role, and reducing his day-to-day involvement, it’s been very emotional. There’s a grieving process – they are grieving losing their time with Dom but they are also excited to move forward and some of them see it as their duty to him to support Amie and I to be successful. 

Playing, and defining, our roles

Being co-CEOs comes with its own unique challenges. Amie has been very diligent in writing down what we have agreed and how we will operate as co-CEOs, such as when we do consult each other, and when we don’t need to consult each other. Dom also has a clear role as Chairman. This is all shared with the executive team.

"I think creating and implementing our transition plan has helped us to become very clear on our vision and direction for the business, and it has made internal decision-making easier. We know where we are going and it has also really helped the rest of our business understand that post-Dom the business is going to continue. There is so much comfort in that; that Amie and I are taking over, there is no worry about selling the business to a third party, we can all just get on with it without feeling insecure. The planning has been good for our customers too; it shows that we are steady, we have planned this. It’s a long term business view as much as a succession view.

In creating a transition plan I think the most important thing is for everyone to realise that it is not a single conversation, it is many conversations, and you to have create the space where you just talk about the transition plan, and it has to be “we are here every Wednesday, or we are here once a month” and make it a regular ongoing discussion."

Belinda Lyone, co-CEO at Complete Office Supplies

For more information, please contact:

Robert is a family enterprise and succession planning specialist who is a fully accredited Specialist Advisor Member of Family Business Australia, the peak body representing family business and their advisors in Australia. Robert is a regular speaker on family enterprises and SME-related issues, and has been frequently interviewed for publications including the Australian Financial Review, Business Review Weekly, and The Australian.

Robert Powell

Robert Powell