When Sharon Dawson took on her father’s radio business she knew little about the industry.
Eight years on, together with GM Simon Green, the shackles are gone and they’re taking Icom New Zealand to new heights.
Her dad would be chuffed.
It’s rare to find a woman calling the shots in the traditionally male-dominated radio communications industry – let alone one with a career path as diverse as Icom New Zealand’s managing director Sharon Dawson.
Aged 18, the first stop on her ‘OE’ was Australia. It proved to be a 20-year stopover.
Sharon’s CV is an interesting read: teaching ballroom dancing, psychiatric nursing, and working Australia-wide for Australian Customs – which included taking part in police raids.
It all sounds very daring, but the one common denominator from all those careers, she believes, was learning how to manage and understand people.
Those skills, along with her psychology degree, would prove useful when her parents asked her to come back to New Zealand to care for her ailing grandfather.
A family and children came next in her life’s journey, but stuck-at-home Sharon was soon, not surprisingly, battling boredom.
She asked her dad, Dave Dawson, for a job.
A mechanic and enthusiastic amateur radio hobbyist, Dave had purchased a radio business in the 1970s – turning his hobby into an income. He later travelled to Japan with a friend where he discovered Icom’s stand-out marine radios, bringing back ten thousand units – considered a huge number at the time considering the size of the New Zealand market. He then gave up importing Kenwood radios and switched to Icom.
A previous bad experience employing a family member at first made him reluctant to employ Sharon, but with just two staff he was in need of an extra pair of hands in his family-owned import and distribution business.
Sharon found herself “out the back” putting stickers on boxes one day a month. Over time that commitment grew to a couple of mornings a week.
When her father passed away from cancer in 2002 Sharon began coming into work more often, until she had gained experience in every position, except accounts.
“I had a sound encyclopedia in my head of what goes with what and how the business functioned,” recalls Sharon. She was also fast developing a passion for the industry.
Five years later she decided she had enough knowledge to buy the business off her mother.
“After dad’s death a professional manager from Wellington was contracted by mum to keep an eye on business progress under the two remaining staff, who, to encourage continuity, had been gifted five percent of the company each,” explains Sharon. “The same manager kept in touch during my early days [in charge], but a lot of what he said didn’t make sense to me. I had a firm idea of how I wanted the business to develop.
“I bought Icom New Zealand just before the GFC and times were terrifying. I thought ‘holy s…t! What have I got myself into?’
“I struggled to deal with the fallout and uncertainty in the marketplace. Luckily I had a good accountant and lawyer,” she says.
It was time to throw off some shackles.
Several tough decisions followed, including saying goodbye to a long-term staff member who was struggling to accept the change in leadership and direction.
“Her vast knowledge was so valuable,” says Sharon, “but I learned no-one is irreplaceable.
“With new technology being constantly released, I realised we were moving from a box-selling company to a solutions provider. We’re mostly about supporting local dealers to make more sales, not so much the end user,” she says, although Icom New Zealand does sell direct to amateur radio users, who make up around 12 percent of overall turnover.
Sharon knew she didn’t have the right balance of staff to provide the technical solutions clients were demanding. So the decision was made to expand and increase her education simultaneously.
Sharon’s desire to return to full-time education to complete a degree in arts, event management and sales, and the arrival of English-born Simon Green in New Zealand, coincided to create a special partnership that would help Icom New Zealand find another gear.
Simon was just the general manager Sharon had been looking for, and three-and-a-half years ago they were put in touch following “a conversation with a friend of a friend of a friend” – as Simon puts it.
Simon had been a dealer in the UK’s radio industry, and was familiar with the Japanese-made Icom radios as well as the emerging digital technologies. His wife had been offered a job in New Zealand’s charity sector at the same time as Simon had received an offer to go to Botswana.
Needless to say, moving ‘down under’ was a no-brainer.
Simon recalls the challenges he initially had with New Zealand recruitment consultants reluctant to accept that his skills, and the skills of most expat Brits, were transferable to other industries.
That surprised him.
Fortunately one of those consultants was a friend of Sharon’s sister, who knew Sharon was looking to go back to Uni and wanted to bring in a manager.
Two Skype interviews between Sharon and Simon followed (Sharon was in Japan for the second) – and it wasn’t until the third interview that they finally met face to face. Fortunately they’d both already pretty much decided that they could get on well together in the business.
It was a case of the right person in the right place at the right time. Simon got the job, and in an industry he loved.
Six months on, Sharon was able to step back from the business and work part-time, while taking up full-time study.
A couple of years later, aged 55, she got her degree.
With her event management qualification came the managerial skills Sharon had been lacking – such as time management, team building, understanding how to read business financials, and working to a budget.
But any thoughts of backing off from the business were forgotten from November 2015, when Simon, having helped rev up the business, asked her to increase her hours – albeit it primarily from home.
“Prior to my arrival, Icom had quite limited experience in systems and more complex radio solutions,” explains Simon. “So with me on board it opened up a whole new business sector, allowing us to compete [in the market] on a more
In short, business was, and still is, booming.
Simon admits to treating the business like his own. He believes just working for a salary provides little job satisfaction. It’s an attitude he’s taken to all his previous roles and is a legacy from pre-GFC days when he ran his own property development and property management business.
It’s an attitude that gave Sharon the confidence to hand over the reins.
The results speak for themselves. Staff numbers have increased to nine. They’ve moved to bigger premises close to Auckland Airport, and upped stock levels.
“Order it today and we’ll have it to you tomorrow,” says Sharon.
Turnover continues to accelerate. “Four of our biggest ever months have been in the past two and a half years,” says Simon.
“Sales are up 31 percent on gross turnover over the past three years, which is bucking the industry trend, and growth is all happening in the higher tier of the industry.
“But we’re still a Kiwi-owned family business with the backing of a global radio company. And we’re being taken seriously at the top tier of the industry.”
Winning a radio network project in the home city of one of Icom’s major competitors was particularly satisfying. And at the beginning of 2016, the company rolled out the world’s first Icom dPMR (digital private mobile radio) network in Auckland, which has since been expanded to cover four sites.
Much of the company’s success comes down to the partnership between Sharon and Simon.
“It’s probably the mix of Sharon’s amazing knowledge of the Icom range and how it fits in the radio industry and market and my technical and management background being able to support that,” says Simon. “There’s a huge amount of trust between us and that, added to Sharon’s willingness to invest in Icom’s growth, has proven particularly successful.”
Have there been disagreements? There was one time when Sharon wanted images of radios on the company vehicles, but Simon insisted Icom New Zealand is
about more than just radios, and that would be
Simon 1; Sharon 0 – but she could see where “the boss” was coming from!
“Having Simon happy in the manager’s seat is the most important thing to me anyway,” she says.
In a market that has traditionally been dominated by one or two ‘Goliaths’, the two see themselves as ‘Davids’, putting their entire focus on the end customer.
That’s a lesson for all business owners, says Simon.
“Both Sharon and I pride ourselves on our integrity. Big business tend to expect their customers to fit in with them, even to the point of trying to tell them what they can and can’t do with their products.
“Icom works completely the other way round. We want to support our customers and work with them to be successful. Also, your customers need a reason to want to work with you – so look to your point of difference and shout about it.
“There’s no point in having a USP if nobody knows it,” he says.
Simon has also been working hard to change the perception of Icom New Zealand as a small player. Brand awareness has been a priority. In 2016 he created a marketing department to focus on building the brand. Not long after he started, he convinced Sharon to introduce a five-year warranty on their radios – another USP that’s helping build market share.
Needless to say Sharon’s rapt about the company’s progress and is happy to credit Simon with it.
“It’s not that I didn’t always have big thoughts, because I have the confidence” she says. “But Simon was more than capable of delivering on them.”
Moving to provide total systems solutions has been another priority. Technology is constantly advancing. “It’s no longer just about radios,” Simon explains. “Today we have Wi-fi radios. The new LTE (Long Term Evolution) systems are a mixture of 3G, 4G, wireless and two-way radio.”
It’s a rapidly evolving industry, he says, largely driven by IT.
“However, radio is still the best medium for solid, group communication that’s not dependent on third-party power supplies. So if a firm’s IT system goes down, it doesn’t lose its comms network.
“Radio is still the most reliable medium for mission-critical applications. After the Kaikoura earthquake, the only communications network still functioning in the township was an Icom network we’d installed for Whale Watch.”
In good hands
Thirty years is an impressive track record for any business, but in 2017 things have never looked better for Icom New Zealand.
Sharon’s passion for the industry has grown with each passing year. She’s now the ‘licensed radio amateur’ in the building, has her dad’s call-sign, interacts with amateur radio enthusiasts, and is the face of Icom at conferences.
She’s grateful for the visibility Simon has introduced to Icom, along with KPI requirements and sound financial reporting.
“No more having to wait three months biting my nails to see if we’ve been profitable. That’s how it used to be.”
She’s also grateful for how he’s managed the culture change required to take the company that was in its comfort-zone, just ticking over, to one that has much higher expectations.
Some people thrive on change, others push back, he says – which is why they let go two employees with a combined 30 years of knowledge, and found replacements more suited to where the business was heading.
“Put high expectations in place and get all your people to believe that they can achieve them, and suddenly you’re a much better organisation – where everybody wants to achieve and are driving to make that happen.”
Focusing on their dealers and asking what Icom New Zealand can do to help them grow has also been a critical part of the new strategy, adds Sharon. “When they grow, we grow. It’s a natural progression.”
So what would her dad think of the business today?
“He’d be really excited,” says Sharon. “He was an excellent businessman, and really technically minded. Before he passed away he said to me he wished he had the time to get the business to where he wanted it to be.
“I feel we’re now heading in the right direction; we’re getting the business to where he imagined it could be.”
“We want to continue to expand our radio network and develop our technical skills in that area,” adds Simon. “Longer term, we’re looking for opportunities for complementary technology that can utilise our knowledge and skills base to grow the company.”
The business is indeed in good hands.