One of Australia’s longest-running family-owned steel distribution businesses, Queensland Steel & Sheet (QSS), has grown steadily for 36 years.1 Now led by Chief Executive Officer, Cecily McGuckin, the business has deftly adapted to a shifting operating landscape and market cycles.

That includes achieving sustainable business growth through a worldwide pandemic in a way that has positioned the business to take advantage of more favourable conditions in Australian manufacturing. Cecily explains that this is due to several factors.

The first is Cecily’s laser-like focus on customer service. She says that QSS’s strategic priorities stem from this, from transforming digital processes and customer communication. Cecily says that developing a customer-first mindset across the business also relies on the right cultural foundations.

The second is that as a second-generation family business, QSS has maintained an agile approach to managing and adapting to change. “Being a family business means we’re unique compared to our competitors, and instead of a corporate heaviness, we can be nimble,” Cecily says.

The third is that, at least for now, more manufacturers and their customers are “focused on purchasing from Australian made or Australian owned businesses, and we are seeing a lot of local support and demand is strong”.

One final factor that cannot be discounted is Cecily’s approach to managing through uncertainty and how she rallies support as a leader from both inside and outside the business. Ensuring the wellbeing of her people is a significant contributor.

Customer-first digital transformation 

Much like its customers in the manufacturing sector, QSS has stepped up its investment in technology to drive greater efficiencies and productivity, but more than anything else, it’s to improve the customer experience. Cecily says that reducing customer errors and increasing communication are two key objectives.

“Communication around logistics is essential to a good customer experience,” Cecily says. “With the support of our core IT system, we can notify customers along each point of the delivery cycle, from the moment we get an order through to dispatch and receipt. We are the only ones in the industry to do that”.

Another initiative QSS has introduced is the move away from manual, paper-based processes. Cecily says that the digitisation of workflows such as orders and inventory tracking has led to better data visibility across the business and connectivity between teams.

“We’ve just finished a two-year project to go paperless, and now that everything is online, my team have the information on hand to make very quick and better-informed decisions. But it’s not just information. The efficiencies and the time savings have been huge, and that directly affects the speed and accuracy with which we serve customers.”

Sustainability starts with people

Cecily says that although there’s a heightened focus currently on addressing environmental, social and workplace issues across the economy, sustainability has always been a crucial part of the way QSS operates. While this can take many forms, she says that creating a supportive culture is closer to the top of the priorities list.

According to Cecily, collaborative and empathetic leadership is now an expectation, and that respect, fair pay practices and seeing everyone as individuals, are vital. This aligns with the CommBank Research into the broader manufacturing sector, which shows the top sustainability initiatives relate to staff wellbeing and strong workplace culture, followed by reducing waste, packaging and use of energy and water.2

“For my team, we do monthly barbecues, birthday leave and provide flu shots if people want them,” Cecily says. “We invite everyone’s families in once a year so they can see where our team works and meet their colleagues. It helps us build an understanding of who they are as people and move away from a one-dimensional view. That helps us provide support where and when it’s needed”.

From an environmental standpoint, Cecily is conscious that as a business purchasing steel produced in energy-intensive furnaces, QSS must look at all possible initiatives to manage its impact.

“The first thing we did when moving into our new premises was replace all the lights with LED, installed solar on the roof, and went from steel to plastic strapping for recyclability and safety reasons,” Cecily says. “I am also watching the gradual development of emerging environmentally-friendly steel production methods, and we will be very interested in that once it arrives”. 

Building leadership and personal resilience

Cecily says that to navigate the challenges of leading the business through uncertainty and growth, it’s important to constantly evolve and learn. She says that it's crucial to have a support network in place, both inside and beyond the business.

“For me, one of the biggest things I always say about being a leader, or a female in any environment, is you've got to have your tribe,” Cecily says. “That could be people in your business, consultants, a mentor or a friend where each can give you a different perspective and support”.

“Without that support, women tend to go it alone, thinking I can be the best leader, the best mum, the best wife – I can do it all. But with competing demands and given the current environment, eventually you can’t, and you run the risk of burning out.”

“It's also really important to be your best cheerleader and give yourself time to acknowledge your achievements. I spend two days each year by myself to look back on what I have achieved, and it’s amazing when you take the time to reflect. It can really boost your confidence and break the cycle of imposter syndrome, which everyone has to some degree,” Cecily added.  

1 About us, https://qss.net.au/about-us/, accessed 31 May 2022

2 pg 18, Manufacturing Insights Report, March 2022