Co-founder and CEO, Jack Watts, shares his insights on building a business in his twenties, now at the ripe age of 31

Jack Watts, local chief executive at Bastion Collective, is one of Melbourne’s most successful CEOs under 40. He shares what it takes to make it to the top.

This piece was originally published in the Herald Sun’s article titled “How some of Melbourne’s most successful CEOs and entrepreneurs made it to the top” by Jeff Whalley on 9th September 2019.

“I was 22 with absolutely no idea what I was doing.”

This is the self-deprecating way Bastion Collective chief Jack Watts describes his job situation before joining his older brother Fergus’s small start-up business in South Melbourne 10 years ago.

Watts had been working as a currency trader when the global financial crisis hit, and Fergus was similarly at a loose end after a frustrating, injury-plagued end to an AFL career that had spanned St Kilda and Adelaide.

Fergus had started his own small business, a marketing and advisory company called Bastion in 2009. Watts joined the same year to kick off a sports sponsorship arm.

In the decade since, Bastion Collective has grown to be the largest independent communications agency in Australia, with 200 staff in Melbourne and Sydney and about 30 in the US, covering everything from sponsorship specialists, communications experts and reputation management to merchandising and creative content.

Clients include Microsoft, Deakin University, Australia Post and Ferrari.

Fergus is the executive chairman and Watts, 31, the chief. Executives include former Western Bulldogs chief Simon Garlick, with ex-AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou on the board.

Despite all this, Watts says there was no one moment when success seemed assured.

“There are lots of little moments along the way when you realise it’s working,” the father of one says.

“The first big deal you close, the first time you say the name of your business and the person has actually heard of it, the first staff member we hired, the 100th staff member we hired, the 200th.”

Like other Aussie business success stories, this is one that started with a migrant family. Parents Jim and Kay arrived from the UK in 1989, raising their family around Hampton and Sandringham.

Jim gained respect in the footy world during time as director, vice-president and chief of St Kilda Football Club, where he turned around the club’s financial position.

“Being new to Australia, Mum and Dad wanted us to get involved in everything. As such, our family motto is ‘have a go’,” Watts says. “It’s still the best advice I’ve ever been given.”

The two brothers and their father are shareholders in Bastion Collective, and Jim is also on the board.

The wisdom of elders has been crucial.

“Almost everyone I’ve managed has been older than me, sometimes much older and definitely a hell of a lot more experienced,” Watts says.

“While that can be challenging at times, it’s truly been a gift as I’ve learnt a lot more from them than they have from me.”

Watts says family again made a positive change to his life when he and wife Rosie welcomed daughter Iggy this year.

He says his solution to most problems over the years has been to work harder and longer.

“The business has reached a size where that solution doesn’t work anymore. We need to implement things at scale now and I can work as long as I want, but unless everyone is pulling in the same direction, it doesn’t make a difference.

“That can be hard to let go of, but thankfully that decision has been taken out of my hands now. My wife and I had our first child five months ago and my aim is to always be home by 6pm for bath time.

“Most days I go to work thinking that I’ve got a bit on today, it’s OK if I miss bath time tonight, but then I get to 5.30pm and think, ‘Is this email more important than spending an hour with my daughter?’ — no way. And so I very rarely miss.

“One of the great lessons for me over the past couple of years has been to prioritise time with my friends and family. I can work from anywhere at almost any time (depending on where the client is) so I’m determined not to miss the key moments that too easily go sailing by.”

Despite the size of the business, Watts says he’s determined to understand what makes his staff tick, despite initially doubting his abilities managing people.

“I still write every staff member a Christmas card. I started doing it when there were five people and now I write 200. It takes on average about five minutes a card so that’s 1000 minutes of writing cards in the lead-up to Christmas.”

~Jack is now based in Sydney with his wife and baby daughter, Iggy, and has swapped playing footy for surfing. You can read about Bastion’s new flagship Sydney office and the full breadth of expertise which can now all be found under one roof in Waterloo.~

Image courtesy of the Herald Sun.

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