From completing an engineering degree at La Trobe University to leading one of the world’s most successful boutique cosmetic brands, Michael O’Keeffe has always believed in crafting his own career path.
The Aesop CEO joined the company in 2003, and has since overseen its transformation from a local wholesaler to a global brand with more than 165 stand-alone stores worldwide.
While engineering and the skincare industry may seem like worlds apart, Michael credits his studies at La Trobe for encouraging him to seek out new solutions to old problems.
'I’ve always liked maths and problem-solving, and I think those skills can be used in any context,' he says. 'What La Trobe did is help me see the world a little bit differently and to solve problems in different contexts. So much about business is finding your difference.'
Michael says he was first attracted to a career at Aesop after seeing what set the brand apart from other companies he was considering joining.
'I was looking for an entrepreneurial opportunity and back then there was a lot of people setting up dot-com businesses, but to me they never really felt like ‘real’ businesses. But then I was introduced to Dennis Paphitis, the founder of Aesop, who was so passionate about his products, and I started using them and fell in love with them too. I thought, here’s a business that’s actually producing something real and tangible,' he says.
'Maybe it’s the engineering background, but I loved that there was research and development behind each of the products and there was real attention to detail.'
Since then Aesop has grown at a remarkable scale while remaining true to its roots. The key to achieving this, Michael says, is hiring people from all walks of life.
'We hire very few people from within the industry,' he says. 'We believe if you’ve worked your way through the industry over 10, 15 or 20 years, it’s going to be very difficult to come up with different ideas and solutions. So for us, it’s important to bring together people with different perspectives who can challenge the norms or the way we’ve done things previously, or the way the entire industry has done things.'
When speaking at a La Trobe alumni seminar late last year, Michael referred to Aesop as a '33-year-old start-up'. He says this is an important element of the company’s success, as it encourages everyone to continue testing new ideas and pushing boundaries.
'This start-up mentality shows at all levels of the company. From the store managers who I really want to feel empowered, to the national and country managers who are my entrepreneurs building the business in their respective countries.
'That ownership is a loose-tight relationship. There’s tightness around the consistency of our values around the world – some things we do the same everywhere in the world. But there’s also a looseness around giving our people the entrepreneurial space to develop the business as they see fit. Finding the balance between these two is the most important part.'
The future will see Aesop further develop its digital presence, with the aim of giving customers the same trademark experience online as they can find in-store. Michael's personal goal is to keep evolving. 'As we (Aesop) grow I want us to take even more risks, to get more creative, to work with really interesting partners and differentiate ourselves. We can’t decide to play it safe.'