Charlotte and Kenyon Clarke run one of New Zealand’s largest and most successful residential property development companies. Du Val Group has not only expanded globally but also into a range of verticals and even a charitable foundation. As CEO, Charlotte leads and drives the strategy and vision of the company, the direction of business development and wider community engagement with oversight of each of the ever-growing number of business units. Charlotte shares with us the things that hold businesses back, the power of the leap of faith and the true meaning of life.
It’s easy to get caught up in the negative headlines these days. How do we hold onto that optimistic, entrepreneurial spark so that we can inspire the next generation?
I really think this needs to be done on an individual basis. If you’re a person who’s done well in whatever arena it is that you’re successful in, I believe that it’s your responsibility to make time for the next generation and to set an outstanding example. Educate and motivate them.
Teach them the things that make an amazing entrepreneur. Resilience, courage, strength, adaptability, hard work. Take opportunities when they come your way to speak up and help the next generation understand just how important they are and encourage them to be all in on themselves. They are our future.
Do you feel like there’s a certain weight on your shoulders, in terms of inspiring people who might not see it within their own parents but see what you have built?
It’s not something I really think about. When l look at Kenyon – he has a personality and he’s very engaging and exciting, I generally don’t think of myself as that person. I do like engaging with people on a business level, and when people come to me for whatever reason, it may be for mentoring or something else, I’m really happy to help them work through a challenge or offer them insight into the way I work.
Social media has its good and bad points, but it’s pretty cool if it can plant the seeds to break intergenerational poverty.
As adults, we’re funny creatures, and the older we get, the easier it is to get stuck in our ways. This is one of the reasons we’ve got quite a young team. I think the average age of our team is around 30, we’ve got a lot of young 20-something-year-olds. As a business, we definitely need people with experience, but we also need people whom we can train in a way that breaks the traditional mould of a property developer and goes against what everyone is doing. I often say it’s easier in a lot of ways to bring on someone who has the education and qualifications you need them to have but who hasn’t had the experience. That way you get to work with them and get them to be the very best.
Did you feel like you had to grow personally as you scaled the business?
Absolutely and I think most business owners would feel exactly the same way. As humans, we grow from our experiences. Our business has grown really rapidly within a relatively short timeframe, which means I’ve constantly learnt both professionally and personally. It’s easy for me to sit here today and reflect on the challenges we faced 5 years ago and say solving them was a walk in the park compared to some of the problems we deal with right now. But if we hadn’t gone through that growth journey, making the decisions we did; dealing with some of the complex business issues we have today, would be really tough.
In terms of that scale, growth and boom, was that something that you were really pushing?
I had no doubt that we would have a very big business. I’m married to a man who does everything big, and we work hand in hand which is why I knew we were going to make something big of whatever we turned our hand to.
When I look at what we’ve built, I’m truly inspired. The people involved, the problem our business is solving, and our effect on people’s lives is phenomenal and exciting.
Do I want Du Val to be bigger? Yes, because by scaling our business we can have a bigger impact. Housing availability and affordability are significant problems in New Zealand. For me, a key business driver is that we helping to solve this problem. Auckland needs 20,000 more homes, they need to be high-quality, affordable and in areas that are close to amenities and transport. We have a long way to go to fill this gap, and that’s just today which is why I’ll keep pushing.
Talking about the massive growth from five years ago to where we are today, I still remember the day I told myself to “Stop being so scared’. We had a really flat management structure at the time, and I had pretty much everybody reporting to me, I just knew that I couldn’t deal with having more people to manage. I sat there and I thought, ‘You’re actually just scared and that’s ridiculous. How are you ever going to grow? How are you ever going to do more?’
What was it that you were afraid of at that point?
Managing more people, the responsibility, the time I knew it would take, the fact I had a young family and everything that comes with that. I think this is what holds most people back.
So many of us will probably find ourselves on the edge of this leap of faith moment where we are either afraid to move or we just take the leap and go. Do you have any advice for that?
Just take the leap <she laughs>. Ask yourself why are you hesitating. What do you think is going to happen? For Kenyon and I we’ve been down and out. Kenyon lost his first business and went from being one of the most wealthy people in New Zealand to being amongst the poorest, losing absolutely everything. That’s how you get from there to there; continuously taking these leaps of faith and throwing yourself in. Just be brave and be courageous.
It seems like such extreme ends of the spectrum over a short period of time to go from being uber-wealthy and then nothing, and then building it back again. That seems like a rare thing. Does that give you a different appreciation for money and for risk?
I don’t think it’s about the money. For me, success is not necessarily measured by money. Even when Kenyon and I had nothing, I still felt successful, and I felt content, although that didn’t mean I wasn’t prepared to push forward and that I didn’t want to do more.
I definitely think that whatever you are doing at any given time, you should be appreciative of what you have because there are a lot of people who don’t have. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should sit back and think that it’s okay to stagnate. If you’re stagnating, you’re going backwards.
A lot of people talk about what drives them and often, it’s a cliche answer; I do it for my children, I do it for my family. When people ask what my driver is. Why do I do this? It’s genuinely a bit selfish, but my answer is that my life expectancy is 80 years, maybe 85, either way, it’s not very long. I grew up in a family that was super religious and believed in an afterlife. When I left the religion, I reviewed my own mortality and I remember thinking, ‘one day I’m actually going to die’. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t consider this to be a problem, but it does mean you’ve only got so many living years.
The first 20 years of your life are spent being a child, years of enjoyment that we should all be able to remember fondly. Then come the next 60 to 65 years. This isn’t a lot of time because, as we all know, when you become an adult, especially when you start having children, your life flies before your eyes.
My driving force is the fact that I have limited time to achieve all the things I want to do. I want to enjoy my children and their children, I want to travel, I want to grow the business and then I want to be able to lie on my deathbed, surrounded by my beautiful children and all of their families and everyone I love and be able to say to myself, ‘I’ve done everything. I couldn’t have fit more into this life. I haven’t wasted my time’. I want a feeling of satisfaction and to know that I did everything and now I can switch off the lights, close the curtains, the show’s over, and I did a good job. I’m done. I want to feel tired and ready to go.
It’s almost like describing it as being in a race with your own mortality, being in a race with yourself.
One hundred percent, it’s a race. We don’t want to race to death, but the fact of the matter is no one can stop time. Sometimes I really wish that time could stand still for an extra two hours of the day, just to do that little bit more that you need to get done. But it just keeps going no matter what you do. Time is the only thing you can’t control.
What are three mistakes that hold businesses back?
Firstly mistake is trying to do too much. Do only what you can do and try not to do all the nitty gritty stuff that someone else can do. That’s a real growth path thing because you can’t grow into the next level if you’re still doing all the stuff that you should be passing to the person at the level below you.
Secondly, thinking everyone in the company is there to support you. It’s the exact opposite, the higher up you get, the more of a support role you hold and that means working hard to make sure that your people feel good, the feel supported and looked after. Organisation charts that show the CEO at the top are all wrong. These need to be flipped 180 degrees so the CEO is at the bottom supporting their team.
The third one is delaying ripping off the Band-Aid. Just do the bloody job. If there’s something that you know needs to be done, don’t procrastinate because the job only gets harder and it won’t go away.
Number four, if I’m allowed another one, is not addressing a problem head-on and trying to sweep it under the carpet. I just heard this conversation in the office today, ‘Oh, the construction sites are just constantly complaining’. Or you get the other way around, ‘Oh, the office staff are constantly complaining,’ and I keep asking them, ‘Is it really a complaint though? Or is this actually a problem that needs to be resolved?’ It’s important to understand the difference between the two.
I’m always talking about being a problem finder, not just a problem solver. You should be looking for the problem. That’s the only way you grow, by finding the problem and resolving it.
In the same way that you take a strategic and pragmatic approach to business, you seem to take the same approach with your charitable foundation. There seem to be some key points of leverage.
I’ve actually just finished a review of the Foundation to look at the strategic direction and make sure we’re achieving what we set out to do. I’m a very structured, routine-like, strategic person. I like to know that our ducks are in a row. We always talk about things in our business being replicable because if it’s replicable, it’s well-ordered, and it means you’re efficient and productive.
I’m a boxer. By that, I mean that my natural inclination is to compartmentalise things. I get lots of people asking me how I manage so many different business units. Compartmentalising is how I do it. When one box is tidy, I can pack it up for a bit and get on with another box.
With so many different business units, a couple of years ago, I decided the best way to manage them all was to view each unit individually and approach each of them as if it was my only business. So I forget everything else for a few minutes and step aside to look at the one business unit and think about the things I would do to grow it, change it, make it better.
For the last couple of years, that’s what I’ve always done; gone back to each business unit to assess how things are looking right now and what we need to do to achieve success. Sometimes it might mean giving some direction to a manager, other times it might mean doing nothing or it could be that I have to roll up me sleeves and get amongst it myself. There are different levels of engagement depending on what the objective is.
What’s the meaning of life?
The meaning of life or the purpose in life is to do everything. I think you need to live a full and productive life and feel there’s nothing like a good day’s work done; feel the satisfaction at the end of the day.
I go to bed at night and I’ve left nothing on the table. I’ve done everything I could possibly fit into that day and anything I haven’t done goes into my calendar for the next day.