Seeing the Signs: Leo Coates
When Leo Coates took over as CEO at Coates Group, the Australian company was still a traditional signage maker. Today, it is a digital innovator with a global footprint.
When McDonald’s first entered the Australian market back in 1971, Leo Coates’s father had never heard of the fast food giant. "I remember my dad first learning about the ‘hamburger company from America’" Leo recalls.
The following year, McDonald’s became a client of Leo’s dad’s business, which at the time was a specialist in signage for retailers and restaurants.
Today, Coates Group counts the restaurant chain as one of its major clients, and was recently named its sole global supplier of content management systems for its digital menu boards. The company is also one of two global suppliers of hardware for the menu boards, both indoors and in the drive-thru.
In the time between winning the first McDonald’s contract and achieving this latest milestone, Coates has gone from a traditional signage business focused on the Australian market to a digital-first business with a global footprint – a transition that Leo has helped to bring to life since he became CEO.
We have to cultivate a truly people-centric culture.
The effort has not been without its challenges. "We faced adversity in transitioning from a traditional to a digital business, and from an Australian to a global business," Leo reveals.
But Leo never lost faith in his team’s abilities and passion, and he remained confident that these would lead to success. "We never let that stop us because we knew how well we understood the industry and the value we could provide. We believed in ourselves and persevered, which is why our presence in the US and around the world is something we’re so proud of.
"The consistent challenge has always been the perception of Coates as the underdog, which quite frankly is a challenge that I turn into an opportunity," he adds. "I love the notion of the David and Goliath battle, taking on large scale opportunities and delivering on them."
Belief in digital
Coates Group enjoyed healthy growth throughout the 1970s and the 1980s. In addition to McDonald’s, the company worked with Australian retail giant Woolworths and other clients in the quick service restaurant business.
Leo joined the family firm in 2004, when he was 19. "I was at university and quite frankly as a teenager I wasn’t overly interested in being involved in the family business," he says. "But then my father got sick – and that gave me a new perspective on joining the business. So I thought, you know what, I’ll go in and help out and learn the ropes."
It wasn’t always an easy task to get people to believe that we were going to go digital.
Leo turned out to be extremely passionate about the business, so much so that after finishing university he joined the business full time. Then in 2008, Leo bought the company with a plan to help it evolve to the next level.
"The vision was very much taking Coates from a traditional signage business to a global digital experience company. I think the writing was on the wall when we saw the market shifting and pivoting from traditional to digital, and we wanted to get ahead of that."
Since Leo took on the role of CEO, Coates’s presence has grown to nine global offices supporting over 50 markets around the world. "We’ll have almost 500 employees next year, and we’re lucky to work with some of the world’s leading brands," Leo explains.
To reach that point, Leo knew he would have to bring in some of the best possible talent. "The first priority when I took over was to bring in more horsepower – people I could trust, who would understand the vision and ultimately help the company grow," he continues. "It wasn’t always an easy task to get people to believe that we were going to go digital."
"But we knew that the vision was to go digital for our future," he adds. "So we went to work building a talented digital hardware design team as well as a strong group of software engineers to develop our proprietary content management system, Switchboard™."
Another top priority was to set up a global supply chain to enable Coates to fully leverage opportunities in the Asia–Pacific region as well as the European and US markets.
"The risk was if we didn’t become a global partner and provider, we would lose out on opportunities for growth with our customers.," Leo admits. "So there was a strong focus on going from being this very proud Australian company to being a proud Australian company with a global reach and representation across multiple markets."
On a mission
Looking ahead, Leo has no intention of slowing down as he continues to guide Coates Group on its transformational journey. "The next three years will also be a time of great evolution for us – a period that will be pivotal in our growth," he notes.
Now that Coates has reached a larger size and scale, he aims to capitalise on the momentum the company has created. The company’s software licence subscriptions, for example, have more than doubled in the past two years. In the next three years, Leo expects those subscriptions to grow by another 300 per cent.
As the company pursues further growth, people will once again be a key focus area for the business. "We have to cultivate a truly people-centric culture," Leo stresses. "When you experience so much growth, not only is the hiring experience for our new crew members so important, but equally as important is a focus on the wellbeing of our current crew."
Coates Group has grown its workforce rapidly around the world in the last two years and will add over 100 people this year. But as he seeks new talent, Leo will have to contend with the same tight labour market as everyone else.
"Given the labour challenges that exist in the global marketplace and the war for talent around tech especially, making sure that we look after our current people and bring in the right new people is vital," he acknowledges.
I love the notion of the David and Goliath battle, taking on large scale opportunities and delivering on them.
Another key focus area is to maintain the level of excellence that has enabled Coates Group to secure partnerships with some of the world’s largest brand names.
"We are so focused on delivering for our customers and continuing to strengthen our relationships with them," Leo continues. "Our partnerships are so deep and rich in our history, and they go well beyond any one given project or one rollout. This is something we take immense pride in as a business."
The company is also maintaining a strong focus on innovation by investing in R&D. Coates has already reinvested 25 per cent of its profits into R&D over the past two years.
"We have to ensure we’re really setting the scene and the trajectory within our industry on the innovation and new product front," Leo adds, reflecting on the road ahead.
"We’re on a mission here. There’s definitely not enough hours in the day, but I absolutely love it."