Modernizing a Storied Company: Mark Roberts
Alsco’s Asia–Pacific Group CEO Mark Roberts is spearheading a modernization drive as part of his ambitious expansion plans on both sides of the Tasman.
When Mark Roberts, Group CEO of Alsco’s Asia–Pacific operations, tells anyone about his career, they’re always amazed by the same thing.
"People struggle to believe that someone could work for the same business for 33 years," he says. "But I love my job and still pinch myself every morning when I get up and go to the office about how lucky I’ve been working for this company for practically my whole life."
Having worked his way up through the ranks, no-one understands the workplace uniform and supplies business better, nor feels as passionate about being a part of a global team of more than 18,000 employees.
"I’ve been very fortunate over the years in having some very good mentors and being part of an organization that keeps putting challenges in front of me," he says. "That’s what keeps me motivated and excited, even after 33 years."
A rich history
American Linen Supply Company, now known simply as Alsco, was founded in the United States 134 years ago by two brothers in Lincoln, Nebraska, during a particularly severe economic slump. After nearly going under, one of the brothers, George Steiner, relocated to Salt Lake City and gradually built up the business that’s currently run by the fourth generation of the Steiner family.
Its 180 branches service 355,000 customers in 14 countries, and it is recognized as a global industry leader.
I’ve been very fortunate over the years in having some very good mentors and being part of an organization that keeps putting challenges in front of me.
Alsco services and rents a wide range of uniforms and provides other textile and hygiene products including accommodation linen and towels, floor mats, washroom services and first aid supplies.
The company launched an Australian operation in 1963 and then acquired the business that Roberts had been working for in New Zealand in 1998. It didn’t take long for it to become one of the market leaders on both sides of the Tasman.
Its 1,500 Australian staff have serviced more than 48,000 customers across industries including automotive, mining, engineering, hospitality, healthcare, retail and education. In New Zealand, a further 1,000 employees look after 27,000 customers.
Climbing the ladder
Roberts started in the service delivery department before spending time in sales and production and managing a series of branches, including Auckland, the largest operation in New Zealand at the time.
In 2007, he moved into operational management and leadership as a Regional General Manager and, after being promoted to lead the New Zealand operation, eventually took over Asia–Pacific operations in 2020.
"I really enjoy working for a family business," he says. "Being privately run affords more strategic long-term thinking as opposed to being a slave to the latest share price."
It also means that he’s been given the freedom to shift the thinking of his senior team.
Leaders must walk the walk, as positive cultural change only happens when the vast majority of staff believe in the leadership.
"If we go back a wee while, the business was run solely on the financials, and that policy was driven from the very top," he recalls. "What I’ve done is refocus our ambitions on other elements that are very important. I want us to see profit and loss as an outcome of all the good things we do, rather than our sole concern."
He is well aware that firms whose only success metric is short-term gain are often overtaken by those with a purpose involving sustainability, customer care and looking after staff.
"I’m passionate about leading a modern-thinking business and influencing the culture so we all understand the breadth of our responsibility, over and above the requirement to deliver returns for shareholders," he says. "Our employees, suppliers and the communities where we live and work are all shareholders too, so we can’t be successful if we’re not considering their needs.
"Culture is everything, but it takes a long time to shape and the messaging needs to come from the top. Leaders must walk the walk, as positive cultural change only happens when the vast majority of staff believe in the leadership."
Focus on sustainability
And no-one can accuse him of not walking the walk when it comes to sustainability, an area he has prioritized from day one.
"It’s critical we minimize our impact on the planet and nature, and be cognizant of assisting those less fortunate than ourselves," he says. "We have a very wide focus on sustainability that is across not only good outcomes for the planet, but also people. It’s important to be balanced and think about the impacts of all the decisions we make as they all have consequences for other people or the wider environment."
The opportunity he saw to make just such a difference was particularly apparent in Australia.
"Not only was the size of the playing field here much larger than in New Zealand, but a lot less progress had been made in the clean energy sphere," he recalls. "Our New Zealand operation began the journey many years ago, so Australia was a real opportunity for me to push the replay button and introduce longer-term thinking to the business there."
I’m very excited about our future in this part of the world and about building an Alsco that demonstrates, through its actions, a commitment to a better future.
Roberts believes the efforts have multiple positives.
"I think our sustainability initiatives set us apart and encompass not only the environmental legacy we leave, but also how we treat and value our team and how we engage and contribute to the communities we live and work in," he says.
Progress has been impressive, but Roberts has ambitious plans to accelerate the transition to more environmentally friendly practices.
Looking to the future
The next few years will see significant capital projects and the modernization of many existing plants that will boost capacity for the ever-increasing demand. Roberts has rationalized the New Zealand operation to increase efficiencies and will bring the same thinking to Australia as it scales up over the next decade.
"I’m very excited about our future in this part of the world and about building an Alsco that demonstrates, through its actions, a commitment to a better future," he says. "The organic growth we’re chasing involves investing in ourselves as opposed to acquisitions. The message I’m giving our shareholders is that I’d rather invest in our own business."
He’s already proved that articulating a strong strategic vision pays dividends, particularly when plotting a path for growth during tough economic conditions.
"For me, it’s about imagining a better future, and sometimes that requires courage in making difficult decisions," he says. "In this day and age, it’s less and less about the money, it’s about adapting to a changing world and being aware of how that’s reflected in the business."
A Lighter Touch
"I’ve been involved in the construction of many of the New Zealand branches of Alsco, and it’s rewarding that every time we begin on a new one, we improve outcomes for the planet," Roberts says. "I’m looking forward to having a similar influence in Australia as we have a great opportunity to invest in and adapt some older locations."
His philosophy was developed thanks to the advice he received many years ago.
"A mentor I respect always told me to stay visible and accessible in the workplace, no matter how high you climb," he says. "I try to live that on a daily basis, so I walk the office every morning to greet everyone. When I was managing laundry plants, I liked to be there early enough to greet the service and production teams at the start of the shift."
Those 33 years have laid a foundation of understanding and an appreciation of every member of his team. Together, they have given Alsco an undeniable competitive advantage, positioning it for a strong future.
"Alsco has been part of the fabric of Australia for the last 60 years," he says. "The leadership direction moving forwards is focused on securing livelihoods for Alsco employees for the next 60 years and beyond."