Lisa Cunningham / Sales Executive / KFive + Kinnarps  / 
Just Make a Start: (what Sheila said)

story / Interview / June 28, 2021

I grew up in Geelong, moved to Melbourne to study, then worked in Melbourne, for over twenty years. When I did fall pregnant, making the decision to move back to Geelong where I have family, the question was, well, what’s that going to mean when I do go back into the workforce? That was probably the hardest challenge. Commuting Melbourne to Geelong isn’t easy and I can’t do it on the train because Collingwood is so hard to get to on public transport and I often have to get brochures, chairs, samples in the car and out to a site visit or out to a client. It’s great for the family, it’s great for my son, he gets to see all his cousins, aunties and uncles and his grandparents, but that’s just the compromise I had to make.

It’s been a challenge to work through lockdown, as people are Zoomed out. People don’t want a presentation online. But we came up with a good solution. Every six weeks we invite a speaker to talk to our community. This morning we were online in New York with an industrial designer, Brad Ascalon. A lot of his colleagues and designers in New York also came along. That’s pretty special when you can have that sort of involvement. Here I am in little old Geelong hosting this international zoom meeting! We’ve had a couple of designers from Sweden and one from Finland and that’s been really engaging for the design community and the architects. We’ve gained some followers and it’s strengthened our brand because people get a sense of who is designing the product and some of the design philosophies of those different industrial designers.

So I originally was born and bred in Geelong. I went to an all girls school in Geelong, but I always had a strong interest in interior design and I made sure that I wanted to follow that goal. I know you interviewed Suzette Jackson, we both graduated in the same year. It’s interesting that she’s gone the sustainability direction and I’ve become a furniture specialist. I graduated from RMIT with a Bachelor of Arts and Interior Design then I worked in interior design commercial practices for ten years. But it was when the recession was happening and it was very unstable.

I went an all girls school, I’ve got two sisters and a much younger brother and then I did interior design for four years with all females… when I hit the workforce it was a real eye opener. I didn’t know how to relate to men and I wasn’t prepared for the way that they operate. The very first job I had was with Stephenson and Turner in St Kilda Road and there were 80 men and I was the only female interior designer and the secretary and the receptionist were the only other females. The men would all walk past me to see what I was wearing. It was a novelty for them to have females in the office.

It was ok because a lot of them were like uncles. It was quite sweet. But on the other hand, I was working at the Ansett airport in Perth and Adelaide and on a resort at Hayman Island. I was doing all the documentation, but they were doing all the site visits. I said ‘hang on guys, I think I actually need to …’ and it was like, ‘…no, no Lisa, we’ll just take lots of photos and we’ll do the visit and report back.’ They wanted the trips, they wanted the opportunities and I wasn’t getting them, so that was a bit of a wake-up call. It was a good grounding because I did get the hang of how to have those relationships and to deal with men and their perceptions.

Camatic Seating approached me, because the company I was working for let me and a couple of the other designers go and they asked if I had ever thought about going into sales. For designers that can be seen as the dark side. I thought I’d give it a go and see where it took me and I actually found that I really loved it. You know, the hours were good, the entertainment was great fun, the money was so much better than designing where you are working ridiculous hours and all weekend. And then I had the benefit that all my design friends became my clients.

Camatic decided to close their Carlton showroom and the opportunity was for me to go to their factory in Wantirna, but that just did not appeal. One of the interior designers Tina Berardi who now runs and operates VENKO design we’re very good friends, she said there was a new company looking to start up in Melbourne called Methis, and I should get in touch with them. They had a Sydney operator and they had Adelaide owners, so I got in touch with them and they said, I was perfect to run the whole show. I didn’t realise it was going to be that sort of a role, but they asked me to employ people, set up the showroom, start a website, essentially do the whole thing. So all of a sudden I had this amazing chance to run a Melbourne furniture company from scratch and that was huge for me.

I had a really good team. We did eight floors of Deloittes. We did Macquarie Bank. We were in Flinders Lane and it all ran along really well. The reason I left was because I got pregnant. Some women can do it all, but I made the choice not to. I wanted to concentrate on being a mum. I left Melbourne, and I went back to Geelong. I spent two years caring for my son, and then head of Thinking Works, Dean Kuch, got in touch with me and asked if I would consider doing some part-time work for them. I represented them in Victoria and Tasmania that worked out really well for me. I could do two days a week, my mum could look after my son, and I could work from home. It worked out as a good balance for me at the time.

I got to the point where I had been there for six years and I wanted to do something new, so I went across to KFive. Erna Walsh is an amazing CEO and she gave me a lot of support and a lot of opportunities, and we’ve done some really good projects together and it’s been a real win win. I love working with them. They insisted I go to the Milan Fair, which I had never been to. Last year we went to the Stockholm Fair, and the very first year I started with them I spent two weeks in Sweden going to all the factories and brands and learning about all the products. I love traveling and it’s something I really enjoy doing, so yeah, I kind of always tell people that the world of furniture has taken me around the world and that’s been a real bonus in my career path.

I think what I’m always wanting the best outcome. You know, if the conversation starts getting heated or going off the rails you just get back to getting the solutions and getting the best outcome for everyone.  There’s no point in getting emotional about things. There’s no winner. It’s not like I’m competing with these consultants or with these builders. We are there to work on the project together. I hate conflict and I hate having to justify why I’ve done something. I hate being spoken down to. I always bring it to that level playing field that the outcome is for the client and looking for the solution. It can be so frustrating just dealing with these people that make it overly complicated and have unnecessary drama. If you’ve got a project, and a supplier and a lead time then put it all together and happy days.

In those two years of mat leave I still went and got some training, and I went back online and did some recognition of prior learning in project management and management.  I thought, I’m going to keep myself employable. I’ve got a lot of close friends who are still in the industry as interior designers, and I still catch up with them. Two years as a first time mum it just flew. I was very lucky, because I was 43 when I had my baby. We had to do IVF and so I was just thrilled to be a mum. Having my baby late wasn’t by choice. I wanted to be a mum in my mid thirties, but I had a relationship that failed and then trying to find a new partner and a potential dad isn’t easy in your late thirties. I was lucky, my husband came along and we both had the same goals – we wanted to be parents pretty quick, so, it all happened.

I have a love for Frank Lloyd Wright, and I think it was about four or five years ago now that I went on a trip to America and went to as many of his projects as possible and saw the amazing Falling Water. That was huge – almost like a spiritual location. When we were in Pittsburgh, we went to the Andy Warhol museum and it was just around the time that Muhammad Ali had passed away. There was an exhibition there, which has some images of Ali with his son and with Andy Warhol and there was a quote, which I think was great; ‘Don’t count the days, make the days count’ and I thought, yep, that’s spot on. That’s what I try to do. Try to get all your goals happening. If you want something, you go out and you make it happen. And that’s what I’ve lived to do. I’ve been very fortunate but it’s come with hard work.

With networking events I think you can make some good relationships and good contacts, but I think most of my strong female contacts have come naturally. They are people I’ve worked for, people that you just bond with. And I think Erna really puts a strength and focus on supporting women and on the KFive website she’s got a whole page I am Women and every quarter she interviews someone and puts that onto our newsletter. In the furniture industry, there are quite a number of women, but it’s still probably male dominated, particularly at the higher level. And you’ve got to battle that whole issue of bonding with the builders, winning them over and not letting your product get substituted. And I think that’s easier for the males who have that camaraderie. As a female you’ve got to work that bit harder, to make sure you’re not pushed out of the opportunities.

It’s to stop procrastination, but my mother always said ‘just make a start’ and it’ll be much easier from that point. I do often keep that in mind when something’s a bit hard, or I can’t get going on something, I hear my mum say ‘Lisa, just make a start, even if it’s a small start and you can come back tomorrow, but just make a start.’ And that works. Once you do make that start, you get on a roll and before you know it, whatever the task was it wasn’t such a drama and it wasn’t so hard. My mum has a real Aussie name, Sheila, so it’s what Sheila used to say. She’s 84 and she’s renovating houses and looking out for her 8 grandchildren.

 

A zoom meeting in February, out of lockdown but still not out and about, we caught up with Lisa to hear about her journey through the design and furniture industry. Lisa has such a wide-ranging experience on projects big and small, in design, in sales and in business. It was really great to learn about her journey and how she has carved out a path that suited her, her family and her career. We wish Lisa all the best for the rest of 2021. J & D x

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