Paul Galea and Patrick Coghlan (2003)

Listen to or read Paul's interview with IGS Alum and CEO Patrick Coghlan (2003).

This week Paul Galea chats with Patrick Coghlan (2003), CEO of Creditor Watch. Patrick has some interesting thoughts on work culture and, of course, his time at IGS.

Patrick Coghlan (2003)

Paul Galea: Hello. Patrick Coghlan. Paul Galea from International Grammar here. How are you, mate?

Patrick: Good, Galea. Good morning. How are you?

Paul Galea: I’m well, mate, I’m very well. So thanks for the interview. I usually start off by giving a little bit of an intro to who I’m talking to. You’re a bit of IGS royalty, going a long way back. You left school in 2003, but you and I go way, way back to about 1993. Maybe even earlier, to the end of ’92. Maybe in Kindy Soccer Club?

Patrick: And After Care for sure!

Paul Galea: Yeah, you were a very little boy. And I just was thinking about you and one of the things I remember really clearly about you was that you were one of the most competitive little suckers I’ve ever seen. You know, when we used to play soccer and cricket after school, you were so competitive and didn’t want to lose.

Patrick in Michelle Weir’s Kindergarten class in 1991

Patrick Coghlan: And a terrible loser! Nothing’s changed!

Paul Galea: I remember that really well. And then obviously your little brother Jack went through the school as well, and, your parents had big parts to play in being part of the community, So yeah, as I say;  IGS royalty, mate, You’ve got to give us a bit of a run down on what you did after school and then what you’re doing now and then take us through the journey of how you got from where you were at when you left school to where you are now. Now, I know that’s nearly 20 years, but I’m interested in the journey you took.

Patrick Coghlan: Yeah. It sounds good. It’s always good to reflect. I don’t think we do it enough or very often. Anyway, I finished school in 2003 and I deferred my university studies for a year, and I went to Europe with some friends for about six months, which was great, because I still wasn’t quite sure what I needed to do, but it felt like uni was the correct next step. So I travelled for a bit and then started uni in ’05.

I did an Arts Degree and sort of majored in Italian, which obviously I had done all through school. And I did some history and politics. So a real classic Arts Degree. My dad always used to joke, “What are you going do with that when you finish?“ and I could never really give him an answer. Fortunately enough, he lined me up with one of his mates who had a publishing business and I started selling advertising.

I think sales was probably a good space for me to go into. I always enjoyed socialising and it was never going to be maths or economics or science or anything like that for me. I really enjoyed socialising. I sold online advertising for a small business publication that published cash flow news, finance news, tips and tricks to run a business, that sort of thing. And it gave me a bit of a grounding on actually how to run a business.

After two years of doing that, I was fortunate enough to actually go off to South Africa for four weeks, to follow Australia at the World Cup in South Africa. They were obviously knocked out early on but I stayed around and ended up going to a whole bunch of games, including the final, which was an absolute bucket list kick for me.

When I came back, my old boss had an idea for a new business. Really, just a whiteboard idea at the time. I was looking to work, probably for a larger publisher, like a Google or a Fairfax or a News digital, something like that. Just to get a little bit more experience and exposure to the big leagues. But he convinced me to give the ‘start-up world’ a go and that was 12 years ago.

He said, “Give it a go. If it doesn’t work in six months or a year, you’ll be able to go back into the publishing world; that there’s always going to be big publishers for you to join.” That was 12 years ago. So it’s been a big journey. It was a good decision to make.

We sort of went from three people in those early days and I’m now running the business. We’ve got about 150 across Australia and an outsourced team in Vietnam. It does some development, the development in house in Sydney, but also in Vietnam.

The company’s called Creditor Watch, and we provide credit reporting solutions, credit risk information to businesses of any size from small businesses all the way up to ‘the big four’ banks. I often joke that it’s not a sexy industry, but we make it sexy. We make it fun, and we come at it from a real sort of tech start-up data business and we’re taking on, too, sort of multibillion-dollar global competitors, which probably links back to my competitiveness. I love to have a win, and I love to have a target to go after and take them on and win their clients and win market shares. That is really exciting; it’s what gets me up every day.

Paul Galea: Wow.

Patrick: So that has pretty much sort of jumped from starting Creditor Watch to now, but I wasn’t sure how much more detail did you want?

Paul Galea: You know what? If we’re looking at that, you being at the beginning on the ground floor of the startup is pretty exciting. And then to be there to see it go from three people to 150 is massive. That’s huge. And one of the things I noticed, is that, and tell me if I’m wrong, you’ve got a, really, really or seem to me to have a really, really good way of engaging your employees and keeping them happy. Do you want to tell us about that?

Because I found that really fascinating that in a business which is obviously, you know, run, it’s chasing, making sure people pay, or again to pay invoices, etcetera. But I just found that the work culture that you guys have put in place and I can’t even remember where I saw it, but it really impressed me. Do you want to tell us about that?

Patrick: Yeah. We’ve done a few articles, and there’s a good video online. It may have been that, that you saw on LinkedIn or something like that. But, yeah, we’ve put a huge amount of work into ‘people and culture’ and that, for me, is my number one sort of driver within the business.

I think a lot of businesses talk about ‘people and culture’ being really important, but don’t necessarily live it. It’s been a bit of a tick box. “Yeah, yeah, people are important” but they don’t actually treat them the right way. We’ve been able to really focus on having a good time. When there were three of us at the beginning, with no idea what we were really doing, not sure it would be around in six months, 12 months or whatever, we made sure that we had fun doing it. We celebrated the wins. We got together on the losses and that ultimately drove our recruitment strategy thereafter. We made sure that we weren’t just getting high performers, which is something that you want to get in any business, but if you’ve got a high performer that doesn’t fit with the culture, doesn’t sit with the narrative, the journey that you’re on then they actually cause, you know, a huge amount of dysfunction. We’ve had a couple of, a very few examples over the 12 years, among the huge amount of people that have come through the business. But focusing on providing a really fun, inclusive, diverse, work culture and environment has just continued to evolve year after year and as we get better, more senior people into the business, as we grow our people and culture team, that all of those people then take that journey on and that mission on themselves.

I talk about the “Sunday blues” years and years and years ago, sitting with friends on the beach at Bondi; on the grassy knoll there at North Bondi, having a beer on a Sunday afternoon. A bunch of people were talking about having to go to work the next day and someone asked me, “How are you feeling?“ I said, “You know what? I love going to work!” Genuinely, I love going. It’s fun, the people are good, we’re all friends, we’re winning, we’re growing and we just continued to ensure that that cultural mentality is embedded within the psyche of all the people that we bring into the business. And, you know, we’ve got a lot of tenure within the business.  We’ve got about, probably 10 people that are, you know, 7, 8, 9 to 10 years with us. We’ve got a  really low turnover rate of staff, so we don’t have to, we’re not constantly filling new positions. But at the same time, we’ve hired aggressively and we’ve grown something like 50% from a headcount perspective in the last 12 months so that then dilutes that culture. All the existing staff have to work really hard to ensure that those new people coming on board understand what we’re all about and I think there’s a bit of a sports team mentality in that, but it’s also just about being a good person. I think that’s really easy to do. But it’s also really easy to mess up, as well.

Paul Galea: Can I ask you, so obviously, if you’re getting a 50% growth rate in a year and you’re saying that, the culture or the shared history is diluted; can you give me some specific examples of what you guys do to try to tie these new people to your organisation? No, no, not tied to your organisation, but get them actually embedded in it or emerged in the idea.

Patrick: Yeah. So we regularly put events on. Every month we’ve got what we call a “hoedown”, which is our version of a “Town Hall”. So everyone comes together and someone different from each department presents. So it’s not just the executive or a senior manager presenting, everyone gets a chance to talk, and everyone celebrates and shares in the stories that are being told from each department about what’s been happening: the wins, the losses, the developments, that sort of thing. We have a really good quality onboarding framework to ensure that staff are brought on almost in the same way. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a salesperson or a technical engineer or a developer. Everyone gets brought on board in the same way. So they get that same sort of experience and get exposure to people that have been with Creditor Watch for a long time. Then through that onboarding process, we’re also regularly surveying our data just to get feedback almost in real-time as to how they’re finding the onboarding process. Outside of that sort of initial stage, there are lots of events that we put on. They’re big open offices with none of the execs sitting in their own office. We’re all out on the floor, really accessible. People can call, email, message or access me at any time that they want. The senior people within the business are constantly walking the floor to introduce and engage. We put on lunch twice a week for everyone. So you get basically a big family lunch twice a week with everyone sitting in the sort of social areas. And it’s not siloed; it’s developers and marketing and everyone mixes. So it’s just about making people feel comfortable, hiring the right people and then showing them, “Hey, this is how we all get along.” We eat together, we share stories together and we have a huge amount of fun together as well.

Paul Galea: Yeah, I think we are now in a world that is very fluid in terms of people and where they work and people resigning and going elsewhere and “ the great resignation” and post-COVID and all that. One of the things I think really is interesting is how business organisations keep their good people and to me that is a really, really interesting part of where the world’s going and you guys obviously put in a lot of time and effort into keeping the good people and recruiting good people and bringing them into your sort of way of thinking.  I really think that’s the future of employment. I just can’t see how it can be any different because I think otherwise people just say, “See you later!”

Patrick: That’s it. If they don’t have an emotional attachment to the company they work for, then an extra 10 or 20 grand here or there from another company becomes really, really enticing and really easy to take. We made the decision quite early on to mandate a return to the office when lockdowns were coming off, and that was all through COVID. Not just earlier this year. And there was a lot of talk about, do we have to come back or not? We got everyone back three days a week and there was a little grumble here or there but we’ve got quite a young workforce. We know that. We knew that a lot of people were working there at the kitchen table or from a share house. They were sitting in their bed working all day. So, we were quite confident that people actually wanted to come back or a chunk of people wanted to come back, but they wouldn’t unless everyone else was, because then it would be really quiet in the office. Plus, you know, we do a lot for our staff from a perks perspective. You can’t build culture, communication and collaboration from home. So I think we took a bit of a risk, but I was pretty adamant that it was going to be at least three days from the office mandated and the same three days together. That was the other thing. There was no point in having one team coming on a Monday and no one else is in. We wanted everyone in together so that, I think, has worked really well.

Paul Galea: So again, that’s very interesting because I know anecdotally from mates of mine, that whole thing, where people just were going in sporadically, it just didn’t work, because you’re walking into an empty office.

Patrick: It was horrible through sort of 2020 and 2021. We had teams coming in on their own days and I would come in and the previous office we were in sort of fit 40, 50 people. You’d have 10 people in, half the lights would be off. There’d be no music on. It was worse than being at home on your own and that for me was the sort of the real ‘light bulb’ moment to say, no, when we get the chance, obviously, to ensure that it was safe for everyone and legal at the time, we wanted everyone back together. We actually moved. And we’re probably one of the only companies in Australia that increased the size of their footprints. So we actually tripled the size of our Sydney office, just 12 months ago. So just as the lockdowns were coming to an end, we signed a new lease and tripled the size of the office space and really decked it out to make it a destination for people to come to.

Paul Galea: I’m going to say this to you here, Patrick. You’re a bit of an innovator and a bit of a forward thinker. That’s pretty impressive: in a time where I would say that most businesses were getting rid of their leases and getting ready to downsize their office space, you’ve gone the other way, but with a particular thing in mind. It’s pretty impressive.

Patrick: Thank you. It was definitely a risk, but I think we’ve really backed ourselves that we had not only a good place for people to work and come to, but also that people liked working with one another, and they liked the team and the executive team. Fortunately, we’ve been proven right because I think if you’re trying to get people back into the office now and mandate it, it is really, really tough.

Paul Galea: Yeah, absolutely. Alright, mate. So I know, because I asked you off air, but you’ve got a family with two young daughters, and you’re going along quite nicely there. I remember as I said, you were at IGS for a million years. Any great memories from IGS that you can remember or does anything stand out in particular?

Patrick: Look, you know what? Only because you’ve just asked, but I can definitely feel a connection between the culture and the mentality of people, both teachers and students there, with what we’ve ultimately created at Creditor Watch!

It probably sounds a little bit ‘cringy’, to be honest, but it was just that,  everyone gets along, everyone works together, you’re constantly having a fun time. It wasn’t too serious. There’s obviously rules and you have to have the uniform on but if there was a little bit of a shirt untucked at a tie slightly undone, it was OK. It wasn’t too draconian. And I think being able to express yourself with those little nuances was really important.

I remember the moving from the old Surry Hills dungeon, where we were playing basketball on those netball rings, remember, that were on wheels, that you can move around.  I remember trying always to get to school a little bit early, even though I’m not a very good morning person, which my mum will attest to, just so I could kick the ball around or shoot on those rings in the morning. And then obviously, the huge upgrade to the nice, shiny, new building in Ultimo. It was an absolute buzz. But, we had a great year because there were a lot of long-term kids like me who had been there from Preschool, Kindergarten, like Jai Parrab and Jamie Kenyon, two of my best mates. Then you had this whole new mix of people come in, but it wasn’t a great number. I think we graduated with 40 or 50 kids in the year. So, it wasn’t enormous. You knew everyone’s name. It was just a great place to go.

I do occasionally drive past, and share stories with the boys, and I think Jamie’s got an incredible memory. If you get a chance, he has a photographic memory of everything that went on. The plays in the old Surry Hills building- The Journey and the the plays in the new hall. It was just like it was just so much fun, you know? And I think the students were great, the teachers were great and the parents were great. You know, There was that real family feel to it.  Yeah, it was such a great place to go to school.

Paul Galea: Yeah, it’s a lot bigger now than what you’re talking about. You had 40 to 50 in you’re graduating year. Now it’s double that or double plus that!

Patrick: That is incredible.

Paul Galea: But it’s still very similar. It’s the same sort of vibe, and I think that’s one of the good things about us. It’s retained that sort of family feel, which is good. We’re going to, you and I and you don’t know this yet, but we’re going to have your 20th-year reunion next year, which must make you feel pretty old. It’s making me feel ancient, which is funny because I am. Anyway, we’ll be doing something with some of those guys and Jai and Jamie. I still see them here and there; fantastic blokes. So we’ll get together and do something next year to celebrate 20 years out of IGS.

Some of the people who listen to this are in the last couple of years of their schooling. Have you got any sort of bits of advice that you’ve learned along the way, that you might want to give to them? You know, those things that work for you and got you to where you are.

Patrick: Yeah, you can edit what I’m saying to suit the narrative. But, you know, I wasn’t overly diligent with school. I certainly didn’t do nothing. Like, I did a bit more than the average, I would say, and if I could provide advice, I’d say definitely make sure that you put in the hard yards and you are diligent and you get your good results because it does make the next couple of years with uni and decisions a little bit easier.

In Year 11 and 12, working hard makes it a little bit easier, but saying that it’s certainly not the be all and end all of opportunities. There are so many opportunities out there for people who might not be able to be super diligent and studious and what not at school. So I think there’s a lot of a stress, so don’t put so much pressure on yourself that you are stressed out a whole amount because there’s plenty of other opportunities outside of just getting an extremely good mark. It’s a real balance. You know? There’s enough stress out there for everyone at the moment, so kids, young kids don’t need that additional stress on their shoulders. But I think if you’ve got that opportunity to put in the hard work, get those good marks and set yourself up to do the degree that you wanted to do; If you want to go to university, then don’t waste it. You don’t get that second chance at High School but the good thing is you do get a second chance at uni, and if uni’s not for you, being able to pick and choose a TAFE degree or get straight into the workforce is also a fantastic opportunity. I think people put too much pressure on themselves to know exactly what they want to do. And to be honest, even a few years into Creditor Watch, when we started up, I still wasn’t sure that that’s what I wanted to keep doing. So you know, it’s a moveable feast too.

Paul Galea: I think it is a movable feast, and you’ve got to be prepared to go with the flow a little bit. Good advice.

Patrick: But I think if you can travel, that’s the other thing outside of school. Like if you’ve got an opportunity to go and travel and see other cultures or do the one thing I’ve never had a chance to do; long term live overseas. Obviously, I got to do exchange a couple of times, but if you can travel, it’s just a brilliant, brilliant thing to be able to do and a lot of fun. And, it puts off getting into real life a little bit longer.

Paul Galea: Well, yes, but you are preparing yourself for the real world because you’re developing a broader outlook on life.

Fantastic to talk to you, mate. Well, we’ll catch up in person next year for the 20 year reunion. I found it very, very interesting, your whole approach. And you’re right; you only realise that when you talk, your whole approach is pretty ‘IGS’, I think. And I think that’s probably something you’ve taken with you from IGS.  And I think Creditor Watch sounds like a great place to work. I’m thinking of applying for a job myself. So if you see a really old applicant, be kind.

Patrick: We’re always hiring! Thanks very much.