A Fitting Way to Build a Business


In 1992, Michael Casablanca joined Woodland Shopfitting in Brisbane as a first year tradesman. He learned the business from bottom to top, working his way through supervisor and project management roles, and when the opportunity came in 2004 to buy the company, he grabbed it with both hands. The rest, as they say, is history.

Over the next 14 years, Michael grew the business by 400%, opened a branch in New Zealand, and now employs over 70 staff in Brisbane and Auckland.

With over a thousand store fitouts under its tool belt, Woodland Shopfitting provides a complete design, project management, manufacturing and installation service for clients including leading private, ASX and multinational operators like the Super Retail Group, Michael Hill, IGA, Golden Casket, Country Road Group and Esprit.

So how did he achieve such impressive growth?

Michael says they were lucky: that as their clients grew, Woodland Shopfitting simply grew along with them. But of course there's more to it than that.

When he took over, there were a dozen staff and one dominant client who accounted for over 90% of the work. Michael knew how exposed they were, and his initial business plan put the focus on attracting new clients.

He also knew he had to turn new projects into long-term clients, and set his team an uncompromising benchmark: to hand over projects on brand and on time 100% of the time. It sounds tough, but to Michael it's non-negotiable.

The next problem was finding bigger premises. In 2007, Woodland Shopfitting moved to their current address in Brendale with three times the space and the scope to cope with the expansion Michael had in mind. 

But as our members well know, the scaling process brings its own challenges of management and structure. Michael had to broaden the company's skill set, adding abilities like marketing and finance, and building a level of second-tier management that could shoulder more of the operational roles, releasing him to focus more on strategic directions.

Because Michael wants this business to last. Woodland was thirty years old when he bought it, and he wants it to reach a hundred. He's building a leadership team with one eye on the now and one eye on succession, for a future when he is no longer at the helm.

The most recent opportunity to expand presented itself when one of Woodland's clients decided to set up in New Zealand. Initially this involved working through local New Zealand manufacturers and installers, but the limitations of that arrangement soon became apparent, as did the opportunities he could see in the New Zealand market. With the encouragement of other existing clients also interested in entering the Trans-Tasman market, and the willingness of several New Zealand-born employees to relocate and get the new office going, Woodland Shopfitting's Auckland branch was established in January this year with an initial workforce of five.

All of which brings us back to the broader question of how, without any sort of academic background or business training, Michael has made the transition from carpenter / joiner to entrepreneur running an international company?

Michael says that joining The CEO Institute was one of the most important strategic decisions he made. He knew he had to broaden his own skills and credentials and The CEO Institute has provided the pathway he needed to develop his managerial skills, access professional support and direct his ongoing personal and professional development.

"It just made a lot of sense for me," says Michael, "and a lot of the learnings from the Chairman and other Syndicate members I’m able to bring back and adapt in my own business, which has been pretty key strategically."

One of the Syndicate sessions that really resonated with Michael was about culture, which quickly became a passion. Under the guidance of one of the visiting speakers, Woodland went through a searching exercise identifying what their culture was, what they wanted it to become and what improvements they had to make to get there. The same consultant continues to work with all the staff on a six-monthly basis, reinforcing agreed behaviours and maintaining mechanisms to close the loop when issues arise.

"It's dramatically helped the business in the way we act and behave–the way we relate to others within the organisation and how people see us externally as well," says Michael. "In the 14 years I've been running the business it's one of the top things that has had a massive effect on the company."

Mixing and sharing with professionals from different walks of life and different phases of their careers has helped Michael grow along with his business. Having access to his Chairman whenever he needs it is another real benefit of his involvement with his Syndicate.

On Anzac Day this year, after 12 weeks of fitness training, Michael and his 16 year-old son completed one of the toughest journeys going: the Kakoda Trail. It was a great experience. He loved the challenge, and he loved learning about the Kakoda story.

In some ways it parallels his journey with Woodland Shopfitting. Taking on challenges, and a willingness to keep learning, are a big part of what’s got Michael Casablanca to where he is today.

The CEO Institute, established over 25 years ago, helps business leaders like you connect with your peers to share skills, insight, and experience. The CEO Institute's leadership programs are available globally. Click here to read more member success stories.