Gavin Althus is co-founder of Sentrient, an Australian company which combines a refreshingly different approach to business and to compliance solutions.
Gavin is realistic and honest about both the need for compliance and its downsides. He was equally generous in sharing the very different ethos and ethics he approaches business with.
Gavin had a natural aptitude for maths and physics at school, so a BEng at the University of Adelaide and a safe job in engineering seemed a logical choice. By year two, he was looking for work experience courses. Gavin went along to the Australian Royal Airforce out of curiosity, had a good interview, and before he knew it, had signed up. This meant Gavin was earning good money, still living at home with his parents, and able to take some trips overseas during study breaks.
Gavin remembers one of his professors saying that you realize early on if you are there short-term or for life with the forces. For him, he knew it would be short-term. Gavin couldn’t see the appeal of a long term career in the forces, nor as an engineer for life, and looked towards a more commercial career pathwy. He also admits that he struggles with the atrocities of war that he has seen for himself when traveling, particularly in South America. Gavin opted to progress in workforce development and then managed construction sites before becoming involved in recruitment.
While in the Airforce, he also completed his MBA in technology management got married. Looking back on the Forces, he enjoyed the camaraderie and that people were accountable to their team. Gavin is an advocate of hiring staff who have done time in the forces as they generally take personal responsibility and understand accountability, however, for longer serving members they can at times find it difficult in a less structured, and uncertain world of fast growing businesses.
On leaving, Gavin become General Manager for Business Development for Engineering Education Australia (EEA). There, he moved into sales and marketing and on to become Sales and Marketing Director for People Plus. Gavin found that he didn’t enjoy sitting still in engineering, preferring to be active and putting things together. Marketing meant going out to network, talking to schools and colleges. It was his idea of freedom, and he felt connected to what he was doing. He then moved to Learning Seat, a company that delivers compliance courses. Sales had a mix that appeals to Gavin, a certainty that if you reach your targets, you will know you are succeeding, combined with that element of uncertainty, that you have no idea how you will achieve those targets. He had a great coach and loved seeing companies grow.
A flourishing career meant the opportunity to take time out and travel. But by the time their two kids were ready to start primary school, Gavin suddenly felt trapped. He was laughing and joking on the outside, but he was in a very dark place inside. It gave him enough pain to want to start something completely new, and that something was Sentrient.
Sentrient is Australia’s online workplace compliance system for businesses of all sizes. Over 70% of Australian companies are exposed daily to fair work, privacy, and health and safety. Yet two in three Australian businesses do not have a reliable workplace compliance system, including policies and training. They pay the price for lack of compliance in continually-increasing costs and fines for health and safety breaches, for issues arising from privacy breaches, bullying, harassment and discrimination, and social media issues and hidden costs including absenteeism, high turnover, low productivity issues, and mental health problems.
One of the issues is that companies buy piecemeal. Gavin compares it to buying an Xbox on Christmas Day and spending several times that amount on games on Boxing Day. Recently, Gavin had a new customer come to him who had been quoted $70 per person for a course on one specific subject. They can cover all aspects of compliance for $50 per head. Sentrient didn’t offer that particular course, but Gavin felt it was the right thing to do to help and developed it.
What Sentrient offers is cohesive. For compliance to be met, you have to ask if a company has the right policy, has that person seen it, and have they been trained in it. Sentrient is online, easily set up, and made up of policies, reporting systems, and legally approved training. In addition, there is a workplace policy builder and ready-made reports for businesses to carry out their audits. Their compliance systems make it easy to take away reasonable risks associated with the workplace in terms of human relations, safety, policies, and reporting.
Sentrient believes that having the correct workplace compliance systems in place is more than ticking boxes to legal requirements but a question of doing the right thing to ensure people are safe and treated properly. That is something Gavin is passionate about.
The need for Compliance
Compliance legislation is needed, and about 20% of what they deal with is genuinely positive for all parties. But compliance legislation doesn’t make sense. There was a classic case of a meatpacking plant during COVID. They had done everything right, spent millions on compliance, with special dining rooms, catering facilities, and additional safety for COVID. They had one COVID case and were shut down by the authorities.
Gavin admits he struggled at first with the compliance mentality. Companies are now handcuffed in cases where age, race, sex, religion, and more could apply and left unable to deal with poor work or attitude. There are many false accusations too. Nor can you change everyone’s thinking. He has learned that if you come across someone towards the end of their working career with a prejudiced attitude, he won’t be able to change it.
Gavin explains that people have to realize that compliance is all about playing the rules of the game, and it always gets worse as companies grow. Instead, the real challenge for entrepreneurs is to create a distinctive culture. The people you work with are people you work with, not friends, but you still can and should support each other.
Sentrient Day to Day
Starting Sentrient changed everything for Gavin, even helping his marriage. They are making enough money now and getting investment offers, but it isn’t about fast growth for Gavin. Quality is much more important to them. Many years ago, Gavin read “Small is Beautiful” by E. F. Schumacher, and the images of biscuits being exported to Germany and broken biscuits being exported out again stayed with him.
What is important is the culture. Gavin paraphrases from the Charlie Munger Chronicles (Warren Buffet’s right hand), saying that the best marketing you can do is the piece of paper in front of you. You have to give people your full attention to what you are doing, be able to summarize it, and support them, and that is the whole notion of customer service.
Sentrient is driven to support people, such as HR specialists, who are in the frontline of compliance every day. They discuss their own version of the 17 UN Goals because while we need security and compliance, there has to be a softer edge. People should be able to see what their day at work contributes and whom it has served. They focus on being reliable, getting back to people the same day, next at the worst. One key culture phrase is “Smiles, not frowns,” which is the impact he wants them to have. If that takes an extra couple of hours here and there, it is no problem with Gavin.
As you run a company, you have to have tiny glimpses that you are doing the right thing. They have two important meetings every day. The first is himself and his co-founder for half an hour every morning, which Gavin describes as the Mum and Dad meeting. The best thing parents can do for their kids is to show them they love each other, and so without fail, the business Mum and Dad have that cohesive chat of the day. The second meeting is the daily huddle where they share where the light has shone since yesterday. It isn’t about some colossal sale but about how someone made someone else’s life better. Gavin believes we have to lead ourselves and balance the ledger on the question “is that self-ish or self-less.”
Gavin’s approach to life and legacies
Gavin spoke of some great Australian examples that set the tone for a brighter future.
Melanie Perkins of Canva is so much loved in Australia, not just because she is bright, young, and successful but because most of her agenda is about giving back. Another hero organization of Gavin’s is Foodbank Australia and what they achieve in offering everyone who needs it a free breakfast. Most successful people don’t need the flash and glamour but are comfortable with a modest lifestyle. Gavin and his wife take time to teach their children to smile at the beggars in the streets, rather than throw money at them, to think about what food to bring to the homeless, not just stop and stare. It is a challenge for parents to find the time to frame the right examples in this busy world.
In recent years, Gavin has started listening more to Brené Brown and Simon Sinek and believes you develop as you learn to listen; just be yourself quietly away from the noise. The world needs companies with social footprints, not companies with crazily growing share prices, sensible voices that realize peace doesn’t come from the value of a company but from contributing. So, instead of contributing where you can be seen on Facebook, spend two minutes asking someone how they are when you take the dog out.
A legacy is what your kids pick up from you. Resilience isn’t a subject you teach, but something you develop by balance with nature, visiting your grandparents, or walking the dog. Poor performers should be encouraged to ask, “what can I change” but the education system doesn’t encourage that sort of thinking for fear of offense, so people don’t develop. Gavin shows his kids the share prices to see companies’ ups and downs and explains that CEOs do their best work in the downs.
I asked Gavin what he would like his legacy to be. He says it comes back to little things making a big difference. If his family and friends were at his funeral, and they were sharing little glimpses with stories that brought him back to life for them all, every anecdote would be small and unique, yet when put together, they would be consistent. Sentrient is Gavin’s 2022 version of what he aspires to.
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