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Keeping it in the family – Matt Blatt’s Adam and Joel Drexler on thriving, and surviving the father/son work dynamic

To celebrate Father’s Day, we took a different direction to our usual style chat and talked with our founder Adam Drexler, and his son Joel, our GM, about working together…

From almost as far back as he can remember, the family furniture business was a topic of conversation at home, meaning even before he first worked in the business his father Adam founded – Joel Drexler felt a part of it. As for getting his hands dirty, it wasn’t until he finished high school that Joel had his first true taste of life in the retail trade.

“Most of our business was via eBay back in those days, so my first role was picking orders for Christmas deliveries from our Marrickville warehouse, and helping with admin as our receptionist was off sick. Looking back, it must have been enough to whet my appetite, as when I came back from travelling several months later, I didn’t hesitate. I just came back to Matt Blatt,” explained Joel.

The next step in Joel’s retail education was working on the showroom floor, as well as continuing in the back office, adds dad Adam. Joel quickly acknowledges that getting involved with “a bit of everything” was a great way to learn the ropes and truly get to understand every aspect of the business, which has since grown from one of Australia’s first online furniture stores on eBay to today’s growing network of 12 showrooms.

“When I look back now, I feel we were really winging it. I was working with our buyer to pick products and guessing quantities to fill shipping containers. I was also getting involved with the creative side of things – the website, product copy and advertising banners.”

Later, whilst working at Matt Blatt, Joel studied Commerce at university, yet he and Adam agree he’s learned more about business through his years on the job than through his studies – laughing about the fact Joel once actually forgot to show up for one of his university exams during a particularly busy week at Matt Blatt.

“Year-on-year growth was rapid in those days and Dad gave me plenty of freedom to forecast and experiment with our buying patterns. Obviously, he had the final say and would cast his eye over what we were doing, but when I think of it now, I was pretty young and handling some serious numbers and I feel privileged to have been allowed that kind of responsibility at an early age. I think he showed courage, giving me such free rein at a young age – it’s a great example of his risk-taking nature and his willingness to always give something a go.”

As for Joel’s rise through the ranks to become General Manager, it’s certainly not your typical tale. Adam says: “Joel was always good at talking to customers, and handling queries or complaints. He always stayed calm, and never lost his cool. In fact, that’s how he ended up with his ‘General Manager’ title. He was on a difficult call with a customer one day and when they asked what authority he had to resolve the situation he had to come up with something on the spur of the moment, so he said he was the General Manager – and it stuck”.

Asked whether he always hoped his succession plan would involve family, Adam is quick to note that whilst he certainly hoped the family would be heavily involved – wife Deborah sits on the Board and is involved with buying and maintaining brand integrity while artist daughter Avril designs prints and rugs for Matt Blatt – there’d only be a job for them if they proved capable.

“Joel knows more than I do about running a business in a corporate manner, and that’s one of the ways our different skills complement one another. However, if Joel hadn’t shown an aptitude for the business, or a willingness to learn, then he wouldn’t be working here, and that hasn’t changed,” said Adam.

As for the logistics of the father/son working relationship, Joel says: “There’s no set structure, but Dad just comes into my office every morning at 7.30am for an impromptu download on everything that’s going on. It’s not in either of our diaries, but it happens pretty much like clockwork.”

On the issue of whether working in a family business means work chat dominates after hours interactions too, Joel credits Adam with respecting the difference between work and family time. “Dad doesn’t call me late at night to discuss work, even if he’s thinking about it, and he knows that if he emails me about business on the weekend, I won’t reply until early Monday morning. He’s really good at respecting those boundaries, and that contributes to making the relationship work, both personally and professionally.”

“Having said that, when Dad, Mum and I get together on our own out of hours we will often discuss work, but at family dinners where Avril and I bring our partners along too we don’t get bogged down talking business.”

And what about when the pair disagree? Perhaps surprisingly, both suggest they rarely vehemently disagree, perhaps since they share an appetite for risk and adventure when it comes to making decisions about the brand.

“We talk through most things and collaborate well,” says Joel, while Adam adds good-naturedly that he’ll “pull out the emotional card from time to time when we have a difference of opinion. I’ll say, ‘fine, do it your way, but if it doesn’t work out…don’t think I won’t say ‘I told you’.”

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