Steve’s formula for success is courage + vision + relentless discipline + thirst for improvement. He is using this formula in his quest to change safety in the world… One experience at a time.
Firefighter Steven McLeod was on shift during that fateful Black Saturday bushfires — the largest and worst bushfire in Australia’s history — as part of the high angle rescue team of the Melbourne Fire Brigade, doing rescues in extreme heights. He was about to go into a house fire when the roof collapsed while entering the premises. This and other close brushes with danger, such as road accidents or attending to cardiac arrests, were day-to-day occurrences in Steve’s life at the fire brigade. His courage to face those hazards has saved the lives of several people, a noble duty that has kept him satisfied with the line of work he has chosen.
It was that same sense of fulfilment that ignited a light bulb moment within Steve, which took shape in the form of a business centred on the safety of people. “In the fire brigade, I went to lots of dangerous emergencies to attend to people who were badly injured, as a result of medical incidence or crashes, or went to rescues that we were called to. And I thought, what better way to serve the world than having a business that really keeps people at work, keeps people safe, and keeps people alive,” a wistful Steve mused.
That was the beginning of how his company, Fire and Safety Australia, came to be. For the first three years, Steve was juggling his work in the fire brigade and running the business during his days off from his job. The first year was the most difficult one, especially with little money to put oil in his financial engine. He and his wife, Kelly, had to take a second mortgage out of their house to finance and grow the business. The early months were filled with endless cold calling, getting in front of customers, doing training courses, issuing invoices, doing bookings — basically doing everything on his own — working ridiculously long hours for the business, on top of the 42 hours a week in the fire brigade.
Since he was at first running it as a part-time business, Steve really had no vision for the business back in 2007. His main objective was to make AUD 2,000 in 2 days a week or AUD 100,000 a year in his days off from the fire brigade. Making the business full-time was out of the question. It was only until the opportunity came for him to make it into a national business during the end of the second year that Steve had to leave his job to focus on nurturing the business he established.
Although Steve’s career had him put out fires to keep people safe, his business was not fully invincible from risks and threats, as every business is susceptible to such. One of the downturns he experienced was when he went into a 50-50 partnership that didn’t work out because of differences in views when it came to strategies. It instilled in him a precious lesson with regards to carefully choosing who to have business with.
Another ordeal he had to confront was in removing the wrong people in his organisation. He learned to address this one when he attended an EO Melbourne event where business-coach and mentor Cameron Herold was the speaker. Cameron asked, “Knowing what you know now, would you enthusiastically rehire all of your employees?” Steve cites this as the value of the right question because that got him thinking about his business that he never thought before. His answer to that question was a negative one. But Cameron’s next question shook him further: “What are they still doing there?” From then on, Steve worked on exiting those that did not fit the company’s culture, then recruiting the right people and putting them in the right roles.
Yet, these weren’t the only problems he had to face head-on. It was in 2015 when Steve got badly burned, business-wise, that is. Considered as his worst year in business, 2015 exposed him to several tragic incidents that affected him personally. First, he had a staff member who resigned and stalked him and his family endlessly. Second, he got embroiled in a legal issue that resulted in a half-million-dollar problem in the business. Third, an employee attempted to commit suicide. Steve helped and coached him until he was able to get back to work. But after thanking Steve for saving his life, he went on and sued the business, putting the blame on the company for his suicide attempt. And fourth, one of Steve’s senior manager died in a skydiving accident.
“That year was unlike anything I’ve ever had before. And to me that was the biggest test,” Steve acknowledged. He never expected to encounter all four problems in the same year, but it took him so much courage to get past those trials, continue in his business, focus on his vision and lead the rest of his team to a better future.
The safety chief might not have a university degree or a business training under his belt but he has drive and focus that paved the way for him to accelerate the growth of his company. And in all these, Steve recognizes EO’s vital role in his learning experience, like a firefighter ladder that elevates his knowledge to greater altitudes.
Fascinatingly, he only stumbled upon EO Melbourne by fluke, when he read a book where EO was referenced in it. It piqued his interest to the point that he sent an online inquiry and eventually met up with someone from the organisation. “I felt, wow, this is amazing!” Steve described his reaction to learning what the organisation was all about.
He then spent his over seven years as a member immersing himself in the knowledge, information and wisdom that EO offered to its flock. “For me, EO has been an amazing experience. It has really shaped my journey of learning as I’ve been able to soak up all the information I could get, learn from the experiences and mistakes and successes of my peers, and be exposed to learning and to people. And that’s what really made a huge impact on my business that helped me get to where I am today. So, I credit a lot of that growth experience to EO.”
Applying what he absorbed from EO’s learning events, Steve set out to formulate a vision for FSA, that by the year 2020, they would be able to train 100,000 people and provide 10,000 emergency response shifts. “As of this year, we’ll do about 55,000 people trained nationally and about 8,500 or 9,000 emergency service office shifts. So, we’re getting very close, but I set that goal when we did less than 7,000 people trained a year. I didn’t get that vision when I first started the business. I only got that vision two years after I saw the potential and what we were truly capable of,” declared Steve.
The blaze of FSA’s growth is spreading like wildfire. Beginning with Steve doing all the tasks single-handedly to having 150 employees now, and from a few hundred thousand dollars to becoming an over 23-million-dollar business. Thus, Steve considers his leaving the fire brigade as an achievement because that moment unlocked something within him to reach his full potential as a businessman. He enumerates his other milestones, such as when he got his first contract, when he reached a hundred employees when he was awarded his biggest project, and recently when he acquired Blackwoods Training and the National Safety Council of Australia from Wesfarmers.
It was not a quick climb to success, however, as some are wont to think. “Everyone says, ‘well, that was quick.’ But this has been a 10-year journey to where we are today. There was nothing quick about it. It was relentless for 10 years that some people think it was quick, but it’s not. It takes an incredible amount of work, a huge amount of passion and courage to continue doing what needs to be done and it needs me to continue learning,” Steve expressed.
Another misconception that Steve pointed out was that having a bigger corporation does not entail it doesn’t have many problems than the others. “Just because you are a larger business, people think that means you have fewer problems with cash flow or around people because someone else does it. Look, it’s not true. While we have a very good senior team and while we have a strong financially secure business, we still go through ups and downs with cash payments in cycles, we still go through months wherein budgets are not met, and we still go through times when we have challenges — legal challenges or challenges with culture or anything else around the business,” Steve clarified.
It was and still is an arduous journey, but it is a journey that has brought Steve to many victories in his entrepreneurial experience. Those achievements are something he shares with his team and with people who have helped him, including his mentors and peers who were generous with their learnings. But, most of all, it was a result of so much passion and hard work.
Steve’s formula for success is courage + vision + relentless discipline + thirst for improvement, which he shares in his book, Courage for Profit, his way of giving back and helping those who are just starting out in their entrepreneurial expedition. He also does this by coaching and mentoring others at EO Accelerator training. “That was something that I was privileged to do and which I’ve really enjoyed — trying to pass on some experience and knowledge to new members,” Steve remarked.
As Steve grows his business and as he helps others grow theirs, he also grows as an entrepreneur. This year, his main focus is stepping away from the business. Graduating himself from being CEO, Steve moves towards integrating his business in his role as Non-Executive Chairman of FSA. He’s off to bring the company internationally by expanding to New Zealand and Asia.
In all these, Steve bears in mind that at the forefront of his mission is to save people’s lives. And he’s committed to forever change safety in the world… One experience at a time.