As a part of our Secrets to Success series, focusing on advice from professionals within the tech, consulting and finance industries and what they believe makes for a successful career, we spoke David Tozer, a Partner at Houlihan Lokey, leading the Restructuring, Special Situations and Distressed Debt efforts in Australia and New Zealand.
What was your first job and what did it teach you?
I've had a few first-ever jobs in some ways. I had a little lawn-mowing business where I grew up mowing all the old ladies’ lawns. This taught me to be responsible and deliver what I said I would do and identify and fill a market opportunity. My first job working for someone else was in a fruit shop. I was 13, so I lied about my age as I was meant to be 14. After 9 months, I had saved enough to buy my first custom made surfboard: I was chuffed. The guy who owned the business was an incredible entrepreneur and he taught me that making money is hard work but rewarding, that you need to be consistent and think about things. He would say to me you need to treat customers well by making people feel like they deserve to be there, present the product and service them in a way that makes them feel like they're part of the business. This guy nailed it, and I was 13 and taking it all in. It was called Fruity's Fruit Market, and I walked around in green overalls with a huge banana on the front pocket
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Is it important to be passionate about what you do? Why?
Overall, I think if you're passionate about what you do, life is easier. Obviously, you don’t need to be passionate about everything, as some aspects of your job will be a grind - that's just life. But if you have passion, it just makes for an easier day and gives you a better sense of purpose. Finding something that you’re both good at, and passionate about is an enormously powerful combination. So for me, I'm passionate about my job, saving companies, and I love the problem-solving and intellectual stimulation of what I do.
What does success look like and mean to you?
Success is really living a high-performance life within the context of what's known as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. This means that you need to appreciate that contented life is more than just work, there are societal and personal aspects to it. - It’s about finding a balance - to me, that’s a success. Also, doing it in the right way, with principles, I think that’s important.
What are your 3 biggest accomplishments?
- Leaving home when I was 17, and still getting a very good education.
- Failing when I was younger. I had a real desire to be a professional athlete, and I failed. I had to make a judgement as to whether or not I should go for it. That was hard, but being able to be successful after that failure was an achievement.
- Lastly, probably working through and surviving the credit crunch in London. Getting through that and being able to come back to Australia and start an investment bank after that experience - I think that's my greatest achievement career-wise.
What risks have you taken on your path to success?
I would say the biggest risk I took was leaving home at 17. The decision to move to London to start a global graduate program as my first job was a big risk that paid big rewards. I think that generally, I'm a person that has high conviction, so I take risks in a lot of things I do. I would also say because I've got to have a lot of conviction that I’m a conservative risk taker. I don't just take risk carelessly.
What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?
Relax more. Stay focused. Learn to live a performance lifestyle. Appreciate that life is really hard in so many different ways, but just try to relax a bit. Recognise you need to enjoy yourself and have a laugh.
Caring about what others think is it important or destructive?
I think it's both, to be honest. I think it is important to respect other people and caring about what they think is definitely a part of that. But I don't think you should care too much, and I say that more because I think you need to be yourself and you need to have the maturity and development to have your own view. But you should be able to socialise that view and be respectful to others. Is it destructive? Absolutely. I think people worry far too much about what other people think.
What is the best (or worst) piece of advice you ever received? Why?
The best piece of advice I've ever received was to study finance and law at UNSW. I had explained to someone that I was very interested in investment banking. I loved the financial markets and I had this desire to create a future for myself. It was a fairly mature discussion for me at that age. The person gave me very, very good advice and that was to do that degree because it would help me be better educated, thoughtful, more well-rounded in terms of being commercially, socially and politically aware: that was exactly right. The worst would be when I came back to Australia and I was looking for a job. I had a time where I was unemployed and I was offered a few jobs, people encouraged me to take these roles at the time that I knew weren't right for me. People can give you advice without the level of understanding and insight that you actually have yourself when you think carefully about things.
Can you tell me about a time when you almost gave up? And what you did instead of giving up?
There were a few times. When I finished my sporting career, I was in a really bad place. However, I knew it and could rationalise it. I wasn't really sure what to do and it wasn't really giving up, it was more trying to redirect. That was a very tough time. I realise now many achievers in whatever field will deal with this. Coming back to Australia from overseas, I felt a genuine concern for my career because I had developed and acquired all these skills which seem to have limited transferability to Australia. It was very hard for me to understand my place, so I did feel like giving up in a way at that point. But I didn't - because deep down that is not my character. I really wanted to do what I am doing now, so I stayed at it, playing the small steps into bigger steps approach: here I am.
Did you ever leave a job or opportunity too quickly or too late?
I don't think so. More often than not, I think most people do it too late. I have moved a lot in my career both naturally and by circumstance. I deal with change proactively.
Who do you look up to?
I don't really look up to anyone. I don't mean that in an arrogant way, I mean it more than I really don't like this whole idea of celebrity culture. I really don't like this idea of celebrity CEOs and famous people being special and so on. I actually admire “normal people” more, people such as my Mum. My Mum raised 9 kids. I look up to my brothers and sisters and the challenges they overcame in their lives. So I think I'm a little bit more of a humble admirer if you can say that, of everyday life and those that do it well or even manage.
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