From a part-time job at Just Jeans to CEO of Sportsgirl


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Fashion industry icon Colleen Callander is a "leader by design", which happens to be the title of her new book. She believes leadership is something everyone can learn. In her book she shares her insights from 30 years in retail, including 13 years as CEO of popular fashion brands.

Her experience runs from leaving school at 16 to suffering burnout from her workaholic ways to moving up the ladder and not being afraid to ask for her worth.

Callander left the retail world in 2019 to experience the next chapter of her life - to follow her passions and travel - but when COVID-19 hit she launched a new business, which happened to be in the right place at the right time. She now mentors and coaches others to achieve their own success.

colleen callander sportsgirl just jeans

What was your first job?

I started in retail at the age of 16. I got a job at the local Just Jeans store and I absolutely loved it from the first moment I joined.

I loved customers, I loved selling, I loved clothes, I loved learning, and at the end of that year I told my parents I wasn't going back to finish school. I'd been offered a full-time job. My parents hadn't finished school themselves - they hadn't had that opportunity. They were very passionate about giving us an education.

They said, "Be passionate, love what you do, never give up and work hard." These are the principles I've carried through my whole life.

What came next?

I'd been at Just Jeans for 10 years. I was the youngest area manager at the age of 20 and running the state with 54 stores at 24.

I was very ambitious and worked hard, and very early in the piece I worked out that people were my greatest asset. I really nurtured talent and that's the way I grew my career. In 1999, I was approached to join Sportsgirl.

It's an incredibly iconic brand and I was super excited. I moved through the ranks there, became retail manager, general manager, then moved to Sussan (part of the same company) as CEO.

I was there for six years and then I moved back to Sportsgirl and was CEO for seven years.

How has the past year been for you?

In March 2020 I decided it was time to write my next chapter (literally). I had my 20-year anniversary with the Sussan/Sportsgirl group the year prior and I decided I was going to take a year off.

Then COVID hit and I became busier than I'd ever been. I had also turned 50 and it was time to write a new chapter of my life. When I resigned I wanted to do my passion projects, travel and finish writing my book Leader by Design. I locked myself away for about six weeks and did that.

I also had a lot of phone calls from women who needed mentoring and coaching, and I started the Mentor Me program.

I started a business and leadership coaching program, did a lot of one-on-one coaching, predominantly with women. People were really challenged when Covid hit and really, really needed support.

What's the best money advice you've received?

What my father said to me at an early age: be respectful of money because it doesn't come easily.

What's the best investment decision you've made?

My whole life has been investing in people and from the very early stages in my career I worked out that people were my best asset and best investment. So for me the best investment I've ever made is in people and in myself.

What's the worst investment decision you've made?

I'm not a risk taker so I don't really go off-piste too much; I'm pretty diligent with my money. My investments have always been in property and they've all served me quite well.

What is your favourite thing to splurge on?

People think that, given I've been in the fashion industry for so long and have travelled the world in respect of fashion, I live in the world of clothes.

But I much prefer to spend on my house. My home is my sanctuary. The other thing I really love to spend money on is experiences.

We just don't need so much stuff, so for us as a family we love to do experiences.

If you had $10,000 where would you invest it?

I'd invest in shares. I've never been a risk taker so if I had $10,000 spare I'd probably have a bit of fun.

What would you do if you only had $50 left in the bank?

I'd have a serious panic and anxiety attack. I've always been pretty good with money and respectful, and I'd probably have a total freak-out ... and then I'd go back to the grindstone.

Do you intend to leave an inheritance?

The short answer would be yes, but for me, everything in life is about balance.

My children and husband love to travel, love experiences, and I've invested a lot in giving my children a great education and lifestyle, but also I want to make sure I can help my children and set them up for the future. My parents have helped me throughout the years, especially when I was younger.

What's been your best money-making career move?

I've been in the same organisation for 20 years so you automatically move up the corporate ladder and your pay rate increases accordingly.

A lot of people jump from organisation to organisation and there's a change in money-making there, but most women I work with find it really hard and uncomfortable to negotiate pay rises, so I work with a lot of them to make sure we can do that.

Finish this sentence: money makes ...

... the world go round but it doesn't buy happiness.

Enter now for your chance to win a copy of Leader by Design by Colleen Callander

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Julia Newbould was editor-at-large and later managing editor of Money from November 2019 to February 2022. She was previously editor of Financial Planning and Super Review magazines; managing editor at InvestorInfo and at Morningstar Australia. Julia co-authored The Joy of Money, a book on women and personal finance. She holds a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Sydney where she serves on the alumni council.