Beyond Radio – Nicola Mills

Staff Writer

In 'Beyond Radio' we profile people who have translated successful careers in radio into spectacular ventures beyond radio.

Nicola Mills, MBA – Group Managing Director of Pacific Retail Management – previously of 2Day FM, Fox FM, SAFM, and Canberra’s FM104.7

Nicola Mills, started her radio career as Promotions Assistant at Canberra’s FM104.7. She is now the founder and Group Managing Director of Pacific Retail Management – one of Australia’s fastest growing franchise companies, with 30 stores nationwide across 3 brands, and annual group revenues of $10 million. Nicola was ranked #26 on Smart Company’s list of Australia’s leading female entrepreneurs in 2010 and 2011.

The phenomenal growth of Pacific Retail Management’s brands is built on the skills and experience Nicola gained from radio, at FM104.7, SAFM, Fox FM, and later as 2Day FM’s Assistant General Manager & Marketing Director – where her work was recognized with numerous awards.

“Yes, that background in the competitive trenches of commercial radio has been a key pillar of Pacific Retail Management’s success. In those tight ratings battles you get to really understand brand strategy, strategic positioning, marketing with flair, leadership, organisational behavior, and human behavior. All those experiences in competitive radio proved invaluable later on – my franchisees (owners) are now my ‘talent’.”

Her history of winning awards and accolades in radio has continued in business. Since launching Pacific Retail Management in 2007, Nicola has led its brands to frequent appearances in BRW, Smart Company, Fast Franchise Magazine, and to international recognition – winning two prestigious franchising awards. And this phenomenal business growth is just beginning – she predicts 200+ stores by 2016.

“We have an excellent expansion plan in place – and a lot of interest from investors and potential franchisees. Our first great success was turning around the Go Sushi brand – it was about to go under when we bought it out in 2008. We fixed it up and it’s now booming – Go Sushi made BRW’s Fast Franchises list of Top 50 Growth by Revenue. It gave us big runs on the board. We very clearly know what we’re doing, and how to turnaround a dying brand into a winner – and during the worst of the Global Financial Crisis! That achievement carries a lot of weight in the business world."

Talking to Nicola at PRM headquarters in Sydney’s Hunter Hill – “we’re about to move offices as the business is growing so fast, and we need more room” – she explains why PRM has multiple brands rather than focusing on just one.

“Again, I learned a lot from my time in radio, and how to handle multi-brand markets at Austereo. I had the skill set and foundation, so I knew I could put those same practices into action.”

“Go Sushi on it’s own is a strong brand, and makes good money for the franchisees, but I also wanted a ‘brand with a heart beat’ – one that would be profitable, yet make a difference in the world. Enter the Wasabi Warriors brand, which has a mission – to help people ‘eat good, do good, feel good’ about their choices. Wasabi Warriors has a bushido – a code we live by, and the franchisees live by, and it’s an exciting brand to work on. Wasabi Warriors is the franchise brand to watch in Australia.” 

So, how is a brand like Wasabi Warriors like a radio brand?

“To start with, Wasabi Warriors was built on solid and extensive customer research, careful strategic positioning, brand character and personality – and a deep and powerful emotional connection with the audience of consumers, investors, franchisees, and suppliers. Our targeting, approach and deep understanding of the brand is just as clear as at a winning radio station. For example: ‘Wasabi Warriors is a premium sushi brand in the quick service restaurant category – specifically targeting lunchtime crowds in high traffic areas, with a broad appeal for under-40s’. Sound kind of familiar?"

“In radio terms, it’s a high-quality, big-cume brand. Think of it like a cross between a Today station now, and Nova 969 when it was on top – sexy, leading edge, fun, positive, broad but deep appeal … and meaningful – there’s genuine substance to every detail of the brand. It has strong and positive messages about sustainability, healthy eating, and local community involvement."

“We took the same approach in differentiating Wasabi Warriors as I did at the Today Network." 

"Wasabi Warrior’s mission is ‘eat good, do good, feel good’ – and it’s different to other brands in many important ways … convenient, fresh and healthy sushi prepared to a delicious menu by sushi Masterchef, Hideo Dekura (pictured left) – environmentally sustainable food sources, packaging and business practices that look after the oceans, animals and the earth – and a close involvement in each store’s local community. It’s really similar to what a great radio station brand delivers. It’s got a strong heartbeat. It’s a high quality, high value brand.”

And when you launched Wasabi Warriors, did you use the same principles you used for launching a station, show, event or major promotion?

“Yes – and they’re important principles to the franchisees running each store – they’re our version of Program or Content Directors, Executive Producers, and Marketing / Integration Directors. Using the same principles used to launch stations like B105 and Nova, though applied to a quick service restaurant franchise, we launched the first Wasabi Warriors in Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall to rave reviews! And the next two are about to launch in Sydney’s MLC centre and in Adelaide. PRM is strategically well positioned to increase the amount of stores exponentially within a very short time-frame. Key to how fast that growth will happen is the quality and passion of the franchisees (owners) who get on board.”

 Instant success! The lunchtime queues form from day one

Wasabi Warriors Brisbane CBD launch

Many former radio people have been astoundingly successful in franchising – or is that just an elite few?

“Well, you have to look beyond just the people like myself, Jeff and Janine Allis of Boost Juice fame, Brian Bickmore’s success with Pie Face – beyond us there are a lot of people who’ve had successful radio careers who now own one or more franchise stores and are financially much better off. I think it takes a certain type of person to run franchise stores, and a successful career in radio is about as strong a foundation as you can get.”

You had a spectacular radio career and, at 2Day FM, were at the pinnacle of the industry – so why did you leave?

“Radio is great in that it’s a close-knit industry, like a big extended family – even with people you haven’t met or worked with before. We all share a common bond. But after so many years, while I was enjoying the friendships, the intensity, and being in an industry that is a little above the ordinary – I was also putting in many hours, effort, and stress for someone else.  I love hard work, and being part of something that makes a difference – I just wanted to do that with a bit more autonomy. Radio teaches you a lot, but there is a time when you need to take more control of your own destiny."

“For example: we now have over $10 million in turnover, 14 key executives, and 200 people employed across the group – yet my dog Tarne (who was a puppy when I started the business from home) still comes to the office every day.  We have built a crèche at the back of the office for team members who have had children (including me), and we have a culture of work place flexibility. Our team works hard and they’re rewarded well. We can have all these things that are important to us, because it’s my business. To find this in the corporate world would be difficult.” 

And when you left radio, why did you specifically choose to go into franchising?

“As the saying goes: ‘Be in business for yourself, but not by yourself’. 80% of new businesses fail – because people think they can do it all. And, worse, they think they can do it all without help. To succeed you need support.  People come out of the corporate world, and out of high paying jobs thinking they are invincible.  They forget they were so good at their jobs because they also had the support of the marketing teams, or the programming teams, or the finance teams.” 

“If you go it alone, you have to be all those people, and very few people can do that.  In franchising, you get to own your business, but have a back up team in marketing, operations, and finance to help you along the way. In business it’s not how much money you have to start the business, but how resilient you are, how much family and friend support you have, and how willing you are to ask for help if things get tough – that’s what differentiates the average from the most successful.”


"Some of the franchisees are multi-store owners and are turning over up to $2 million a year. They get the freedom of owning their own business AND they get all the marketing, and operational support they need"

So, what are the key similarities between a successful media executive and a successful franchisee (owner)?

“Once again, Wasabi Warriors is the best example – as it’s so similar to a dynamic, living radio brand. In a Wasabi Warriors franchisee we’re looking for people who understand the importance of these key success principles:

  • Have a killer team in place, and a second-in-charge who can sustain the business if you get sick or need a break
  • Work with people with deep experience – at the very least they’ll appreciate the pitfalls
  • Really truly successful business people have a great attitude, and a great support network – make sure your partner or family are behind you when you become your own boss.”

Finally, do you have any tips from your years in radio that will help stations toward a successful ratings year in 2012?

“I can’t do better than to quote Walt Disney – ‘the simple things, done right, are often the biggest innovation of them all’.”

Nicola Mills would be happy to hear from anyone in “the big extended family of radio”, and can be contacted at [email protected]

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