Unexpectedly thrust into leading a male-dominated business, Penni Donato suddenly found herself treading a very thin line between failure and success. With a great deal of determination and help from a hard-won MBA, she’s transformed precarity into growth.
Penni Donato: All challenges accepted
It picked us, we didn’t pick it,” says Penni Donato, describing Allin Towbars – the business for which she is managing director.
In 2014, Penni’s father passed away. Accountants told Penni and her sisters that if they didn’t take ownership of the family business – a towbar manufacturer in Richmond – it would cease trading, leaving employees and customers in the lurch.
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So, Penni and her siblings stepped into the fray. Penni was the only one among them with managerial experience – having operated her own food business for a couple of years – and shouldered the mantle of managing director.
“I drew the short straw,” she says.
Not only were Allin’s operations unfamiliar to Penni, they were also in less than ideal shape. As she set about updating outmoded systems, rebranding, overhauling a rapidly declining factory and workshop, and diversifying beyond a single revenue stream, she found herself constantly stymied by another complication.
“The culture in the place was pretty blokey, pretty toxic,” says Penni.
“I started thinking, if I’m going to survive and change this place I need some professional development… and I need that title, I need that badge, so that people can see, yeah – I do deserve to be in this job.”
Her decision to enrol in an MBA was strategic – an attempt to bolster her credibility in a sometimes-hostile working environment. Initially, her gamble in the form of an MBA at the Adelaide Business School felt unlikely to pan out.
“I actually almost threw up in an exam. Studying was hard work – really challenging, very stressful,” says Penni. “Particularly the maths and algebra, I’d just never done anything like that in school.”
But while drawing on “all my resources – husband, neighbour, nephew” to help stay the course towards qualification, Penni had a realisation.
As she tackled a subject called Managing Contemporary Operations, she saw how the Adelaide Business School’s teachings could help her overcome one of Allin’s most knotty business challenges.
“We had a lot of work to do on the culture – old management styles are hard to break,” says Penni.
“That subject was all about leadership and getting the best out of people and connecting with people. Management isn’t about yelling at people and demanding things.
“It was a big eye opener for good leadership.”
Applying her new knowledge in the business, Penni triggered a seismic and long-term shift in the workplace culture.
Calling upon the teachings of her MBA while she was still in the midst of it, she was able to spread change throughout the organisation, even keeping several long-term employees engaged during the transition.
“Their knowledge and what they bring to the business is invaluable,” Penni says.
“Now we have a really harmonious culture where people are encouraged to talk and to give us feedback – good or bad. It took a while, but we have the best team ever now.”
Alongside helping her negotiate a huge transformation, completing her MBA at the Adelaide Business School in 2019 gave Penni confidence to juggle the day-to-day requirements of a busy company.
“Once upon a time we would sit there and go through the P&L [Profit and Loss statements] and the budgets… and you just wouldn’t ask questions because you wouldn’t know what the accountants were talking about,” says Penni.
“Knowing the lingo they use and asking questions with the confidence that you know what you’re talking about is huge.”
All the hard work is paying off. Allin is now far more than a towbar manufacturer; the company has become a one-stop-shop for towing, 4WD and caravan enthusiasts looking to fit out their vehicles, and has also added engineering to its service list.
The biggest problem Penni faces today is how to handle the business’ rapid rate of growth.
“With increased growth we’re bursting at the seams, so we need to expand,” says Penni. “So, we need to look at what that expansion looks like.”
“Some of these are challenging opportunities, but they are opportunities.”