Fabric company Panaz looks to future as Rollie Attard replaces father as CEO

During my primary school years my father religiously picked me up from a side street in Fence, next to Panaz, the Lancashire powerhouse of a fabric company.
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At the same time as I was being picked up, an eight-year-old boy named Rollie was often found inside the factory, and on one occasion was even found dangling a canoe out of the upper floors of the building!

In 2021 our paths crossed and since then I’ve been lucky enough to get to know that young dynamic person.

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Panaz CEO Rollie AttardPanaz CEO Rollie Attard
Panaz CEO Rollie Attard
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Although at 33 years of age, some would say, he’s not quite as ‘young’ anymore. He has inspired, motivated and absolutely challenged me.

Today, I would like you all to get to know him too. Rollie Attard has no ordinary back story. His father is Tony Attard OBE, former High Sheriff of Lancashire and the man who founded multi-million pound textile business, Panaz. With offices in the UK, USA and Dubai.

Their awards cabinet is extensive, winning the Queen’s Award on two occasions for import and export.

A special mention has to go to Rollie’s mother, Pat. Who he tells me he also gets a lot of his character from.

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That character, in my opinion, has created a true leader of the future. Rollie Attard IS the future of Panaz, and whilst some would look at the incredibly successful family he has come from and think he was given his role. Those people would be wrong.

Rollie has dedicated his life and career to making sure he has earned the opportunity to take his parents’ legacy forward. The Panaz family have certainly taken Rollie under their wing and wholeheartedly champion his plans and support his future vision, not just because his vision is extraordinary, but because there is a strong echo of love, willing him to do well in this role.

I sat down to interview Rollie, about his history, goals, future and more importantly to find what specifically has led to this young leader earning the respect of those around him.

The first question is, who is Rollie Attard?

Rollie went to Leeds University and London Business School, specifically focusing his education on economics, business and management.

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From there he began his working life at a small food start-up in 2012, that start up is now the household name ‘Gousto’.

From my conversations over time, a lot of his knowledge and experience comes from the graduate scheme he enrolled upon with Amazon, working under Jeff Bezos. After spending years travelling and learning his craft, he came into his family business Panaz.

He started by building the Middle East and USA businesses before transitioning to Chief Operating Officer and now, firmly underway with his Chief Executive Officer role. All a very far cry from the archaeologist dreams he had as a child, but he assures me his passion for history is still very much there! I often quiz Rollie on ‘values’, what his values as a person are and those of the business. It came as no surprise to hear his personal values are integrity and reliability. He may be a millennial, the generation that gets a pretty bad reputation for their work ethic, but Rollie’s ethic is old school! No matter what it takes, he gets the job done and empowers his teams to get their job done too!

I asked him for three values as a leader. He charmingly manipulated my question to give me one word in three different ways.

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"People, People, People. If you have the best people and give them the structure to excel then so will the business. I always seek to create buy in - you can have the best strategy in the world but if there’s no buy in from other stakeholders then you’ll struggle to make it work. Use good people around you. Multiple heads are always better than one. Different people have different skills; get people working together and harness them all.

"Ultimately, you have to have strong management skills, empathy for those you’re leading and the ability to take them with you. If you can inspire a team and motivate with real substance then they’re likely to support your strategy. There are some more specific skills however, you need to have the ability to walk into a meeting, understand the situation, contribute and make a decision, that’s important to keep things moving. Leaders empower people and develop them to reach their potential. I really believe that a good leader creates other leaders."

In my opinion, great leaders are created with their actions and not just their words. Rollie talks about developing other people, and wanting them to lead the way but I get to see how he puts this into practice. From his time at Amazon, and through his personal values the appraisal system he, and the very wonderful Head of HR Nicola Boardman, developed at Panaz is revolutionary.

Long gone are appraisals that tell people what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do better.

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The Panaz system helps people identify their own goals, what’s important to them and creates a strategic pathway which is put in place to help the person achieve their goal. A true investment in their people. I have witnessed first hand, on many occasions how much respect the people of Panaz give Rollie. I believe it is because he is relatable and comes across as a normal human, with an extraordinary skill set. There is no fear around Rollie, people go to him with their problems and they find solutions together. I was intrigued to hear if there was a specific strategy behind gaining respect, especially as a lot of Panaz people have worked there 20+ years. Or, is this just ‘Rollie’...

"It’s important to spend time with people at all levels, know who they are and understand what they do. You need to understand these elements of a person to be able to motivate them fully.

"Respect is important but if you stray into fear then people may hide things and then you don’t get the full picture and make your own life harder.

"You also risk a blame culture if people think they might get into ‘trouble’ for making a mistake. You need to encourage people to take risks to progress, if that’s your culture it’s inevitable people make mistakes, at that point it’s about how you recover and route cause fix the issue. You need to empower your people, otherwise you’ll end up doing all the work yourself and there is only so far you can go doing that.”

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Who do you admire? First and foremost, his father, Tony. "The man is a force of nature.” I second that. After all he has created a world leading company from a very small Lancashire village that 99% of the UK population probably haven’t heard of! Then there’s Alex Ferguson and Richie McCaw, who have created consistent success within sporting environments at the highest level which is incredibly difficult to achieve. Given the fact Rollie once worked for Jeff Bezos, he features on his personal leader list. The Amazon business “thinks so differently to anywhere I’ve ever worked. They used to encourage people to be ‘peculiar’ and do things in their own way to create new ideas”.

Then we get to mental health, of course. People in leadership positions are always in a difficult place, they need to take on the responsibility of so many, whilst still keeping their own mind strong.

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, I saw many leaders surrender to their own mental health. We talk about the fine line of showing vulnerability, but not too much, to a point where people could lose faith in their leader. On the surface Rollie appears strong, and he is strong, but he comes with empathy and understanding, which he clearly demonstrates to his staff.

I was keen to find out if it ever affects his own mental state.

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"That’s a difficult one, it’s hard to be empathetic without taking on board other people’s issues. As a leader you have to learn to be pragmatic, compartmentalise and not agonise over decisions and that’s a mentally tough thing to do.

"Mental health is always a consideration and you need to do your best to keep fit in this area. As a leader you often have to be strong for other people and make decisions when others cannot. I think vulnerability in the correct moment is invaluable but vulnerability in the wrong one is crippling.

"Decisiveness is essential for example, if you start to hesitate too much and question yourself then people sense that. You need to have conviction.”

But how lonely is life at the top?

"It can be lonely and isolated at times as big decisions fall to you and often affect the lives of your people. You really need conviction in what you’re doing and what you’re trying to achieve as the road is seldom smooth, certainly in the current economic environment.”

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What happens when your job and benefit of the business challenge those personal values you hold as a person?

"Challenging your own values is an interesting one. Running a business is an opportunity to live every day by your values and allow them to permeate through your day to day approach and company strategy. Sometimes decisions need to be made that are difficult but the intention is always to steer the company and the people in it towards more success.”

When I’ve probed him on what he does for his own mental health, I hear a lot about exercise and self-improvement. Specifically the app ‘headspace’ and audio books. He’s also fond of the guitar and a good night out too! What has been the biggest challenge for you and how did you overcome it?

"There are lots of specific challenges that have been tough, certainly during the pandemic period, but understanding that as a leader you operate in an often grey space where there is no perfect decision has been a challenge. I never want to be wrong, that’s human nature, but sometimes you just need to make a decision to move things along. However, you can also never be too proud to hold your hands up and say you were wrong!”

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Finally, what is your future..."I’m here for the long term now. To continue building our group of businesses. We are four companies and each one has its challenges, but each one has even bigger opportunities."

On that note, our time with Rollie has come to an end. Whilst we close this chapter of his past and present, I for one am exceptionally excited to watch the future unfold for Rollie, and the Panaz Group.