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International Women's Day with Merrily Hunter

Updated: Mar 8

In light of 2024's International Women's Day, The Brand Bar sat down with Merrily Hunter, Founder and CEO of MAC Trade Services, to discuss her business journey as a woman, and those who inspire her the most.

A women standing with one hand in her pocket and her other hand resting on a chair. She is wearing glasses and a pink blazer.
Merrily Hunter, Founder and CEO of MAC Trade Services.

Listen to our interview with Merrily via the podcast or read the full transcript below.

Watch The Interview


Philippa: "Welcome to the Allïance by The Brand Bar! So the Allïance by The Brand Bar is where we share what we know to help your business grow - and as a female led business, this International Women's Day, we're really wanting to shine a light on all of the amazing women in our lives that we work with that are inspiring. They're driving change, and they're driving good workplace culture. Harlem that works with us and I, we, go over to Adelaide a little bit and work with a company there called MAC Trade Services, and it's headed up by Merrily Hunter. Merrily, welcome."

Merrily: "Hi, thanks for having me."

Philippa: "Thanks so much for joining us. Harlem and I absolutely love working with you at MAC Trade Services. What you're building and what you're doing there is so inspiring and we want to just share to the world, um, for other females out there that are aspiring to, to be a leader, about you know, how you've done it and what you do. So tell us a little bit about MAC Trade Services."

Merrily: "So MAC has gone through a few different iterations over the years. We originally started just as a consulting firm to help energy retailers and government officers understand energy efficiency obligations. Each state has a different scheme requirement, a different target, different set of rules. So we, um, I had originally been, that had been my area of expertise back in my corporate life at AGL, uh, and the team that I then employed within MAC had also worked in that sphere. So we set out with the intention just to raise awareness and to help people on their own journey with energy efficiency and complying with their obligations.

Today, MAC is, gosh, it's spread across multiple states of Australia. We've got a whole engineering team. We do everything from home electrification projects, upgrading inefficient devices like air conditioners, hot water, to seven star appliances. And we utilise state based energy savings schemes to help people get over the financial burden of upgrading their house to more efficient technologies. We also do large scale business, um, solar installations, virtual power plant arrangements, and large scale battery installs as well. So everything from your electrification journey, really, we're a one stop shop. We do from households all the way up to large scale commercial sites and energy optimisation activities. So they're using the least amount of energy that they can to still operate and function the way they want to."

Philippa: "It's so inspiring what you've done. Being a female and you know, starting your organisation, tell us about the journey how you got there, like where you started. We were in your offices the other week and they showed us a photo of the cafe that you started the business at. And it reminded me of the cafe, Stay Grounded in Collaroy, where I went with my coffee every morning and I started the business there. Can you tell us about how you got from there to now, you know, you've got an Adelaide office with, you know, umpteen staff. You've opened up in Melbourne and you're starting to put your tentacles into New South Wales. Can you tell us about that journey and how it developed?"

Merrily: "Well, I mean, it was just a, a small handful of us for a long time there. When I first had the idea for MAC, uh, I had been made redundant from a AGL. Actually, I'd taken a voluntary redundancy rather than have a role restructure, and I was feeling really burnt out.

I had been giving it my everything for about eight or nine years, specialising in energy efficiency, uh, and I'd hit a wall.

So I, I was at home stewing on what I wanted to do next when I had, um, one of the clients that I'd previously been working with at AGL had said, there's this new energy efficiency program I don't understand how it's going to work. Can you help me?.Uh, and then within the same week, I got a call from AGL's competitor over at Origin saying, can you do for our business, what you did for them. And I was still in this holding pattern of... What do I do? What do I really want? And while I was thinking about that, I wanted to help my friends. So I said, look, I'll help both of you. I'll just set up a little consulting gig and I'll just give you the advice that you need to help your teams along the way. So you're not sitting waiting while I decide what I want to do next.

So it was a little bit accidental that it started. It started with the intention to help people understand what I already knew and, um, then it grew from there, really. It took off from there because one project rolled into the next, rolled into the next, they shared my information with other people. The client that I've been working with in South Australia had been hounding me for a long time. We had a good friendship and he'd been saying, you need to set up your own business, you were born to do this. And, um, I was... I had a lot of fear and doubt that I could do it. I'd actually seen my dad always running small businesses and to see what he put into it 24/7 and the sacrifices that he made, I thought that's not for me. I, I don't think I could ever be that passionate about my own business and I don't want to, to fail, to take other people on the journey and, and then fail.

So because I was plagued with self doubt, MAC started reluctantly as a consulting firm, really just helping people. I just shared knowledge and almost felt guilty sending invoices out because it was something that I loved and I was an energy geek from way back. It felt wrong to be invoicing people for something that I love to do and to talk about. And as I said, it then snowballed, my information got shared with others when people would say, well, how does that work? They'd say, call Merrily, she'll help you out. And then there was so much work that, and I'd found that two of my old colleagues, um, were being made redundant from the previous company that we worked at. And I asked if they would come and join the team. And then it was real, it was a real business.

But we still couldn't afford an office. So we worked out of a cafe, that little cafe that I was showing you the picture of was in Fitzroy and we'd set up laptops there and make sure we were always ordering coffees so that we were giving them money as well. And the three of us then became four, and we got fold out desks and worked out of art galleries that did exhibitions on weekends. So we could work from Monday to Friday with our little fold out IKEA desks. And all the time we were doing big programs of work and, and just sharing what we knew, and writing up reports and giving advice and running training programs. And it wasn't long after that, that we realised we were repeating the same content over and over. Well, why don't we actually automate this and build a training platform? And take our content, which was very technical and put it into layman's terms and break it down into something fun for people to watch.

So we started converting all of our training programs into animation and film, and that was the birth of EEIQ, where we thought people learn differently. Let's start training all the trades people who are doing energy efficiency upgrades this way so that they can see what a good job looks like. And so EEIQ was the next iteration of MAC. It became a training platform that we could then onboard trades people through to, to teach them how to roll out electrification programs in the field. Well, teach them how it was different from what they were doing every day, which there wasn't actually a lot of differences behind it. But when you're using big words like energy optimisation and electrification to people who haven't been in the energy industry before, it can feel quite overwhelming and daunting and like, it's too hard to understand. But normally, it's just a different way of filling out a form that changes things, or even the different way you install something and put the settings in place. So we broke down a lot of the, um, intimidating parts of it and put it into real terms and said what it really was, taking away all of the complexities and the technical jargon around it.

Uh, and then it was around COVID time that the client that had originally inspired me to get out and get started with MAC, said that he was ready to hang up his boots and did I want to buy his business, which was quite a large trades company, over in South Australia that was doing the installations of this work. And we'd already been working alongside them for the last, gosh, it would have been about six years by that point. We've been working alongside training that team. So we already knew everybody there. It was another leap forward for the business and a new phase of the business. We've been teaching it and talking about it for so long and training and doing quality assurance audits to make sure things were being done properly. Let's put our money where our mouth was and actually do the installations ourselves.

So we bought his business and rebranded to MAC Trade Services. Uh, and within a year of taking over that business, we, um, had the opportunity to purchase the engineering division of Zen Energy and their hardware division. So that would add on a capability for our business of installing–designing, installing, commissioning large scale solar and battery. Uh, installations at commercial sites and for, um, as energy generation assets, and it was complimentary to what we're already doing. It was another big step forward.

Um, it was also at the time that I was pregnant with second child, probably a terrible time to go through a big restructure. But our team went over those three years, we went from being about five or six people to go, jumping to about 15 people to now being just shy of 50 people around Australia and, um, the projects that we're doing are complex, but, really exciting to be part of. And it's still the same values that we set out with, which was to always be generous with knowledge and, and be generous to people, um, be innovative and what we're doing and, and break the mould. And just because it hasn't been done before, it doesn't mean it can't be done. Uh, and always be sustainable and do things the right way the first time. Don't get involved in something because it's, it's a quick win or, or, or a quick way to do something. Do it because it's the right thing to do and ultimately you're gonna have that sleep at night factor.

And I think that that's been the philosophy of MAC that's really attracted such amazing people to this business is that they share that same mindset. They want to be able to be part of change and have an impact. And the more awareness we raise of simple changes like being energy efficient and, uh, finding renewable sources to, to be able to, uh, consume at your business site and everybody can play a role even in their home business. I'm in a rental and we're still going through an electrification journey in our house. I think that it's empowering, and we see that in the engagements we have with customers and also in the staff here that are learning as they go to because there's always something new and exciting that we're experimenting with or new tech that's just coming out and a new idea or a new way to do something."

Philippa: "So you talk about, what I love is, you talk about being generous and innovative. You're a female in energy, which is essentially a very male dominated industry. When we're at your offices and we're doing the strategic planning day, it was probably one of the first times I've been in a room with heads of departments and they were all women. And the culture that you're working so hard to build is so inspiring. Can you tell us, you know, why you're putting so much energy into cultivating an environment that is family oriented, that is, you know, family focused, that is supporting women, and, and what it means to be a female leader in a male dominated industry and how hard that's been."

Merrily: "Oh, that's a big question. At first it was really hard. It was really hard to be taken seriously. Clean, the good thing is that clean energy and green energy, it has far more of a female penetration rate than other sectors of the energy like gas and mining. Um, but to be leading a trades based company in the energy sector, there have been more than a handful of times that I've been asked, are you helping your husband with his business? And, is this your dad's company or something like that? And it's just, I think you can take offence to it, or you could just accept the fact that what you're doing is out of the norm, it's not a traditional industry that, has attracted, uh, female CEOs, obviously, but it hasn't held me back. I think that once, our work spoke for itself, really.

And then also in your question about MAC and having female heads of staff, it definitely hasn't been a deliberate attempt to make sure that we had a 50:50 set up. I think that we're sitting at about 53% female to male ratio, and we've probably got about 60:40 on in leadership positions, female to male ratio.

We set out trying to find the right personalities for our team, and we actually adopted a online testing tool. So before we even invited people to interview, we'd go through recruiters and say what role we're looking for. When they would send us through candidates, the first thing we did was send them back an online psych test. And that test was testing, is the person collaborative? Uh, did they have a strong work ethic? Are they supportive of others? Are they someone who is negative or sheds blame? Or are they someone who's very positive and optimistic. And who are they as a person, rather than how many accolades have they achieved in their working career and what did they get in school. And I really think that that has help shape the company because it hasn't allowed for our own, or, it hasn't allowed the personal bias to take place in the interview process. Really, if they've scored quite well on that test, they're automatically in the short list and they're automatically being interviewed because we know that they have ticked all of the culture boxes that our company finds important.

Um, and it's just happenstance that it ends up being 53% percent and um, uh, female to male ratios within the business. So I'm grateful for that. And I'm grateful that we have such a diverse workforce here. We're not in an echo chamber where you're just hearing the same things all the time. And I think that that's allowed us to be really innovative in the way we go about things.

The other good thing is that we're not attracting people that traditionally come from the energy sector. We have people here that have come from the education sector that have come from, um, from manufacturing and people who come even from defence and from mining and they're, they bring a very different approach to the way that we want to build things. And we respect the fact that the people who are joining our company are adults. They have their own skills. They have their own experience. They will put their own spin on things. And we'd like to step back and say, here's your area, make it how you think it should be, uh, within these remit, uh, within this remit.

And It's really helped with our growth that people feel like they've got that trust and that they can, um, build something of their own in their own department in their own way that they think it should be done. And it's helped our business grow as a whole and in a multifaceted way, rather than just in a linear direction, because it's a traditional hierarchy and one person is setting the tone or the goals and what needs to be done. That's not how our business works at all. We work in all directions, um, with a lot of different voices, and ideas on the table."

Philippa: "What did you want to be when you were a little girl? And tell me the story about how you got one of your first jobs."

Merrily: "So I always wanted to be a business woman. I remember when I was 10, uh, dressing up in a, one of my mum's vests and a pencil skirt and walking around with a briefcase and I had big old sunglasses, putting on a little stereotype look. I always wanted to be a business person. And I had grown, as I said, my, my dad had been running small businesses for so long that I had, um, the way I would get to spend time with him, I would do his books, even at 10, I would sit there doing check-book reconciliations and learning about MYOB.

So when I went and got my first job, I was fresh out of school and I knew that it was really hard to get past the receptionists. I really didn't mind what job I was doing at that time. I wasn't actually going out trying to seek a skilled role. I was just looking for a retail outlet job at that point. And I knew that if I emailed through my resume, it probably wouldn't get looked at, or I'd never hear back. And if I gave it to a receptionist, there was a pile that would probably never get looked at.

So I remember calling, I would have been about 15 at the time, but I called a retail outlet shop nearby where I was and I pretended to be a customer making a complaint and I wanted to speak to the manager and I asked for the manager's name and quickly hung up the phone afterwards. And showed up there about 15 minutes later asking for the manager by name and handed in my resume and said, I want to work here. I want to have a job here. And, um, walked him through the business. And I got, I was hired that day. So it was, I think, just tenacity, ballsiness to walk in and say, I want to work here. I need to get right to the decision maker. And, uh, yeah, I wasn't very good. I wasn't a very good worker. It didn't last very long, but it gave me a taste. I think that that first chapter of my career was all about trying on lots of different roles and hats and seeing which one stuck. And it wasn't until I discovered energy efficiency that I found my calling. It was just something that clicked in my head about it, making so much sense and how, how dynamic it was and how, how, um, diverse it was in and in so many different walks of life. And I think that once you find that calling, it doesn't feel like work anymore.

I've been talking with a guy recently who was running a Boost Juice franchise and after two years he was giving it up and he said it's hard to get passionate about juice. And I thought I've never looked at this business and thought we're installing heat pumps, we're installing air conditioners. I've never looked at it that way. What gives me passion and energy coming into this space is knowing that every house that we do an upgrade in, every business that takes on a large scale battery to shave off this spot exposure. That's one more mind we've opened up to the benefits of energy efficiency. That's one more, um, load that we've reduced to make space for EVs in the network. That's one more, um, household that's then adopted a new technology that's going to tell other people to do the same and they've reduced their carbon footprint and their energy savings. It's never been about the product.

It's always been about the why, the outcome. Um, the result of taking on that technology change."

Philippa: "Is there a female figure that inspires you?

Merrily: "There are lots of female figures that inspire me and for lots of different reasons. In the business field, uh, I really get inspired by stories that people have had. All the shit thrown their way and still found a way to, to climb up, uh, and still found a way to follow their own path and their own voice.

One of my friends, Amanda, uh, she started Lord of the Fries, and she did that while raising three kids and she still set up all the franchises and was part of it and her story about wanting to make the absolute perfect chip and getting the perfect potato. I like the stories.

And, uh, Katherine McConnell, who's the CEO of Brighte, uh, she had a similar story to mine in that she'd been in the finance sector for a long time, discovered that green products and green finance products could be a great way to break down the barrier for people to adopt new green technologies. And after trying to pitch that internally and not getting any traction, she thought there's no reason why this can't take off and then backed herself and has now one of the biggest green financiers in Australia. Um, it's those kinds of stories that I find really inspiring.

Being able to juggle, being a parent and building a company and also building that company with the culture that you would want to work in if ever you had got a job in that space. I think that's really important because it's changing, changing the face of the workforce in Australia and the companies that are here and, um, the philosophy of you've got to see it to be it. We have, so often we have people come into the office and say, it's got such a great energy and I want to come to work and other people here I hear the same, the same rhetoric that they want to come to work too, because it doesn't feel like the, um, the traditional structures where you've got to be seen to know that you're working and there's people hovering over your desk, we haven't built that because nobody likes to work in that space. Nobody can be their best selves in that space. Um, so I think that they're probably really inspiring people for me. I listen to TED Talks daily. So there's a lot of people that, share their opinions. And I always find different ideas from different sectors, inspire me and what we're building here. And I think there's a lot of transferable skills from other industries that, uh, better shape ours."

Philippa: "Define a great leader. Like what are some traits you think that a great leader has?"

Merrily: "I'm probably not the person to ask this. Uh, I am probably the least CEO person you will ever find in your life and say all the wrong things all the time. Uh, I think that a great leader is someone who doesn't aspire to be a leader. That doesn't set out for power or set out to have control or set out for their ego. Somebody who is a good leader is somebody who is there for others and somebody who sees that wanting their team should be the best that they can be in their own walks of life and their own journey.

And that's why you asked before about us building a culture that's really family friendly. One of the big bugbears that I had in the corporate life was that when you're at work, you're at work. And, you're always waiting for the holidays to come and waiting for the weekends to come and waiting for free time to do something. And I don't want to have a business like that. I want people to be able to do both. So if somebody wants flexible working or they wanna be able to spend time with their kids to be there for the morning shift with them, or do school pick up and drop off and do care team runs, or if they, school holidays are a bitch for most people, but trying to navigate that with young children. Um, it shouldn't be work or family. And there's a, as we've seen as parents, you're able to juggle an incredible amount and give it your mindset, but working within strict confines of hours, like 9am to 5pm, 8am to 4pm. It doesn't work for most people. Uh, it doesn't work for a flexible living and balanced life that we all need today. And we're all seeking today. Uh, so if it doesn't work for me, why should I assume it works for my team and for the people that work with me? So I, really in building the flexibility around the business, it was, uh, about making sure that everybody had, um, the working arrangements and working balance that they needed for their own life, but was also complimentary to that job."

Philippa: "That probably leads me into the next question, which is probably reflected on the answer you just gave. What does gender equality mean to you?"

Merrily: "That's a really good question. Um, gender equality means that for me, that our voices are weighted the same. That there's no, uh, unconscious bias applied to someone's voice because of their gender or because of their background. Because of their standing. That it's, an idea is an idea, and a suggestion is a suggestion, a project is a project, and it shouldn't be given any greater weighting, uh, or any lower weighting because of who initiated that concept. That's kind of my take on it anyway, I'm sure there's a lot of different interpretations of equality, but for me it's really about being heard and making sure that everyone is heard regardless of what's between their legs."

Philippa: "What is, um, a piece of advice that someone gave you early on in your career that stuck with you?"

Merrily: "Always give more than you're expected to. Give more than what you promise. And, um, yeah, it pays off. And there's been many times in my life that, uh, I haven't viewed someone as a client, um, or even thought that there would be work that came out of the back of that, they just needed help. And I have helped with, um, the area of my expertise. If I can share, then I will share. And if it's knowledge, it's not something that's under lock and key. And I'll always share where I can and that, that has paid off. It's built relationships and it's those relationships that has helped the company grow. You never know when you might need help in the sector that that person that you've helped in the past is a specialist in.

And it's been that, um, that groupthink and the raising as a whole that's helped build us as a company."

Philippa: "What advice would you give to women wanting to start their own business?"

Merrily: "Make sure it's something you're passionate about. Don't do it for the money. It is always a tough slog. And when you start your own business before you even have staff, it is something that you are thinking about 24/7. And, it needs to be something that gives you energy, because if it's not that, you won't be able to stay passionate about it for the long term. And it was hard for me to find something that I was passionate about. I probably only discovered energy efficiency in my twenties. I've been working in the energy sector for a long time, but I hadn't yet stumbled across this niche part of that back in 2008. It was very niche. It still hadn't been, uh, part of the, the energy renewables narrative at that time, solar was just becoming the big thing. I don't feel like I am working when I'm working in this space.

Um, I get just as much energy from this as I would from reading a book or, going and hanging with my friends and playing with my kids. It's just as passion driven being able to be at work and I think that if you're willing to go out and back yourself, make sure it's something that you feel that energy about and you feel the passion about and, be generous with your time, be generous with your knowledge, and trust that you can do this. And give it all you've got.

Um, I was never somebody that thought that they would be running a business. It was something that I feel like I was almost kicking and screaming to. And yet I, I couldn't imagine any other path. I couldn't imagine any other way."

Philippa: "What change would you like to see for young girls in the next generation?"

Merrily: "Uh, I would love to see more young girls in the trade sector. It's something that, um, I think is sorely needed, particularly in electricians. There's a lot of smart electrics that are out now. Um, there's so few women that are taking that up as a, a career for themselves. And yet all this smart tech that's coming down the line, it's very clear that we have a trade shortage and skill shortage in this space, and what's happening is they're commanding them, forth year apprentices are commanding huge wages. And it's not an area that we see enough women in. I do know of a couple in this space, particularly ones that have gone down the path of becoming high voltage electricians and their skill set is so sought after. So my own daughter, I'll be encouraging her to take up a trade. It's something that's not going to be replaced with AI. It's something that we will always need that, that physical skill set, um, to, to be part of our workforce. And the work is only going to increase in this space with EV charges, with electrification projects like virtual power plants and batteries, um, coming down the line. There is so much work happening here and I would love to see more women in this space."

Philippa: "And what can we, how can we empower more women to pursue a career in energy efficiency?"

Merrily: "That's... I would hate to say it's happening, but the Energy Efficiency Council hosts national conferences every year. And I've been going to those since 2007. And um, they used to have a handful of women attending these conferences. And it's so lovely to see now in 2024 and 2023 was the last conference, there was clearly a 50 50 spread across the floor. Uh, so I think that, um, what's being done now is encouraging more women into this space. Uh, I think that rather than it being a metric that's being set to saying this is our quota that we need to fill, purely having, an open minded employer that isn't just employing people that are a mirror of themselves, but somebody who has the skills, the competency, the, um, the right energy to join the team. I think that you're going to see a diverse, pool of people employed in this space. If you don't have the same people employing what they know and who looks like them. Uh, and I think that it will flow on from there. Having more and more women in this space means that you will have people more open to employing, uh, different genders and then different skill sets, different backgrounds, uh, and we'll see diversity, um, in our, in our workers, in our workforce and in our industry, purely through that."

Philippa: "And what message would you like to share to our listeners on International Women's Day?"

Merrily: "I haven't pre prepared anything for that. International Women's Day, I've done one post on this a few years ago. As you know, I'm not a big social media person. I'm not a poster. I find it quite difficult to, to make the time to do those sorts of things. But, I think that a lot of women feel judgment for being a parent and working parent and having to juggle to be the best of both. You know that being a parent, you're, that's a full time job in itself. And then working at the same time, um, is a full time job in itself. And how do you give 100% of yourself to both jobs? And not feel riddled with guilt. I know I do. And my, my approach has always been just point the firehose at the biggest fire at that time and deal with the next one and deal with the next one because something is always going to fall over and it's okay that it falls over, because that's life. And I think that rather than trying to be the best mum that is there for every kid's drop off and pick up and perfectly manicured lunchboxes. Be a mum that your kid can look up to and say, my mum was a working mum and she was able to do all these things and I learned my work ethic from that. I don't think that being a working mum, you should feel like you're not doing that job justice, and your other job justice. You can do both. It's not without sleepless nights. It's definitely, it's definitely part of the territory and you're always going to feel that judgement, but you've got your own life to live and it shouldn't be for other people and nor should you feel like you need to fit into a box that somebody else has prepped for you. Break it down and make it into a hexagon. Make it your way."

Philippa:" I love that."

Merrily: "Use that firehose."

Philippa: "Oh, every day. Thanks so much."

Merrily: "You might need to edit that alphabet and clean it up. That sounds really silly."

Philippa: "No, no, but it's like, it's so relevant and I feel like exactly the same. Like, the juggle is so hard and it's like, I feel like if you're doing really well at work, then you're not feeling good as a mum. If you're feeling doing well as a mum, then you, you know, you're not giving as much time at work. And therefore you feel like you're doing 50% of both. So you're not feeling achieved or accomplished by the end of the day. I feel I've made a mental switch as well. Probably in the last six to eight months is just like, no, I'm going to put my baby in daycare so I can be at work and be 100% focus. And then when I'm home, I'm a mum and I can give her that time and the quality time that she deserves. But it's bloody hard being a female. I really appreciate your time today. That was so great. Thanks so much for joining us."

Merrily: "No, thanks for taking the time to talk and I hope that it's, uh, it's been able to inspire some other women to go on their own journey."

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