Chief Operating Officer, Appco Group US
Bachelor of Commerce 2004
Sarah Flis (nee Cauchi) remembers arriving in her new office in New York, sitting at her empty desk and looking at snow falling outside on Fifth Ave and thinking “Well here I am, now where to start”.
“It’s my most memorable moment in my career,” she says.
And it’s a career which has seen the former University of Wollongong marketing graduate move from an entry level position in Sydney to establishing a US office within the space of just five years.
Flis is the Chief Operating Officer for Appco Group US, part of world-leading sales, marketing and customer acquisitions agency, the Appco Group. She was sent to the US to set up the group’s US arm which now has offices in Pennsylvania, White Plains and California as well New York which Flis established in 2010.
Since she arrived in the city that never sleeps, Flis has been responsible for building the group’s profile in one of the toughest markets in the world so it now has unprecedented demand for its services developing market leading campaigns across industries as diverse as fundraising, energy, telecommunications, financial services, security systems and sports.
Flis was born and raised in Wollongong so when it came time to deciding on which university she wanted to attend after leaving school, UOW was a natural choice.
“But it definitely was not the only factor. I was very much interested in the courses that the University had to offer,” she says.
Her decision to enrol in a relatively new course at the time may have seemed risky then but it allowed Flis to grow her own career in step with the burgeoning industry of marketing and e-commerce.
“At the time that I began my studies this degree [marketing and electronic commerce] was still relatively new. I chose this degree as I was interested in marketing at the time. It was definitely an interesting degree, which covered everything from IT infrastructure to online business strategies,” she says.
Back in the beginning of the Noughties when Flis started her degree there was no such thing as Facebook and social media was still a twinkle in the eye of gurus like Mark Zuckerberg and the boys from Google, but even then she could see the power of the worldwide web and what it could mean to business in the future.
“We didn’t even have Facebook! I would assume that the course has evolved since my time over 10 years ago. However, it was an emerging market and even back then it was clear that the internet in general would reshape the structure of the business world,” Flis says.
Immediately after graduating in 2004, Flis was employed by Appco Group as an operations team member in its Sydney office and within a year had so impressed her employers she was moved into a client account manager role where she gained experience working in the very complex and competitive industries of telecommunications and energy.
Although they were, and still are, very male-dominated industries for a young woman in which to cut her teeth, Flis says she wasn’t fazed.
“The fact it is very male dominated was never a negative influence on me,” she says.
In fact, she says the lessons she learned throughout her degree at UOW stood her in good stead to make her own mark in the relatively new field of marketing and e-commerce.
“It wasn’t until after I graduated university that I realised how much I would take with me and utilise my studies in my chosen career. Working towards deadlines, team work and problem solving, these are all the things that I took away with me,” she says.
By 2009 Flis had been promoted to the Australian General Manager Operations and by 2010 was flying to New York to set up Appco USA in Manhattan.
Unlike many of her Generation Y cohorts, Flis has moved her career forward within one company but she says her employment stability has meant she has been able to learn the skills she’s needed with the full support of Appco
“I am very fortunate to work for a company that encourages corporate growth, and as the years progressed my role changed and evolved also,” she says. “I think that is a big part of longevity with any company, variety is the spice of life, and this has kept me challenged and engaged all these years.”
Moving from the relative safety of the Sydney office to take on New York was daunting at first, she admits, but the challenge of creating something new was more compelling.
“I was excited and nervous at the same time [in moving to New York]. There was so much to understand and learn, and even though I was heading to the US with the same company I had been with for the past five years, I really was starting from the beginning. In some respects being in a different country kept me focused and on the task at hand,” she says.
One of those tasks was learning to work within a new business culture but judging by the growth in the group’s client list, Flis has once again been an excellent student.
“There is a manner in which different cultures conduct business; as usual there are many overlaps, however, there are certain rituals which I have grown to miss, for example closing a business deal with a beer or three at the end of the day is something the Australians do best,” she says.
The start of her career saw Flis working with the big end of town, corporate and global giants from the energy and telecommunications industries, but as her reputation has grown in the campaign market she is being increasingly sought to oversee campaigns for not-for-profit groups, which she says she finds very rewarding.
“As a company the Appco Group generates ongoing revenue for many non-profit organisations across the globe, I have been privileged to see some of our partners program work first hand which is very rewarding indeed,” she says.
“Our industry is face-to-face, however, like any agency we first look at addressing the client’s needs against the budget spend. Campaigns can last anywhere from one month to many years so it is important that we start by acknowledging what the client wants to achieve over the program life time and continue to re-address this as the project evolves.”
The girl from the ‘Gong doesn’t take her success for granted and says if you’d asked when she graduated in 2004 where she’d be in five years, running a business out of New York was not even on the radar.
However, she also knows that her own hard work has played a big part in getting her to where she is today.
“My advice to any graduate is to work hard and work smart, and never let an opportunity pass you by,” she says.