Betty Byrne Henderson had relatively little experience in the automotive industry when she took over as governing director of the Byrne Group car dealership after the death of her husband in 1977. The group is now one of Queensland’s largest businesses and in 1995 it received the prestigious President’s Award from Ford Australia. Byrne Henderson recently sold the business to her son and holds seven directorships, including the Queensland Harness Racing Board and the Corrective Services Commission. She says there will be casualties as these organisations are transformed to run along private-sector lines.
AIM: Can management be taught or does it need to be learned on the job?
Byrne Henderson: You need the theoretical and the practical side to do it properly. A lot of it does come instinctively. There is a big difference between being managing director and just being into management – as governing director the importance was to have good management lines underneath me. The managing directors are there to put the plan in place to enable management to do their jobs properly and that comes instinctively. Theory is fine, but the practical side is essential.
AIM: Are academic courses providing what is needed?
Byrne Henderson: My son has just done his MBA. Although he had a lot of practical experience he had not done the theoretical side So, he found the MBA extremely helpful. There were many skills he learned, but not all of these could be applied at Byrne Ford. Before you ever start an MBA, you should be in some area in management where you can differentiate and utilise what you are learning for the job you are doing.
AIM: Is too much emphasis put on formal qualifications?
Byrne Henderson: I didn’t have any great formal education to bring me to the position I am in. People who told me I would never survive made me very determined to own the business and to learn to keep my ears open and develop my people skills. Through this skill, I have learnt from good people who have put forward great ideas. The best education in the world is no good without the right people skills. You are no better than any of the people you have working around you. You all have a job to do and you are all a part of the whole. Decision making must involve everyone.
AIM: What has been your biggest achievement?
Byrne Henderson: When my husband died in 1977 and I took on the role of governing director, I had no hands-on motor dealership skills. That took some years of experience and of learning from my own staff. In 1977 we were a small dealership in Ford’s big picture. By 1995 we had the profile and acumen to be ranked as Ford Australia’s top dealer. That award was voted on by our clients. Many dealerships have changed hands many times, but we are still there.
AIM: Is it a trap to concentrate too much on the detail?
Byrne Henderson: The detail is what management is there for. But detail is not the chief executive’s function. You should know about the detail but your different levels of management are there to look after that.
AIM: Can management skills be readily transplanted from industry to industry?
Byrne Henderson: If you have good management skills they can be readily transposed to other industries. Most of the top managers in Australia have held a variety of jobs. Good managers are confident in their own skills and are able to orchestrate the growth of companies.
AIM: What is the level of management expertise like in the public sector?
Byrne Henderson: I am on several public-sector boards because the State Government is looking at corporatisation, bringing in basic accrual accounting and the checks and balances which go with that. The most exciting part for those of us on these boards is seeing the attitudes changing. It doesn’t sit easily with a lot of public servants but attitudes are changing and we are going to be a better country for it.
AIM: What about those public servants who cannot or will not change?
Byrne Henderson: Some public servants are resentful of change. People balk at changing cultures and we are having a great deal of difficulty. Change for the sake of change is not on, but change for the good of the organisation is – when it is logical and is clearly explained. Some people who are determined to keep it the same old way may end up on some sort of dole. We do not have a place for those people in the future. There are going to be some tough decisions, but it is being done fairly. There is a powerplay by some of those public servants who want to keep it the way it is; so there are going to be some casualties of change.