Covering all the bases in a rural management posting can be a source of valuable experiences seldom available to your city-based cousins. By James Dunn
Australians love their self-image as a laconic, self-reliant, decent people an image founded on a rural, pioneer archetype. Of course, Australia is one of the most urbanised societies on earth. Most of us live on the continent’s littoral strip, particularly in the Adelaide-Brisbane “boomerang”.
Most of us work there too; a fact that has made the nation’s managerial class a mainly metropolitan species. But the sub-species of regional manager is a surprisingly flexible beast. Now, liberated from isolation by communications advances, regional areas are mounting a case for providing management experience that head office cannot match.
Against the perceived isolation of a regional posting, younger managers are weighing the benefits of independence. Against leaving head office the centre of their universe and the seat of corporate power and dislocating their family, managers are looking at what a regional stint can add to their resume.
Mark Wilson, director of the Brisbane-based Northern Recruitment, says that managers with a bit of “get up and go” are more prepared these days to risk the move to a regional centre to take up an opportunity. “I believe that you’re much better off being in a small operation as you grow through your career, and experience the stresses and strains of being totally responsible, than you are being in a capital city head office and being part of a much bigger division, even in a more senior role.
“There used to be an adage that if you were going to be in general management, you had to be there by the time you were 30, or you wouldn’t get there quickly enough to apply your experience toward aiming for the top jobs in your 40s. I think there is a realisation now that regional management opportunities, far from being a removal from the action for a few years, actually present a person with initiative with the scope to gain authority, and therefore the experience that comes with it, sooner in their career.”
As a management recruitment specialist, Wilson says that he is looking for evidence of a candidate’s capacity to demonstrate responsibility. “From our point of view, someone who is able to demonstrate that they are solely responsible for $10 million of turnover and its associated profit is in a better position than someone who is part of a much larger management group claiming responsibility for $100 million of turnover. In the latter situation it is very hard to point to your personal contribution. A regional manager, who has exercised managerial autonomy, benefits from this comparison.
“As recruiters, once a person is on the other side of 30, we are looking for them to tell us about their achievements not what we did but what I did. Somebody coming out of a head office will tend to talk about being part of something: a regional manager will say I was responsible for this outcome, and this is how I did it. From our point of view that is very much a plus.”
Kerry Daly, chief executive officer of The Rock Building Society Limited in Rockhampton, says there would be people in senior management teams at the major banks handling much larger amounts of money than he does, but who have nothing like the responsibilities he has.
“They don’t have to meet institutional investors and show them around, draft the announcements to the stock exchange, write the annual report, front the media on all sorts of issues, and so on. As a regional manager I have to be more innovative and original. There isn’t much for me to copy from up here. But the upside for me is that I really believe I am putting together a more formidable set of experiences than the person at a senior management level in the major banks.”
Bob Baxter, general manager of the Southcorp Wines Caradoc winery in the Sunraysia region of Victoria, believes that for young managers who want to go places, moving to a regional post is a very important part of their development. In 1986, Baxter moved from the Lindemans Sydney office to take over the Caradoc winery, which now produces 60% of the volume of Southcorp Wines. Baxter is in charge of a workforce of 300 at Caradoc and is also responsible for the Waikerie site in the Riverland of South Australia and the Yenda site at Griffith.
“I suppose that the wine industry will always have a regional bias for the very good reason that it is a large-scale horticultural industry. As a winemaker I was always headed for a regional area if I wanted to move into management. But having said that, I have had the opportunity to develop new management skills at Caradoc that I never would have had if I had stayed in Sydney.
“The challenges in a regional area are challenges that managers will never face in the city. You have to manage in a different way. We are the largest employer in the Sunraysia, so we play a very important role in ensuring the on-going viability of the district. As a manager, I am very mindful of the impact of what we do on the community. The decisions we take consider the community ramifications, and in the city those aspects aren’t generally given that consideration.”
Because of the link between the community and the business, Baxter says that a regional manager has opportunities from a management perspective that are rarely available in a city environment.
“Contrary to what is often said, I’ve found people here more accepting of change than in the city. They understand the link that they have personally with the business, and thus they see the success of the business as very important to them and their family, and their region. You can manage change better.
“We’ve introduced a consultative style of team-based management. Our people have been prepared to work with us wholeheartedly in developing those cultural aspects of the business. That sort of situation is a fantastic opportunity for a young manager to broaden his skills.”
Cameron Miners, general manager of Goodman Fielder’s Tamworth mill and AIM Queensland Manager of the Year in 1997 while managing the Rockhampton mill of Defiance Milling believes that regional workers value their jobs more. He says they see the benefit that the business brings to their town and they appreciate the opportunities.
“You usually find that they are longer-term workers, too. With staff like that, a regional manager has to benefit. There are equivalent positions to mine in capital cities in our organisation, but one of the advantages I have is that you get a higher level of commitment out of your team in a regional setting. There is that feeling of town ownership, a commitment to the betterment of the business, which is often lacking in the cities.”
Graham Little, general manager of James Boag & Son’s Launceston Brewery, believes that although there is a regional difference in management challenge it relates more to the size of the business being managed than to the geographical element.
“People working in regional areas necessarily get a greater rounding to their management education. But in our business that is as much related to the size of the enterprise as it is to the fact that it is in Launceston. My management education has been much broader than that of my peers who manage higher-volume metropolitan breweries.”
Little says he has an exceptionally loyal workforce, but he believes this relates as much to the enterprise itself and its history as to its regional status. “I think it is the combination if the two elements that creates the identity with the company and a sense of family. The average time that our employees have worked here is 17 years, which is unheard of. We feel that relates to the history of Boag’s.
“Sure, the brewery has very high visibility in the region and is quite important psychologically. It’s their beer. But what has also been important for us is to expand the horizons of the business. We have developed interstate and export markets and the ISO and ISO 9002 accreditation have brought in their train an appreciation of the importance of quality and its relevance to our interstate and overseas markets. That is vastly important to a regional workforce.”
Not all the challenges of being a corporate pillar of a regional community relate to managing the business. Little says: “Heading this brewery, there is an expectation that I will play a community role. At CUB, the PR people would handle that. We don’t have that luxury, so I do it myself. But I see that as an advantage.”
Baxter concurs: “Quite a lot of my time is spent on various regional development groups, community organisations and forums, and there is an expectation as the largest employer that I will be on all of these boards. That is part of the job. I see that as a positive, because it adds further to your skills that as the manager of a manufacturing business you would not expect to develop. It is also personally fulfilling.”
Miners describes this as building mutual respect. “A regional manager has to play an active part in the community; you have to give something back to it, because that community supplies not only your workforce but your customers.”
As a recruiter, Wilson picks up on this. “It is not just because of the responsibility that regional management positions are very good training grounds. Another element, a necessity for success in fact, is the requirement to become part of, and identify with, the values and standards of the community you are in. To succeed, you have to come to grips with the requirement to network and to make a contribution to your community.
“As a senior manager in a capital city, you can blissfully be anonymous, and that is going to bring you undone as you get towards the more senior levels in your organisation. We rely on serious teamwork; the ability to build connections and networks in our personal and professional lives. People who come out of regional environments have to do that.
“It comes with the territory that every customer has to be treated fantastically and every friend of a customer has to be treated as a customer. I think that is a great lesson for somebody moving up through an organisation or industry that you never neglect any part of your customer base. Out in the regions you simply cannot afford to lose customers. There aren’t another couple of large ones around the corner.”
But are regional managers isolated? Miners is in a good position to judge, having previously spent several years in Fiji managing a mill for Defiance Mills.
“In Fiji, I was isolated in a number of ways. The obvious one was that it took ages to send anything I may have needed from Australia to Fiji. On top of that there were cultural and language barriers.
“I was the only person in the whole country who knew anything about flour milling, and I had to run that business. I don’t think that anywhere in Australia really suffers from that: any isolation you feel in a regional sense in Australia is minor compared with that.”
Baxter says the rapid advances in communications technology have decreased the isolation of regional managers in the sense of information flow. “Through e-mail and the Southcorp intranet, I am probably closer to the other managers in the company now than two parts of our organisation in the same capital city were 20 years ago. I’m in immediate contact with everyone else in our business, and with the Internet the possibilities are endless. These tools have made a huge difference.”
Miners says e-mail has been a godsend. “Six or seven years ago, in my industry, I don’t think that managers were anywhere near as well-informed as they are today; and this is wholly due to technology. From my desk, I am able to tap into anything to gain all the information I need to make informed decisions about the business that I manage. That makes me feel less regional, because I have that access.”
On the other hand, Daly does feel isolated. “When you are the managing director of a public company in the finance industry, situated 650 kilometres from the state capital, believe me, you notice the physical distance. This may sound like a small thing, but I don’t receive my copy of the Financial Review until one in the afternoon.
“We have found that it is doubly hard to do anything on the corporate scene from regional Australia. When we floated in 1992, the stock exchange didn’t know where we were. They would want a quick meeting and they’d ring and say to me, Can you come down and see us this week? and they were surprised when I would say, No, I can’t.
“In the city, if you want to see your lawyer, your stockbroker or get an issue underwritten, you go down in your lift, cross the road and go up another lift. I have to jump on a plane.”
Daly believes that although office communications have made great strides, they are no substitute for face-to-face contact. “It’s very hard to get the feedback from a letter that you can from being face to face with somebody. And you notice the absence of your mentors and peers. You lose something in the lack of regular contact with like-minded people who have similar responsibilities. That is something that city-based managers take for granted.”
Where Baxter does feel isolated is in acquiring skilled labor, gaining access to tertiary educational facilities, achieving personal development opportunities for staff and developing and maintaining a relationship with his peers.
“All of these are more difficult in the country. Some of your staff may want to undertake tertiary and post-tertiary studies, and that can be very difficult. We still struggle to attract senior management and the specialist technical skills. Many winemakers would much prefer to work in the Barossa Valley, close to Adelaide, or in the Yarra Valley, close to Melbourne, than here in the Sunraysia or in Griffith, for example.
“It’s the same with the ability to network with others in the manufacturing arena. You can’t just nip down the road to a manufacturers forum; you have to seek out those opportunities, which for me usually means a trip to Adelaide or Melbourne, just to have those networking opportunities. Otherwise, yes, you could feel insular and isolated.”
There is also the potential for isolation from current trends in management. Baxter believes that regional managers put more effort into keeping up to date with management thinking and practice, simply because they understand that they are isolated in that respect. “Any manager worth his salt will keep up those skills; you just have to work harder at those things.”
Daly finds that keeping up with management practice in financial services an on-going challenge. “I try to overcome it by tying in my interstate business trips with opportunities to spend time with those people. Sometimes, they come up here and spend time with me. For instance, Rodney Adler of FAI and Frank O Halloran of QBE, have both been up here to visit us in the past twelve months. They are the heads of institutional investors on our share register and came up to visit us. Sure, these are exceptions to the rule, but you take full advantage of any opportunities like that.”
Boag’s Little says there is the potential for technical isolation, but only if you allow it to occur. “Within a large organisation like CUB, because they have a large number of managers of all types managers on different shifts the cross-discussion among managers and between disciplines must be an advantage to them. But it is only a disadvantage to a regional manager if you allow it to be.”
Miners says: “Don’t forget, people can be isolated without geographical isolation. If people are not good communicators, they will be isolated no matter where they are.”