The diverse backgrounds of Dug Russell and Michael McLeod of Message Stick Communications enabled them to make an impact for Indigenous business. Read how they did it here.

    Dug Russell and Michael McLeod will never forget the first invoice their company, Message Stick Communications, issued. It was for $29 — for audiovisual work at Sydney City Council in 2004. The pair met through a mutual friend, former National Farmers Federation CEO and civil rights activist, the late Rick Farley. Russell was looking to assist people in the Indigenous business sector. Farley recommended McLeod, who was determined to establish his own business after 20 years of homelessness.

    Message Stick’s bread and butter is communications (audio, video, web-conferencing) and its clients include some of Australia’s largest businesses, such as Lendlease, Woolworths and IAG as well as several large law firms and federal and NSW government departments.

    The launch of Message Stick was a particularly big step for McLeod. The Ngarrindjeri Monaro man from southern NSW was just 12 months old when he and five older brothers and sisters were taken from their parents under government policies that created the stolen generations. After finishing high school in Sydney’s Blue Mountains, McLeod had slipped into a steep mental and physical decline, becoming a chronic alcoholic and heroin addict, and remaining homeless in Sydney into his early thirties.

    “There are two major elements to our story,” explains Russell. “First, two complete strangers meet and embark on a journey to kick-start the Indigenous business sector in Australia. The second is how an Indigenous Australian who had a very difficult life, trusted a white guy and went on to self-improve, get off welfare and give back to the Indigenous community.”

    Growing up in Wauchope in mid-north NSW, Russell had been CEO of Compass Group, a food service business with annual revenue of $600m and a staff of 9000 in Australia and New Zealand. Made redundant in his forties, he was determined to shake up corporate Australia and make a difference to Indigenous people. “My motivation was that I had a great life and wanted to start a business that an Aboriginal person controlled so I could see how corporate Australia would respond,” says Russell. “I’d seen that a lot of senior people in the corporate world were struggling to engage with Indigenous Australia in meaningful ways. If I was a senior guy and an Aboriginal person came in and said, ‘I don’t want any handouts, but would you help me do business with your company?’ — I would.”

    Russell says it took two and a half years for Message Stick to turn a profit. His business connections helped them get a foot in the door; as did former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations in 2008 and new government procurement targets to guarantee supply from Indigenous businesses.

    Trust has been key to the relationship. “When I met Dug, there were no promises,” McLeod says. “He said he couldn’t promise we’d build a multimillion-dollar business, but we would build a little business and, hopefully, become financially independent. Dug didn’t tell me much about his achievements and I liked his humility. All my life, people had promised things and not come through. He told me to go away and think about it because he was going overseas. The day he was due back, I called him and said I was in.”

    In 2009, the duo founded Supply Nation (formerly Australian Indigenous Minority Supplier Council), which facilitates opportunities for 1900 Indigenous suppliers to more than 435 corporate and government members. To date, Supply Nation has facilitated more than $10b in contracts. “We went into these offices and said, ‘I don’t want any money from you. I don’t want handouts’,” McLeod says of the early days of Message Stick. “I said, ‘I want to do a little bit of business with you, please. If I muck it up, see you later. If I don’t muck it up, I’ll come back tomorrow to talk to you about a bigger conversation’.”

    Russell says McLeod has taught him patience and the power of resilience. “I’ve learned a lot about Indigenous Australia — how relationships work and don’t work, the difference between different nations and country,” says Russell. “Michael has also given me an insight into how strong an individual person can be. He has had a lot of adversity and been kicked down and taken advantage of. To see an individual who was down and out, weak and vulnerable, become such a strong person has been an honour. That’s not an Indigenous thing, that’s a human thing. And I’ve fallen in love with small business. Now I’m a real advocate for small business owners and the issues they face.”

    The partnership has also been a vehicle “to enable us to look at social transformation”, adds Russell. “We don’t take anything for granted. We’re able to use our businesses as a mechanism to truly look at how we break the pattern of poverty in Aboriginal Australia.”

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