Strength in numbers

Friday, 01 July 2016

Angela Faherty photo
Angela Faherty

    Respect and communication are the cornerstones of the 16-year working relationship of ALPA’s Reverend Dr Djiniyini Gondarra and Alastair King. Angela Faherty reports.

    Established in 1972, the Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation (ALPA) began life as a co-operative of community stores in seven Arnhem Land communities. Today, 44 years after it began life under the supervision of the Methodist Overseas Mission Commission, ALPA is now one of the largest financially independent Aboriginal corporations in Australia.

    The Darwin-based benevolent organisation has come a long way since its early days of small counter sales stores in tin sheds. Today it has full self-service, air-conditioned stores offering a wide range of quality products in the remote communities of Minjilang, Milingimbi, Galiwin’ku, Gapuwiyak and Ramingining and has recently expanded its reach into Far North Queensland.

    It also operates 13 other non-ALPA community stores in the Northern Territory on behalf of the Indigenous Corporations and Regional Councils, and its IT business, Australian Retail Technology, provides technical support and installations to more than 65 remote sites across the country as well as retail, training and IT services nationwide.

     “ALPA as a retailer is one of the largest financially independent employers of Aboriginal people in Australia,” says ALPA chairman, Reverend Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM, who has been chairman of ALPA since 1993. “We also have an Aboriginal board of directors. It’s been very important for them to be involved in making decisions about how to run the business as a commercial entity.”

    Gondarra and chief executive officer Alastair King FAICD have worked together for over 16 years. King first joined ALPA as a manager at Milingimbi in 1994. He was appointed CEO of ALPA in 2001 when the organisation underwent significant restructuring.

    “Alastair and I have been working together for a long time now,” says Gondarra.

    “We have had differences of opinion in many things but we have always worked together for the common cause of building a sustainable business and making ALPA a profit-making company.”

    “I admire Alastair, he is a sensitive man,” says Gondarra. “He understands the cross-cultural context of working at ALPA and always discusses any new business ideas with me first. He has a very strong business mind. We come from very different backgrounds, but we understand that when it comes to business, it is about making a profit, employing people and giving back to the community.”

    Changing dynamics

    King says his relationship with Gondarra has evolved significantly over the years from a mentoring relationship to a more defined role.

    “My relationship with the chairman in the beginning was one of heavy reliance – he was my mentor in both business and cultural issues. As I became more competent in dealing with the board and running a corporation, our roles have evolved into more defined roles of CEO and chairman of the board.

    “The key to our relationship is respect and good communication. I always try to make sure that the chairman is never surprised by anything. If he looks surprised in a board meeting, I have failed in my duties to him,” he says.

    Gondarra and King’s relationship is one of constant learning. Working cross-culturally requires a certain kind of sensitivity and managing such a large business across a diverse and remote environment can throw up a lot of challenges that mainstream businesses don’t have, says King.

    “I can have an opinion on a subject from a mainstream business position, but it could conflict with an Indigenous perspective and we always take that Indigenous perspective into account because we’re an Aboriginal organisation.”

    ALPA as a retailer is one of the largest financially independent employers of Aboriginal people in Australia.

    Reverend Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OA
    Chairman, ALPA

    Over the course of their professional relationship, Gondarra and King have seen the business evolve from its original mission to one that now includes community and vocationally related educational programs to enhance the social and economic development among remote Aboriginal communities.

    The organisation employs 1,000 members of staff of which more than 840 are Indigenous and the organisation is continually looking for ways to strengthen and evolve its business model. It recently moved into the employment program market by taking over the Government’s Community Development Program (CDP), which was designed to help people living in remote communities find work and gain skills.

    “The Government approached us and asked ALPA whether we would be interested in running the CDP as they were struggling with the program,” says Gondarra.“ALPA has never relied on government funding, so I was concerned about getting involved, but after much deliberation with the board and Alastair, we decided to take over the program and we are now trying to help people get jobs and acquire skills and to try to stop the ‘dependency on welfare’ mentality.”

    The CDP services run in three communities and have been hugely successful, achieving employment outcomes far beyond those offered in other regions. They have been acknowledged as the best in Australia by the Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion.

    “We have mechanical repair shops, a construction business, a furniture factory and we are now in the hospitality business through our accommodation lodges. If you are going to train people and give them skills, then you have got to have somewhere they can actually use those skills.” says King. “We’ve gone from being a very retail centric organisation to a very diverse one.”

    The evolution of ALPA is an impressive one, particularly when taking into account the sheer scale of land the organisation covers. The board meets quarterly and meetings last for three days, with board members flying into communities and observing traditional Aboriginal practices.

    “We have a board of 10 traditional Aboriginal people, half of which are men and half are women. But in Aboriginal traditional culture, there are certain things that cannot be spoken about in front of women, or in front of men and their relationships have certain restrictions. It makes the board environment very unusual.

    “We don’t put nametags on the table, they sort out where they are going to sit based on gender and kinship,” says King. As a result of the restructure in 2001, half of ALPA’s board is now made up of the traditional owners from ALPA’s member communities and the other half are community leaders. Five years ago, the organisation also introduced two associate director positions on the board, which allows young people from the community to sit on the board for two years – the only difference from the full time directors being the inability to vote.

    “We wondered how we were going to recognise and identify young people and give them some governance skills, whether they become an ALPA director or whether they have their own business. The idea behind the program was to help them get some governance experience in a real working commercial board,” King says.

    Both Gondarra and King are exceptionally proud of ALPA’s achievements and their commitment to continuing to better the lives of those living in remote Aboriginal communities is paramount. “We’re proud to see young men and women working and being successful,” says Gondarra. “They have been empowered.” 

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