Angela Riley worked her way through New York, Chicago, Denver and Hong Kong to settle on a remote sheep farm in WA. She talks to Zilla Efrat about her roles as a regional director in WA and her future plans.
From New York and Hong Kong to Kodj Kodjin
Just over six years ago, Angela Riley GAICD was enjoying a somewhat magical existence in Hong Kong, working for a US group as director of finance in charge of a major corporate restructure in Asia. Life in between frequent trips to China was filled with sailing, fancy-dress parties, travel and time with friends.
Responding to a joke from a girlfriend, she sent an email off too quickly – to the wrong person. It was a mistake that would change her life. Suddenly, she had a third generation Australian farmer entertaining her with witty, long distance email conversations. And, before she knew it, she had “a ‘cocky’ in Explorer socks and Blundstone boots showing up for dates in Hong Kong”.
Inevitably, she visited Kodj Kodjin, about 45 km north of Kellerberrin in WA’s central wheat belt. “Imagine my trauma thinking that I, an accountant, was supposed to shear sheep for the week’s holiday. I was quite relieved to learn that I only had to follow Emma and Choofa, the two kelpie sheepdogs, and push the sheep around,” she says.
At the end of the visit, the farmer said: “The dogs both approve, so you can come back.” And, she did! That farmer had found a wife, but it was a huge change for Riley, who had worked in New York, Chicago, Denver and Hong Kong during a busy career as an accountant and director. Her only ties to agriculture had been a dairy farming aunt and uncle in North Dakota and winning first prize for growing the biggest zucchini at the nature centre.
Nonetheless, the thought of moving to Kodj Kodjin somehow seemed sensible. “Who could turn down the farmer’s offer of two kelpies and a road named after me?”
Riley spent the next three years happily learning about sheep, cropping and how to manage an agricultural business. But she did find the isolation of living more than three hours from Perth difficult. Three large satellite dishes on her roof became an absolute necessity so that she could access family and friends around the world.
A farm accident three years ago and the spinal fusion that followed, however, encouraged her to step back from some of her least favourite farm jobs, such as yarding the rams, and provided an opportunity to return to her professional career on a part-time basis.
“While I enjoyed many aspects of rural life, I was beginning to miss facets of working in my field and definitely missed working with a diverse variety of people on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “I quickly realised that working as a professional director would provide me both the level of work that I wanted and the ability to remain engaged with the farm.”
Riley now works with two very different boards. A good friend recommended her for a position as the chair of the Audit and Risk Management Committee with Horizon Power, WA’s regional power corporation Horizon Power. And, through her work with Horizon, she was introduced to WA Aboriginal leader Peter Yu who introduced her to the MG Corporation, the Aboriginal corporation in the Kimberley region that is the beneficiary of the state’s native title settlement for the Ord River irrigation area.
“My earliest interactions with the MG people sold me on the opportunity to become involved as a director,” says Riley. “The MG people have worked incredibly hard for many years to secure the opportunities that will result from the Ord Final Agreement (OFA). While I bring a number of skills to the corporation – accounting, finance, operations, human resources, governance and so on – I also try to mentor the corporation’s staff, board and trust directors as much as possible as they move into the commercial mainstream.”
MG Corporation’s biggest challenge is to maximise the benefits package that will be provided as a result of the OFA – a task that is often complicated by a complex corporate structure and limited resources.
“With a community-owned enterprise, you are continually reminded that every decision you make will be felt directly by a group of individuals who you know are depending on you to support them,” observes Riley.
“As with any newly created organisation, it is also sometimes frustrating to have limited systems and procedures in place to ensure that the corporation is able to manage all the necessary risks while achieving its goals. On the other hand, this provides opportunities to make sure that the appropriate things are ultimately put in place.”
Riley is the sole independent MG-selected director on all three MG trusts, although there is a state appointed independent director on the Foundation Trust. “The support of Jeff Gooding, the state appointed independent director, has made the job much easier and balanced,” she says. “For the other trusts, it is at times challenging to maintain balance within the boardroom, particularly because the other directors rely on my business and technical expertise. To achieve some balance, each of the trusts has an MG-appointed director as the chair. We also work hard to make all decisions with unanimous agreement. This may take more time, but is worth the effort.”
The global financial crisis has also created challenges for MG Corporation. “Clearly, the access to capital markets has become more difficult. MG is evaluating a number of business opportunities in the state’s northeast which may be slowed down by the current tightening of credit. The downturn in the financial markets has also created stresses around the funds invested by MG for the purposes of long-term asset growth. On a more positive note, one impact of the global financial crisis has been an increase in available talent throughout the state.”
MG Corporation’s board has just been restructured and has been reduced from a membership of 32 to five. “This should greatly assist in more efficient decision-making,” says Riley. “In addition to the corporation board, there are three trusts that manage many of MG’s responsibilities. We are currently planning a joint meeting of all trust and board directors to ensure that communication is robust within the corporation and that we are all working towards a common set of goals. The corporation has also been able to partner with Indigenous Business Australia and AICD to provide targeted governance training to the board and trust directors.”
Horizon Power is a fully integrated power producer and supplier, providing electricity to regional WA. And, it faces different hurdles to MG Corporation.
“The harsh climatic conditions and wide geographic service area presents significant challenges in Horizon’s asset management. Providing electricity in a manner that is safe for Horizon’s customers, employees and the general public is a cornerstone of the board’s decision making,” says Riley. “As a government trading enterprise, it is also a challenge to balance the Government’s commitment to service provision in a regulated environment with commercial operating principles.”
Looming climate change legislation will also provide new tests. “While the legislation has not been finalised, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme is likely to result in an increased cost of doing business for our industry. Horizon Power is very well placed to minimise this impact by taking full advantage of a variety of sustainable energy solutions, including wind, solar and hydro.”
But Riley adds: “I believe addressing climate change can be a positive experience for many organisations. I would challenge directors to go beyond compliance by searching out positive and creative ways to minimise their organisation’s environmental impact while maximising commercial opportunities.”
In line with WA’s “fly in-fly out” culture, Riley has embraced a “drive in-drive out” lifestyle, regularly commuting throughout regional WA. The hardest part about being a rural director, she says, is “making sure that I keep in touch with those in my professional network and related industries”. “I use my limited time in Perth to connect with as many people as possible. Often that results in 12-plus hour days.”
Her tips to rural women who want to join a board are: “Identify opportunities that you are passionate about. It is likely you will need to commit more time and effort than those who are based in a metropolitan area so you need to be enthused about your involvement.”
On the biggest lessons she has learnt from her directorship roles over the years, she says: “Make sure that you are comfortable with both the directors and organisations that you are working with. When dealing with difficult or challenging circumstances you want to be part of a team, not a lone voice in the wilderness. Each opportunity should also be inspiring and fun.”
Another hard earned wisdom is that “you truly cannot achieve your full potential without experiencing failure, but you do have to avoid making the same mistakes more than once”.
On what makes her tick, Riley says: “I credit my parents with instilling in me a strong desire to do things properly and doing them for the right reasons. I also thrive on change and new opportunities. I certainly am not a typical accountant.”
In addition to her directorships, Riley has also started to facilitate governance programs for AICD. She explains: “I have taken a number of AICD courses and have been impressed with the quality of both the courses and facilitators. So when I was at the right place at the right time and offered the opportunity, I said yes. At various times in my career I have been responsible for training so the opportunity to facilitate for AICD fits in well. It is also a discipline that takes me completely out of my comfort zone and I enjoy the challenge of that. Facilitating for the AICD allows me to meet an amazing group of participants. It is very much a situation where we all learn from each other. The strong AICD management of the courses also support a high level of success.”
Looking ahead, Riley is considering a board position with a company in the forestry industry and says she certainly plans to pursue other good board opportunities. “Board work allows me to continue to build on my professional career while still maintaining a base in regional WA. Given my career to date, I would be very happy to move towards larger, public company boards which have more of an international business base,” she says.
When she is not sitting around the boardroom table, driving across WA or helping out around the farm, Riley can be found sailing on any boat that she can find, engaging in all pursuits artistic in nature or travelling around the world. During a recent trip back to the US, a dear friend exclaimed that Riley has had the most interesting and unusual life of all the people she knew. But as she approaches the age of 47, Riley says she is depending on the second half of life to be even more interesting than the first.
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