Diane’s bottomless magician’s bag

Tuesday, 01 March 2011


    Diane Tompson has come a long way from teaching music to heading a large family business, sitting on several boards and winning numerous awards. Nichola Clark discovers how she engineered this success.

    Whatever Diane Tompson FAICD turns her hands to, she makes a success of it. As a business owner, a Telstra Business Woman of the Year and an active company director on numerous boards, she is a whirlwind of energy. Her secret: an eclectic mix of talents she pulls out from her bottomless magician’s bag.

    There is Tompson the "musician". A music teacher for many years, she was classically trained in piano and voice at the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music. The art form remains one of her greatest passions and has formed the backbone of her approach to work and life.

    "If it wasn’t for my music background, I would not have been successful in business. You have to be disciplined to perform or create music. You soon learn hard work is the only way to do things well. You also have to be creative and accepting of change – like the branch of a tree bending with the wind."

    There is also Tompson the "pseudo engineer". Growing up in Hobart, Tasmania, engineering runs through her blood. After the war, her Queensland-born father moved to be with her Tasmanian mother and worked in the mechanical engineering section of the iconic government organisation, the Hydro Electric Commission. Her brother followed in his father’s footsteps and became an engineer too. "If it hadn’t have been for my music, I probably would have ended up being an engineer as well," laughs Tompson.

    With engineering in the family, it is perhaps no surprise Tompson went on to marry into the engineering fraternity. Philip, her husband of 37 years, is a talented electrical engineer specialising in telecommunications, lightning and surge protection.

    Drawing parallels between their two educational backgrounds, Tompson says: "Music and engineering are very similar thought processes. They are both quite process driven, creative, push boundaries and you have to think outside the square. We both have that creative link."

    Together they have three children, whom Tompson describes as "one of my greatest achievements". In 1991, Tompson and her husband went on to create their "fourth child" – Powercom Consulting, the fledgling of The Powercom Group they own today.

    It started with just the two of them. Her husband also took on engineering consultancy work while Tompson played a support role to get the business off the ground. "If you’re cash poor as we were, two of you need to actively participate to make a new business work. One of you needs to take responsibility for the company’s administration," she says. "At first I used to teach music four days a week and work on the business one day a week."

    To balance the business and being there for the children, she began teaching less and dedicated more days to Powercom. She grew with the business and learnt the machinations of the company as the business grew, soon picking up on the "alien" engineering terminology. "Getting involved gradually with the businesses gave me a great background and insight into all its parts. I’m glad I did it that way."

    Tompson is now its managing director and one of the greatest assets she brings to the role is "Tompson the entrepreneur", a talent that emerged from an early age. "When I was a child, a friend and I used to organise puppet shows and persuade all the neighbourhood children to come to them," she says.

    This innovative, "go-getter" attitude has stuck with Tompson throughout her life. As a student at the "Con", Tompson started up the student representatives’ council. As part of her role as treasurer, she organised student concerts to raise money for the conservatorium. As a teacher, she and her colleagues set up a successful award-winning band for the children at the school she was working at. And as a mother, she decided she needed a new challenge.

    "I started a small enterprise called ‘Kit n Kaboodle’ and persuaded two friends to participate in it. We designed and manufactured appliqué kits for enterprising sewers," she says. The business provided a good sideline and taught Tompson some business acumen.

    "It was great to learn about a micro-business – its processes from development through to marketing, logistics and sales," she says, noting this business was eventually sold when needs changed and the children started attending school.

    Tompson says this experience really helped her in setting up Powercom. Where there were gaps in her knowledge, such as accountancy, she took the initiative and went off to night school and studied.

    With new skills under her belt, she and her husband worked hard in the early 1990s to develop Powercom.

    He was contracted to design a product range for lightning and surge protection. "We’d always said we wouldn’t go into manufacturing, but because the company that had contracted Phillip was unable to find a company to build the big filters, we decided to manufacture them ourselves. Before we knew it, we’d developed the capabilities and the rest is history."

    In 1992, the manufacturing side of the business (later to become Novaris) was set up and took off.

    "In 1997, the business started to change dramatically and I ceased teaching entirely and worked full-time," adds Tompson.

    The Powercom Group is now a successful electronics manufacturing and consulting group. It consists of four companies, together employing more than 60 people in Malaysia and Tasmania. It supplies services and products from Australia to the Pacific, Asia, Africa, Central America and the Middle East.

    It was Tompson the "teacher" who helped bring about this success. She has a very strong belief in education. "Building on your skills enables you to make the right decisions. It’s about constantly learning and educating yourself. You have to be able to accept change readily, learn about that change and understand why it has to happen. It’s a very important part of your own development and your staff’s."

    She believes that as a business leader you are only as good as the weakest link. If you don’t have good staff, you don’t have a business. "You can’t do it all by yourself," she says. "If you want to be a good leader you have to inspire your staff. You need to take them on the journey with you, promote and encourage them to improve. It’s fantastic for morale."

    Putting her money where her mouth is, the teacher in Tompson has always encouraged training for her staff at all levels. Assemblers are given the opportunity to study electrotechnology and administrative staff encouraged to complete certificates and diplomas in business administration. This dedication to education has earned Powercom recognition and many awards. "We were recognised for producing staff that really knew what they were doing and for creating a learning centre culture," she says.

    The company has also received the Family Business Australia First Generation Award and the Premier’s Exporter of the Year Award for Tasmania. And, in 2005, Tompson became Tasmania’s Business Woman of the Year.

    "My reason for entering for the award was that I was about to become the Tasmanian president of the Women Chiefs of Enterprises (International) (WCEI) and I needed to find a way of marketing the organisation to potential members. This seemed a perfect way of getting our message across," she says.

    Tompson was so successful at raising the awareness of WCEI that she tripled membership numbers in the second year.

    The Telstra award and her new track record opened many more doors and she became increasingly active as a director. "After winning the Telstra award, I was invited to become the chairman of the Tasmanian Learning and Skills Authority," she says. "I really had to step up. It was good for me on a personal level and for our own business. I learned a lot about how meetings should be run and the processes and communications on boards. I learned more from the wonderful staff of Skills Tasmania than they learned from me."

    She was also elected national president of WCEI, a role she has only recently stepped down from. Remaining a committed member of the board, Tompson feels strongly about supporting other women in business, in particular entrepreneurs.

    She agrees with former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s quote: "There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women." She adds: "I think it is important for women to help one another to leave a legacy for those following on from us."

    Through the WCEI board, Tompson is now involved in the international network known as Les Femmes Chefs d’Entreprises Mondiales (FCEM) (Women Chiefs of Enterprises International) and is responsible for the Asia-Pacific region. "Because we manufacture for the Asian market in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I’m in quite a handy spot to go and visit women from around the region to encourage them to become involved in FCEM," she says.

    Tompson’s role at FCEM is to grow the organisation in the region, find entrepreneurial women and offer support. "In Japan, for example, hardly any women operate their own businesses. We provide a support network for women who want to have a go. Considering women comprise 51 per cent of the population, we should be recognised on boards and placed in senior management roles in businesses across the globe. I like to think people like me can make a change so that our daughters and the younger generation will have an easier route to success."

    She adds: "I really love working with men, but I also love working with women. However, because of the nature of the industry I work in, I rarely have the opportunity to work with women. When I work on a board, I try to operate the same way as my counterparts. I don’t try to stand out necessarily as a woman and if I have something to say, I won’t hesitate to say it. I will try to be concise and pertinent to the subject. My fellow (often male) board members respect that I have an opinion as I respect theirs. My advice to women is don’t hold back and don’t be frightened to say what you think."

    Tompson believes men and women think very differently, which creates a very positive diversity on a board. "However, I have observed that women have a tendency to doubt themselves first and ask questions later. They can be very apprehensive about their contributions and often believe they’re inferior. That’s a pity because I think women have a lot to offer. They may think: ‘I’m not a lawyer, or an accountant or an economist, so I can’t be very valuable or attractive as a potential board member.’ But when you look around, many of the men already on boards don’t bring those skills to the table either. Think about what you do bring to a board – perhaps a different way of thinking and approach to solutions. You soon realise you have much more to offer than numbers or compliance. I think women contribute really well to boards. They just have to give it a go and have confidence in their own ability."

    One industry Tompson has been passionate about contributing to boards over the years is manufacturing. Often the only woman around the table, she has been part of high-profile boards such as the Enterprise Connect Manufacturing Network interim advisory board, the Manufacturing Industry Council and the Digital Information Advisory Group in Tasmania. She was also Tasmanian president of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence. Today she is a board member of the Future Manufacturing Industry Innovation Council and the CSIRO Niche Manufacturing Flagship national advisory committee.

    "I am still very involved and passionate 
about manufacturing in Australia and Tasmania. I want to ‘help the cause’. Manufacturers represent 8.7 per cent of Australia’s GDP, a reduction of two per cent over the past 10 years. We can’t afford to, and should never, lose the expertise. It is imperative that we have the 
skills of a manufacturing country. It is a well-known fact that one of the reasons the UK was 
so badly affected by the global financial crisis was that it had reduced its manufacturing capabilities considerably, sending most of its manufacturing offshore."

    To help maintain the strength of Australia’s manufacturing industry over the next 12 months, Tompson has set herself a big task: "I am hoping to establish a website for women in manufacturing. I would like to make available a facility where they can connect and network with each other."

    Another cause very close to her heart is fostering the longevity and sustainability of family businesses. She has been on the national board of Family Business Australia (FBA) since 2007 and is the Tasmanian chairman.

    At present, only her son-in-law, Rohan Windsor, directly works for the family business, managing its solar install and design opportunities. But as students, her two boys worked as assemblers in the business and her daughter in administration. "I think by doing this they learnt exactly what they didn’t want to do. They all went off, studied hard and have done really well in their chosen careers."

    Scattered across Australia and the US, one is an engineer, one a lawyer and another a marketing manager – skills the business could really use. But will they ever join the family business? Tompson says: "Who knows, they may come back in the future, but it will be their decision."

    One area she is particularly conscious of through her work with FBA is succession planning. "What I do know is that if I want to plan succession properly, I’ll get FBA’s advice on how to do it successfully. It has to be done really well and takes about five years to implement. If you have plans to hand over your business, you need to begin the process immediately to hand over to new management in five years’ time."

    Tompson points to several famous Australian companies where children inherited the business because of the sudden death of the incumbent without any formal handover.

    "It would have been terrible for these children having to deal with the grief of their loved one, yet at the same time desperately trying to work out what to do with the business," she says. "You don’t want to leave succession planning until you’re on your death bed. It’s very important to have proper procedures set up so that when there is a change in management it all happens with very little disruption. It’s more desirable to have control of this changing environment particularly for your staff, and of course customers."

    To ensure the process is smooth, whether you plan to sell or pass the business on to the next generation, Tompson says it is essential to bring in a professional. "Don’t do it yourself. Find an expert. An organisation such as FBA is able to tell you where to get the best help," she says.

    With business going strong and life so busy, Tompson and her husband don’t plan to be going anywhere soon.

    "I really enjoy what I do and I know I’m very fortunate that I can wake up and look forward to the day. Not many people are able to say that of their work," she says.

    It is this enthusiasm, hard work, excitement and interest that Tompson transfers to all those around her. It was also this "magic" that was recognised in 2009 when she became the first woman in Tasmania to receive an Australian Institute of Company Directors’ gold medal award, presented annually in Tasmania.

    Other than her three children, Tompson says: "Receiving the award has been my most highly valued career achievement. I was completely taken aback. The fact that one’s peers get together and propose you for an award is a great honour."

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