He may have retired from footy, but sports legend Jonathon Thurston is by no means sitting on the sidelines of life. Swapping superstardom for a new journey, he is transferring his leadership skills into business, boardrooms, public speaking, publishing, the media and aviation.
He’s setting a scorching pace. After speaking at an AICD dinner in Townsville in November, he told Boardroom Report: “I joked to my manager about my speaking tour and book tour (to promote his new autobiography). I said can you get me another (footy) contract for another year because this working business is too much.”
A whirlwind of activity has seen JT tour Australia as a celebrity author and start work in a Queensland government boardroom, where he’s learning the ropes. Thurston was approached by Queensland Tourism Industry Development Minister Kate Jones about the role on the Queensland Tourism and Events Board.
“I didn’t take much convincing. I thought it was a good opportunity for me to take on and learn how boards operate. And I can learn about the industry as well - because I like travel and so does my wife.”
With tourism employing 220,000 people in Queensland, it’s a $25 billion driver to the Queensland economy, he says. “While it’s a challenge and all new to me, the role is something I am excited about.”
He’s attended one board meeting in Cairns, touring Mosman Gorge and discussing how to improve authentic indigenous tourism. “That’s something we do want to drive,” JT says. “Throughout the country and Queensland and internationally, tourists do want to be able to see, feel and engage with local indigenous people and their culture in Australia and that’s probably something we can do better.”
Admitting he now sees himself as a “small fish in a big pond” outside the Townsville Cowboys club, where he was captain and co-captain, he also wants to challenge himself next year by enrolling in the AICD Company Directors Course (CDC).
The state government board is diverse, with members from aviation, travel, sport, marketing and the media, plus Nancy Bamaga, founder of Indigenous consultancy Black Drum Productions.
The appointment is wonderful because “JT is such a knowledgeable and passionate ambassador for the region”, says the CEO of Townsville Enterprise board, Patricia O’Callaghan GAICD. “He gives us a voice around the table,” she told Boardroom Report. “We already have a very strong relationship with Queensland Tourism, but having someone at board level where the key decisions are being made can only prove to be valuable for us.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk says JT is an influencer and leader who can offer advice and insights into how the state can grow an industry that’s vital to regional communities.
The man who played a pivotal part in getting the new $250 million North Queensland Stadium under way – by raising the issue in his 2015 NRL grand final victory speech - is widening his spheres of influence.
Life after footy
As he transitions into other realms, Thurston uses his rock star popularity and disarming honesty and humour to promote Indigenous culture and other causes he cares deeply about – such as helping disadvantaged youth.
In a question-answer session hosted by AICD Queensland manager Melanie Mayne-Wilson GAICD, he spoke about his new Channel Nine sports commentary role and his new jobs website the Johnathan Thurston Academy, which has placed 250 young people in work this year. “This is something I am extremely proud of,” he says. In his role as Managing Director, JT visits schools and urges kids to stay at school. “Education is the key and that’s what I am passionate about.”
He also described his early life in a housing commission area of Brisbane’s Sunnybank Hills, the joy and intensity of discovering his culture a few years ago by visiting his distant maternal relatives in outback Queensland, the crisis in Aboriginal health and the importance of sports culture.
Good sports culture starts at the top, he says. “In sporting organisations, you see that if the board is strong at that level it will filter through to the rest of the club. Certainly I believe that (good) culture is driven from the top and …those teams are the ones that perform at a better level.” In the last 10 years, top clubs such as the Roosters, Melbourne Storm, Brisbane Broncos and Cowboys all had really sound boards and performance, but other clubs like the West Tigers did not.
On Aboriginal health, he illustrated from his own life. Years ago for his Aboriginal mother’s 60th birthday, he questioned why she wanted a party. She replied: “Because not many of our people make it to the age of 60.”
What’s next for JT?
Thurston has an ongoing role as ambassador and mentor at the Cowboys, which has just added a girls campus to its accommodation and education program for disadvantaged Indigenous youth. Beyond that, he’s not sure. “They told me I could clean the toilets,” he jokes.
Business interests are a major focus. With solid personal investments in property and aviation, and now the JT Academy, Thurston says he will spend the most time on his Network Nine contract, but oversee his enterprises too.
Thurston, a shareholder in the fast-growing Collings Aviation Holdings, which in March 2015 bought out Cairns-based airline Skytrans, says he invested “to connect to the community of North Queensland which has given me so much”.
He also owns both commercial and residential property in Townsville, Brisbane and Sydney, including the first property he ever bought – in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt.
Admitting that watching Cowboys games from the sidelines will be “difficult” and that other sports retirees warn he will miss the locker room camraderie, he jokes he will have to get his fix from “smelling the liniment”. Asked where he will channel his former energy on the sports field now, he laughs with zealous relish: “into my businesses”.
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