A proud champion of regional Australia, Samantha Martin-Williams speaks to Domini Stuart about her emerging directorship career and passion for ongoing education.
Samantha Martin-Williams FAICD describes herself as a proud advocate for regional Australia. “I have always called the Hunter Valley home and I’m a strong voice for the regions,” she says. “I love the sense of vibrancy here. There’s development around the port, the airport and key industries as well as significant diversification into other sectors, including technology and innovation.
“There’s also a terrific, laid-back culture here with a huge opportunity for personal and professional growth. It’s an exciting transformation that’s starting to be recognised worldwide and is proving very attractive to overseas talent. I feel very fortunate that, thanks to today’s business landscape, I can live here while still working nationally and internationally.”
Currently, Martin-Williams is both general manager of corporate services and company secretary reporting to the board at the Hunter Valley Coal Chain Coordinator (HVCCC).
“HVCCC is a member-funded, independent logistics and supply chain organisation consisting of 20 coal producers and service providers,” she says. “Our model is unique in that we have a view of the whole of the supply chain and competitors collaborate to ensure that this is the best it can be. It’s a working model with a proven track record, and business leaders from around the world visit us to learn about how we operate. At the same time, technology is continuing to transform the sector in terms of both the efficiency and the ethics of the supply chain, so it’s a really interesting place to work.”
Martin-Williams has always been interested in both the operational and human sides of business. She considers that change is what she does best, both in terms of people and commercial organisational strategy. Her degrees in Business, Commercial Law and Industrial Relations, and Human Resources have allowed her to play to her strengths. Her first job involved managing a team of people in a very large health and leisure facility. She also sold products and services on a commission basis.
“One thing I took out of working in a sales environment was the importance of maintaining an opportunity mindset,” she says. “It’s very easy to focus on the knock-backs and the demands of that kind of role and I realised that it takes a conscious shift to change your default position away from focusing on the challenges to capitalising on opportunities. I also learned about the importance of networks, relationships and ecosystems – everything that brings people together.”
The risk of rapid change
After gaining experience in the professional services and recruitment sectors, Martin-Williams moved into education. “I was appointed by the University of Newcastle to manage all of its commercial facilities including health, leisure and sport,” she says. “This was at the time of the very rapid transition from universities being funded largely by the government to receiving no government funding at all. I was reporting to the board and, together with the senior executive, we did a great deal of planning and working through various scenarios in anticipation of a change in the government’s position. We realised that, if we were to be well-positioned for a very swift commercial shift, two organisations with a total of about 350 people needed to merge.”
While the commercial interests of many other universities were contracting, Newcastle decided to expand its offering into the central business district of the city. The decision carried a high degree of risk, but the outcome was a commercially-viable standalone entity that provided a firm foundation for continuing commercial growth. Martin-Williams received the 2002 Telstra Young Business Women’s Award in recognition of her contribution to the success of the venture.
“I was particularly honoured to receive the award because it was underpinned by our commitment to bringing everyone along with us as we transformed the business,” she says. “The whole operation, including the merger, went through very smoothly with no industrial disputation.”
The Telstra Award also brought Martin-Williams to the attention of the Hunter Business Chamber, which is now affiliated with the New South Wales Business Chamber. “I was encouraged to nominate for the board and I was voted in by the members,” she says. “I threw my hat in the ring because I felt that the Chamber would provide an opportunity for me to draw on my experience with Newcastle University and add value by championing similar strategies for growth across the region.”
Today she sits on the boards of the Newcastle Permanent Building Society, the advisory board of The Salvation Army and the Newcastle Permanent Charitable Foundation. “Given my executive experience, I’m hoping my next step will be to join a board in the resources, logistics and supply sector,” she says.
Martin-Williams believes that, along with executive and governance skills, every board member should have relevant networks and a demonstrable passion for the business.
“On top of that, I think that a good director will show up with presence,” she says. “By ‘presence’ I mean being really mindful, actively listening to colleagues and making well-thought out and purposeful contributions. Embracing the collective process is also crucial – an effective board isn’t made up of exceptional individuals but a group of people whose power lies in their collaborative thinking.
“I also think that a good director will have a really strong desire to move beyond the simple, compliance-based risks. We’re moving into a space where decision-making is becoming more and more complex. The old days of incremental change and processes that slowly trim around the edges of the current situation are over. There are now so many emerging technologies, so many different business models and so much disruption in all markets that you really do need to have people around the board table who are able to support your executive and lead a strategy that will keep pace with change.”
However far she looks into the future, Martin-Williams sees herself continuing her education.
“My next project is a world-class logistics and supply chain executive program,” she says. “Life-long learning and continuing professional development are both extremely important to me.”
If she could go back, there is nothing in her career that she would change. “Some things didn’t work out the way I planned, but I don’t regret making any of those decisions because I have always learned from all of my experiences,” she says. “I believe that, if you develop a good personal dialogue and do a bit of reflective thinking, most challenges bring about an opportunity for significant growth.”
Her toughest decisions have been to resign from the jobs she enjoyed most. “It can be very hard to leave people, processes and companies that you are happy with, but, when the talent around you is strong and the commercial aspect of the business is sound, your job is done and it’s time to move on,” she says. “I consider that my biggest successes have been enabling people to work to their strengths and fulfil their potential, then giving them the opportunity to put their own stamp on the next chapter. I have always found that very fulfilling, both in an executive and a board environment.”
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