What I’ve learned about understanding the business I’m in

Wednesday, 01 March 2023

Denise Cullen

    AICD Tasmania Gold Medal Award winner Heather Chong FAICD always considers the wider environment in which she operates.

    I studied psychology for four years, but decided I didn’t want to be a psychologist. So I thought, “I have a science degree and I can do maths, so what do I want to do with it?” Career advice at university put me onto the path of accounting, which brought all my interests together.

    While in the UK, I went to work for the auditing firm Ernst & Whinney [now EY] and then a small private merchant bank. Sometimes, as an auditor, you’re not the most welcome person.

    But I found all the different companies we went to fascinating — we audited British Airways and, at the other end of the scale, an artisanal manufacturer of pens and pipes. I like listening as people talk about their work. Being interested in their passion, and them as people, makes for much better working relations.

    Heading to Asia

    My then boyfriend, now husband, had to go back to Hong Kong, where he had mostly grown up, to sort out visas. I followed him there and we ended up staying. I went to work as a treasury accountant for a construction company. Accountancy, wherever you are, is a bit like speaking English — the fundamentals are the same, but the dialects are different.

    I have a vivid memory of when I first worked in Hong Kong — no-one would go home until the boss went home. We were there during the stock market crashes in the late 1980s. Many people who rushed into the market got hurt — it taught me only to invest what you can afford.

    From there, we went to Singapore, supposedly for a year, but ended up staying for eight. I worked for Computer Associates, a big American software company, installing and implementing accounting packages and training employees. But we didn’t necessarily want our two children growing up in Singapore. They led a very privileged life — they went to an international school, we had two maids and a driver, so their normal was quite different than what we’d grown up with.

    We’d fallen in love with Tasmania and decided that was where we wanted to be. After casting around for something to do, I settled on growing apricots, as there was a gap in the market for Tasmanian apricots, grown at scale. All I knew about apricots was how to spell it and which end of the tree went in the ground, so we employed someone who knew quite a lot more.

    We started planting in 1999 and in the end had 48,500 apricot trees, 109 fig trees and a team of three full-time staff and hundreds of casuals throughout the year. I sold Qew Orchards a few months ago. Part of me is like, “They’re my babies — I planted those trees”. But neither of my kids is interested in running an orchard. In any business you need to be able to take a dispassionate view about when to sell. Having the succession planning conversations is important.

    Sweet home Tasmania

    There are two ways you can become a Tasmanian — either get married here and wait for your grandchildren to be born here, or just do lots of things and then people forget you haven’t been here very long. I decided that was much more my style.

    I quickly got involved in the stonefruit association, becoming treasurer then president. Running the orchard and being involved in the industry really started my governance journey, with lots of practical, hands-on experience. Then I helped to set up the national Summerfruit Association, becoming the state representative and inaugural chair. I later became a director on the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture advisory board for 10 years, and the Tasmanian government representative on the national Food Safety Centre (FSC). The industry introduced quality assurance standards and training and I got heavily involved in helping set that up.

    Local government

    Since 2009, I’ve been a councillor on Clarence City Council, the second biggest local government body in Tasmania. My time has included four years as deputy major. I’ve chaired a range of different committees, including the Clarence Health and Wellbeing Advisory Committee, which had a particular focus during the pandemic on making sure people could stay connected, working to mitigate mental health issues.

    Local government is so varied in terms of the breadth of things you have to do. It took me a little while to go from, “I’m running my own business, so I’ve got freedom to make all the decisions”, to “This is not my money, I need to be thinking in a whole different way”. Time frames can be frustrating because you’ve got to wait for budget cycles and there are often competing projects.

    I didn’t get accosted in the street when I had an apricot orchard. Sometimes it’s hard to explain to people that things don’t happen overnight, even important things. There are so many requests and only so much money in the pot. You’ve got to think through what the community would like, rather than what you think is more valuable.

    I’ve learned the value of understanding the drivers of the people around the table and the people they represent, the ability to explain why something is important to you and should be considered, and the importance of compromise.

    Understanding the business you’re in is important. So is doing your homework — not just inwardly, but thinking about the wider environment you’re operating in, because even if you’re a small local association, you’re still impacted by what’s happening around you.

    Community focus

    I always felt you should give something back to the community. I’ve held board positions with listed companies, public sector business enterprises and various NFP and community organisations, including Meals on Wheels and the Asthma Foundation.

    I’ve also been involved in the Rotary Club of Hobart, including a term as president. During my term as district governor for Tasmania, I organised a statewide call for Rotarians in Tasmania’s clubs to help those experiencing homelessness.

    My mother sent me a knitting pattern for diamond squares. I sent that pattern out to every club, telling them, “If you can’t do anything else, let’s make some of these and put them together.”

    We ended up with more than 200 blankets. We also provided kits with sleeping bags, mats and other essentials for the Salvation Army to hand out.

    Such projects show the power of getting things done at the local level. That capacity to make small changes is so big for the people you’re impacting. Even if, from a local level, you can’t impact a whole group of people, if you start here and keep going, things will change for many people.

    Heather Chong FAICD received AICD Tasmania’s Gold Medal Award 2022 in November, in recognition of her work in the business, community, philanthropic and NFP sectors across Tasmania.

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