What I’ve learned… about staying on the horse

Monday, 01 November 2021

Denise Cullen photo
Denise Cullen
Freelance Journalist

    As chair Rowena McNally FAICD and the board of the Mount Isa Rodeo found, there’s more than one way to run a rodeo.

    Since 1959, the annual Mount Isa Mines Rodeo has been a central fixture on the outback calendar. It’s the largest rodeo in the Southern Hemisphere, with a prize pool of $230,000 in cash and everything from bull riding to steer wrestling.

    It involves 900 volunteers from the Mount Isa community working 1200 shifts over four days — and brings thousands of visitors to the region.

    The direct cash injection to Mount Isa generated by the 2021 event was a record $16m, while the additional broader economic impact to Queensland was $8.6m.

    I originally went to Mount Isa to chair the Mount Isa Water Board around 20 years ago. I subsequently served on the board of the North West Hospital & Health Service, which covers an area of roughly 300,000sq km across Queensland’s Gulf Country region. Mount Isa really is an extraordinary place. Some of that red dirt just gets under your skin.

    I joined the board of the Isa Rodeo several years ago when it was looking for a governance specialist. I served for six years as deputy chair and am now the chair. The last two years during COVID-19 have been a pretty wild ride. We had to cancel the 2020 event due to COVID-19, but this provided the impetus for us to run the world’s first “virtual” rodeo. We developed a unique virtual entry and ticketing system to keep the Isa Rodeo “alive” during 2020. It also allowed us to earn revenue and to financially support both the entertainers and the cowboys and cowgirls competing for prize money in the various events.

    But we also knew that cancellation of the in-person event was tough on the community, particularly local business and the many community groups who provide volunteers for the rodeo and rely on it for fundraising. We didn’t want to cancel for the second year running. But with much of the country locked down, worsening numbers on the Delta variant and a snap Queensland lockdown announced less than two weeks before our event, it was looking doubtful. The board, CEO and management spent two months constantly reviewing options and risk management strategies as the environment changed.

    The weeks leading up to the start of the rodeo were a bit like bull-riding from the board’s perspective. What if there was an outbreak? What if people coming to the rodeo introduced COVID-19? There were reputational risks if the government or community lost faith in us — and we had to be mindful of our sponsors’ reputations as well, because our reputational damage becomes theirs.

    Embracing the risk

    Yet we had very high degree of confidence in our risk management mitigation strategies. We engaged specialist COVID-19-safe consultants so we could be sure we had best- practice in place. There are two sides to a risk appetite, and one of them is lost opportunities. We turned the “what ifs” around to focus instead on how we could make sure we could have a lot of people come through the gates and have a great time? That’s where our responsibility as a not-for-profit lies. It’s about being part of the community — to provide an outlet to people and balance the risk versus our obligation to the community.

    It helped that we had good financial management over a solid number of years. That gave us the ability to back ourselves, knowing if it did go badly, we still had some reserves. Natalie Flecker, our CEO, is a very good operator.

    It’s important to invest in good CEOs and good staff. The cohesiveness of the board made a big difference. Where you’ve got a board that is dysfunctional or incohesive, it makes it so much more difficult. That’s not to say there weren’t robust discussions — but different perspectives, experience and skills help make better decisions.

    One of the things the board’s been very aware of is the risk around being a one-event organisation, and COVID-19 has heightened that. We made a loss last year when we had to cancel, although the size of that loss was significantly offset by the virtual rodeo. Spreading out the risk associated with events makes good sense and it’s also a lot of fun — it gives our cowboys and cowgirls the opportunity for more engagement and allows us to bring financial benefits to our communities.

    We’re thrilled at how things turned out. Natalie has had local Mount Isa business owners coming up to her saying, ‘Thank you for being so gutsy to take the risk to make it happen, because we needed those people to come into our shop and spend money”. The unpredictability of COVID-19 certainly made this quite possibly the most challenging rodeo in the organisation’s history, but it also made it that much more rewarding.

    Based: Brisbane

    Roles: Chair Isa Rodeo, Mercy Community Services SEQ/Mercy Health and Aged Care Central Queensland; senior associate VUCA Trusted Advisors; board member NT Power & Water Corporation, Indigenous Essential Services.

    Studied: QUT (law); University of Adelaide (arbitration), Stanford University.

    Worked: Suncorp Metway Bank, Queensland Sugar Corporation, Sugar Industry Commissioner.

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