The former Governor of Western Australia is using the lessons of a career in business and public service to forge a new path in the conservation of the state’s natural beauty.
A keen hiker, Kerry Sanderson AC CVO FAICD, chair of St John of God Healthcare and former Governor of Western Australia, has tackled international walks such as the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and has completed the state’s 202km Pilgrim Trail and 123km Cape to Cape Track. She has also conquered 60 per cent of the Bibbulmun Track, which stretches for a formidable 1000km.
“When you get out hiking, you might have a big backpack on, and you might be struggling uphill, but because of that struggle, you forget your other cares,” says Sanderson. “Sometimes it’s just gruelling — there are days you might have hoped to do only 16km, but you suddenly find the map’s not right, and it’s 20 or 24km instead. But most of the time, you’re walking through beautiful scenery and it can be so uplifting.”
The same hallmarks of grit, determination and a delicate touch can also be seen throughout her career — first, as a respected public servant within the WA departments of Treasury and Transport; next as the CEO who turned the loss-making Fremantle Ports around. Then came a three-year term (2008–11) as Agent-General in London, where she supported WA’s successful bid for the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope.
Sanderson subsequently forged a non-executive career, including with mining company Atlas Iron, engineering and infrastructure provider Downer EDI and St John of God Healthcare. She was also chair of Gold Corp, which operates the Perth Mint, and the first independent chair of the State Emergency Management Committee. During this time, she held some charitable roles, including with the Paraplegic Benefit Fund.
Next came her 2014 appointment as WA’s first female governor. “I had to give up [my non-executive roles] when I became governor, because you [have to] put everything into that,” she says. “When I came out again, I decided I really only wanted to do NFPs.”
Crafting a diverse career
Sanderson’s reinvigorated focus on passion and purpose has shaped her subsequent non-executive career, with a diverse portfolio spanning healthcare, nature conservation, education, sport and other sectors. In addition to her role with St John of God Healthcare, she is a former chancellor of Edith Cowan University and a director of the WA Cricket Association. She is patron of the Bibbulmun Track Foundation, the Pilgrim Trail and Rottnest Voluntary Guides Association, co-patron of the WA Aboriginal Leadership Institute and the WA Naturalists’ Club, and president of Scouts WA.
“St John of God Healthcare was an organisation I loved having been part of before I was governor, and being asked to chair is such a privilege, because you’re working with people in the care industry, who are so compassionate, and focused on helping others,” says Sanderson. “If I think I can help, I tend to say, yes, I’ll do that. Education and nature conservation were other areas I felt I could make a contribution, but I’ve had to say no to quite a few things as well, because you can get overwhelmed.”
Lesser known is Sanderson’s passion for the environment and conservation and her work as a director in organisations that encourage people to be outside and in nature. “I love our national parks and our natural environment, but I thought we all needed to develop a sense of stewardship of them, otherwise they would lack resources,” she says.
Sanderson helped to establish and continues to chair the WA Parks Foundation. As the independent NFP partner to the state’s Parks and Wildlife Service, the foundation aims to support the conservation and promotion of WA’s network of parks. This natural asset is comprised of more than 31 million hectares, including three natural World Heritage areas and one of only 36 internationally recognised biodiversity hotspots.
“WA has so many fascinating wilderness areas as well as forests and beaches, with unique and beautiful plants and animals,” says Sanderson. “Getting out in nature has an amazingly positive impact on people’s mental and physical health.”
Her love of nature was sparked when she and her late husband took their two young sons into the great outdoors. “When we got married, we didn’t have much money, so we went camping a lot,” she says. “We did the same when the kids were young. They love hiking because they’ve grown up with it.”
Overseas trips opened Sanderson’s eyes to the beauty of international destinations, including Lauterbrunnen in the Swiss Alps, and the diverse landscapes of New Zealand. At the time of this interview, she had just returned from a two- week break in Botswana — a trip originally booked for 2020 — to catch up with her sons. “Botswana has devoted a large percentage of the country to national parks and has really clamped down on poaching,” she says.
However, her home state has always remained her favourite. “WA has magnificent scenery, whether it’s our forests, our coastal scenery, or our deserts, like the Karijini National Park gorges, it’s just beautiful.”
Mapping it out
Yet for many people, this vast, remote wilderness can be difficult to navigate, due to weak or non-existent mobile phone reception on the ground. For this reason, Sanderson spearheaded WA Parks Foundation’s development of the Smartreka maps app.
This downloadable series of topographical maps uses the inbuilt GPS on smartphones or tablets to plot hikers’ real-time locations — and all without a network connection or roaming charges if downloaded while still in range. They also give information on track grading, accessibility, camping and caravan sites, facilities, lookouts and things to do — and they are free.
“This will help people love the parks more because they’ll know what to do when they go there,” says Sanderson. “And when you go there, you can be sure that you’ll keep on the trail, or if you go off, you know how to get back on.”
It appears to be working, based on the number of maps downloaded. COVID-19 isolation has also boosted traffic with figures from the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions showing an estimated 8.5 per cent increase in visitations from 2019–20 to 2020–21.
Sanderson’s love of the natural environment has heightened her awareness of the risks it faces and she offers a useful perspective at a time that environmental risk is becoming an increasingly important business consideration.
“More boards need to understand what their impact and emissions are and how to work with them,” she says. “When we began our environmental journey at Fremantle Ports 20 years ago, we were focusing on our environmental impact and how to care for the environment. “We were systematic about it, having an environmental policy, measuring our baseline and committing to continuous improvement and ongoing audits of our progress and systems.”
Sanderson says a systematic approach is also needed for carbon emissions and St John of God Health Care has focused on setting targets for reduction. “The good thing is that what is good for the environment is normally also good for the bottom line, even after taking into account the capital for the investment.”
However, finding the capital could be challenging, and while staff were normally enthusiastic, they needed to know that board members were just as committed. “Boards need to focus on many issues, and in today’s environment, an adequate workforce and appropriate culture are extremely important,” she says. “Without a sufficient workforce and a safe and supportive workplace environment responsive to customer needs, an organisation can have all the strategies it wants, but is unlikely to achieve the objectives. In healthcare, our caregivers are so important because you only have to spend a little time in a hospital to know how vital adequate healthcare is.”
Now that the acute crisis has waned, the sector remains affected by reduced workforce, leading to those remaining looking for innovative ways to meet patient needs.
For example, more “hospital in the home” services have been introduced, allowing people to be discharged earlier while remaining under the care of the specialist.
Getting things shipshape
Sanderson first began grappling with these challenges in 1991 at Fremantle Ports. Cultural change was required — the year prior to her appointment, Fremantle Ports had suffered an underlying $37m loss and was recognised as Australia’s “most inefficient port”. Urgent and far-reaching reform was needed in order to reduce costs and increase productivity. “When I started, it needed a lot of work to be perfectly frank,” she says.
Sanderson introduced a strategic plan, adopted the Australian Business Excellence Framework as the overarching strategy for innovation and continuous improvement, and sought accreditation in quality, environment, and health and safety. Emphasising that everything was a team achievement, the business was returned to profit within three years and, in 2007, towards the end of her tenure, it achieved Gold level recognition in the Australian Business Excellence Awards process, and received a medal as the highest-scoring Australian participant that year.
“I was always very proud of that,” says Sanderson. “It took us 13 years, and I would have liked to have done it quicker, but we needed to do it thoroughly, and we started with quite a lot of challenges.”.
She says her determination allows her to tackle business problems others might deem too difficult. Quoting Lou Tice, founder of the Pacific Institute Australia, she adds that mindset is crucial. “His saying is: If you believe that you are going to succeed, you will, because you’ll look for ways around or underneath any obstacle, whereas if you believe you’re going to fail, you’ll give up at the first sign of an obstacle.”
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