CEO lunch with Valerie Davies

28/08/2017 - 13:44

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Valerie Davies has a background in media and communications, but her public role today is as a board member of Cedar Woods, Event Hospitality & Entertainment, HBF and the WA Tourism Commission, as well as running her own consultancy.

Ms Davies said while men comprised most of her career mentors, she had learned the importance of women banding together and understanding each other. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Valerie Davies has spent her career breaking ground in what were, and in many cases still are, considered the dominions of men – TV broadcasting, advertising production, business consulting, and in the boardroom of listed mining companies.

Clearly, Ms Davies has had the adaptive capacity to be such a pioneer, able to exist in blokey environments as they evolved, or in some cases did not.

It appears persistence was an early strength, helping her land her first job at former afternoon newspaper The Daily News at a time when few women were reporters.

“It wasn’t easy to get into journalism, it took me maybe three years of writing letters and nagging them to take me, but ultimately I got the cadetship there,” Ms Davies told Business News.

“Then I moved into television, probably about three years later. I didn't stay a long time in the print medium.

“Television was in the early days certainly of women’s involvement, but it was an opportunity that I took as a researcher for a current affairs program.”

In broadcasting, she became the first woman to read the news on Perth commercial television, following Susannah Carr, who was the first female local to be an ABC newsreader.

It was, in a way, a prelude to flexible working hours for women, despite the male-dominated nature of the sector.

“The managing director of the station said ‘how would you like to read the news on a Saturday evening?’” Ms Davies said.

“I had small children, I saw it as a real opportunity … the first woman to read the news on commercial television in Perth.

“Susannah and I, actually it was funny, we both worked at KFC in our holiday jobs to pay the rent, but she was at the ABC at that time, as I recall so, we were working at the same time.

“I didn’t really get to know a lot of women in the media because you would sort of did your job and went home.”

In the 1980s, she moved into the world of video production at Editel, a full-service television production house that made commercials and corporate videos.

In this role, Ms Davies was awarded the Telstra Businesswoman of the Year Award for WA for establishing and growing the corporate communications business.

“It was an interesting time; the facility made television commercials and the idea at that time, we’re probably talking early 1980s after the Americas Cup, the idea was to look at corporate communications,” she said.

“So today, it’s not even a DVD, but back then it would have been the videotape, and it was putting together little films about business and industry to transfer messages from one audience to another.

“I did all the early work for the Telethon Institute for Fiona Stanley, commercials on folate, things like that were sort of part of the work that we did. I worked for the Bankwests, and the Shells and the Woodsides.

“It was all the big companies, the banks, and what it was doing really was broadening my network about business.

“I became very interested the workings of business through my writing, marketing, having to satisfy the clients’ needs in that business.

“And it took a long time. I learned about cold calling, when you’ve got no business; you have got to get on that phone.”

Ms Davies went on to form her own corporate communications consulting firm, often advising leading CEOs and boards. It was from there that she became a non-executive director, starting with Fremantle Hospital in 1994 followed by her first ASX-listed role three years later with Westralian Sands, which became Iluka early in her decade-plus time with the company.

But she believes her communications skills and interest in people started well before her working life.

“My dad came to Fremantle as a painter and sign writer, because that’s what they were looking for,” Ms Davies said.

“And dad taught me, I think, in those early days of the client, you know we’d have to go and get the job to do a sign and I’d often go with him; I learned a lot from him about what the other person’s thinking and what they want from you.”

Ms Davies said it had been a privilege to work across many fields during career, although she highlights the communications consulting and subsequent board roles as being most fulfilling.

“Much of that work, whether it has been in the boardroom or with my own consultancy, has basically all focused around my interest in people,” she said.

“And I think while I was never really into the cut and thrust of daily journalism, I’ve always had this incredible interest in the other person … what they do, how they do it.”

The communications consulting business came in the late 1990s as something of an accidental spin-off from the video production work.

Ms Davies said it was some private consulting she did for the (then) newly appointed Bankwest CEO Terry Budge that kick-started that business, One.2.One Communications.

“He came to town as a newcomer and I actually went to, it was a Dymocks breakfast I think, and Terry had given his presentation, and (then Bankwest media manager) Ray Jordan was there and he said to me afterwards ‘you know, it would be nice for Terry to learn more about the town and what goes on is sort of what you do’,” she said.

“It really wasn’t, but I thought I could do it, so I said yes, and he was my first client; and I told nobody and he told everybody.

“So I never advertised, the phone rings, somebody might ask for help, whether it’s reporting to a board or whether it’s a chairman or CEO or somebody with the issues they have.

“It’s work I don’t talk about because it’s very confidential.

“But as you can appreciate, over time, in doing that work, and also doing my work in the boardroom, I’ve got a very healthy sense of what’s required from both sides.”

Ms Davies has used that knowledge to good effect in a boardroom career spanning more than two decades. She describes the appointment to Westralian Sands, now Iluka, as her big career breakthrough in that respect – being a listed company with an all-male board.

“On Iluka, I think it took me a while to find my feet and understand the language of men and women and how to use that in the boardroom,” Ms Davies said.

“Some people say ‘what does that mean?’ Well, I think, we have different styles and I think it’s very important to understand and appreciate that.

“I'm not saying it’s a bad thing, I actually think it’s a good thing and whoever’s chairing needs to best manage what I think is a style issue.

“It’s complex but the dynamics of the boardroom are all about difference, collegiality, ultimately coming to consensus where that’s possible, and mutual respect.

“So I think what you learn as you go through is make sure you sit at the board table with people you respect.”

Not that it is always ideal.

“I’ve seen conflict, I’ve seen lies told in the boardroom, I think I’ve seen it all, actually, I don’t think there’s much I haven’t seen,” Ms Davies said.

“I have sat on 19 boards over nearly two decades.

“It’s across, not for profit, private, public, government enterprise, basically all of the sectors, so I think I've probably seen most of what you can see about human nature.

“And also, the evolution of business.

“I was thinking before coming here today, I’ve seen the attitudes to remuneration change, the rise of governance, I’ve seen respect from people in the sort of work that I do – we’re called the generalists, I think.

“Whereas once it was boards were full of accountants and lawyers and I think with what you see in modern business today just how some of those other things, cultural things, are so important.”

Ms Davies said while men comprised most of her career mentors, she had learned the importance of women banding together and understanding each other, not just to help each other, but also to have their views understood.

In the early days, on the boards of mining companies, she did not fully realise that to be the case.

“Do you know, and looking back again when I came out of some of those companies, I realised there were women within those companies that I never properly met, or engaged with or you know, if you could do anything for them like today, you’ll (you know) gather with women in a company and certainly listen to what’s happening for them,” she said.

Ms Davies said the issue of women in mining, both at executive level and especially on boards, remained significant.

“I think there is an issue where we look at women on boards and we say there’s not enough coming through the pipeline,” she said.

“There was this difficulty still, where you come through the pipeline, you might be in management and you might be having children, and when you come to look at potential people for a board, sometimes, whether it’s a head hunter or your colleagues will say ‘but where’s their board experience?’

“So I think it’s an issue in that it’s hard for women.”

Ms Davies said the upside was that the sector realised the need for change and more women were now progressing through the executive ranks of mining.

“I think they’re so aware that they’ve got to go through the pipeline in management to do that,” she said.

“But I, I think they need a leg up from their female pioneers before them. And I see that as one of the responsibilities I have now to make sure that in that transition, to the new generations, we truly do that.

“That it’s not just about diversity of ‘oh yes, let’s get a woman’.

“You get the right person, if there’s an available woman, and they have the right skill sets to contribute to that board at that company’s time in history, then wouldn’t that be great?

“But I’m, I’m not a believer that we should discriminate against men.

“I think we need the right people for the right role, and the board needs to properly look at the skill sets it needs and put that right group of people together, and that’s really art and science.”

Ms Davies said the possibility to make this change was easier because the director’s role had changed in the past 20 years, from when it was generally an entitlement for males who retired as CEOs.

These days the focus on governance was more serious and much broader, with themes such as safety, remuneration and now culture coming to the fore, along with brand and reputation.

“The big one which is culture, which is what everyone's talking about now, and I think the regulators said maybe a year or two years ago now that culture is a responsibility of the board,” Ms Davies said.

“When I heard that it was music to my ears, because I think I’ve always been focused on how the fabric of an organisation was progressing, but it wasn't always in the interest of some of my colleagues.

“It would be the same, though, with brand and reputation.

“If I think about brand and reputation, after we’ve been asking about that in the board room forever, but it wasn’t always what my colleagues felt that was equally important with some of the other things.

“Well let’s face it, if you don’t have your reputation then you don’t have anything, and I think the big one now in talking about changes I’ve seen has to be the recognition that culture is critical … I certainly agree with that.

“I think it’s not enough just to say, you know, you do a survey or you get surveys from management saying how people feel and where they figure in the scheme of the pulse, I guess, of the organisation.

“I think it is up to the board to probe further and to take the opportunity to informally do their own investigations, in the right way obviously, but to find out what people are thinking and doing and if what you’re being told is truly the way things are.”

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