17/02/2014 - 12:37

Indigenous consultancy has right connections

17/02/2014 - 12:37

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FEATURE: A new indigenous consultancy wants to prove others can follow in its footsteps.

Indigenous consultancy has right connections
FOUNDATION: Shane Devitt is one of four indigenous founders of PwC Indigenous Consulting. Photo: Attila Csaszar

A new indigenous consultancy wants to prove others can follow in its footsteps.

In some regards Shane Devitt has a foot on either side of the fence when it comes to indigenous business.

He has spent years as a consultant with PwC, advising some of the largest companies operating in Western Australia on governance, internal audit, risk management and, increasingly, indigenous employment.

That role has given Mr Devitt a unique vantage point to observe the indigenous challenge facing big business, and efforts to rectify disparity between indigenous and non-indigenous populations.

On the other side of the equation, Mr Devitt’s cultural heritage as a Koori man includes a deep-rooted will to improve the lives of his people.

Furthermore, Mr Devitt has first-hand knowledge of what’s involved in starting an indigenous business, as he and three other Aboriginal consultants have gone out on their own to launch a new consultancy firm.

The different factors have formed Mr Devitt’s view that change is desperately needed, both from indigenous and non-indigenous businesses, if positive results are to be achieved.

The starting point, Mr Devitt says, is bureaucracy introduced by governments and multinational corporates.

“A lot of the policies and programs have had a welfare slant to them,” Mr Devitt told Business News.

“That’s got to change, because it’s been happening for 90 years and you’ve still got a whole lot of variances in those ‘close the gap’ measures.”

PIC spawned

In a bid to tackle the problem, Mr Devitt has helped launch a new indigenous-focused consultancy firm – PwC Indigenous Consulting.

Its clear affiliation with PwC belies the fact that PIC, as the consultancy is referred to, is an entity in its own right with the same global standing as PwC Australia.

“That’s important to us because we want it to be a game-changer,” Mr Devitt said.

Mr Devitt and three other experienced Aboriginal consultants across Australia are majority owners and principals of the new firm, and will take 51 per cent of revenues gained.

PwC Global will take the remaining 49 per cent as a result of it providing seed funding and giving Mr Devitt and his colleagues access to international facilities, experience and expertise.

State and federal governments, and corporates seeking guidance on indigenous employment are likely clients of PIC, and Mr Devitt said he would be addressing the policy issue head on.

“One of the main beefs is that the policies and programs are designed by bureaucrats, not with the really good input from the people who are actually going to be subject to those policies and programs,” he said.

Balanced view

While Mr Devitt may be seen as an advocate for indigenous businesses more broadly, he makes it clear the responsibility for bringing positive change doesn’t just fall to corporates, who he said were already open-minded about engaging with the indigenous population on a business level.

“In the last two or three years there has been a recognition of the maturity of some of these indigenous businesses,” he said.

That recognition may be growing, but indigenous businesses such as Indigenous Construction Resource Group and PLWA (see Stonewall claims mar Aboriginal successes) claim they’re hitting a wall when trying to win work.

Joint ventures have traditionally been a strategy for indigenous businesses or traditional owner groups to get started in business – particularly the resources sector (see table).

And PIC itself is an example of a much larger organisation helping an indigenous minnow.

But others in the industry claim breaking away from the joint venture arrangement and attempting to stand alone can bring difficulties.

With his ‘consultant’ hat on, Mr Devitt said the challenge indigenous businesses faced was the need to prove themselves in the eyes of major companies – a challenge exacerbated by the transitioning mining sector.

“A lot of people have benefited from the construction process and now that it’s slowed down and it’s moving to a different type of service provision; how are (indigenous businesses) going to adapt to that?” Mr Devitt said.

“It’s going to be a big challenge.”

Addressing that challenge has formed one of PIC’s key intentions to help indigenous businesses maintain systems and processes to prove they’re up to the task of completing work with the same capability as non-indigenous businesses.

But PIC also wants to be an example to inspire other indigenous businesses.

Role model

The consultancy is the brainchild of Melbourne-based PwC partner James van Smeerdijk, who is responsible for PwC’s reconciliation action plan.

With an increasing number of indigenous-related jobs coming through the door, Mr van Smeerdijk raised the possibility of establishing an indigenous-focused consultancy.

He then launched a search for appropriate founding principals and found Mr Devitt, Jason Eades, Jodie Sizer, and Gavin Brown.

While it has been given a helping hand by PwC, and Mr van Smeerdijk is on the board, PIC’s ultimate success or failure lies with the four principals.

Mr Devitt said PIC intended to grow the consultancy to have seven principals and 50 total staff by the end of the 2014-15 financial year. There are currently 17 PIC employees, including the four principals.

Being an indigenous business, PIC requires the majority of employees and owners to be Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Mr Devitt expected the current goal of 50 staff was achievable, but it was unlikely PIC would ever have all the expertise required without tapping into PwC’s networks and resources, which was why the affiliation was so beneficial.

PIC has also established a swath of freelance consultants it could draw on who may have experience with particular language groups the permanent employee base lacked.

Jeremy Donovan, from Andrew Forrest’s GenerationOne organisation – which aims to end indigenous disadvantage – said the indigenous population needed examples such as PIC.

“It gives other indigenous organisations the confidence to say ‘we can do this; we can compete at the highest level with every other business that is out there’,” he said.

With an increasing number of indigenous businesses emerging, Mr Donovan said examples of success were becoming more prominent.

“You’re starting to see large indigenous businesses that are starting to stand on their own two feet and have the capital growth and can then create strong partnerships and can deliver the services required,” he said.

But reaching that point of success was a struggle, according to Mr Donovan, who said indigenous operators needed sound business advice to help them grow.


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