10/09/2009 - 00:00

Smith-Gander lands on her feet

10/09/2009 - 00:00

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WHEN the powers that be at Wesfarmers were mulling over the CV of Diane Smith-Gander before appointing her to their board, they must have thought how opportune it would have been to have her as a director two years earlier.

WHEN the powers that be at Wesfarmers were mulling over the CV of Diane Smith-Gander before appointing her to their board, they must have thought how opportune it would have been to have her as a director two years earlier.

Back then the company was on the verge of sealing its audacious bid to buy Coles to become Australia's biggest private sector employer and a giant in the retail sector.

While specialist skills are no prerequisite for board membership, Ms Smith-Gander's extensive corporate background has a strong leaning towards the integration work that follows mergers and acquisitions.

Her first exposure to that field came in the mid 1990s when she led the Westpac team handling the takeover of Perth-based Challenge Bank, the former Perth Building Society.

At that time she worked closely with Challenge managing director Tony Howarth, now one of her fellow directors at Wesfarmers.

She acknowledges it was a difficult merger from which she learned a lot, enabling her to better manage Westpac's next big acquisition, that of the Bank of Melbourne.

"The timing might have been better," Ms Smith-Gander said of the Challenge merger process, notably the efforts to fast track the back office changeover, which led to a difficult time in terms of local media coverage.

While her banking experience was varied, the post-merger theme returned when she joined global consultant McKinsey & Co's practice about 10 years ago, working on the amalgamation of corporate players across the industrial spectrum in the US and Europe.

As a result, she learned some very good lessons for anyone contemplating a merger.

"Knowing what it is you are actually doing (the strategic intent) and making sure the integration efforts match that intent is lesson number one," Ms Smith-Gander said.

"The second lesson is moving towards the end-state organisation structure as soon as you can. You need to appoint the people who are going to steward that through as fast as you can."

Observers of Wesfarmers might suggest they have followed this rulebook pretty closely.

After 25 years living interstate and overseas, Ms Smith-Gander said she had decided to return for personal reasons with a view to pursuing a career as a non-executive director.

And her credentials have ensured that the former state basketball player has landed squarely on her feet.

Two weeks ago, Wesfarmers appointed Ms Smith-Gander as a director, joining Patricia Cross as the second women on the board.

This news came just a fortnight after she had joined the board of the entity established by the federal government to oversee the rollout of its National Broadband Network strategy.

Along with her existing role as a director of Basketball Australia, where she played a part in bringing together key strands of the sport under one corporate banner, Ms Smith-Gander has very suddenly become one of WA's best placed company directors, a rare space to be inhabited by a woman in this state.

It is a stratospheric position after what she admits was a fairly inauspicious beginning.

Ms Smith-Gander said she crashed and burned at her first attempt at tertiary studies at the University of WA, dropping out to concentrate on basketball.

Later renewing her studies, she recalls working part-time as a receptionist at a marketing and public relations firm and failing at that lowliest of tasks - making the coffee.

Ms Smith-Gander said her frank admission to her then boss, Phil Glew, won her some credibility and a role of trainee consultant working on the prestigious Pal dog food account, a start she never looked back from.

 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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