Business saved the nation

This opinion article by Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott was published in The Australian on Monday 12 April 2021. 

Over the past 18 months, in every challenge, business has stood alongside Australians through their darkest days.

From the sheer devastation of the bushfires through to the uncertainty of COVID-19 lockdowns, border closures and now the recovery, we've been there.

Businesses of all shapes and sizes have demonstrated that they're the glue that keeps communities together. Business is made up of selfless, unsung heroes who consider it "no biggie" to go that extra mile in times of crisis.

From John Appleby at Coles in Bateman's Bay baking bread through the night to keep emergency workers fed to Bank SA's Kaytee Collins who opened her branch at Kangaroo Island so fire victims had a safe place to find their bearings and receive support, including clothing and generators.

From EY's Dr Simon Doyle who returned to the emergency department at the peak of COVID-19 or Scott Hart from the Braidwood Community Bank who spent more time fighting fires than in his branch.

The Business Council of Australia launched the inaugural Biggies awards to recognise employees like John, Kaytee, Simon and Scott in the Big Heart category. Through their actions, they've provided much-needed hope and leadership.

The Biggies also celebrates the dedication and commitment of our member companies through the Big Impact category, especially finalists Accenture, ATCO, BP, Coles, EY, Fortescue Metals and Woolworths.

When disaster rocked the lives of their staff, customers, suppliers and the communities they operate in, it impacted the heartbeat of their operations.

Through the Biggies, we are demonstrating that business doesn't sit on the sidelines. We take seriously our obligation to play a critical role in keeping communities together and making the Australian economy stronger through creating jobs, training and skilling employees and investing in the future.

(Winners will be announced on Monday, April 19. A special issue of The Deal magazine celebrating The Biggies finalists and corporate social responsibility will be published in The Australian on Tuesday, April 20.) As fires raged last summer, Business Council members wasted no time in rolling up their sleeves and mobilising an enormous emergency response to make a positive difference.

Business provided a minimum 20 days paid volunteering leave so volunteer firefighters and others could spend time on the front lines. Qantas flew firefighters around the country for free.

Banks covered mortgage repayments and offered interest-free or discounted loans, while businesses of all sizes waived or delayed debts and sped up payments. The relief effort saw the donation of free pallets of food and water and the widespread distribution of credit vouchers to pay for essential services.

Teams from energy and telecoms companies risked their own lives in dangerous conditions to get essential services back up and running, and businesses like BP restocked fuel supplies despite road closures and fires.

Companies provided pro bono legal and accounting services.

Business gave more than $70m in cash and in-kind donations, including to the Business Council's BizRebuild charity chaired by Sir Peter Cosgrove, focused on business recovery and rebuilding communities.

BizRebuild provided more $1.1m in vouchers to help tradies and small businesses replace tools and office equipment lost in the fires so they can get back to business and more than $270,000 in vouchers to local businesses to spend on legal and financial advice so they could see a future.

The charity is rebuilding or improving six community halls in Rappville, Araluen, Cudgewa, Thowgla, Biggara and Kangaroo Island and built the Mogo pop-up mall in the fire-ravaged NSW south coast village to give businesses a new lease on life.

As fire-ravaged communities were finding hope, COVID-19 knocked the world for six.

Business remains proud of the critical role we played during the pandemic to keep employees, customers, suppliers and the broader community safe.

It was a repeat of the "no biggie" community spirit on display during the bushfires to keep Australians stay safe and make sure they could get on with their lives as soon as possible.

The ability of businesses to help was testament to their strong balance sheets before COVID-19.

Profitable, successful and well-managed businesses were able to draw on their reserves and step up for all Australians.

During the pandemic, business deferred and discounted utility bills, deferred mortgage payments and offered discounted loans.

Businesses switched production lines to make gloves, masks and hand sanitiser and demonstrated the power of being at the forefront of innovation, with companies such as GE and ResMed converting their products to make lifesaving respirators.

We were quick to bring in contactless delivery and other customer and staff safety measures.

Business led in early contact tracing, moved quickly to working from home arrangements.

We introduced pandemic leave and paid casuals who couldn't work because of the virus.

Business maintained essential services, kept supermarkets, petrol, pharmacy, retail and other shops open during lockdowns.

Our mining giants kept the resources sector going and the economy running.

We staggered shifts and altered rosters to keep workers safe, and business such as Woolworths worked with others including Qantas to find jobs for stood down employees.

And business showed its commitment to solving problems getting stock onto shelves, keeping the lights on, boosting internet and phone coverage so people could stay connected.

Working with state and federal governments, unions, charities and environmental groups, business found new and collaborative ways to keep people safe and as many people in jobs as possible.

The Biggies are about recognising that business is the backbone of the country. Businesses are made up of amazing people who go above and beyond every day to deliver for their customers, suppliers and the communities they serve.

Jennifer Westacott is the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia.