Jennifer Westacott interview with Kristy Reading, ABC Radio Central West

Kristy Reading, host: Good morning to you, Jennifer.

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia: Good morning.

Kristy: Thank you for your time. Now, you’ve been visiting a whole range of regional areas as part of this tour you are on. How would you describe Australia’s regional economy right now?

Jennifer: I think it’s patchy across the country. I think there are some places that are doing it really, really well. Some places where there has been an injection of a particular thing, say Toowoomba with the airport. That opened up enormous opportunities for exporting goods to other parts of the world and obviously for commercial flights as well. The kind of issue of the drought I think has been really dominant as we get around the country and the impact that’s had on regional communities. But what you get time and time again is the story of people working really hard, connecting big and small business together, selling their products, innovating, getting new jobs on the ground and the Central West is no different there. There’s a great story of Simplot working with Coles, working with local producers, extra contractors have been signed recently – that’s about local growers producing the vegetables to Simplot with a big relationship with Coles and the opportunities that come from those relationships are enormous. You don’t get a lot of people in regional communities sort of saying that they don’t need those relationships in order to really get their products to market.

Kristy: OK. I mentioned before you are the CEO of the Business Council of Australia which is a collection of some of the biggest CEOs in the country. I mean big business certainly operates in quite a different way to smaller businesses, there are differences in costs, in customer bases as well. What insight do you think the Business Council as a representative body of these major companies has to offer local businesses?

Jennifer: Well, it’s really how to kind of tap into these opportunities to sell your products to those bigger supply chains because don’t forget if you take Coles and Woolworths, you know their access of produce particularly is huge across Australia and so giving people an insight into how to work on improving their relationships and getting those products into those big customers because big and small businesses need each other. They can’t survive without each other. Small businesses if they want to get bigger, need large businesses to be their customers, big businesses need small businesses to be their key suppliers. The other message I am giving to people as they get around the country is don’t forget to innovate. Don’t forget to kind of think about the sorts of things a big company will need in the technology space, in some of the spaces around recruitment, training, all of the things that are really crucial I guess for keeping the business community as a whole working effectively. And I think that’s the message we’re kind of getting from people, that’s the message we’re giving people, that these two sectors need each other. And, yes big business is a different sort of entity but at the end of the day business is a collection of 11 million people who work in businesses across Australia. It’s a collection of the millions of suppliers, the millions of shareholders, that’s what business is. And the two sectors work together very, very effectively and I’m not saying there aren’t problems but these sectors need each other.

Kristy: What opportunities do you see for businesses both large and small, particularly in the Central West? I mean, I know you haven’t been here too long.

Jennifer: Yeah, I've spent a lot of time over the years. But what are we hearing? The conversation you were just having about the airport is hugely important because if you take the western Sydney Airport, its somebody that makes a whole lot of difference in terms of getting products to market very quickly. They're going to have an agribusiness sector, they're going to have an agri-port at western Sydney Airport.  And then this discussion about putting another regional freight airport is hugely important. So suddenly these huge markets in Asia, which are desperate for our products because of their quality, they're clean and green and they're high quality, suddenly these new markets become your opportunities. That creates opportunities for investment, that creates opportunities to employ more people. So that's one big opportunity. The second is in the tech space. So I spent the afternoon yesterday in the incubator, whatever you want to call these things, Upstairs in Bathurst, where they're kind of housing people who just want to try and see how they can get their kind of products to market, this whole kind of innovation. And it's really interesting. I've spent some time a few years ago looking at those incubators in San Francisco and Silicon Valley and you know, people forget that things like Uber started off in incubators like that and then suddenly someone gives them an investment. It doesn't all have to be mega like that but there are real opportunities with the internet for people who are kind of inventive and got ideas about various things to suddenly become quite medium sized businesses and indeed big businesses. So there's just opportunities bounded by imagination to be honest. I think what you see when you sit down with the local chamber and you sit down with some of the business people here, is just this sense of optimism and enthusiasm for all the things that can be done. And that then brings the economic case to do the airport, to do the roads, the rail infrastructure.

Kristy: Okay. We're talking to Jennifer Westacott today who’s the CEO of the Business Council of Australia. Jennifer, today you're hosting a panel discussion in Bathurst as alongside representatives from CSU, the Bathurst business chamber and some other local companies. What issues are you going to be exploring there?

Jennifer: Yeah, well we want to get a sense from people how things are going and we want to get a sense of what are going to be the things that would really make a difference. What are some of the issues? What are some of the opportunities? Because one of my responsibilities is to take back to the large corporations, "look you know there's some opportunities in places like the Central West. Why don't you think about that?"  My other obligation is to go back to our political leaders and say, "you know, if you just did these few things, it would really get business going there".  The other thing I want to hear about today is the skills issue, which is something I'm passionate about, because I think we've really dropped the ball as a country on things like TAFE and VET. We've over emphasised the role of kids going to university. I want to hear about how people are reskilling and retraining to do these sort of new jobs, the new tasks that are going to come from the more technologically driven economy. And I want to get as sense of how big and small businesses are working together. So looking forward to sitting down with people and having, I hope, a really good discussion.

 

Kristy: Fantastic. Alright, well Jennifer thankyou for your time today