Published on 22 October 2020
COTTONING ON TO COMPANY BOARDS
Liz Alexander grew up on a grain farm at Jimbour 238 km northwest of Brisbane in the Western Downs region of Queensland.
Liz originally studied architecture after high school (girls were not necessarily encouraged to go farming at the time), before completing a Bachelor of Arts degree and working in art galleries.
She admits she came back to her first love, agriculture, and attained a master’s degree in rural systems management before relocating to Emerald in Central Queensland in 2001 with the cotton industry.
Liz said she never had any aspirations to be a company director.
“I was really lucky because I was supporting the local cotton grower associations in that first role I had in Central Queensland.
“It was the cotton industry and the Australian government who provided me with a scholarship to do the Australian Institute of Company Directors course.
“The peers I was doing the course with were all very senior company directors, including a director of a French nuclear weapon company, the chair of Australian Wheat Board, the CEO of Sunny Queen Eggs…it was a really amazing group of people and I learnt an enormous amount through that course,” Liz recounts.
When asked to put her hand up for the Cotton Australia board, Liz admits she had not considered the venture previously, but became the first non-grower to be nominated in a grower/director role to Cotton Australia.
Liz says people do not always have a clear understanding of what a company director does.
She says first and foremost, a company director is a role of service.
“You don't boss anyone around, you're among a group of equals. The chair is the first among equals, but as a group you're there to look after the interests of your shareholders or members who own the company, per se, and you deliver your duties on behalf of those members or shareholders,” she says.
The Corporations Act 2001 governs the direct roles that directors must play, with a number of duties that must be undertaken and upheld in the act.
Liz explains company directors have a duty of care and diligence, a duty of good faith, a duty not to improperly use their position and a duty not to improperly use information they receive during their position.
“The board doesn't operate as a group of individuals, it's really a group. Together you seek not always consensus, but to use all the minds at the table to provide strategic direction to assist management in knowing where the company wants to go. You look at and assess performance.
“You definitely have very a strong compliance role and really need to know the company inside out.
“You're there to support the CEO and management. It is about bringing all the minds to the table and typically these days nearly all boards are skill-based boards.
“It's a really rewarding and exciting thing to be on a highly functioning skills-based board because that really is a brain's trust,” Liz explains.
Liz believes one of the advantages of being part of a board is the ability to have a robust and respectful discussions around strategy and a way forward for a business.
Until recently, she was on the Cotton Research Development Corporation board. During that tenure, the organisation refocussed the work they were doing to be less about research for research's sake and in protecting the IP from research, to getting that research out into the hands of farmers and consultants and commercializing it so people could access it.
“That's quite a different way of looking at the role of intellectual property and that occurred over time and I think the results will be felt in a really positive way for quite a long time,” Liz maintains.
Liz says she has never applied for a director role in a company she did not strongly believe in.
She has not applied for roles just for the sake of earning money or being on a board, rather seeking out roles on boards that contribute to making her life, her community's life, significantly better.
“That is a big thing because then you tend to have people who are similar on those types of boards, particularly not-for-profits.
“Always do a bit of homework to make sure you're not jumping into something that's a disaster, unless you're intentionally going in to help,” she cautions.
Being honest, being courageous and speaking truthfully and with respect are all important traits for company directors, according to Liz.
She also counsels aspiring company directors of their immediate responsibility when starting with a board.
“You're a responsible director under the Act as soon as you start on a board, not when you've learnt things a year later and caught up.
“It's immediate, so you have to participate fully and be diligent and really get stuck in straight away,” she says.
“Politics and games are for the classroom and the sand pit, not for boards.”
Liz says when people are doing board selections for skill-based boards, they're not looking for an individual, they're looking for someone who has a suite of skills that supplement and augment the existing skill set on the board.
“Sometimes you'll be the right person and sometimes you just won't. That doesn't mean that you're not brilliant at something or a really great person. Sometimes it is the right time and sometimes it is not,” she reassures.
As a brand-new person trying to get on boards, Liz says it is quite difficult due to lack of experience.
There are however lots of options to get experience that can make your community a better place along the way.
Liz encourages people to volunteer on a local sporting group, volunteer for a charity, and do the things like that that will get you experience that you care about.
“It's about understanding and being able to clearly articulate your experience, so knowing what your skill sets are that are valuable,” she clarifies.
While COVID has been terrible for most, Liz says it has forced changes that will make it easier for regionally based people to engage and provide value as directors.
“Pre-COVID it might have been easier just to select people from cities and urban areas, but at the moment the government is looking to get stakeholder views on making permanent changes to the Corporations Act to allow for virtual meetings to continue.
“Now there's no reason why people in the regions can't contribute really well and provide value on boards,” Liz predicts.
Liz has also noticed a shift in the director demographic, saying while previously boards were predominantly made up of people who had retired from their full-time career, having people who are working and have skin in the game also bring a valuable insight to boards.
In August of last year, Liz started a role with start-up and commercialisation practitioners i4 Connect, who were recently awarded a contract with the Australian government to deliver the Accelerating Commercialization Guidance and Grant Program.
The Program is one of five delivered under the Entrepreneurs' Program and has two main components.
A guidance component designed to assist businesses who are start-ups or looking to scale and have a novel product, or service, or process that they want to grow.
If successful, candidates gain access to Liz or another team member as a mentor and a guide, who support them in their journey to apply for a grant.
If they are successful in getting the grant, mentors continue assisting and supporting them following that.
Liz says successful businesses can receive up to $1 million in matched funding.
“It's an extremely competitive process on a national scale, particularly for the larger amounts of money.
“Start-ups have to be incredibly competitive. They have to be strong against all the merit criteria, but we work with them to support them to get to that point, hopefully,” Liz says.
The grant is designed for businesses with a turnover of less than 20 million, unable to find funding through other sources. This is quite frequent at that stage of development because businesses do not necessarily have something to sell.
Essentially, grant applicants must have a novel product and their IP must be secured around that product, whether it is through traditional means such as patents or whether it is through trade secrets.
“You have to have an actual commercialization project, you have to have a goal, what you're actually aiming to do at the end of it.
“I've been working with a couple of companies recently who are putting in pilot plans because they've built or they've developed new products and processes that they are unable to actually sell commercially until they've fully understood the cost to set up a pricing strategy, so that they've got samples that they can then show potential clients.
“I have been working with people from aquaculture, cropping, livestock, quite a bit of advanced manufacturing at the moment, a lot of AI,” Liz says.
Being based in Central Queensland, means Liz sees a strong focus naturally in agriculture and advanced manufacturing, but says the grant can be for any type of novel product not yet seen globally.
Liz says even pre-revenue companies with no traction are still able to apply for guidance and go through the program, because potentially they may establish the company as they progress.
Before interested businesses apply for guidance, Liz encourages them to reach out to herself, or AusIndustry for hints as to whether they'll be a fit, or not.
“What I also try and do is direct people who won't be a fit to other areas that would support them…there's quite a few grant funds around and some are better suited than others,” Liz says.
Liz also encourages research entities including universities or commercialization offshoot of a university, to apply.
While they cannot apply up to the full one million, they are still eligible to apply for $500,000.
When it comes to selection, Liz says an independent panel of experts with heavy hitting skills in venture capital and domain expertise assess the applications that go through to grant and are considered eligible as a grant application. All states and territories are presented on the same day.
“You might be really good, you might have something that's going to have significant market success, but if there are others on the day that are better, it's the luck of the draw,” she said.
Businesses can also apply in stages and might have success in receiving a smaller amount of money initially, and then reapply to get their minimum viable product (MVP) to its next stage.
With Queensland AgTech Month fast approaching, Liz encourages regional businesses to participate in the broad range of professional development and networking activities taking place, including a free seminar hosted by James Walker.
The Longreach farmer won the Australian farmer of the year for excellence in diversification; earning additional income from renting 40 hectares to a solar farm as well as an "outback yacht club" tourist attraction.
Liz suggests another activity that is a great way for regions to link with urban innovation counterparts is AgTech Innovation Brisbane Mission being run by Startup Catalyst.
The event is an opportunity for those with a strong focus on the AgTech community to experience, learn, connect, share, and adopt learnings from the Brisbane innovation ecosystem. AgTech Innovation Brisbane Mission runs from 9-12 November in Brisbane.
Based in Emerald, Queensland, Liz Alexander is one of the growing cohort of innovation, technology and commercialisation professionals living and working from regional Australia. She is an experienced non-executive director, and has particularly expertise in the agtech, agribusiness and natural resources sectors. From July 2020, Liz has worked as the Commercialisation Facilitator (Central Queensland) as part of the national team for i4 Connect, the Commercialisation Delivery Partner for the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme. In her previous role with CHDC, she founded the AgFrontier Regional Agtech Incubator and developed the AgTeCH events held annually in Emerald and Mungindi, NSW.
Currently Liz is the Deputy Chair and a non-executive director of Plant Health Australia and a new director on Queensland Rural and Industry Development Authority (QRIDA). Until September, she was a non-executive Director for the Cotton Research and Development Corporation, for which she chaired the Intellectual Property and Commercialisation Committee, and the Independent Chair of the Director Selection Committee for Sugar Research Australia. Previously, Liz was a Director of Cotton Australia and the Chair of Theodore Water. She is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
She is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
The Australian Institute of Company Directors webpage is Liz’s go-to source for all information relating to becoming a member of the board.
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