Jennifer Cunich Executive Director Property Council of Australia  / 
VENTURE FORWARD

story / Interview / June 1, 2015

People often ask me how I directed my career. I haven’t really.  I believe that when a door opens, you decide whether or not you want to go walk through it. I was fortunate to have a friend who was the Executive Director of the Property Council (then known as BOMA).  When she decided to pursue another career, she encouraged me to apply for the role in Canberra.  She rang me and said ‘I think you need to put your hand up for this role.’ I said ‘I can’t do that, that’s ridiculous!’ She really pushed me outside of my comfort zone. She said ‘You can do this. You’re more than capable of doing it.’ So I did. I put my hand up for it and was quite shocked when I got it.

My biggest influence in life, would be my mother. I learnt my work ethic and gained my resilience from her. She was a really hard worker, a smart lady. Back in the early seventies, she helped run a lobby group for lamb producers, the organisation was successful for securing weight for grade prices for lambs. This might not sound significant to city dwellers, but was very important to farmers. Sadly my mother passed away in early March, aged 84. There are bits and pieces that you pick up from people all the way through your life. You should observe other people and how they behave and act in business. If you see something that you like and respect, I think you can learn and take on board some of those traits.

When I started with the Property Council back in 1996, not coming from a formal property or policy background, I decided early that I didn’t know everything. However, my members did, so I would surround myself with people I knew I could trust. I think that is really important. I suggest to my staff that when they are working with their committees and there is an area or policy that is new to them, work out who you can trust, who is going to give you unbiased and accurate information and then talk to them.

I was once involved in a particular legislative decision that the ACT government were evaluating. At the time, due to its fairly negative impact on the industry, I spoke to the then president about our intention to manage it. His response was ‘Only pick a fight you can win.’ That made me sit back and view everything differently. How much energy do you have? How many resources can you throw at a particular fight or position? You can’t spread yourself too thin.

It was a light bulb moment early in my career, when I realised that our members are outcome driven and the public service is process driven. Up to this time I hadn’t had a lot to do with the public sector. It is very frustrating initially as the language between the public and private sectors are very different. I had to get my members to understand the government processes, and following on from that, the government to appreciate it’s actually about the outcome for the private sector.

Unfortunately some governments see property as an immobile asset. We are sitting ducks for increased taxes, development levies, and charges of any nature. It’s a real challenge to convince the government that actually the asset is mobile; people can decide not to invest in this state. That is always an ongoing challenge; to make sure the government understand that if they continue to tax or heavily regulate the industry that the money will move somewhere else. Our industry should be supported by governments as we are drivers of the economy, creating jobs and communities.

Four years of one government and we don’t have any major infrastructure in the pipeline. We have a new government now that really has to hit the ground running. We must see a pipeline of infrastructure that has bipartisan support that is not subject to the whim of the government of the day. We’ve got increasing unemployment in Victoria and the trend looks to continue. The biggest challenge for the government is how they are going to address this. The solution is an infrastructure pipeline. Start building.

On the East West Link project, regardless of whether you agree with the project or not, it is very alarming that a government can tear up a contract. The message it sends to the investment community is very concerning. I think that the nature of PPPs will change. The private sector is not going to take the risk and will push back onto the government. The government has to tread very carefully because for anybody bidding on projects in Victoria, there is now this uncertainty about whether the project will go ahead. Infrastructure is a great way of hitting the go button for jobs and economic activity. I think the government has a very big challenge on how they are going to handle that outcome.

Ernst Young’s recent report developed in conjunction with the Property Council on gender diversity in the property industry is a very interesting and alarming read. The Property Council wanted some evidence based research around the business case for women in leadership. If we are going to talk about this in the property sector then we actually need benchmarks. You need to put that economic argument in a business case.

I have two mothers on my team and they are extremely hard working. They arrive at work and their heads are down, pumping out their work because they know they have to be out the door at a certain time to pick up their children from care. There is no wasted time in their day. In this day and age, the thought that just because you have had a child somehow means you are not as productive is ridiculous. I think you are more productive because you have to juggle so many things at so many times. Women are very good at multitasking, extremely good.

I raised three children as a single parent. The fact that childcare is not tax deductible is outrageous. Families need more options for childcare including the option of employing nannies. I think government needs to get on board with childcare. I understand it is going to cost a lot of money but the productivity gains from having women back in the workforce far outweighs this. If we increased the number of childcare facilities, made it tax deductible, had qualified registered nannies, that would make a difference to young mothers and families. It is a very expensive service at the moment. If you are at management or executive level, that is okay, but most woman are not at those levels and $100 a day for childcare is a lot of money.

People need to be flexible in the workplace. I’ve had members wanting to start a meeting at 7 o’clock in the morning and I’ve had to say ‘No, I’m not doing that.’ When I get up in the morning I don’t just get in the shower, put on my suit and walk out the door. I get up in the morning, I put a load of washing on, I feed the dog, I packed lunches, I have a shower, I blow wave my hair, I put my makeup on and then I get out the door! So we won’t be meeting at 7 o’clock in the morning! Once you say that, they get it. Having said that, if a meeting had to take place at a specific time because that was the only time available, then you work around it and do it. Occasionally you need to set some boundaries and guidelines and there is nothing wrong with that. Doesn’t mean you’re weak. Doesn’t mean you can’t do your job. These are your rules and guidelines for conducting business. When people understand, they are absolutely fine.

Often women do sit back and think ‘Maybe I’m not quite good enough yet, or have the required experience’. On the whole, men don’t think like that. I think when you’re sitting in a meeting and you think ‘Yes, I know my business,’ that’s when you put your hand up. Push yourself outside your comfort zone and have a go and do it! Unfortunately that’s why I think we aren’t seeing a lot of women coming through because they sit back and wait till they have all the facts and or wait until they know everything before they venture forward. I think women know a lot more than they realise they do. They need to trust themselves, and just start doing it. What’s the worst that could happen?

If you don’t fail, you never learn. There is nothing wrong with failure, you just keep going. Everybody fails at some point; you just pick yourself up and keep going. Find another way to do it.

I tell my daughters you can have it all, the career and the family, but perhaps not at the same time. It just might come in different stages in your life. My hope is that one day, when I am talking to my granddaughters I will be able to simply say ‘You can have it all’ and I don’t have to say ‘not at the same time.’

As our first interview for Gazella, Jennifer couldn’t be more charming. Prepared for our interview, unfazed by one of us turning up rather late, she sat, quietly confident for her chat with us answering question with an open and warm demeanour. You can always respect a person who looks you direct in the eye and makes you feel important and present. Her face lights up when she talks about her children, but also on the challenges of her career. She reveals a fiery, independent streak and from the outset you can see she’s determined. We may have been novice interviewers, but our time with Jennifer was enlightening.

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