Nicola Smith Director Niche Planning Studio  / 
Finding your Niche

story / Interview / April 30, 2017

I’m a town planner. I had always worked for local planning firms with some government experience. I seemed to be getting into the business and talking to people. I thought, well I like that, I like social media, I’m going to go do a Masters in Communications. I didn’t know if that would change the direction I was going with planning, but at least it would be a really good add on.

I found a newspaper article from an interview I had given when I was 21. I was wearing this 1990s, little green suit. They had asked me ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ I had said I wanted to work in local government, work in Consultancy and travel internationally…  tick, tick, tick. Lastly, I wanted to work interstate, and I wanted run my own business. I was sitting on my mother’s floor and I thought, ‘You know what, I feel like I’m not challenged enough…’ I decided, if I go to Melbourne and it doesn’t work, that’s fine. At least I tried.

I went on some leave to Spain and Portugal. A friend of mine from PEET Ltd, called up and said ‘We have a job here, you can be our internal planning consultant.’ I arrived in Melbourne. Turned up the first day and they said ‘Actually, can you be the Development Manager for this project that’s going through planning stage?’ All of a sudden I ended up with two years experience of being a DM.

I was at a planning conference when I ran into a female colleague who I had known for years. She had a planning firm in Tassie and she wanted to expand to Melbourne. She said to me ‘Would you like to front it? Would you like to help me build and grow it?’ I thought I’d have a shot. It was called Smith Street Studio. I was the only women sitting in a little studio room, among some amazing architects and planners. I think that’s when I realised, Melbourne was so supportive and collaborative. I was sitting next to my competition essentially, yet they were so keen to help me grow the business; ‘Here’s some spare work. Do you need a hand?’ It was positive and awesome.

The business owner wanted to focus on Tassie. It wasn’t really working for me either. I sat down one weekend and went ‘Screw it. I’m just going to try my own thing.’ So that’s what I did. The department had released a new document on biodiversity and planning. So I sat down and got my head around everything to do with it, then I wrote to every developer that I knew, and told them ‘This potentially affects your land. Do you want me to write a submission for you?’ Out of that I got a couple of clients and they are still some of my best Clients today.

There’s ten of us in total at Niche Planning Studio. Various ages, sex, ethnicity and faith – it makes for a great work environment. We have a small office in Hobart and a small office in Perth. Because of my experience we do a lot in land development. When we started we got a lot of work with apartment buildings and infill, which wasn’t really my area of expertise, so I employed a couple of guys who really loved doing that. As a result we have been able to really build up that arm of the business.

My team are almost all millennials. They are young and pumped and excited about what they can learn and what they can be exposed to. When I was that age, you would get pigeon-holed. You would be the person doing the fencing or the sub-divisions. It’s so nice to have this passionate crew that I can help train.

I’m fairly relaxed with the business training budget. We do fitness classes every Monday. Each of the staff has a budget to do a self-development course. Cherish is using it to learn Mandarin. Noor to learn Arabic and James wants to do diving. But it’s cool because they get their work life balance and their drivers to get up. I’m also helping my team do secondments. The state government is setting up advisory committees to help refine a new smart planning system. I’ve just had one of my senior planners accepted to a role to help guide the future of planning.

I’m really happy with the path that I took. I set myself some goals, I didn’t follow them exactly. To tell you the truth, the toughest part of my career is where I am now – away from my home state without the mentors I grew up with. Mentors are so important for everyone no matter what age or skillset. I always think the thing that’s the most important is women trying to be strong mentors for other women.

I find in planning there’s an increasing number of women. In other disciplines, it’s a different case. In land development, it’s still old school. I have to watch what I wear and how I appear. My nature is quite friendly and jovial and that can be misinterpreted. I always look at my meetings for the day and think ‘Yep, I have to put on the power suit,’ or ‘I have to wear stockings to that.’ That still exists.

I’ll tell you a story. When I was younger, about 21, I went to a meeting, with this lovely old developer. I went to shake his hand and he pulled me in for the kiss. I thought ‘Oh that’s weird, I don’t remember putting that out there?’ I talked to my male boss at the time and he said, ‘Not a problem, I’ll speak to the developer and tell him you felt uncomfortable.’ I’ve had friends in similar or worse situations. I try and tell my junior staff, to try and keep the relationship friendly and positive, but there’s got to be boundaries. Particularly around putting myself in situations that make me feel uncomfortable.

I have my own business because I want to achieve work-life balance, help others and do the work I want to do. My girlfriends will say ‘You are always busy.’ I’m on the Planning Institute Divisional Committee, I’m on the Planning Institute Events Committee. I organised the National Congress for PIA. I Chair the UDIA Sustainable Development Committee. I’m on the Smart Planning Transform Advisory Group Committee. But for me, this isn’t work.  Work is when I’m in the office. When I’m sitting in my chair, laptop plugged in, powering away on the keyboard.  To balance this I run around the Tan and visit parents and friends. I try to have a breakfast meeting every morning, because I like eggs on toast.

I’d probably describe myself as friendly, driven, and maybe you could go with ‘loyal’. People would say ‘bubbly’, which is such a horrid word. But I guess I talk to anyone – I always speak to anyone in the toilet queue.

My mother always said, ‘If you fell in the Clyde you’d come out with a salmon in your mouth.” I’m from Scotland, Glasgow, on the river Clyde. I think the Clyde is a bit like the Yarra, so not an amazing river. I guess her point is that I always manage to land on my feet! My Mum is turning seventy this year. She is a singer and used to sing with LuLu in the UK. Everyone loves her. But when I started Niche, I was trying to do everything. So Mum said ‘Anything I can help with?’ A seventy year old woman and she is all over Xero for finance management, and Instagram, and it’s awesome. She now also volunteers at my old Primary school. She’s teaching kids from Iran and Saudi Arabia, how to read. It cracks me up, because she has the strongest Glaswegian accent you could imagine, so some of the kids are picking up a Scottish accent. Both her and Dad are my biggest inspirations.

 

Nicola and Danielle connected on Instagram some time ago. They liked each others photos, became captured by each other feeds, and eventually follow started following each other without even meeting, until they realised they shared the Built Environment space. What isn’t crystal clear from the written word interview, is how charming and warm Nicola is. Interviewing her was like interviewing an old friend. Nicola is a snazzy, energetic, bold and effervescent woman (decidedly better than the word bubbly)! And Niche Planning Studio sounds like one of those dream places to work! We feel very lucky to have made her acquaintance, somewhat non-traditionally (contact us @gazella_blog). We wish her all the best in her endeavors. Niche is sure to be successful with Nicola at the helm. Anyone lucky enough to be coming to our next Gazella LIVE panel, will also get to hear Nicola speak as one of our panelists! Stay tuned for the rest of the line-up to be announced 02 May, 2017.

2 thoughts on “Nicola Smith Director Niche Planning Studio

Laura Macpherson   May 1, 2017 at 8:54 am

Just wanted I needed to read first thing on a Monday morning. Inspired and ready to take on the week. Thanks for sharing your story Nicola, your ability to continually challenge yourself and check in with what is working for you is a great takeaway for me.

Maureen Smedley   May 2, 2017 at 12:31 am

An amazing young woman with grace and poise who cares very much for family and friends. This has been Nicola’s grounding to make her an outstanding and successful young woman. We need more strong women in our workforce with outstanding work ethics and commitment to excel.