I have been working for the last seven years on the marine development at Wyndham Harbour. Initially I was the Project Director working for a small private developer. Over that time I had two children. Coming back from maternity leave, I had the opportunity to start up my own business and I took over the management of that project under my own company. Later in the year, I had the opportunity to pair up with a colleague as a business partner. Now that’s where we are at today. We are still managing the Wyndham Harbour Project, however also looking to start doing some of our own development projects.
Each time I moved roles throughout my career, it was to try and gain exposure in areas that I hadn’t had exposure to. To try and complete the picture. I really enjoy the stakeholder relationship with all the differences parties on a project. Working together with all of them to achieve an outcome that is beneficial to everyone.
We’re a company of 5 staff. For us, it is a good opportunity now to really put into practice, some of the short comings we saw in other companies. I used to get frustrated in the past thinking ‘Why do people do that?’ It is important to make sure that you really value your staff, giving them the rewards and acknowledgment when they achieve results. For a small company, that’s important in order to attract staff, as we can’t offer the job security of a big company.
Joint venture partnering is becoming a more common way of delivering projects. It has its pluses and minuses. Often different parties have varied skills they can bring to the table. For most of the projects we’re involved in; we can bring the ideas and the projects together, however we don’t necessarily have the funds to complete it. Joint ventures can be good in the sense that there are groups that have the funds but don’t necessarily have the skills or the time and energy to put those projects together. Joint ventures are a good model to get projects going but they can be hard work too. You need to be clear from the outset in terms of what objectives each party wants to achieve. You have always got to acknowledge that you will each want different things out of the project. Forming some clear boundaries around that is important.
The Wyndham Harbour Project has been a good example of collaboration. Whilst it was not a joint venture, it is funded by a group of four private shareholders. It’s a complex project. Not only is there the relationship amongst the shareholders; the project also has a high level of involvement from the authorities, particularly from council.
Council are almost a quasi funding partner in the Wyndham Harbour Project because the marina component is considered public infrastructure. The project is being funded privately, however there is a lot of interface with council and government. You are often dealing with authorities in a capacity that they are not accustomed to. It can make it incredibly convoluted for the project. At Wyndham, it took the first phase approvals 8 years to get through authority approvals.
We started construction at Wyndham in 2011. With subdivision works initially, followed by the marina works. Construction has been staged due to the complicated financing of the project. The funding required, is not something you can get from banks. We have had to procure the funds from other sources. In essence, we have to complete sections of work, obtain the profit out of that, to then fund the next stage. The marina will be the largest marina in Port Phillip Bay just in this stage alone.
One of the challenges that interested me, was the fact that with most marina developments, the first two developers typically go bust and the third developer makes money out of it. We have been pretty motivated not to go bust!
When you talk about the time frame it has taken to deliver this project, most people say ‘Are you still working on that thing!?’ However anyone who has been involved in marinas, knows it is a lengthy process and project execution. By the end of this year the project will be completed.
Our role is very much about managing the stakeholders. There is a number of different arrangements amongst all the shareholders depending on the different aspects they each bring to the table. Our role is understanding what each party’s objectives are. One shareholder is the major financial contributor to that project. As a result, they expect a greater return on their investment because they have that control. You need to work with that and it is challenging. Often you end up with a lot of politics.
A good leader is someone that respects the team around them and is prepared to take the time to get to know them and understand their team and what motivates them. Someone that gives their team the opportunities to grow. I think that there are too many managers out there, that undermine their staff, trying to make themselves look better. If you start off with the premise that your staff actually want to make you look good and if you start off by giving them the tools and assistance to grow and develop, it will make you and your team look good too.
The thing that has really jaded me is having kids and the lack of flexibility that people are prepared to give you because effectively you have another job to do (you have to look after the kids). As a parent you need a bit more flexibility in terms of time. It was a very difficult period for me. I found it very hard. My previous employer was not very understanding of it at all. It’s pretty hard after you have done the hard yards, stayed late in the office all the time, to not receive any understanding or support.
I think that is what has disappointed me in the industry is that people aren’t more accommodating. When we get good people, we have to be able to accommodate. In this day and age, with the technology the way it is, there is no reason that you can’t. I think the industry still has a long way to go. Flexibility for men as well as women. Getting out of that mind set that you have to be sitting at your desk to be effective at your job. You don’t at all.
I have two daughters. When they are old enough I want tell my daughters to have self respect. Set some boundaries about what is acceptable to you and what’s not. It doesn’t matter what the environment is. I have had a couple of situations in my career where I have been spoken to in a certain way and I thought, ‘That is not acceptable.’ I remember a meeting in which one participant was really rude and derogatory to me and I just stood up and walked out of there. It doesn’t matter who they are with, who they are, or what position they are in, they shouldn’t be treating you in a way you find unacceptable. I think it is a matter of having a bit of respect for yourself.
We met Sonya at her office on Chapel Street. Dressed in her active wear (she had just finished a personal training session with her staff!), Sonya was open and comfortable in discussing her varied work life experiences. She was frank in sharing stories on everything from motherhood to living joint ventures. This women knows how it’s done. And she’s not afraid to speak up when it doesn’t feel right. Her great success showcases that hard work and ambition can accomplish anything. It was a amazing pleasure to meet and learn from her. All the best Sonya. We hope our paths cross again.