Leadership, a love of learning and a passion for developing people are the key ingredients for one of this years Telstra Women’s Business Award Finalists. Tracey Leo is the Chief Operating Officer for Humpty Doo Barramundi, a family owned producer and distributer of premium Australian saltwater barramundi. With her passion, achievements and talent it is no surprise that she has been named as a finalist in this years Telstra Business Women’s Awards. The Symes Report sat down with Tracey to learn all about her stellar career and her drive to encourage more Women to consider the pursuing careers in the aquaculture and farming industries. Tracey’s enthusiasm is infectious and she is a shining example of an outstanding career, incredible leadership and courage. It was a pleasure to chat with Tracey and we hope you enjoy the interview.
SR: Tell me about Humpty Doo Barramundi.
TL: Humpty Doo Barramundi is a 100% family owned business that has grown to be Australia’s largest barramundi producer. The family has pioneered sustainable aquaculture farming in the Northern Territory and are industry leaders. The success of the business has been underpinned by a long investment in learning and being able to survive the cost of learning. In many ways, Humpty Doo Barramundi represents the culmination of lessons learned from more than two decade’s worth of trying and often failing. In a nutshell, the early learnings focussed on growing fish in our harsh environment, then the focus moved on to quality and consistency in the product, then getting the product into mainstream markets. In more recent years the focus has been marketing and growth. The farm itself is located about 50 minutes from Darwin and nestles into the banks of the Adelaide River. The landscape is amazing, and we start and end our workdays with picturesque sunrises and sunsets. Traffic jams only occur when a herd of wild buffalo or pigs make their way onto the road, so it is the perfect workplace for people who are not interested in city living and its stressors.
SR: What is your current role?
TL: Officially, my current role is Chief Operating Officer, so I have responsibility for the effective management of the operational functions of the company, including executing strategic priorities, and meeting targets as agreed by the Executive Team and the Board. As a member of the Executive team I contribute to providing input into the strategic development of the company.
In action, my role is 24/7 planning, executing, troubleshooting and navigating operations, whilst driving continuous improvement. This is multifaceted as we are managing a natural environment, biological assets, human development, infrastructure and technology improvements, fluctuating market demands as well as rapid growth. So, it is constant change management. My job is to get everything we can control, under control so we have capacity to navigate through the things we cannot control. Prior to my COO role I worked as Business Development manager and I was responsible specifically for setting up the national distribution chain and all that was associated with getting our barramundi from the pond to the market. I then moved onto workforce development to support the growth in the business and now my role is largely managing and navigating the operations through constant change, with people and process.
SR: What do you love about the role and the company?
TL: I have worked in primary industries in the Northern Territory for a long time and have seen and experienced what has worked and what hasn’t. I love that I can apply the learnings of past failures and use these lessons to help drive success. When I was introduced to Humpty Doo Barramundi I had just left my position as CEO of the Northern Territory Horticultural Association and had moved back into harvest recruitment, managing the Federal Governments National Harvest contract in the NT and I was stale. I had a whole bunch of skills I had gained from working on remote farms in different sectors at varying stages of maturity and from my role as CEO of the peak farming body for the Northern Territory. But they were a bunch of skills that were not readily appliable or relevant to many businesses, so the timing of meeting was a perfect alignment. I had skills and experience that Humpty Doo Barramundi needed at the time they needed them, and I was looking for an exciting opportunity to do something new. Having a broad range of skills has allowed me to shift my focus as required through the different stages of the business growth, so my role is ever changing, diverse and never boring! I am passionate about human development and I have loved that I have been able put my practical business experience to good use as well as bringing my passion for human development to life in a positive and tangible way. A stable workforce is a key factor to managing the complexity of an aquaculture farm and we have taken a human development approach to building a stable workforce. The main idea of the human development approach in our business is that identifying individual strengths and valuing and investing in the strengths that align with the needs of the business is both the main aim of, and the principal means for sustainable workforce development. We aim to develop people’s abilities and give them a chance to use them. This approach provides a positive employment experience and the opportunity for our people to have a work life that they value. The business benefits from this approach because it has resulted in a passionate team and a workplace culture that excites and motivates people. The passion and enthusiasm in our business is infectious and people love being a part of it. The climate is hot and tough, and the work can be gruelling, so it is important that everyone feels good about why they are doing what they are doing.
SR: Please tell our readers about some of your career highlights.
TL: Between 2002 and 2008 I was involved in the agriculture industry lobby to offer employment opportunities to people from the Pacific and surrounding islands. I presented to the Lowy institute in response to the negative opposition to seasonal employment for islanders and accompanied the Senators who were involved in the senate inquiry to the major growing regions across Northern Australia. A career highlight for me was when the seasonal worker program commenced, and we successfully employed a team of people from Timor who return every year. When I was recruiting in Timor, the heart wrenching stories of hardship and poverty really struck a chord with me and I am proud to be a part of the movement to open up economic opportunities for these communities. More broadly, I was awarded the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) in 2007 for my work in addressing labour shortages in the NT horticultural industry. The industry was experiencing crippling ‘labour shortages’ and my research from 2002 to 2007 concluded that the main contributor to labour shortages was negative employment experiences and the ‘new wave’ of social media and fast communication resulted in people not taking up employment in the NT. I embarked on a mission to improve employment standards across the industry and those who worked on their employment standards and invested in creating a positive employment experience were able to attract and retain labour. The last mango farm I worked with before moving over to aquaculture obtained a 98% retention rate across the whole season which was remarkable for this industry. While at Humpty Doo Barramundi the highlights for me have been the success that resulted from setting up our national distribution chain and navigating through the challenges of rapid growth. We have built an amazing team and most of my career highlights have been based around successful collaboration. I have worked in disparate and fragmented sectors and businesses so getting everyone on the same page to achieve great things is always a highlight for me. Humpty Doo Barramundi has achieved great things through teamwork and collaboration, and I am very proud to be a part of it.
SR: What does be a finalist in this award mean to you?
TL: Being nominated for the Telstra Business Award is a wonderful way to close an exciting chapter in my contribution to the business of Humpty Doo Barramundi. I had a big impact on transforming the business from 2010 and while my role will still add value in the future, the work that I do won’t have such a big and obvious transformational impact. So, it is really a nice way to be recognised for my past contribution and sets the scene for coaching and supporting up and coming talent and for building capacity for the next big industry game changers.
SR: What is next or what career goals or objectives do you have for the future.
TL:The big objectives for me are capacity building and human development in our business.
Our workplace culture is unique and has largely underpinned the success of rapid growth. Our challenge moving forward will be retaining all of the positive characteristics of our workplace culture and structure as we corporatise and introduce new technologies.Our skill requirements will change in the future and skills shortages (not labour shortages) will be problematic if we are not proactive in planning for our future needs now. So, my clear goals are, retain the unique workplace culture that has served us well in the past and build a skilled workforce for the future!
SR: What advice do you have for girls or young women who might have aspirations to work in a similar industry to yours and specifically in an operational role or capacity.
TL: There are career pathways in the primary industries and aquaculture is in its early stages of development so there will be a lot more opportunities in the future. My advice to girls and young women would be if you are a bit of a pioneer and like being outdoors pick up science (biology and ecology) in your studies and the opportunities will open up.There is a misconception that farming as an industry is gender biased but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Most family farms have Mum, Dad and the kids all actively involved in their businesses so there is a history of whoever is capable of doing a job can have the job. The aquaculture industry is well represented by women, particularly in technical and professional positions. When making a career or study choice, work out what you are passionate about and follow that. Be prepared to work hard and use your time wisely. Learning is time well spent. Be brave enough to make mistakes and don’t miss the lessons. Every lesson learned will take you one step closer to where it is you want to go.