Q&A with Corey Payne

  • Date:01 Mar 2013
  • Type:Company Director Magazine
Corey Payne talks to Zilla Efrat about the challenges of being a younger director, his recent departure from rugby league and his future plans.


In January, Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs back rower and NSW Young Australian of the Year for 2013 Corey Payne surprised some when he retired from rugby league after appearing in over 130 matches.

At the age of 28, he was considered too young to go. Plus, he was seemingly living a dream he’d nurtured as a child growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney.

"For as long as I can remember, I have always cheered for the Bulldogs," he says.

"I was at both the 1994 and 1995 Grand Finals the Bulldogs played in and during that time, I set my heart on representing them at the top level. They were a great team and I had grown up going to school with the son of the greatest Bulldog of them all, Terry Lamb. I just wanted to be a part of what the Bulldogs were about."

But time has moved on and so has Payne, who is quick to note he is a very different person to the one he was when he began playing first-grade rugby league 10 years ago.

He has new ambitions and challenges that keep him busy off the sports field.

For a start, he is completing his Master of Commerce in Entrepreneurship and Finance at the University of Sydney’s business school.

Then, as part of his passion to encourage high school students in South West Sydney to attend university, he is now executive chairman of the Future Directions Network, an organisation he founded in 2009.

It provides mentoring, career planning, information, logistical support and, in some cases, financial assistance, to young people wishing to embark on higher education. It also boasts high-powered ambassadors such as journalist and TV personality Chris Bath, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research Chris Bowen, and philosopher and academic Dr Tim Soutpomassane.

Payne, a former non-executive director of the Rugby League Players Association, also sits on the board of the scholarship committee of Youth Off the Streets and has won a Churchill Fellowship, which will see him travel to study youth support programs in Brazil, Spain, the UK and South Africa this year.

"I spent the first 28 years of my life doing something I loved and regardless of all the setbacks along the way, I would not swap it for anything. But I am hungry to achieve in a different arena, so the retirement decision was easy. Life is not a dress rehearsal," he says.

But while Payne keeps achieving his goals, he is frank about some of the challenges he faces along the way.

One of these is overcoming his age when sitting on a board or trying to progress his business or other interests.

"Being young has meant I have had to work much harder convincing people of the need for change than others who are much older and more experienced. That said, I am enjoying the experience and challenge of this."

Company Director recently caught up with Payne to discuss the challenges of being a younger director, his departure from rugby league and his future plans.

Company Director (CD): How hard was it for you to achieve your childhood dream of playing first-grade rugby league for the Bulldogs? What were the costs?

Corey Payne (CP): Playing professional sport is a tough road. It is a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs and everything else in between. So much can go right and so much can go wrong. When I was 14 and 15 years old, I broke my right arm three times and had to stop playing footy for a year and a half. During that time, I thought I would never reach the professional level.

I left the Bulldogs as a junior in search of an accelerated route into first-grade rugby league at age 19. I joined the Dragons and then the Wests Tigers before returning home to the Bulldogs in late 2009.

I always regretted leaving the Bulldogs as a 19 year old and started to think I would never realise my dream of playing first grade for the club after spending six years away from it.

On my return, I injured my shoulder in the first warm-up match, ruling me out for almost the whole season as I required a shoulder reconstruction.

To make it back for the final game of the 2010 season and make my club debut for the Bulldogs was a very sweet victory, one I will never forget.

CD: What will you miss most about professional rugby league? What were your biggest highlights and lowlights?

CP: Without a doubt I will miss the mateship and the team environment. For 40-odd weeks of the year you work extremely closely with a bunch of like-minded guys, all striving towards similar personal goals but the same collective goal. You build strong friendships along the way, but you have so much fun in the process.

I doubt there are many jobs that will be able to replicate the journey that was professional sport.

Rugby league never ceases in its ability to present good times and the not so good times.

I would have to say that being able to appear in every single competition match, the finals and a City Origin game in my final season, is a definite highlight. However, playing against or alongside so many talented players throughout my career is what I will remember most.

Winning the Jersey Flegg Grand Final in 2003 at the Bulldogs was also a very special moment for me. I am still great mates with those guys. Some of them have gone on to have spectacular NRL careers and others finished that year, but most of us have remained friends and that is the best thing about the sport.

In terms of lowlights, suffering bad injuries, and the rehabilitation process that follows, takes the cake. I have had close to a dozen surgeries, including shoulder reconstructions, flexor tendon grafts to my hand and numerous knee and ankle arthroscopies. Each injury and subsequent surgery challenges you not just physically but also mentally. You always question whether you have the ability to recover and the fortitude to go out and risk it all again.

CD: What makes you tick?

CP: The self-belief that I can do things I never thought possible.

CD: Why have you chosen to use your Churchill Fellowship to travel to Brazil, Spain the UK and South Africa? What do you most hope to get out of it?

CP: Australia has lost pace with its OECD peers in terms of the number of Australians aged 25 to 34 years with tertiary qualifications. We have slipped two places over the past decade.

I believe the Australian economy has been able to outperform its global peers during the toughest financial period since the Great Depression due to our ability to exploit our natural resources.

However, our mining boom will not last forever and real question marks exist over where Australia will compete on the global stage once this happens.

I feel we will need a highly intelligent and productive workforce to ensure we remain relevant and competitive in the global economy.

To make this happen, we will need to encourage and support the students who are traditionally underrepresented at university, those from low socio-economic backgrounds, to make sure they are included in further education.

These students will be the ones who can lift us in the OECD rankings and drive our economy forward in the years to come.

In Brazil, I intend to visit the Ayrton Senna Foundation, in Barcelona the Rafa Nadal Foundation and FC Barcelona, in the UK the Prince’s Trust and Right to Play and in South Africa, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls.

Each of these organisations works closely with disadvantaged youth to help them continue their education. Most use sport as the platform to do this.

Sport can be described as the social fabric of Australia. It connects people from very different demographics on a national basis. Whether it be through rugby league, AFL, soccer, cricket or any other sport, it has the power to deliver important messages to the Australian people.

I hope to use my research to build programs on my return to Australia that can be rolled out through a national sporting body, with the ultimate goal of raising the number of young people at university.

CD: How did you first get involved with the Future Direction Network and why?

CP: The Future Direction Network was formed after I had been involved in delivering school talks about my journey as a sportsman and more importantly, the value of education, to local high school students in South West Sydney.

I began speaking to a few friends who were either the first in their family, or part of the first generation, to go to university about starting a not-for-profit (NFP) that could help address a worrying statistic – that less than two per cent of high-school leavers from South West Sydney continued their education at university.

We wanted to help build ambition and aspiration in student minds, fill information gaps and financially support these students.

The group of friends didn’t take much convincing and we have been running programs for the past three years.

We have just hit a major milestone of committing $54,000 to three students over the next three years ($18,000 each) to help them afford the costs of attending university.

CD: Why is education so important to you?

CP: After finishing high school, I was fortunate enough to get the marks needed to enrol in a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of Sydney.

I left my pond and went to sea. University exposed me to so many different people, with different perspectives, different life experiences and different ambitions.

Education has changed my life. It has given me much more than a set of qualifications. It has taught me how to think and, as such, it has shown me what is possible in life.

I want to share those benefits with others and the Future Direction Network allows me to do just that.

CD: How did you first get involved with Youth Off the Streets and why?

CP: I have been a member of its scholarship selection panel for the past three years, assessing the top 50 applications.

I first met its founder and CEO, Father Chris Riley, when we were forming the Future Direction Network to seek his advice, given we both work in the same region.

I admire the work the organisation does in helping disadvantaged young people achieve more than they believe they are capable of.

Having someone care about you can change your life and Father Riley has been caring for many young people for a very long time.

CD: What is your view of the newly created Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC)? Will it benefit your NFP organisations or add further burdens?

CP: Any piece of legislation that increases transparency in the NFP or charity space is important. Value in the NFP sector is created and assessed in a very different way to that of for-profit entities.

Donors need to have assurance and security that their funds are going to be put to good use and if the ACNC can help reinforce the wonderful work NFPs do, then that is fantastic. It is well documented that NFPs run on the "smell of an oily rag" and that many sectors within the NFP space are highly fragmented.

If the ACNC creates increased burden on smaller NFP entities, it may be a natural way of consolidating the sector and may potentially have an even greater effect.

CD: What have been your greatest challenges as a young director?

CP: I am an energetic and ambitious person. I always seek to create value and I feel that being a young director has hindered me in achieving positive change. Being young has meant I have had to work much harder to get people to listen to my views and accept changes I have suggested. Perhaps that is why boards like to appoint experienced directors.

CD: Do other directors treat you differently because of your age?

CP: In most cases, I have had positive encouragement from the older heads in the room, who have provided me with advice or feedback on the way I questioned or presented my ideas at the board table. They have seen I wasn’t afraid to have an opinion and they have wanted to help me develop as a director who can have an impact. However, being young at the board table can mean your opinion is treated lightly or at times as not relevant at all.

I understand that you need to get the runs on the board and earn the respect of your fellow directors before you can make big calls, but I have also learnt you need to be conscious of the way you present your ideas and how you ask questions.

CD: What special attributes can younger directors bring to the diversity of a board?

CP: Energy and, if the young person is not shy, a very different point of view. I have often been asked how big my involvement is at the boardroom table. I reply: "As big, or if not bigger than that of the other directors." There is no point in being a passive director. You need to be involved or you should not be in the meeting.

CD: What have been your biggest lessons as a director?

CP: To ensure you ask questions about important issues. Whether they be in relation to proposed project returns or the financials, you need to follow up those questions by asking the company secretary to record them in the minutes with your name attached, especially if you are unhappy or unsure about the response given.

CD: What has helped you hone your directorship skills?

CP: I completed the Australian Institute of Company Directors’ Company Directors Course in 2009. It was a great grounding to what your role and responsibilities are as a director and how you can add value at the boardroom table.

But the most important factor has been being in the boardroom, at the table and being a part of the discussion. And, then being open to feedback.

You need to appreciate the point of view others hold and the different experiences they have had to form those opinions.

Company Directors’ Not-for-Profit Chairman course, which I completed in 2012 on a scholarship from the Australian Scholarship Foundation through the JS Love Trust (managed by Perpetual), was a fantastic opportunity to further develop my skills as an NFP chairman by hearing about the experiences of other well-travelled NFP chairmen.

Having the discussion facilitated by a very successful and well-known chairman in Graham Bradley also helped me learn. Bradley is chairman of HSBC Bank Australia, Anglo American Australia, Virgin Australia International Holdings and Po Valley Energy.

The key messages I took away from the course were that the chairman needs to set the tone at the top, and manage board effectiveness, and the importance of corporate governance.

CD: What advice would you give to other young people considering taking on a boardroom role?

CP: Take the Company Directors Course. Identify an experienced company director who can act as a mentor and do your homework on the board you are about to join.

There are significant risks involved in joining boards, as the outcomes of recent legal cases show. You need to ensure the board is run with competence and a high level of integrity. Once you have established that, don’t be afraid to get involved and embrace your role.

CD: Who have been your mentors in the business world?

CP: Archer Capital managing director Greg Minton has been mentoring me for some time now and has been a great sounding board in terms of mapping out my transition from professional sport to a business career. He has selflessly given his time and support to help me achieve many personal goals. Minton travelled a very similar path to me in life, coming from a hardworking family, playing rugby league and studying at university. He is one guy who has successfully made the transition from sport to business and he is happy to help me achieve something similar.

I have also received good advice and support from my manager, Wayne Beavis, over the years as well as Bruce Corlett [a well-known director who sits on the boards of Servcorp, Trust Company, Fortius Funds Management and Australian Maritime Systems]. Anna Cesarano, the CEO of Doltone House, has also been a great mentor, providing a female perspective on many issues.

CD: How does your sports background add to your skills as a director?

CP: Professional sport has taught me a lot of great values. It has given me a strong work ethic. It has taught me perseverance and the ability to communicate and work in teams. I believe those skills are very valuable around the boardroom table. You need to ensure you are across board papers, communicate your ideas and persevere to get things done.

CD: What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt in life?

CP: The harder you work, the luckier you get. Having a strong work ethic is priceless.

CD: Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?

CP: I intend to complete an international Masters of Business Administration and to spend some time as a consultant, before looking to move into line management. But you never know where the wind will blow you.

CD: What are your hobbies and interests outside of rugby league and helping disadvantaged kids?

CP: I enjoy cycling and try to get on the bike as much as possible. I rode from Sydney to Brisbane with the "1,200 kms for kids" charity bike ride in 2009 to raise money for a children’s hospital. I really like getting on the bike and letting go of whatever is occupying my mind. I also enjoy thoroughbred racing and until recently was a part-owner of a horse.