The right stuff AICD Review

  • Date:01 Aug 2005
  • Type:CompanyDirectorMagazine
Wondering what it takes to join the exclusive group of scholarship holders to AICD’s International Company Director’s Course? Pamela Murray-Jones consulted an inaugural winner - though the meeting was an exercise in logistics...

The right stuff

Wondering what it takes to join the exclusive group of scholarship holders to AICD's International Company Director's Course? Pamela Murray-Jones consulted an inaugural winner - though the meeting was an exercise in logistics...

After a number of e-mails, several phone calls and a last-minute change in time and venue, Wendy Simpson agrees to meet in the lobby of a Sydney hotel - a one-hour window she has created between meetings.

The scholarship winner greets me with a peck on both cheeks, European-style, and orders a decaf flat white. Simpson has no need of caffeine to keep her energy levels up.

This is a woman who, with her husband, has fostered 12 homeless youngsters over a 15-year period while running various businesses which often took her away from home. Now a number of "foster grandchildren" are included in the extended family and she says she'd still be fostering except that it has become impossible with her present schedule.

Simpson is chairman of the board of Westray Engineering, a private company registered in Australia with operations in Asia. The job means she spends about six months of the year in Shanghai, a city she speaks of with warmth and enthusiasm.

But it isn't Westray's China operations that have been keeping her away from the home office in recent times. She left the International Company Directors Course in May to fly to North Korea as part of a group of Australian business people invited by the DPRK Ministry of Finance to discuss the establishment of North Korea's first commercial bank.

Sounds interesting? Well, yes ... but I get the feeling it doesn't really measure up in her eyes to her most recent project.

Taking part in the Nobel Laureate Forum in Shanghai in early June to discuss how Shanghai can position itself as a major financial services centre has to be a highlight in anyone's career. Alberto Giovannini, commonly known as "the father of the Euro" was there, Michael Woodford from Columbia University, and Edward Prescott from Arizona State University. It sounds like a roll call of who's who in economic thinking, but it is the international dimension Simpson finds most stimulating. "You get a real richness if you can bring out the best of cultures," she says.

Simpson's first board experience was in 1990 as a foundation member of the International Women's Federation of Commerce and Industry. "It's where I discovered how a director's role differs from a manager's," she says. "Getting our heads around the liabilities was difficult for all of us. But I enjoyed working on the organisation's mission and scoping our role."

From this seed grew bigger things and in 2002 Simpson found herself in China establishing the first Chinese joint venture telecommunications company, Alcatel Shanghai Bell. While she herself was not on the board, it was her role to resolve many of the board issues. Issues like aligning the commercial expectations of the Chinese board nominees with those of the directors from Belgium, France and Australia; negotiating the head count budget for the entity; mentoring the key management team and striking a compromise between appointments on merit and political connections.

Simpson expresses some disappointment at the cultural approach of many Australian business people. She says it is essential for them to understand the international context and not act as if the whole world speaks English.

"It is impossible to grow a business purely in the domestic market," she says. "But you need to know how to leverage knowledge by using technology and you need a strong understanding of governance to operate offshore.

"I wanted to do the International Company Directors Course to better understand the difference between operating a business and overseeing it within an environment that crosses cultures. To be able to devote some time to thinking about the bigger governance issues is a rare privilege and one that will bear fruit in improved practices on my board.

"I think one of the key advantages I had in winning a scholarship is that I am essentially a global citizen. I'm also willing to be an advocate for Aussies operating globally and act as a champion for better corporate governance."

Simpson's phone rings and interrupts the conversation. She glances at her watch, a sign that our time is at an end. As she leans over to kiss my cheek in farewell, I notice that peeking through the opening of the dark wool of her western style business overcoat, is the luminescent opal of a Chinese silk jacket. She tells me it is one of her favourites, an elegant compromise between east and west.

Interested in applying for a scholarship to the December 2005 International CDC? Five half-fee scholarships are available, two are available exclusively to AICD members. Scholarships are worth up to $5000. Call Liz Jeffrey on 02 8248 6620, Fiona Currey on 02 8248 6690 or visit www.companydirectors.com.au

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