Maggie Dowling

April 2021

At the heart of landmark industry change: Deregulation, risk, strategy and governance

Maggie Dowling is an Adelaide-based Chief Executive and Non-Executive Director (NED) who has been at the heart of landmark industry change. She was part of the mass deregulation of the Australian grains industry; the establishment of South Australia’s largest publicly listed ASX (now Viterra); setting up a functional genomics centre for plant genetics, and today, is NED for Future Food Systems Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) and the CEO of Bedford Phoenix. Maggie’s extensive experience across government, private, public and the not-for-profit sectors have given her invaluable insight into the mechanics, governance and strategic role of Boards.
 
How did your board journey begin?
When I left school I started a Tafe course and apprenticeship with the Department of Transport, in electronics because I was fascinated with how things work. We didn’t have computers then, so when the technology first came out, I was intrigued. I passed everything, but when I finished, I still wasn’t confident I knew how a computer worked. I spoke to an electrician who said everyone feels that way. Nevertheless, I left electronics and took up a casual job washing dirt off the roots of plants for the Department of Agriculture in a research laboratory to help pay off my car loan. I discovered, much like my apprenticeship, I loved learning about the why and research became a real passion of mine. It was the start of the Australian grains industry journey and I transitioned from research onto the Australian Barley Board where I stayed for 15 years.
 
Australia was very regulated, but there was pressure for the industry to deregulate, so grains deregulation commenced. We were initially a statutory authority and then became fully deregulated. This resulted in more competition. Intellectual property rights could be applied to plants and there was a risk of new market entrants.
 
ABB Grain and other companies formed a small private venture to look into whether we should invest in the ownership of plants under intellectual property rights. We listed on the ASX, then there was a major merger with AusBulk and we became a billion-dollar company — you can’t buy an experience like that! It was invaluable. I still call on those lessons in my work in the disability sector today. I said to my managing director at the time, if I am to lead this company, I want to understand what my obligations are as a director, leading me to complete the AICD course.
 
How has your cross-sector experience informed the type of board member you are today?
 
I’ve learnt that the principles of business, community, work, and life are pretty much the same. It’s about utilising your skills and experience in each area. My cross-sector experience has highlighted my expertise in governance and risk. I’ve also become very skilled in high-level strategy and forward forecasting. I can look out 3 - 5 years and think about the ‘what if’s’ in relation to where a sector is going. Going through a deregulation scenario prepared me for that — from a very protected regulatory market to a free market with future thinking for investment and capital investment. As a board member, this is critical.
 
What have been the key successes of your board journey?

  • Joined The Women’s Housing Association Board that had previously been member-based and established governance principles including Audit and Risk Governance Committee and policies. The Board then drove the merging of this organisation with a larger provider to meet market rationalisation targets set by the South Australian government, with minimal disruption to clients living in homes.
  • Established start-up MBQIP Ltd, responsible for the commercialisation of intellectual property developed by the Malting Barley Quality Improvement Program.
  • Executive Member of the integration committee responsible for the management of the successful merger of ABB Grain Ltd with AusBulk.
  • Part of the establishment of a functional genomics centre for plant genetics in South Australia, as forged by Australian researchers and multinationals like Pioneer and Monsanto.
  • Endorsed a strategic plan for the future vision of significant business transformation by the NDIS, which is the largest social reform since MediCare.
 
What boards and committees do you currently sit on?
I am the Non-Executive Director for Future Food Systems Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), which is working to power innovation and growth in the agrifood sector by accelerating the adoption of STEM technologies and cluster approaches to industry development, resilience and sustainability. I love this role because it keeps my passion for research alive!
 
What boards and committees have you previously sat on? 
  • The Women’s Housing Association — Non-Executive Director and Chair of Audit and Risk Management Committee
  • MBQIP — Non-Executive Director
  • Australian Centre Plant Functional Genomics Pty Ltd — Board Member
  • St John Ambulance South Australia — Board Member and Community Care Committee
 
Have you had a mentor? 
Yes, many brilliant board members along the way and fantastic CEOs who have given me their time and shared their personal experiences. I am part of a group called Kilfinan Australia, which provides bespoke pro bono CEO mentoring services. They pair CEOs of not-for-profits with ASX listed board members.
 
My mentor has had significant experience from a very large successful Australian company that operates internationally. He’s sensational and I’ve learnt so much from him. I think you have to have a mentor these days.
 
The world is changing fast and we have to keep up! My mentor had recently stepped into the NFP sector onto a disability board so I could help him too. We’re always learning from each other.
 
What are some of the challenges you think boards face? 
  • Diversity is a challenge, both ensuring there is diverse representation of members and that diversity of opinion is well managed. I think that comes down to a good Chair.
  • The quality of board papers is a common hurdle. I try to help small organisations who are new to boards to deliver robust notes.
  • The timing of meetings. Some meet monthly, which is hard to maintain on top of other work commitments, and others meet quarterly, which can make you feel quite disconnected from the organisation.
 
How has WOB supported you? 
I love their articles, I’ve been able to attend some networking events, but it’s the Find A Board Position directory that has been incredibly useful as a full member. That’s how I landed my most recent position with Future Food Systems.
 
What are your tips for those looking to join a board? 
  • I strongly recommend doing some formal training. You must understand your obligations, the type of questions you should be asking, and the role of the board in relation to strategy and risk management.
  • Be careful not to get too operational — stay in your field of influence.
  • Ensure you get a proper induction. Often this isn’t the case and then the next month, you’re expected to make important decisions on behalf of the business.
  • Learn to write good board papers!

 
About Maggie Dowling
Maggie is an experienced Senior Executive and Company Director with extensive experience in local government, the not-for-profit, public and private sectors. Her vast expertise, executive level management skills and corporate governance knowledge has equipped Maggie with a strong practical understanding of the diverse range of operational, financial, legal and human resource issues that face all organisations today. Maggie is the Non-Executive Director for Future Food Systems Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), working to power growth and innovation in the agrifood sector, and the CEO for Bedford Phoenix Inc, a provider of support systems for people living with an intellectual disability.