Business in regional Australia is thriving far from the gleaming towers of state capital CBDs. Nearly half (43 per cent) of the nation’s small businesses (under 20 employees) are based in regional and rural areas, says Roy Morgan Research. And one in five income earners outside the capital cities are business owners, compared to one in seven for the nation as a whole, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
But regional business in Australia is facing a number of serious challenges. A slowdown in the resources sector, the difficult cycle of “drought and flooding rains”, and a perennial brain drain to the city continue to batter regional and rural areas. How to turn that situation around is occupying the minds of many of the nation’s smart thinkers.
The success of regional businesses is central to regional development, yet past experience shows top-down government policies have limited success. To achieve more durable results, the focus must shift to locally driven change.
IML’s chief executive David Pich says the organisation’s national presence makes it a natural vehicle to support regional and rural centres. IML is committed to connecting business communities in regional areas.
“We know that members and people we meet and come across in the regions are crying out for increased engagement with a national membership body like IML. So, for us, it’s about expanding our presence [regionally] so we offer those opportunities for managers and leaders to learn from each other and share from each other,” he says.
Last year, an AIM survey – Middle Managers: Evaluating Australia’s Biggest Management Resource – identified inefficient and under-skilled middle managers as a factor holding back many Australian organisations. Boosting the skill set of those managers is a very targeted way to grow existing businesses, encourage new ones, and create new jobs.
The tyranny of distance, however, means that managers based outside Australia’s metropolitan centres often lack access to professional development networks and opportunities. A pilot project from the UTS Business School at the University of Technology, Sydney aims to bridge that gap.
The UTS Regional High Performance Network (RHPN) lets managers and others learn from their peers, and is now running in 10 areas across the country, including the Hunter region in New South Wales, Whyalla in South Australia and the Kimberley in Western Australia.
Dr Renu Agarwal, chief investigator of the RHPN project, says peer learning is a low-cost but effective way of making a difference. The program brings together owner-managers from small business with senior managers from larger organisations to have constructive conversations. Participants can then go back and apply business lessons from those meetings.
“It’s a learning process which is fundamentally built around mutual respect and confidence because people can’t open up otherwise,” she points out.
The RHPN program covers six key topics: mindful leadership, collaboration and networking; strategic ‘blind spots’; thinking entrepreneurially to grow a business; instilling a talent mindset; and effectiveness and efficiency. Agarwal believes that lifting a manager’s skill in those areas “could have a big domino effect through an organisation”.
Inspiring new business leaders
One of those taking part in the RHPN program is Kyle Probert, a hydraulics specialist at training enterprise APT near Newcastle in NSW. He says the nearby Hunter region is “quite a dark place at the moment” in the wake of downturns in manufacturing and mining, and adds “there’s no real direction from anyone to take the community as a whole in a [new] direction.”