NOT many young farm girls yearn to be a banker when they grow up – and Susan Bower was no exception. She wanted to be a cattle extension officer.
It may not sound like the grandest of dreams, but it reflected a zeal for gathering information and forging connections in agriculture that has taken Susan from the paddock to the boardroom - and secured her a place on the inaugural Women in Australian Agribusiness 100 (WIAA 100) list.
As Westpac's head of agribusiness for the past 18 months, Susan's role requires creating and driving nationally-focused agribusiness strategy. Matching that strategy with customer needs is one of the job’s aspects she finds most rewarding.
“To actually be able to round out and think up new ideas to support Australian agriculture, that’s a really nice place to be in,” she said. “You feel like you’re giving that next step back to the customer and to the industry.”
Growing up on the family’s 6000-hectare cattle farm near Singleton in the NSW Hunter Valley, Susan always had a ‘can-do’ attitude. From university she went to work with a chartered accountant in Inverell before taking up a graduate position with National Australia Bank. “You take what’s on offer at the start to get your head in the game,” she said.
“I had the mantra ‘have bag, will travel’, so I did that – wherever they wanted me to go, I’ve gone.”
Face-to-face and on-farm meetings are absolutely crucial to agribusiness success, Susan said, describing her travels around the country during her 14-year career as formative.
“You can talk to people over the phone, but until you actually get out there and kick the dirt with them, really get your head around what they’re looking to do, that’s when you truly understand their business: what their drivers are and what their goals are,” she said.
“The people I’ve met and the communities I’ve lived in, you make lifelong friends by being able to travel around the countryside.”
While Susan’s family has been in beef “all my life”, she has spent time with producers in the cotton industry, broadacre farming, horticulture, aquaculture and viticulture – “every industry I could possibly have come across, I’ve had customers in that space”.
“Having that line of sight across so many of industries makes it so much easier for me to be pliable and to structure things.”
Getting out and about with those on ag’s frontline is one of Susan’s favourite activities, to ensure the policy discussed at an office table is on track to bring real farmgate benefits.
As one of 10 members of the federal government’s Agricultural Industry Advisory Council (AIAC), set up by Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce at the start of the year, Susan feels she has a unique opportunity to give back to the industry she loves.
“(The Council) allows me to work closely with the Minister and that group to ensure that we’ve got a really good strategic plan for Australian agriculture. Being given those kind of opportunities… is really special.”
The AIAC also includes representatives from the cattle, sheep, horticulture, aquaculture, grain, forestry and viticulture sectors. Its mandate is to advise the Minister on attracting agribusiness investment, ways to increase agriculture’s efficiency, infrastructure priorities and export opportunities – with Asian trade as a clear focus point.
“We can’t go past the Asian market obviously,” Susan said.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever had a comparative advantage over competitors on tyranny of distance. (It is) right on our doorsteps, the population’s growing, the middle class is developing and the demand for protein and fibres is growing.”
Susan acknowledges Australia won’t be the biggest supplier to Asia, but sees great opportunities in the premium niche. However she cautioned against overlooking domestic consumers or drawing focus from world-leading research and development (R&D).
“We’re such strong leaders in innovation and adoption of technology - we need to keep developing R&D services so we can continue to improve the way we produce food and fibre, and the efficiencies in the way we produce that.
“But don’t forget our domestic consumers, because they’re a big part of our market.
"We need to keep matching up with what our consumers want. Gone are the days a consumer just goes and buys whatever we produce – we need to be listening to our consumers and what they want and making sure we’re producing a product to fit their need.”
While affirming agriculture has “always been really accepting of females within the space”, Susan said she had seen “an absolute shift in the way the industry works” over 14 years.
“I think one of the biggest periods of time we saw that change was when GST came into play, where the women within the businesses stepped up to the plate and played a really strategic role in the financial management of the farm.
“Women in Australian agriculture have got so much to give – they’re so knowledgeable, so experienced, and I think that’s really coming to the fore now and people are really seeing what they’ve got the ability to do.
“We’ve got some really great advocates in the industry – and not just in agriculture but across the business community.”
Susan said it would be great to see even more women in ag leadership roles. “We’ve got a really strong succession of young women coming through – that’s evident in the people I’m sharing this ‘WIAA 100’ with - there’s some fantastic young women doing great stuff within the industry,” she said. “I look at my role as to keep fostering those people and keep bringing them through so they don’t drop out along the way.”
Attracting and retaining the next generation after a run of tough times was an obvious challenge across Australian agriculture, she said.
“There are always challenging times, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female; it’s a matter of how you handle that and take that on with both hands and work through that.
“One of the biggest (traps) we tend to fall into is negatively talking about our industry – we need to be telling the story about the good news stuff because there are some amazing things that are happening in the industry and there are some amazing people driving change as well.
“We need to make sure we’ve got a nice strong succession of people coming through the pipeline and back into farming.”
Breaking the “one-size-fits-all” paradigm could provide solutions to issues with capital raising and generational succession, Susan said.
“Every business has different challenges and opportunities available to them.
“(For example) young people can enter into share farming or leasing agreements -that’s a way they can start developing their herds or their cropping business, build up some equity and capital to get in and purchase a place for themselves – there’s a lot of different avenues out there.
“Now’s the time to think outside the square - there’s lots of different ways of doing things, you can skin a cat more than one way.”
Susan’s parents Daryl and Olwyn Bower run a self-replacing breeding herd focused on beef production predominantly into the EU market, and also into Japan. They are her role models, but she sees anyone with the “courage to step outside their comfort zone, challenge the status quo, go after what they want and reach their goals” as inspirational.
“There are a lot of people in this world who don't take risks for the fear of failing,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter what age you are, what your background is, just get out there and have a go, continue to learn and continue to keep growing and developing yourself.
“The more you learn the more you develop and the more places you can go and the more opportunities and doors that will open up. Don’t be afraid to take a risk, have courage in your conviction and back yourself.”
The inaugural WIAA 100 is a joint initiative of Emerald Grain and Fairfax Media run with support from Syngenta and is designed to shine a spotlight on some of the industry’s most influential females and their vision for agriculture.