Taking the lead
It’s mid-morning in south-east Queensland and businesswoman Melanie Lavelle-Maloney is preparing to do what she loves most – help other people.
Melanie is Vice President of the Redland City Chamber of Commerce, and the business consultant charged with delivering the Redland City Business Grow program. She is headed to the first of a series of Women in Business working luncheons, created to empower local businesswomen to grow their skills and confidence in public speaking and networking. Or as Melanie puts it, to “move up a gear” in their personal and professional lives.
For 25 years, Melanie – a proud Bundjalung woman from northern NSW – has challenged herself to move up a gear too. That challenge has taken her from working as a secretary in the Darling Downs in southern Queensland, to running the daily operations of a multimillion-dollar demolition and civil engineering company in the UK, to owning a successful consultancy specialising in business solutions, marketing, mentoring, training and facilitation.
As owner and Principal Director of Contact First Business Solutions (external website, new window), Melanie provides mentoring and advice to small and midsized businesses, empowering her clients with skills, knowledge and management abilities.
For the past six years, she has also shared her story and expertise with her broader Aboriginal community as a facilitator of IBA’s Into Business™ workshops, which encourage Indigenous Australians to explore their business ideas and readiness for business ownership.
A passionate believer in education as a key to succeeding in life and business, Melanie recently completed her Graduate Certificate in Franchising, to help her better understand and cater to the needs of her customers.
‘Knowledge is power; I really do believe that’, said Melanie. ‘It’s always been instrumental in my own personal development, and in advancing my career opportunities, and now I’m motivating other people to progress their own too’.
Motivating others seems the perfect calling for a woman described by her childhood teacher as a natural born leader. ‘Natural born leader, or Miss Bossy Boots – depends who you ask’, laughed Melanie. She credits that same teacher and her maternal grandparents with instilling strong cultural and personal values, and an understanding that to help and empower others, you must first empower yourself.
Reflecting on that early career prediction, Melanie said: ‘It was always a bit of a joke in our family. It’s because when new people came to my primary school, I would gravitate towards them and show them around. But my grandmother was like that – she was the matriarch and encouraged people to come to our beautiful big house when they needed support. She spent her life sharing and caring – like our people do – and friends were always welcome at our table’.
‘I’ve inherited a lot of that, bringing people together. It’s an all-in, inclusive approach…and that’s one of the values that I hold dear to me, and I believe has been fundamental in my life journey’, she said.
Melanie’s professional and personal calling began taking shape in the late 1980s when she joined the Queensland Nurse’s Union in Brisbane. For two years, she provided administrative support to union leaders and officials fighting a now historic wage claim. ‘That resonated with me; fighting a cause for nurses who really put themselves out on a limb to help people’, said Melanie.
It was while working in that role that Melanie and her then husband Steve Gibson, a professional rugby league player, bought their first home with a loan through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) which managed the Indigenous Home Ownership program (now under IBA management). The home would provide a financial platform to help Melanie realise many of her financial goals.
‘We wanted something for ourselves as an asset to build on’, said Melanie. ‘However, about a year later Steve was headhunted to play on a rugby league contract in England and we found ourselves moving away. Luckily, we were able to pay off that loan quickly, through Steve’s rugby and me working in various temporary contracts in the UK’.
Unfortunately, the couple’s relationship ended in 1994 and Melanie found herself at a personal crossroads. ‘It was a really difficult time, because it was just myself and my son Jack suddenly on our own in the UK’, she said. ‘About a year or so later I met Bernie, my daughter Gretta’s father. He was starting up a small construction business in the UK. We’d been going out together for six months when he said “why don’t you come into the business?” He thought I had good leadership skills’, she laughed.
‘Meanwhile, I’d taken Bernie home to Australia for a holiday and he’d fallen in love with the place. So we created a 10-year plan to grow the business – which was primarily demolition and asbestos removal – then sell it and move to Australia’.
‘A business acquisitions broker told us we needed to get turnover up to around £5 million before anybody would look at buying the company’, Melanie said. ‘That’s a huge amount of money but, as I tell people in my business workshops here in Australia, we had the goal, we had the vision and we knew what we needed to achieve so we could build that business up and sell it’.
Central to achieving that goal was the decision to diversify the company’s core business offering to include civil engineering. ‘We headhunted one of the best people in the civil engineering industry to lead a team of people and developed three sections: demolition, asbestos removal and civil. We went from three staff to 30, with another 200 contractors working at any one time all over the UK’.
‘And here’s me, this little Bundjalung girl from Lismore, Little Miss Bossy Boots, who was now director in charge of the day-to-day operations and marketing!’ she said.
As much as she relished the challenge, Melanie says that in the early days of her new role she often found herself out of her depth. ‘I’m a natural marketer and networker, and I have that ability to create relationships, so that came easy’, she said. ‘What didn’t come easy was mixing with a lot of highly qualified professional people, like architects and surveyors. I felt a little bit intimidated, particularly as the construction industry was very male-dominated at the time’.
‘I also struggled with being the boss’, she said. ‘I was too soft, so at first I would end up doing their job as well mine. I knew I had to step things up, so after I saw an advert in the local paper, I enrolled at the University of Manchester and completed a Certificate IV in Small Business Management which just helped me no end. That led me to do a diploma in business management [followed by a degree and masters in strategic marketing]. After I finished the diploma in business management I really started to kick up a gear, because I knew how to retain staff, how to get the right people for the business and manage them effectively.
‘Human resource management is not an easy role when you have never been the employer before, but it’s absolutely crucial to any business employing staff’.
The company achieved its financial target within eight years and was sold in 2005. Meanwhile, after 18 years away, Melanie responded to a strong cultural and personal pull home, returning to Australia with her two children.
‘Jack was about to start high school’, said Melanie. ‘My aunty had become ill, and I just knew I needed to be here with my family… The UK business had been hugely successful, but I realised I had different priorities, different values that I wanted to live’.
Seeking to determine her own economic and professional future, and buoyed by the confidence she had gained through her studies and experiences in the UK, Melanie began exploring business ownership.
‘It was tempting to go into the construction industry again; it was in the back of my mind…’ said Melanie. ’But when I really thought about it…what I really wanted to do was help others, and especially my Aboriginal brothers and sisters…. Coming home, I was upset that in my home town of Lismore there wasn’t one Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person working in private enterprise; they were all working in government. That really frustrated me; that the town hadn’t changed since I’d left’.
Melanie put her networking skills to work while researching her business idea, joining several industry bodies and agencies, including numerous chambers of commerce along the NSW and QLD coast.
‘I networked up and down the coast, finding out what local businesspeople were really looking for, and I undertook lots of qualitative and quantitative research’, she said. ‘I knew from experience how valuable relationship building is, so I wouldn’t do anything other than listen to what people were saying. I also understood that it was going to be a very different business environment here compared to the UK.
During a visit to prospective new clients in Lismore, Melanie stumbled across an IBA Into Business™ workshop. She was invited by the workshop facilitator to deliver an impromptu talk to the local Indigenous community about her education and business ownership experiences, and made a typically strong impression.
Contact First Business Solutions became has been an IBA service provider since 2004, when Melanie was invited to become an Into Business™ workshop facilitator, a role she continues to find both professionally and personally rewarding.
‘I like being able to help other Indigenous people who are interested in business and who want to create an independent operation to support themselves and their families’, she said. ‘It’s a gratifying thing to watch participants progress through those workshops. Initially, they will be a little shy about communicating, but you can see through the workshop process that they begin building their confidence, and then I see them able to get up at the final workshop and articulate their business vision really well. It’s wonderful to see that empowerment and that’s what I’m all about, empowering our people.
‘I tell participants, “I’ve done it, you can do it too. I went back and did my study, you can too”. Business acumen can be learnt; you need the industry skills – don’t kid yourself – but you can learn those skills if you are passionate’.
Ensuring she ‘walks the talk’, Melanie continually explores ways to innovate in her consultancy. ‘I do research every day in my own business’, she said. ‘What are my competitors doing? What can I be doing different to them? Things are always changing; you need to be aware of what is going on. What are the new trends, like social media, and better ways of promoting yourself, and what are governments spending their money on?’
While researching the business section of her local newspaper Melanie spotted, and successfully bid for, a tender by the Redland City Council to deliver its Business Grow program. The program provides advice and mentoring to local Redland businesses, with Melanie assisting an average of 30 customers in her community each month.
‘I’m very proud of the difference I am making in people’s lives – Indigenous and non-Indigenous, she said. ‘Delivering the program here at Redlands I get quite overwhelmed sometimes, because people put their trust in me. They frequently ring me up and ask for advice, and they appreciate having someone there to be their sounding board and move them forward. I’ve done some really great things here to help local businesses realise their potential’.
As a business leader in her community, Melanie was offered the position of Vice President of the Redland City Chamber of Commerce, a role that enables her to continue encouraging and empowering others.
‘And that’s what I feel like I’ve done too’, she reflects. ‘I’ve realised my potential and I’ve grown myself to the point where I feel confident going out and helping others’.
‘I still think a lot of my success has to do with the fact that the old people – my grandparents, my teachers and other mentors – are still guiding me, and looking down saying “good on you, you go girl”.
Find out more about Contact First Business Solutions (external website, new window).