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Getting Back To Business: Gearing up for Growth in the Hunter


There’s no doubt that 2020 has forced businesses in the Hunter to think outside the square. While the effects of COVID-19 have played havoc with livelihoods and industries, the pandemic has also unearthed stories of resilience, innovation and diversification.

As the peak body representing businesses across the region, the hunter business chamber has been there every step of the way, providing local companies with advice, advocacy and crucial opportunities to communicate and connect.

Words: Michelle Meehan

Chief Executive Officer Bob Hawes (below right) said 2020 had presented businesses with “enormous challenges”, with the Chamber working on various levels to respond to the unprecedented situation.

“COVID has been a massive curveball, and our primary focus has been on keeping business up-to-date with the constantly changing regulatory environment, assisting them to stay open and diversify where they can, and feeding back their comments and experiences to the government to inform decision-making,” he said.

“The main focus now is to ensure the region’s businesses recover the best they can. The region needs to be best positioned to take advantage of any growth trends that emerge, to buttress what we have and balance any loss we might experience.

“The key through COVID has been connection and communication. No-one foreshadowed the pandemic would last this long.

“We’ve been busy doing everything from providing trouble-shooting assistance at a micro level, such as trying to link up businesses with suppliers so they can pivot or remain open, to dealing with government on policy issues, either directly or through the very effective lines of communication we have through our affiliate organisations, some of whom have had representatives at weekly ministerial meeting throughout the pandemic.

“We also were very quick to move our events program online, and have featured very high profile leaders from government, business and the health sector, to help people keep up-to-date with COVID changes and learn from the experiences of others.

“We still have huge challenges ahead, and the remedies are not ‘one size fits all’, so being well-placed to talk to government has meant the interests of business are prominent.

“All levels of government are emphasising jobs, business stability and growth and rightly so. The region needs to pick up on this, and we are stressing the importance of saving and growing the businesses we have, as well as making the region attractive for new investment.

“Our role is to help shine a spotlight on this.”

The Chamber is adept at shining a spotlight on issues and achievements, with a history that stretches back more than 130 years.

Its origins date back to 1886 when a group of businesspeople met in Newcastle’s Great Northern Hotel with the aim of establishing a Chamber of Commerce. Among those original members were local merchant Frederick Ash, coal baron John Brown, and William Arnott, whose biscuit business became a national icon.

At the Chamber’s annual meeting, founding President, R B Wallace, is said to have spoken about the group’s involvement in the advancements in rail transport, health, local tramways and water supply. He said of the Chamber: “There can be no doubt that it will do good; and the amount of that good depends entirely on ourselves.”

Known as the Newcastle Chamber of Commerce and Industry for the majority of its history, the organisation partnered with the Chamber of Manufacturers in the late 1990s. It later became known as the Hunter Business Chamber.

Throughout the Chamber’s evolution, its mission has remained the same: to be the voice of Hunter business, championing the economic and physical attributes that make the Hunter Australia’s most innovative, prosperous and diverse regional economy.

Since 1978, the Chamber has also sought to highlight and recognise the region’s most innovative businesses through its annual awards system, with categories that not only reflect the diversity of its membership but also recognise individuals making a significant contribution to the business community.

In 2020, these awards have been expanded to shine a light on the way companies have responded to the uncertainty and challenges presented by the pandemic. Winners will be named in a total of 17 categories. “COVID-19 has placed extraordinary challenges on people in business, who have made enormous sacrifices to keep our community safe,” Mr Hawes said.

We have created the COVID Business Hero Award to recognise the extra effort businesses have made to overcome adversity during the pandemic period and continue to support their employees, other businesses or their communities.

“In another response to COVID, we have expanded the Excellence in Innovation category to specifically acknowledge business adaptation.”

The Chamber itself has been forced to adapt when it comes to the way it hosts the awards, which are one of the highlights on the local business calendar, attracting up to 600 guests.

Instead of the usual formal dinner setting, the November 20 event will be a COVID Safe theatre-style presentation at Newcastle’s iconic Civic Theatre, with ticketed seating, drinks and finger food service.

“We know how much the Awards mean to businesses in our region and, in the spirit of the times, we have been thinking outside the square to find a way to deliver an awards program with the prestige and excitement that our business community has come to expect,” Mr Hawes said.

“The team from the Civic have also worked enthusiastically to come up with a new event model, and we are confident that with the stunning backdrop of the Civic Theatre and the goodwill of all involved, we will deliver an enjoyable and memorable event.”

Mr Hawes said the Hunter Business Chamber, as the premier presenter of business events in the region, was committed to supporting the hospitality industry as it recovers from COVID. With the easing of some restrictions, the Chamber resumed its live events program in September and has since hosted two COVID Safe business breakfasts.

The Chamber’s event program is one of its key functions, providing an important avenue through which members can network, connect and be informed across various topics.

While COVID has constrained the events program this year, Mr Hawes said that by expanding and improving the delivery by offering online alternatives and more recently returning to in-person events, they have still been able to give their members valuable networking options.

“We have a program of 45 to 50 events in a non-COVID year, although of course this year’s been a bit different,” Mr Hawes said.

“We have a business mining series, we have a business infrastructure series, we have a business innovation series, and then we also run a CEO Connect and a Business Connect series.

“The CEO Connect is exclusively aimed at the Hunter First members, and there’s 80 or so of those across the region, and they’re typically the larger organisations in the region.

“The Business Connect events are more for the general membership, and a lot of businesses get a lot out of going to those, swapping business cards and doing their networking... a lot of the small businesses, in particular, join exclusively for that side of things, the networking and the events.”

Advocacy is another major focus for the Chamber, which works at all levels of government and throughout the private sector to campaign for or against issues that will impact on the economy and business environment of the Hunter.

In recent times this has included everything from infrastructure needs, such as the Newcastle Airport upgrade, to issues around electricity privatisation, development, State and Federal taxes, industrial relations concerns and Local Government rates and charges.

Mr Hawes said the Chamber’s affiliation with other associations such Business New South Wales and Business Australia provides added authority when going into bat for local issues, with the implementation of this arrangement one of his key achievements since taking on the role of CEO in 2017.

“I had to navigate in a seamless way the Hunter Business Chamber implementing a revised affiliation agreement with Business NSW (formerly New South Wales Business Chamber),” he said.

“This (agreement) facilitates the Hunter Business Chamber being more integrated with Business NSW and Business Australia as well as the local Chambers and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, giving us enormously powerful reach in the policy and advocacy arenas.

“We see this playing out in the way government seeks out and listens to our opinions – that’s good for us and good for business.”

Mr Hawes said the advocacy arm of the Chamber was of particular interest to members of their “Hunter First” program, which is designed to foster the level of engagement for organisations with a significant presence, interest or stake in the Hunter Region.

Among the various benefits of their membership, Hunter First businesses are given the opportunity to engage in intimate forums with parliamentary personnel and key Hunter stakeholders and are invited to five exclusive annual events as well as additional roundtable discussions.

Another cohort of members joins the Hunter Business Chamber to take advantage of the practical information and advice it (and associated organisations such as Business NSW) can provide across a whole range of topics, from occupational health and safety to industrial relations, human resources issues, marketing, sustainability, and strategy and planning.

While the Chamber means different things to different members, Mr Hawes said at its heart; the Chamber was focussed on making the environment for business better at all levels.

“We have a very broad reach in terms of our membership because unlike many other industry organisations that either focus on property or manufacturing or whatever sector they’re in, we’re across everything, a bit of Jack of all trades,” he said.

“Rather than pick up single barrows for particular single interests, we’ll be more concerned with things that relate to all businesses, like the cost of energy, HR and IR issues, red tape at a policy level, and then at a project and board level about what we can do to influence government to build and make things that help business.

“Our quarterly business surveys give us tremendous insight into the contemporary issues facing business. “Issues like the cost and reliability of energy, skills and labour supply, making the business of being in business easier are consistently identified as barriers to growth.

“We’re fortunate in having many resilient businesses across the region and our history shows we can rise above significant setbacks.”

Resilience and adaptability in business is something that sets the Hunter apart, according to Mr Hawes and is also a focus for the region’s ongoing strength and prosperity.

“The Hunter business community is resilient, and that is certainly a strength, especially when you consider the shocks that this region’s been through over the last 30 or 40 years, with the BHP closure, and the fact that there are industries here that we are plugged into that are cyclical,” he said.

“I think what we’re also seeing more of lately is a lot of innovation, and that’s showing through the added diversity that we’re developing.

“We’ve got a strong natural diversity when you look at the business and industry pillars that underwrite the region, and we’ll be working hard on strengthening these pillars.

“We must leverage further growth in defence, manufacturing, research, energy, resources, agribusiness, the visitor economy and service industries.

“Some industry sectors will evolve, and we need to support that process as well as attract new opportunities such as that presented with renewable energy (hydrogen, solar, wind, pumped hydro and biofuels), diversification of the port and our access to markets.

“We’ve got to make sure we maintain the industry and business diversity because at the end of the day that will continue to be a strength for us.”

While COVID-19 has undoubtedly created a lot of uncertainty, Mr Hawes said the longer-term picture for business in the Hunter was incredibly bright.

“Again it’s that resilience aspect, that adaptation and flexibility, picking up on innovation and a lot of businesses here are doing it,” he said.

“They’re embracing technological change, ways to produce more for less in terms of trying to be efficient and that in itself breeds opportunities and some of those stem directly from them, and some of them are as a consequence of their supplier or their business-to-business relationships that they have.

“There’s a lot of talk up here at the moment about energy, and we’ve got a fantastic opportunity there. We’re just so well placed naturally to have a new energy industry emerge or be developed here because of our connections to the grid and the industries that we already have here that will need power.

“Defence is a real opportunity, the government has committed an enormous amount of money over the next ten years to realise its strategic defence plan, and we can play a big part in that, we’ve got the capability and the capacity in the Hunter to do more.

“Our emphasis is trying to understand and trying to promote industries and businesses that we already have here, and helping them develop relationships that they feel they can benefit from or already have in place.

“We think the ambition about what the Hunter Region can do into the future, for not only itself but the state and the nation is relatively unique in this country and something we should be working hard at.”

INFRASTRUCTURE ESSENTIALS

Ensuring a region’s critical infrastructure needs are catered for is essential for the health and prosperity of its business community.

Hunter Business Chamber CEO Bob Hawes has selected the top five regionally significant projects the Chamber is and has been advocating for:

  • The John Hunter Hospital health precinct (two stages);

  • New England Highway upgrades (including the Singleton and Muswellbrook bypasses);

  • The missing M1 link (Black Hill to Raymond Terrace), incorporating east-west as well as north-south improvements;

  • Newcastle Airport runway and continuous civil aviation facilities improvement; and

  • Rail strategy for the Hunter region, incorporating Newcastle freight rail bypass, faster Sydney to Newcastle connection and preservation of links to the Port.

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