By Deborah Tarrant
In February 2013, when Belinda Hutchinson AM FCA became the University of Sydney’s chancellor, she was told the role would take just a day and a half a week.
As it turns out, overseeing the transformation of Australia’s oldest university to ensure it keeps leading on academic smarts and delivers an inclusive experience for more than 60,000 students requires a far bigger time commitment (about double). Not that this university chancellor is complaining.
Hutchinson – who succeeded former NSW governor Marie Bashir in the role – is inordinately busy, but she’s inspired. In a position that, at most universities, leans to the ceremonial, she’s surprisingly hands-on in supporting the University of Sydney’s vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, in delivering a massive change program.
“It’s the most rewarding and challenging role I’ve ever done,” says Hutchinson, who works her responsibilities as chancellor around a portfolio of significant roles, including chairing defence industry and aeronautical company Thales in Australia, and Future Generation Global, Australia’s largest impact investing fund with a focus on child and youth mental health.
She’s also on the Qantas board and, until recently, had a spot on the independent Australian Public Service Review panel led by former Telstra chief David Thodey.
While there may be cultural differences between chairing a corporate board and overseeing an esteemed university, the strategic thinking about issues such as growth, agility and innovation are not dissimilar.
The University of Sydney’s 2016–2020 strategy has already seen the undergraduate curriculum get a cross-disciplinary makeover, zoomed in on multidisciplinary research and – due to cuts to government spending on research, science and innovation – continued the incessant quest to alleviate funding shortfalls.
With Hutchinson’s stellar business career heading divisions for Citibank and Macquarie, and directorships at Telstra, Energy Australia, Coles Myer, Sydney Water and many more, it might be said that she was the right FCA for the Chancellor’s office at the right time.
A balance between disruption and tradition
As competitive pressures confront traditional educational institutions, Hutchinson brings the clarity of a successful, seasoned business thinker and philanthropist into play.
For example, on diversity and inclusion, in both the student experience and organisational culture, she and the university’s executive are focused on how to support people from “non-mainstream” backgrounds. This includes Indigenous Australians – for whom the steep costs of living in Sydney while gaining a tertiary education is just one stifling issue – as well as those who identify as LGBTQI+, and women.
An outspoken leader on gender equality
As the former president of Chief Executive Women (in 2011 and 2012), a group that advocates for women in executive roles, Hutchinson has been active on gender equality. She also wrote the foreword for the local edition of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s salutary bestseller Lean In, which explored how women in the workforce get ahead (and what holds them back).
“When I came to the uni, 23% of professors were women. Now we’re over 30% and the trajectory is really positive,” she reports. USyd, as it’s known, now runs an annual conference and a women leaders’ development program to provide academic women with promotional opportunities, and researchers and students with fellowships, scholarships and mentoring.
The chancellor is chuffed. A recent staff engagement survey showed high scores for gender diversity: providing equal opportunity and flexible work – and VC Spence is now a Male Champion of Change.
Values of respect and integrity are in keen focus. “One of the issues confronting us as a society is a lack of respect in terms of debate,” she asserts. “We want to be an institution where there is true freedom of speech, where people can express themselves and not be shot down. People should listen and they should listen respectfully, even if they don’t agree.”
Hutchinson herself was a University of Sydney student in the 1970s, when crowds of protesters often streamed down the main Eastern Avenue thoroughfare. So she’s grappling to understand media reports of “violent protests” on campus, including a September 2018 demonstration that only involved 30 students.
“We haven’t actually had a violent protest on our campus for many years. Even most of the limited number of protests we’ve had have been quite respectful,” she says.
Working the network
Hutchinson aims to help the university’s researchers and students tackle real-world problems via industry community partnerships. From her contact list of well-connected, high-profile business leaders, she has made introductions to major corporate influencers. Multidisciplinary teams are now finding fixes or innovating for organisations and government agencies, both in Australia and internationally.
The company she chairs, Thales, and AGL Energy where she was previously a director, are among 45 partners, along with big banks Westpac and the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, consulting firms PwC in China and KPMG in Hong Kong.
Teams have worked on waste issues for the City of Sydney, reimagined social housing for NSW Treasury and predicted the next massive health issue for insurer QBE, a company Hutchinson previously chaired.
Another business-boosting program is INCUBATE, which lets students accelerate entrepreneurial concepts by giving them office space and mentors and opportunities to pitch to investors. Some 60 of the 107start-ups that have been through this program have been further funded.
Applying a private enterprise lens to help a public-facing, 160-plus-year-old educational institution become more relevant and adaptable is not simple. One challenge for Hutchinson was reforming the Senate, the university’s governing body. When she was first appointed, it had 22 members (or fellows, as they are known).
“To be honest, that was a fairly unmanageable number,” she says. “It was a nightmare because people all had different backgrounds and individual or group agendas.”
As she points out, when you’re overseeing a A$2.6billion turnover institution with nearly 60,000 students and 14,000 staff – and a A$3 billion building program that’s only halfway through – “you need people with the right mix of skills and experience”.
Senate numbers have since been reduced to 15, with eight members appointed based on skills and experience. There’s serious real-world calibre at the table, including former Origin Energy CFO Karen Moses.
Crunching the numbers
Hutchinson’s own career has never strayed far from finance. But had she taken the advice of her businessman father, she would never have gone to university. He had declared the ambition pointless because she’d “just get married”. But on realising she was serious about her studies, he insisted she ensure “there was a job at the end of it”.
Hutchinson graduated with a Bachelor of Economics, with majors in accounting and government, during the mid-1970s recession. She signed up for her professional year to qualify as a chartered accountant in tandem with a job in audit at Arthur Andersen.
“The professional year was quite frankly hellish, because back then you had to do it all in one year,” she admits. But that said: “I’m really pleased I did it because it’s stood me in really good stead. On boards, you have to be able to read balances, P+Ls and cash-flow statements… and I have the ability to see trends and variances in numbers – which I don’t always have the answer to, but I’ll certainly ask the question about.”
Her career quickly hit fast-forward. After just six months in audit she’d moved to Andersen Consulting and then a career-making opportunity to work on a major systems management design project for the Tennessee Valley Authority in the US. Others had rejected the job, but Hutchinson went to work in Chattanooga – “not exactly the high spot of the world” – for a year. This led to the offer of a team leader’s role on a major social security payment implementation for the state of Illinois. “I was 27, had 100 people working for me on a US$100million project and, yes, it was absolutely career-changing.”
From that experience, she learned always to think outside the square – a message she passes on to the many young people she mentors. “You don’t have to stick to your path.”
From trailblazer to respectful debater
From the outset, Hutchinson has shown both extraordinary determination and a pioneering spirit in her career.
When working for Citibank, where she had become a vice-president, Hutchinson beat the challenge of zero-days maternity leave by using her accrued annual leave and returning to work a few months after the birth of her first child in 1988.
Later, when six months’ pregnant with her second child, she was offered a key role at Macquarie Bank by then CEO Tony Berg. She subsequently settled into heading client relations in the corporate advisory division at Macquarie, before becoming executive director of equity capital markets.
“If we really want women to have equal opportunity, we have to get men to help us do that,” she says. “Men and women have to work together to get the right outcomes.”
That ethos underpinned her term heading Chief Executive Women and her support of the Male Champions of Change, an initiative steering influential leaders to support men in taking action on gender inequality.
“We have to be realists,” she insists. “The majority of CEOs are still men.”
What does she make of the #MeToo movement? “I think it was important to call out some men’s egregious behaviour, but it was polarising. It was a good thing that happened, but in some ways it went too far.”
Once again, Hutchinson wants to hear respectful debate.