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Christine Holgate and the Righteous Fury of the Mediocre

Christine Holgate is the CEO of Australia Post. She has been in the news for the last couple of days after harsh criticism from Australian politicians and being told by the Prime Minister to stand down.

Christine is from the North of England. She is not from a privileged background. When she was fifteen she started a small business cleaning windows, and then purchased an ice cream van. She completed studies in business at the University of North London, working as a Christmas postie during her student years.

After various jobs in marketing and management, she became JP Morgan’s Managing Director of Marketing in Europe. She was the only female member of JP Morgan’s European executive team. She was head-hunted for Telstra in 2002, moved to Australia, and worked for Telstra as head of the mobile marketing team. Later her role was expanded to include leadership of business sales and marketing.

In 2008 she was appointed CEO of Blackmore’s, the Australian health and pharmaceutical company. This move was personal for her because her sister had recently died from cancer. While at Blackmore’s she focused on developing export markets, and among other achievements grew Blackmore’s sales in China from $1 million to $50 million per year.

She was one of only twenty world business leaders to be invited to the 2014 G20 summit. In 2015 she was listed as one of Australia’s top 100 most influential women by Australian Financial Review, and in 2015, she became the first woman to be awarded CEO of the year by CEO magazine.

In 2017 she was appointed CEO of Australia Post, on a salary half that of her predecessor. She immediately began visiting ordinary Post Offices and talking with staff. She focused on improving Australia Post’s relations in the community, and with staff and licensees. At the same time, she re-structured the entire logistical operations of APO, and introduced new technology and services. One of the key improvements, during her time, for both communities and licensees, has been the development of Bank@Post.

I have met Christine. She came to Kangaroo Island after the bushfires at the end of last year, and visited the Post Offices on the Island. She listened to concerns we had about service delivery, and talked about family, work, and plans for continued improvement in postal services and care for staff.

Australia Post faces some ongoing challenges in service delivery. It services a relatively small population in a very large and isolated country. Some of its communities are very widespread, and very remote. In many small rural communities, Australia Post is the only provider of banking and government services. Many of those smaller service centres are uneconomical, and would have disappeared under an “economic rationalist” regime. In spite of these issues, Australia Post is almost unique among national postal services in that instead of costing tax-payers money, it returns a dividend to the Federal government each year.

Then came Coronavirus. This impacted Australia Post in multiple ways. First, people stayed at home and ordered online. Within weeks of the first few cases in Australia, the volume of parcels began to grow, and continued to grow, until every day we received a similar number of parcels as had been normal only for a week or two at peak Christmas time. No system could have been prepared for such a massive, sustained increase in workload. New sorting facilities were rapidly developed, new staff employed, and others re-directed from letters to parcels.

At the same time as this massive increase in demand for parcel delivery, borders began to close, and planes stopped flying. This meant mail delivery to and from overseas countries became impossible in some cases, and difficult in others. Travel and transport within Australia was and is restricted. A farmer on the border of Victoria and New South Wales was told he couldn’t truck hay from a property on one side of the border to another, and he should just put it on a plane. Families were stopped from travelling for important occasions and even for medical emergencies.

Everyone has some sort of horror story about a failed or delayed mail delivery. I sent an express post letter from Adelaide to Sydney that should have taken wo days and took nearly three weeks. But those stories are the exception, not the rule.

Following high-speed re-organisation of resources and logistics, and recruiting and re-allocation of staff, Australia Post, again, unlike many other national postal services, has continued to provide reliable, cost-effective, and mostly timely delivery services around the country. This is an almost miraculous result in the face of both massively increased demand, and massively increased barriers to service.

There have been some plainly silly stories about Australia Post during this time. “They have told contractors they have to use their own vehicles!” Yes, that is how contracting works. “They have been calling for volunteers to work for free.” No, they have been advertising for new casual staff to meet increased demand.

The recent storm of self-righteous fury from some of our elected leaders is pure hypocrisy. It centres on gifts of Cartier watches from Australia Post to some of the key executives involved in negotiating and delivering Bank@Post services. This was a major accomplishment, and deserved to be recognised and rewarded. $20,000 for bonuses/gifts to executives who have achieved such an important goal, delivering massively improved services not only in cities but to some of our most remote communities, and improving Australia Post’s profitability at the same time (that profit is paid back to the government, saving taxpayers money) is nothing by comparison to other commercial gifts and bonuses.

You may think that the salaries paid to some CEOs and executives are ridiculous, even wrong. You are entitled to that view. But the reality is that there is a high and competitive demand for skilled, proven leaders like Christine. She could easily be earning more elsewhere. But she believes in Australia and in Australia Post, and in the services it and its thousands of staff and licensees provide to Australian communities.

Is it simply that someone is out to get her? She was not the recipient of one the watches. There was no personal benefit to her in those gifts. “But she has a nice watch!” was one of the media complaints. Yes. She has a nice watch that was a gift from her husband – so? “She has personalised number plates!” So do several people living in my mostly housing commission neighbourhood. Most of these complaints sound like spite and jealously. Some arise simply from a complete failure to understand how corporate remuneration works. All are petty.

Christine Holgate is a perfect role model. She is a decent, kind-hearted, intelligent woman, who through sheer hard work, insight and determination has gone from being a lower-class Northerner with the accent to match, to one of Australia’s most admired and formidable business leaders. We are lucky to have her.