AIB Featured Business Leader – Catherine Livingstone
Born in Nairobi, Kenya in 1955, businesswoman Catherine Livingstone recently celebrated her 60th birthday. It’s an age where many choose to throttle back, but Livingstone has learned something about flying high from her father, a World War II Air Force pilot. Today, she is the Chairman of the Board at Telstra, president of the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Museum Trust, and sits on a number of other boards dedicated to improving science, innovation and business within Australia. In 2008 she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for service to the development of Australian science, technology and innovation policies for the business sector, an honour that she added to a string of others, including two Honorary Doctorates in Business and an Honorary Doctorate in Science.
Well regarded within the industry, Livingstone has made her career in traditionally male-dominated industries. After graduating as a chartered accountant from Macquarie University in 1977, and working for powerhouse firm Price Waterhouse in both Sydney and London, she moved to Nucleus Ltd, which controlled a number of medical manufacturing companies. One of those companies was Cochlear, famous for its pioneering hearing implants, and in 1994, Livingstone was made the CEO of Cochlear Pty Ltd. In 1995, she floated the company on the ASX for $125M: by the time she resigned in 2000, Cochlear were exporting to 50 countries across the globe and revenue had more than doubled from the beginning of her tenure.
Back then, the percentage of female directors on ASX boards was an embarrassing 8%. Today it’s 21.3%, and Livingstone has been instrumental in leading that change. She’s spoken informally about her desire to see 40-50% of board participants be women, stopping short of advocating legislative change.
“You have to learn to step out of your comfort zone”, Livingstone remembers her parents teaching her, and her career has embraced that ethos. Her appointment to President of the Telstra board in 2009 was called “the biggest challenge of her career” by The Australian, who noted that Telstra was at a critical time in its history. When Livingstone was appointed, Telstra was facing major challenges. It had recently been excluded from tendering for the then-proposed NBN (National Broadband Network) after an increasingly fractured relationship with the government, and saw its share price hit an all-time low in 2010. Along with CE David Thodey, Livingstone rebuilt the relationship and repositioned Telstra such that by 2014 its share price was hitting 13-year highs. With Livingstone at the helm, Telstra has been pushing into new Asian markets, an approach that carries all the dangers of the new and unknown.
But then, Livingstone is an unabashed champion of the new. In June 2015 she told ABC’s Radio National that we’re seeing a “Change in patterns that is so deep and so extensive we actually have to stop and think about how we deal with that, because incremental adaptation is not going to get us where we need to be”. It was a repetition of the theme she used when speaking to the Business Council of Australia in April, saying that “We have reached the point where a confluence of trends, digital disruption, shifts in the locus of economic power, globalisation and demographic change – each of which on their own would rank among the strongest economic forces the global economy has ever seen, are casting our world into a completely different reality”.
Livingstone advocates for disruptive policy reform, radically shifting the way that we approach employment, education and health challenges to meet future business challenges. It’s an ambitious and overarching approach, characteristic of her career to date. And since she also recommends that Australia rethink the entire concept of retirement, it’s safe to say that she isn’t winding down any time soon.
This article was written by Tanya Ashworth-Keppel on behalf of the Australian Institute of Business. All opinions are that of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of AIB. The following sources were used to compile this article: Business Council of Australia, UTC, The Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald, ABC
Image credit: The Australian