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05 July 2011
Position: Founder Solum Wheatbelt Business Solutions a community development business including the Wheatbelt Business Network; Project and Event Management; Administration Support; Research and Grant Writing.
Most recent achievement: 2011 RIRDC rural women’s award national winner.
Caroline Robinson is passionate about hockey, facilitating and building strong business and community connections in remote rural areas, sausage dogs and sheep. They’re passions that don’t come in any particular order and which she cannot rationally explain, except to say that the land and all it stands for stole her heart.
“I have a sausage dog called Frank. He doesn’t contribute very much. He’s a little overweight and too long. But I love taking him for a walk down the drive or into the paddock and seeing the sheep. I love sheep. They’re funny things to be passionate about, but I am.”
Back in her early twenties, as a commerce graduate working in Perth’s CBD, Caroline says she found herself walking in the city thinking there had to be more to life.
The farmer wants a wife
The strength of her dissatisfaction was so great it spurred her on to train as a teacher, something she’d always wanted to do, and then to take a post in Southern Cross the town centre of the Shire of Yilgarn, a wheatbelt and goldmining community 370km east of the West Australian capital.
Moving in with a farming family to be close to work, on the first night she sat down to dinner with them in walked her future husband. The rest, so the cliché goes, is history.
Now 28 years old, Caroline lives on a wheat and sheep property, that is “so far out” she and her husband joke, if they stand on the highest point and look east they see Adelaide. She no longer teaches school because of her own business commitments but she does still teach ballet to 130 children across three communities which is a three hour round trip each week.
The tyranny of distance
“I’ve always run my community development and project management business as much as I can using online tools, email and skype, rather than travel 5 hours for a one hour meeting. The nature of the work is people. So, from Tuesday to Thursday I do about 2000km of driving getting to and from the places I do business.
“I use forums such as Linked In to connect with businesses but connecting with the businesses in my region has always been difficult because so many of them do not use the internet as a business tool.”
Couple that with the fact that very few formal and no informal structures existed to market and advertise what businesses existed in the area – where and how to connect with them – and the difficulties running a community development and project management business become apparent.
In the end, the need for communication and basic local knowledge led her to set up the Wheatbelt Business Network (WBN), which has been connecting businesses, shires, individuals and communities in the central and eastern wheatbelt regions of WA since 2010.
“When the WBN first began,” explains Caroline, “we had four member businesses. In a year we’d grown to 50 businesses. At present we operate in three local government areas and they are about 80km away from each other. The WBN is run on a voluntary basis and our primary goals are networking, promotion and advocacy.”
From little things
Fifty member businesses may sound small. However, as Caroline points out, if there are 100 businesses in a particular part of the region and 50 of them are in the WBN then, in anyone’s books, that’s half of them communicating and connecting through her networking vehicle.
Is it any wonder then that Caroline’s WBN so impressed the 2011 RIRDC national rural women’s award judges that she was won the national title.
Nominated for the award by a work colleague, Caroline puts her win down to a few factors: her youth which she believes highlights the fact that the next generation coming through are contributing to rural communities and that the RIRDC awards are about networking, bringing businesses and people together to communicate and solve problems.
She also believes that her project works in well with a larger community project called Heartlands WA which has been set up to promote the whole region as a place to live, work, visit and invest.
“The Federal Government has been talking about a sustainable Australia and getting people out into rural and regional communities and revitalising them. WBN is all about that. If we can already prove we have organized, strong communities and support structures with people talking, then industry and people will be more interested in investing and coming out here,” says Caroline.
The $10,000 bursary Caroline has won as part of the award is being used to further develop the WBN, fund a buy/invest local campaign and stimulate the development of e-commerce.
“When a company comes into the area to do a project, such as the wind farm being set up in Merreden, then we want that company to use local people and businesses where they can: send their kids to the local schools, use local businesses to supply uniforms, that sort of thing.
“To do that successfully we need to get connections and communication between business, developing e-commerce and getting our region’s businesses online will support that,” Caroline believes.
According to Caroline, to understand what’s driving all this work, it is important to get an idea about the physical issues that make doing business in the region difficult. The distances are vast. The population sparse, and historically, people are used to working in discreet units rather than as an amalgamated force. There is also very little Internet uptake. Caroline says the figures show that only three percent of businesses have a website or email address.
“The whole region’s the size of Tasmania with about 45,000 people living in it. There are approximately 43 local governments, many of them with less than a thousand people and there are two chambers of commerce in all that.”
Servicing that area are a number of businesses, many of which, Caroline explains from experience, had no way to communicate and share with one another, let alone reach outside the area to know what businesses existed that they might connect and build relationships with.
“The WBN’s business after-hour events, newsletter and information service as well as providing a voice to advocate for the needs of the local areas with state and federal politicians just make sense,” says Caroline.
On a personal level the award has supplied Caroline with a wider net of contacts to test and argue her ideas and thoughts with, as well as consolidating her knowledge of working on boards and committees.
“The company directors course we did for the week left me feeling much more informed about boards and the roles of directors. I know I can ring and ask any of the women I was with or the RIRDC alumni for advice on a problem right down to what I should consider if I am invited to be on a board.
“I actually sit on a board for a training company, Directions, delivering apprenticeships and traineeships across the wheatbelt region. My role is to look after governance and I certainly feel more confident about that. Mining has had a big impact on the area. We’ve lost a lot of young apprentices to the mining boom,” says Caroline.
It’s not just labour shortages created by mining that’s having an impact on rural communities. Farming itself, as more people leave the land and farms become larger more effectively run concerns, has to approach how it does business in a different way and that means thinking differently, believes Caroline.
“Some towns have benefited and when the company has put money into the town, employing farmers who don’t want to farm any more or providing off-farm employment during difficult times, that has been good.”
What concerns Caroline is whether communities and employment based on resources that will run out have any real longevity. In areas where mining has not happened or where companies have shown no interest in backing and developing existing local communities, she believes existing businesses need to work out a way of tapping into the chain of supply as well as getting mining workers thinking about going local.
“The other problem, besides losing workers to the lucrative pay, is our labour costs have skyrocketed to compete and that pushes our costs up,” says Caroline. “It’s lopsided and sets up false expectations about pay for work. There’s also the lack of long-range goals and expectations in the work.
“Mining is necessary, I can see that, but we need to be careful.”