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Sally Neville

02 August 2011

Position: CEO Restaurant and Catering South Australia
Most recent achievement: Winning the Westpac and AGSM Executive Programs 2011 Mary Reibey Scholarship. “Applying for the scholarship,” says Sally, “forced me to work on my resume and improve it. Along with that came the opportunity to distill what it is I am good at down to its essence. The whole process has been a great self-esteem boost.”

Sally Neville’s pragmatic personality runs through all that she does, which is no doubt why she has been an award winning CEO in the hospitality industry for nine years now.
Hospitality is unforgivingly pragmatic.

Take this scenario, for example: Where else, if you had to wait 30 minutes longer than you deemed appropriate for your $25 product/service, would you expect not to pay, be at best impolite to the person serving you and then proceed to badmouth the place for the next few weeks to everyone you met? Certainly, we are not talking about a visit to your local GP.

Sally’s pragmatism runs deeper than her workplace. It permeates everything from co-ed schooling for girls to the efficacy of social situation fibbing.

Noisy boys and white lies
In the case of co-ed schooling, Sally wants her daughters to learn that boys make noise, a lot of noise, and that noise doesn’t mean anything.

“To succeed in life you need to learn to listen above or below the noise. If you’re going to be distracted by the noise men create, it is easy to lose your way,” says Sally.

When it comes to social white lies: Sally discovered in her younger days as a research scientist, it made sense to fib about what she did for work when she was out. In the late 1970s early 80s talking about research science was guaranteed to make eyes glaze over. Telling people she was a nurse working with children, they immediately ‘got’ what she did and empathized.

By her own admission, a very practical person (baking was and is her favourite pastime), as CEO of Restaurant and Catering South Australia, Sally has the numbers to show the organisation is in much better shape now than when she assumed the mantle in 2002.

There has been an increase in financial membership, due in no small part to the fact that the organization under Sally has applied and developed rigorous accounting systems. As that membership base has grown, the business itself has grown in terms of staffing levels, finances and resources, but most tellingly in what it provides members.

Value Adding
“We offer more in representation than we did previously,” Sally points out. “We act as a buying group for members, offering greater discounts. The value for members is in the fact they can do business better.
“We work on the principle that by adding value to member business – through promotion or savings or by supporting them in workplace relations issues, or by providing general business advice and useful tools – they will work back with us to add value to their industry body.

“That’s one thing I’m pleased with,” continues Sally, “the work we’ve done around how to better communicate with industry and be the voice of industry. Increasing our engagement with our members and their level of engagement with us has been a strategy that has made us a much keener, stronger organisation. But there’s always more that can be done in the level of commitment on both sides.”

Sally began her working life in scientific research. She worked for the CSIRO for eight years in Human Nutrition: “I’ve always had an interest in food, obviously from some very different angles.
“You often find people with very different backgrounds in hospitality. It’s because they get into it from an ‘aspirational’ view-point rather than with any great technical skill.

“At the CSIRO we were studying metabolic types, looking at those very lucky people who can eat anything and never put on weight and then the rest of us whose bodies dictate what we can and can’t eat to maintain a healthy weight.”

The Power of Marketing
Sounds fascinating, and Sally agrees it was, but back then working in science and research was challenging: funding was difficult to secure and trying to explain what you did was virtually impossible and often socially isolating.
Nowadays, through clever marketing and building a mystique around scientific research as a career, it is so much more “fashionable”.

“I always argued what we needed to have was an ‘everyman’ definition of what it was we were doing,” says Sally. “Explaining the research in terms an average person understood and could see value and benefit from was bound to be better for us and better for funding. People are more likely to fund what they understand and, if they can see immediate personal benefits then even better.

“Take the whole GI thing. It’s very fashionable I know, but really a calorie is a calorie no matter how it’s shaped or formed… it just takes a little longer to digest. What makes it important and mean something to you is the clever marketing, which has linked it to how it fits in your life.”

Be Empathetic
Success in business, whatever that may be, demands empathetic thinking. 
“If you can identify what the customer wants – stakeholders, members, service providers, the government, the board, whoever – and try to best match that need before they know they need it, you can’t lose,” Sally advises.
It comes down to being able to phrase what you are looking for in terms of what the customer needs instead of in terms of what you want and need.

It’s also very important, according to Sally, to take a step back: “When you’re exhausted you don’t have fresh ideas and you don’t think clearly. It’s why doing the application for the Mary Reibey scholarship was so helpful. Reviewing myself gave me the chance to recognize my skills and acknowledge what I have done and where I have come from and what I am doing now.
The scholarship is an opportunity for me to consolidate all of that into a qualification. Formal qualifications provide credibility. They’re like being a finalist in the Telstra Business Women’s awards in 2010 [an accolade Sally has received]. It’s something that red flags me.”

Mary Reibey Scholarship
Westpac and AGSM Executive Programs Mary Reibey Scholarship gives its winners a place in the residential General Manager Program conducted by AGSM Executive Programs. The course offers business people the opportunity to further their expertise in core disciplines, providing insights into the challenges faced by top management, and the complex relationships between strategy, operations, marketing, people and culture within organizations.