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Interview

A conversation with Alistair Mein, Partner and Head of Oceania

We sat down with Alistair Mein to talk about his career journey so far and why he decided to join Champions of Change.

What is your role at HKA?

I’m a Partner, a member of HKA’s Global Executive Committee, and the Head of HKA’s operations in Australia and New Zealand.

I mainly concentrate on people and the business from an operations perspective. We have phenomenal people focused on client service delivery, so my role is to empower them to keep that focus by managing the business operations.

I see my role as a conductor in many ways. We have an amazing group of people at HKA, both working directly with clients or in our support teams, so it’s my responsibility to set direction, facilitate the strategy with their input, and then keep everyone on track and playing the same tune. It sounds beautiful when it happens!

As a business, we continually challenge ourselves to do more for our clients and our people in terms of their development and helping them reach their ambitions. So this is a key area I target and also where I get the greatest satisfaction.

What is your academic and business background?

I’ve had extensive involvement in major infrastructure and urban renewal projects and organisational development and transformation programs for over 20 years.

At school, I really enjoyed economics and geography, particularly the human side and the interplay with the built environment, so after a gap year in the UK working at a boarding school, teaching and coaching sporting teams, I completed a Bachelor of Applied Science in Economic Geography at the University of NSW.

After uni, I worked at the South Sydney Development Corporation, facilitating the planning and early implementation of the significant Green Square urban renewal area and the rejuvenation of the Alexandra Canal. It was an industrial wasteland at the time so helping to shape the area and now seeing what we’d planned come to life is very rewarding. I also worked to a Board made up of some phenomenal operators and leaders in the chosen fields, which was a valuable development experience.

I went on to work for other state government agencies as an urban planner and project manager for about five years. I got valuable experience working with senior government figures and ministers while assessing development applications for key state significant sites like the Sydney Opera House, Walsh Bay, Luna Park, Fox Studios, and redevelopment sites along the north coast of NSW.

During this time, I completed a Graduate Diploma in Urban Estate Management at UTS, which consolidated my geography, urban planning, property, and project management interests before doing a Master of Property Development.

Around that time, I started thinking about moving on from state government. I was referred to McLachlan Lister in 2005 by a friend, and the variety of a consultant’s life was appealing. My first project was the North West Rail Link, now known as the Sydney Metro NorthWest. The full project team at the time comprised of just two government employees plus me and my line manager at McLachlan Lister, Rodd Staples, who later went on to head up Sydney Metro and then became Secretary for Transport.   

Over the next 10+ years, I worked across many key infrastructure projects like Sydney Metro, Wynyard Walk, Southern Sydney Freight Line and the Parramatta Road Renewal projects. I also worked in the social infrastructure space, including as the Project Director for the renewal of the Telopea and Ivanhoe social housing estates in Sydney.

Over the years, I was increasingly exposed to various parts of our business, including a stint leading the project delivery team during the GFC (not fun!), and I took on more and more operational and leadership roles.

Its been an amazing journey so far, full of positive challenges and opportunities. Its also been like working in three distinct phases. A change of ownership took us from a small Sydney business (McLachlan Lister) to being part of Hill International, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. And now, with HKA, which was formed five years ago, I became a Partner and became the Head of Oceania soon after.

What sparked your interest in infrastructure?

I love the impact that linear infrastructure has on the built environment and how it impacts social patterns. For example, Sydney Metro NorthWest has reshaped suburbs like Cherrybrook, Castle Hill, and Bella Vista, and this accessibility changes the social fabric of an area. I find that fascinating.

I’m also excited by mega-infrastructure and the engineering and construction methods used – I’d love to see a tunnel boring machine in action one day!

What made you choose this career path?

I’ve always been interested in what infrastructure does and can do. I was brought up to have a social conscience, so I’m a strong supporter of ESG initiatives and how businesses can play their part in making a difference in the community. Working on social housing projects that are trying to deliver better housing outcomes for vulnerable people and break generational cycles has reinforced that for me.

And while I no longer spend time delivering projects for clients, I’m excited by what HKA is delivering and how we’re shaping the future.

What do you love about what you do?

Definitely the people side. Of course, we’re a commercial business, but I’m always striving to get to where everything gels and our people are happy and growing in their roles. It’s an ever-evolving dynamic environment, and it certainly presents the most challenges but seeing people develop is the most rewarding part.

What are you passionate about?

I’m pretty passionate about sports. I’ve played and coached a lot of team sports over the years, and I enjoy the camaraderie, discipline, teamwork and mateship involved.

What attracted you to HKA?

At the time, I was looking for a new challenge. I’m a problem solver, so applying myself to new problems, learning on the job and helping people was attractive.

You recently joined the Champions of Change coalition. What triggered your commitment to gender diversity?

I went to a single-sex school, and gender diversity wasn’t highlighted as an issue. However, for the first 10+ years of my career, most of my bosses were female, so I didn’t understand the barriers faced by women because such incredible leaders surrounded me.

When I met my now-wife Hayley, she gave me insight into the barriers and how many women face sexual harassment in the workplace.

With three daughters, I’m more aware than ever of the challenges that need to be overcome to improve gender diversity, and it’s solidified my commitment as a leader to drive change on this issue. However, I also know that as a single organisation our influence is limited, so by joining many of our peer and competitor organisations, we can have a far greater influence.

Who are the influential women in you life?

My grandmother had a significant influence on me. She was a strong woman who worked and raised a family of six, including a disabled child, and my mum was the same. She was a nurse who worked the night shift so she could get us to school and pick us up every day. They sheltered me from many of the challenges they faced as working women who also took the lion’s share of caring responsibilities. My wife and sister are also strong characters in my life who work full-time. The difference now to my grandmother’s and mum’s generations is that there is a more equal sharing of caring, though I admit there is still some room for improvement!

In my working life, I’d call out Jo Gardner from my first job at South Sydney Development Corporation and Sue Holliday, who was the Director-General of NSW Department of Planning. Both had great influence in their fields, working full time with young children.

As a leader, what do you think businesses can do to improve gender diversity?

There are a lot of little things businesses can do as a big shift is required but it will take time.

As employers, we need to be clear about what we’re looking for and put measures in place to attract a diverse workforce that reflects the community we serve. It’s up to us to set the tone and expectations for the change we want, and need, to see over the medium to long term.

This is one of my key reasons for joining Champions of Change. I’ve had so many conversations about diversity that blame the industry, and it’s time to move past that.

We need a two-pronged attack – to increase female participation in the industry and provide opportunities for women to keep them in the workforce and make it easier and more attractive to come back after a career break.

What is something about you that might surprise people?

When I was playing basketball in the US, I played a pick-up game of basketball in Hawaii against New Kids on the Block, and I was in a hot air balloon crash in Myanmar with a famous Australian opera singer. All ended well!

If you want to find out more about joining HKA, contact lizkane@hka.com to arrange a confidential discussion or visit www.careers.hka.com

Liz Kane, RECRUITMENT MANAGER

This publication presents the views, thoughts or opinions of the author and not necessarily those of HKA. Whilst we take every care to ensure the accuracy of this information at the time of publication, the content is not intended to deal with all aspects of the subject referred to, should not be relied upon and does not constitute advice of any kind. This publication is protected by copyright © 2022 HKA Global Ltd.

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