Growing up on a farm in Tasmania’s midlands, Alison Watkins had a fairly straightforward career plan: to go to agricultural college and marry a farmer.
”I’ve moved on a bit from that now,” says the understated Watkins, 48, the chief executive of listed agribusiness GrainCorp and a non-executive director of ANZ. Still, she likes nothing better than to fly back from her Sydney-based job on weekends and get her hands dirty at the family’s farm in western Victoria, where, she jokes, she has managed to turn her husband, Rod, into a farmer.
It was her mother who gently suggested that perhaps Watkins should keep her options open by studying commerce at the University of Tasmania. Watkins still saw this as a precursor to farming but followed her husband to Sydney to gain corporate experience as a chartered accountant at Touche Ross (now part of Deloitte).
Next came a decade as a management consultant with McKinsey & Co, which Watkins says lifted her sights and developed her business skills – and diverted her from her original career plan. But, like many professional services advisers, she was keen to try her hand at running a business.
The then ANZ chief executive, John McFarlane, took a punt on Watkins, who had no banking experience, first making her head of strategy and then head of regional banking.
Watkins thrived but says it is easy for consultants to underestimate the differences. ”As a consultant, you have a lot of time on one project to collect all the facts and analyse every detail,” she says. ”In a line role, you have myriad issues coming at you from different directions and you have to get very good at making a lot of decisions quickly.”title