In this episode, I’m talking with Susan Gray, the president of the Tilba District Chamber of Commerce in the southern region of New South Wales, and the owner of the main pub in Tilba. Today we’re talking about – A business owner hit by disaster.
Susan and her husband moved to Tilba just over 3 years ago. Since then, their district has been through difficult times after being hit by bushfires, floods and Covid. Now they are dealing with an influx of new residents and tourists and as the president of the Tilba Chamber it’s up to Susan to manage these problems and opportunities.
I’m so excited to have Susan on the show as she shares how a business owner, hit by disaster, manages to move on.
A little bit about Susan...
Susan and her husband bought the Dromedary Hotel in Central Tilba, almost exactly three years ago. Susan spent around half the year travelling around the world for work. Prior to being an airport consultant, Susan was a journalist and editor and then a corporate communications and business development director with a major global food operator. While her partner was the CEO of a global media business. They both have a lot of business experience, and the pub that they now own is managed by family and trusted locals. Susan’s originally from the UK and her partner is from Wollongong, but his dad grew up in Tuross Head on the south coast of New South Wales so, they knew the area a little bit before they bought the pub.
I like to start with where we met...
I first met Susan when we were reaching out to potential collaborators in a grant application C2C were submitting under the NSW Bushfire Community Recovery and Resilience Fund. The grant was to help build the capabilities of businesses and business chambers to become more resilient to future disasters.
I’m really excited to share that we won the grant and are starting to activate it.
Susan has been really receptive and supportive of the project both in the application phase as well as currently as we move into delivering the project within her region.
As President of a business chamber in one of the bushfire-affected areas of New South Wales, Susan has been helping the businesses in Tilba get through a year of compound disasters with bushfires, floods and Covid-19.
Owner of the local pub in this tiny historic town, Susan has first-hand experience of how businesses can be impacted by disasters, both directly and indirectly. Tilba is one of NSW’s perfectly preserved heritage villages and a great base when exploring the beautiful south coast. It’s also host to the famous ABC Cheese Factory, one of the 50+ businesses that base themselves in this beautiful location.
Really great to chat with you Susan on such an important angle related to your experience to share.
Here are some questions I asked...
- So, can I start with you telling us about the town of Tilba and the business that you run there?
Yeah, Tilba and Central Tilba are two small towns that sit at the base of Mother Gulaga, which is a very dramatic and picturesque mountain that kind of looks over all of Eurobodalla Shire and Bega Shire. It’s a very, very pretty place. And both towns are in a heritage area. So, they’re both in conservation areas and are heritage listed. So, most of the properties are either over 100 years old or looked like they would be over 100 years old. It’s a very authentic and very beautiful area. The business we run the Dromedary Hotel which is a double height building right in the center of town. So, it’s a very prominent business both in its function as the pub and also at the heart of the community. It’s really somewhere that everybody comes and meets and it’s a real meeting place for the town. So, we have become quite a hub within the town since we’ve had the pub, which is about three years this month actually.
Absolutely and, given what your community’s been through in the past couple of years, the pub, no doubt would have been absolutely the epicenter of people, connections and many other things I’m sure.
2. So, how did you then come to be president of the Tilba District Chamber of Commerce?
Well, sort of by accident. We actually have our own business and usually travel a lot through the year, this year obviously, we’ve been pretty much grounded. So, we’ve been unable to do all that international travel. And as a result, you know, there’s been real pros and cons. First the bushfires, and then Coronavirus, but one of the real positives that has come out of it for us has been our ability to spend a lot more time both at the pub and within the community. And when we realized that we were going to be a bit more available and have a bit more bandwidth, we really saw it as an opportunity to get even more involved. And we thought, well, if we were going to become really involved in the chamber, this was the year to do it. So, my husband and I subsequently did become more involved in and somehow, I ended up as the President.
I have to say lucky Tilba and businesses in Tilba, because the expertise that you and your husband bring, obviously, in communications and business development, etc. will just bring such a great new approach and capabilities. Bringing your capabilities into the town obviously also supports others to be around those capabilities and organically learn from those capabilities too. So, there’s a wonderful opportunity for the skill sets to build just by organically having you there more. So, I guess that might change if we get to start travelling again – one day.
3. Now, as a business owner and leader in your community, what do you feel are the biggest blockers to businesses getting the help they need before, during and after disasters?
I think one of the challenges that we have not just Tilba, throughout all of the south coast, I think in other regions, as well – I’m sure is that there’s a lot of people who run businesses who have been there a long time, or who have maybe bought businesses there because they wanted a certain lifestyle that they were buying into. And, in the good times that’s great. But when things get quite tough, I think one of the challenges we’ve had is that there isn’t that level of sophistication in terms of running their businesses. So, when they’ve had to respond to big, big challenges, they’re not always equipped to deal with them. So, I think one of the challenges we have had is their lack of experience of the community, there’s, there’s a bit of unchartered territory for them. And, you know, we’ve had some really huge challenges thrown at us, which nobody arguably has ever been equipped to deal with. They have been quite huge things. We’ve had bushfires, then we’ve had COVID. And then through that we’ve had this bizarre situation where we’ve just had this incredible growth, with this huge influx of tourism. So, a real kind of schizophrenic sort of existence, and very difficult for people to respond to. I think the other challenge that we have as a community is access to the right resources and people because they’re not really immediate responses, but they’re this sort of subsequent impact. We’ve had this huge influx of tourism, we’ve had this huge kind of popularity of the area driving housing demand, for example, people moving to the area. And one of the things that’s done is that it’s made it very difficult to get good, reliable, skilled staff, largely in hospitality, but actually across the board. And now as a consequence of what we’ve been through, the whole region is really struggling to attract really good people and keep them. Even if they can attract good people, there’s nowhere for them to live. So that’s sort of one of the challenges we’re having. It is just finding the support, to try and kind of solve some of those problems.
It’s so interesting, isn’t it, because I’ve been in the disaster space for over a decade now. And it’s the direct and indirect consequences of disasters. So again, the community can be directly impacted, like your community has, or indirectly impacted. But then it’s the snowballing effect of all the other compounding issues as well, that can actually impact the community more than the actual disaster itself. In Victoria as well, lots of the communities around East Gippsland that are having the same problem in the sense that they can’t service the growth of visitors which they need to enable them to help recover because there are no people to be able to afford to live there and go there to deliver the services. But hopefully, there’s some solutions that can be found in the coming weeks. So, business chambers, so I’m going to be honest, when someone says a business chamber to me, it’s usually pale, stale, male, and likely with a bit of a political kind of edge to it. I’m not saying all business chambers by any means but, certainly there’s a fair few out there.
4. So, what’s the best thing about being part of a business chamber?
Well, it’s really funny, you should say that actually, because I sort of ended up as president of the chamber. And I think, partly, even though I’m very well-travelled, and very long in the tooth, in some ways, I think I was largely naive of many of those things you just mentioned. But that was probably a good thing. Because I’m not burdened too much by that. Just as an aside, we’ve got a committee of seven in our chamber, and five of them are women. And our president, our treasurer and our secretary are all women. And we’ve really, I think, in the last six months really made a difference. The chamber was moving along, doing its thing and trying very hard but, I think, the times have changed so much, and the area and the town has changed so much and the conditions that were operating have changed so much. So, I think, having these new personalities with all these new skill sets, these new ideas and new enthusiasm has really, really changed the nature of the chamber, and, and how we all work together. And I think that it had actually been the best part about being part of the chamber, is actually, we were already community members. But we’ve really all sort of strengthened those relationships and become a real team. If you become a real team, you can get a lot more done.
Oh, 100%, you’re so much stronger working together. And I have to say, I’m really excited about what you’re leading and driving and the conversations that we’ve had in Tilba, and I can’t wait to see and hear more and help as much as possible in terms of evolving it in the community. Because, I think, business chambers have such a big opportunity to play a really vital role in communities before, during and after disaster. Chambers are about connecting and building connections in businesses, then support connections in communities. So yeah, really excited to be seeing what’s happening in Tilba and hopefully sharing lots more in the future.
5. So, what’s the biggest challenges for you that you face as a business chamber?
I think our physical size is a bit of a limitation in the sense that we’re a very small town with a very small number of businesses. So, I mean, one of the things we did at the same time as me coming in as president, we had some changes to the Constitution, and we added associate members. And the reason we did that was, in order to be able to access other resources frankly, so that people who were local, but not necessarily business owners, in Bate Street (which is the main street through Tilba) could still legitimately participate in the chamber. And so that has sort of opened it up to be able to include people who are maybe civil servants, or lawyers or accountants who live locally, but aren’t really active businesses. Or maybe they’re retired, but still have a lot to give. So, we’re hoping that that will help us. But certainly, our physical size means the pool we’re fishing in is quite small. And also, by definition, then that sort of group of professional, reliable, engaged people. But I think that will change and is changing. And the other thing is resources, which is a related point, it’s quite hard to find people who have the time and but also the skill set to be able to actually help us drive some of these initiatives that we want to do when we’re such a small community.
Definitely. And again, I’m super excited to be talking about that further, because one of the other grant projects we won is in the Blue Mountains, where we’re helping them evolve a regional business chamber structure. So, they’ve got eleven little business chambers, probably some similar size to Tilba. And again, trying to identify the value in some systems and processes and set up through engagement that can help them and obviously not take away, by any means, that local level. But again, take away some of the administrative needs and time and costs to enable that sort of thing to happen at a bit higher level that can facilitate greater volunteer and input being achieved at the really local level. So, there might be opportunity, we can obviously see if that works for yours as well. Now, we connected when we were reaching out to some business chambers when we were applying for some grants with the New South Wales bushfire recovery and resilience programme. So, we’ve had a few conversations about this in the past.
6. What was your experience applying for the grants following the bushfires?
Well, I had never done anything like this before. I mean, I come from a background in business development. So, I’ve written plenty of tenders and responded to plenty of tenders. So, from that point of view, an RFP process and EI processes is very familiar to me, but I’ve never done a grant application before. So, I found the process quite onerous. I thought that there was a lot of unnecessary repetition in the information that was requested. And obviously, I understand that they need to be very thorough and have good governance around them but I just felt like some of it seemed rather superfluous. The other thing was that I felt that the process was very rushed. And I still feel like that a little bit. I completely understand that there’s an emphasis on expediting these grants quickly, but actually going through that grant process and having that deadline was actually a lot of pressure on people, who are volunteers, and are actually trying to fit this around their lives. You know, in my case I run two companies and many of our chamber members do as well. And it was a very difficult process just in the sheer volume of work that had to be done. So, I thought the timing was rushed. It also rushed the thinking. It wasn’t so much the doing; it was actually the thinking around what do we really want this money for? What do we want? You know, what do we want to get out of this process? It was a useful process to do, but I felt it was a bit horrid.
Yeah, I think we’ve had that from so many communities as well, in the sense that they almost needed help to facilitate the potential of ideas, that would be the outcomes they wanted. To then identify the grant projects that they could submit to deliver to all or some of it as well. It’s hopefully a process that will get a review at a state and a federal level. And I know, the new National Recovery and Resilience Agency, it’s definitely something that we’ve proposed to them as well. Because, there was so much pressure on having to apply for these grants, because otherwise you’ll miss out on the money. So sometimes there were applications just almost for the sake of applications. People felt like, well, if I don’t put something in there, I’m going to miss out on the piece of the pie. Now many communities have won these grants, and they’re a bit like, well, I don’t actually know if it is what we really need to do. But now we need to do it. So, it’s kind of a, it’s one of those wicked problems, I guess. When we were talking to you about submitting for the grant application, you were also working on an application, which we’re really excited to hear that you won.
7. You’re creating a strategic plan for the Tilba district. So, tell me a little bit more about that and what benefits it’s going to bring?
Yes, we are, we’re very, very excited about this. As I mentioned, Tilba is a small place. But I have always felt that it really punches above its weight in terms of impact on the whole of the south coast, but also particularly within the Shire. We sit right at the bottom of the Shire, almost on the border with the Bega Shire. And you know, there are other bigger, louder, and frankly more significant and important locations within the Shire like Batemans Bay, Malua, Narooma who have historically had a bit more attention. And we feel and have felt since we’ve been in Tilba, for the last three years that Tilba probably deserved now, when it may not have done in the past, the time to give it a bit more focus. In terms of looking forward and what was important for us as a community and as a town in the future. And, there was nothing really in place. The other thing as a new incoming president of a chamber, there were a lot of very micro issues that were being picked up and tried to talk to certain stakeholders. And we weren’t getting much cut through because they were micro issues. And I felt like we needed to take a step back and really have some clarity over what was really important to us. What were the issues that we really wanted to take forward? And what were the ones that we really don’t need to be dying in a ditch over. And, the only way to do that was to put together what I call a ‘strategic plan’; I mean, it’s a community plan, a strategic planner, a master plan, but it’s essentially an exercise that Tilba has never really done before, which is ‘Who are we?’ And, what do we want to be when we grow up? Because data shows us doing a fantastic job of promoting the region from a tourism perspective, we’ve got fantastic nature walks, we’ve got fantastic community, cafes and shops, and a fantastic famous dairy, the people are coming, and they’re going to keep coming, and to live and to work and to visit. But we need to manage that development and that growth because if we don’t take control of that, then we will never have control of it. So, I felt the time was really right for us to be doing that. So, when the opportunity for grant came up, I really strongly felt that it was a really important piece of work that we could legitimately ask for money to undertake. So, we were really excited to get that money. And now we’ve got to do something about it. So, the scary next 12 months or so is, again, it’s not too long. We have to execute all of these; we’ve got to acquit all this grant money now. So yeah, very exciting, but also a little bit daunting if I’m honest.
Yes, but don’t worry, there’s others out there who can help you along the way as well. And I think what I love about projects like that, and it’s so exciting that they get funded too, is that it gives you an opportunity to have the conversation as a community about reimagining Tilba. So, let’s reimagine what it can be and what we need it to be, which, again, when you’re looking to build resilience and go through the recovery process, as much as they we’ll recover and it’ll get back to normal. Sometimes you don’t want that and you don’t need that. You need it to be something else. So, you know, that’s a really exciting project to be working on. And again, really looking forward to hearing more about it and see where we can help you.
8. So, can I ask you, for your teeny tiny business chamber that seems to have an amazing president, where are you going to be in five years time?
Well, I’m really hoping this is the beginning of an evolution of Tilba, in terms of the sophistication of our approach to the community, to the business community, and to the area. I feel like we’re laying some really good foundations at the moment to create something that’s a really solid, and a really solid chamber, that can give us some good roots to start. We’re planting some really good roots to grow. We are already a very different chamber to the one we were a year ago, there’s a lot of really interested, engaged, clever people in the area, who are now much more active in the chamber than they were before. And I just want more of the same really. I want to be able to demonstrate that we’re really adding value. And, by doing that attract more of the same to the chamber so that we can really leverage this strategic plan. Because hopefully, this time next year, we’ll have this fantastic document that has got really tangible things in it that we can start delivering. We need a chamber that can take that and deliver it. So, that’s my hope for the chamber. That we’re strong and cohesive, and the real glue that binds the community together.
Well, I think, you’re definitely stepping in the right direction, and what a great leadership role that you and your husband are playing in the community as well.
What 2 things would you like to be done differently in the disaster space?
It’s a bit of a difficult question. I think understanding where we can get helpful help. And I don’t mean for this to sound ungrateful because I cannot believe the amount of assistance support funding that is out there. Coming from the UK I’m blown away, honestly, by the amount of support that is available. But, just sort of understanding how to access it. Having a bit more clarity around what’s out there, and being able to really get help. That’s it really. That we can really apply on a day-to-day basis to our businesses. There’s a lot of people providing a lot of theoretical support, but you know, actually practically helping us. I don’t know if that makes any sense. But that’s what we need to know.
It 100% does. And I have to say, we are working on something behind the scenes, which actually fills that gap in building capabilities in everyday business as usual, as opposed to the myriad of things that are being thrown at you from a million miles an hour. And I think very much the approach from the Tilba project, which is the grant that we want and will be coming out to talk to you face to face as soon as we can leave our house in Melbourne. It’s exactly that – it’s practical ways of building resilience and preparedness and evolving the recovery as well. It’s great that people can have a 40-page business continuity plan and tell you what you need to do, but people need to be shown how to do it. And it needs to be ways that are relevant and appropriate for you know, all types of businesses, including those open seven days a week, those open nights, those open business hours, etc.
It’s been so lovely to chat with you. I have to say you’re the first business owner, I can’t believe we’re up to about Episode 20 something and you’re the first small business owner that I’ve had on. I’ve been talking with Susan Gray, she’s the president of the Tilba District Chamber of Commerce in the southern region of beautiful New South Wales, and also the owner of the main pub in Tilba and we’ve been talking about a business owner hit by disaster. Susan, thanks so much, and I’m going to come up and have a wine.
You’re most welcome anytime.