Erica Smyth relishes diversity of work

Published: 08/03/2013

12 November 2009

By Emily Roberts,

ERICA Smyth isn’t one to do things by halves. Five weeks into her first job as a graduate geologist, in Newman, Western Australia in 1974, Smyth was dramatically flown out of the small town by the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) after discovering she had type 1 diabetes.

Now living with the condition, she is dedicated to raising awareness of diabetes as chair of the Diabetes Research Foundation of WA. She has also helped produce a book about Pilbara women that puts its profits back into the RFDS and although no longer practicing as a geologist, she is still actively involved with the mining industry through her position as chair of uranium explorer Toro Energy.

A self-confessed workaholic, Smyth is now a full-time director and board member on numerous boards, including the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), the Cooperative Research Centre for Sustainable Resource Processing, the WA interactive science centre Scitech and the WA Government’s film screen industry funding body ScreenWest.

She says she relishes the variety of positions she now holds, which follow on from her successful career as a senior executive in the mining and petroleum industries over 30 years. She has previously worked as a principal geologist for BHP Minerals (including several years in uranium exploration) and BHP-Utah Minerals International’s Beenup project manager, manager gas market development WA for BHP Petroleum, and general manager – corporate affairs for Woodside Petroleum. She has a Bachelor of Science degree with a double major in geology from the University of Western Australia (UWA) and an Applied Master of Science from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. In 2008 she was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters from UWA.

“[What I love about being a board member is] being part of long-term planning,” Smyth told HighGrade. “There’s a danger you will get worried about the share price in the short term but directors should be looking at the long term. I really enjoy that long-term strategic thinking about where the company is going and how you create that along the way.

“I also enjoy the chance to interact with other people that are really competent and if you get the right environment on a board it can be challenging and, in the right way, a very enjoyable process. You never quite know what is going to happen next. The outside world has a big impact on how companies move forward and it’s that unknown that you have to be able to immediately deal with that I find exciting.”

Smyth said her career advancement to full-time involvement on boards was a natural progression.

“The biggest step was when I was offered the chance to move out of geology and go into a project development role and try and make a project happen,” she said. “That put me in the frame of government approvals and external affairs and managing the media, and that then became a thing I enjoyed the challenge of. So I was then involved more in the next step after you discover something and how you get it to a mine. There’s a big period in between the discovery and [mine] construction. It’s all the ‘soft’ issues which are the hardest things to achieve.

“Sitting on boards, I still take an intense interest in geology but directors shouldn’t be doing what the executive should be doing. So you can show interest and improve your understanding of geology, but I don’t dare become a geologist again. The technology has moved on for a start. I am an out-of-date map colour-in-erer.”

Smyth believes one of her strengths is she isn’t afraid to admit she doesn’t know something, and is naturally inquisitive.

“I have never been afraid to admit that I don’t know something and so I am happy to ask questions,” she said. “People like to tell you what they do, and if you are genuinely interested and you go and ask people they won’t let you make silly mistakes. People are very generous with their expertise so I don’t try and pretend I know something. If I don’t know it, I don’t know it but I am very, very interested to learn, so I find out really interesting things. People do wonderful stuff.”

Smyth has been chair of Toro Energy for about six months. She was previously chair of Nova Energy which merged with Toro in 2007. With Toro having recently raised $A40 million to continue its pursuit of uranium projects in Australia and Africa, particularly its Wiluna project in central WA, Smyth said it was an exciting time to be involved with the company as the recognition of uranium as a base-load capable energy alternative to fossil-fuels was growing. She said the perception of uranium had certainly changed over her 30-plus years in the industry.

“People are starting to think of [energy] alternatives,” Smyth said. “There aren’t many alternatives to coal and we all know that having all your eggs in one basket for energy is probably not a good idea, so I think nuclear is part of the solution, but not the whole solution. Gas is part of the solution for some countries and coal is still part of the solution. We just need to find better ways of producing energy from coal.

“I don’t think the governments are open to nuclear power yet in Australia but I think certainly they are open to the bigger world picture for the need for nuclear energy in some countries and we are certainly seeing a positive change in approach from the [WA] state government, and the federal government is also changing its attitude to uranium mining.

“I just think it’s a bit like the community’s attitude to smoking. We thought we would never find the time when you would have no smoking in restaurants. It’s just about perceptions of risk and understanding of risks and it takes a while for people to get the facts and understand the facts and nuclear is very complicated and people are fearful of what they don’t understand. There are lots of ways people can get information these days. People like to blame the media for everything, but the media is genuinely looking for accuracy and the industry does not always present it in a way that is understandable to the public.

“There is also suspicion in people [of uranium] and lack of trust of safe guards and all of those sorts of things. When you have very high consequences, even if they are very low likelihood, then people are fearful. Many people are very afraid of flying because of what happens when you fall out of a sky in a plane, but the chances of that happening is so much lower than getting in a car. The likelihood of something drastic happening to you in a car is far higher, but it’s a risk they get used to; it’s a risk they feel they have some control over because they are driving the car, even though most of the time the accident is caused by someone else. But because you don’t have control of flying the aircraft and you don’t have control of the nuclear power station next to you people get very fearful when they don’t have their own control and when they have to trust in the process.”

So, what does the future hold for Smyth, and is there room for more directorships? “I don’t need any more directorships,” she laughs. “I am having really good fun with most of the things I am involved with at the moment. So I am looking to develop my experience base and skills base and every day I learn something new and I am just having fun.

“Directorships are not risk free by any stretch of the imagination. They require a lot of work and I think there is a misconception that you go to eight board meetings a year and you don’t do anything else in the meantime. That is so far from the truth that it’s not funny. I am working full time. I work long hours but that’s by my own choice.”

Emily Roberts