Elizabeth Lewis-Gray – “Regard your female skills as an advantage”

October Profile

Elizabeth Lewis-Gray is co-founder and Chairman of Gekko Systems, based in Ballarat, Victoria. She is Chair of Austmine, the largest industry body representing the mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sector in Australia.  Elizabeth was inducted into the Australian Businesswomen’s Hall of Fame in 2000.

How did mining come to you? How/Why did you choose mining as a career?

I worked as an analyst for a stock broking firm and used to look at mining stocks to advise my clients.

Then, I married a gold miner. We moved to a small country town and I found myself with nothing to do. My husband was an alluvial miner, a “backyard” inventor and he developed processing equipment.

Being isolated, I was looking for something to do and decided to start selling his inventions. I received a grant from the government and set up our own company which I managed.

What is your experience of being a woman working in the mining sector? Did you/do you encounter much discrimination?

My experience overall has been very positive. My good listening skills and my positive view of the industry have been an advantage. I enjoy the industry and its people.

Sometimes you can’t get your message across; it can be especially difficult to speak to mining people from the supply side.

Working in the industry has given me the opportunity to sit on a number of government and other boards – opportunities that might not have come otherwise.

Have you had mentors and sponsors that helped you on the way?

Having your own company means you have less exposure to mentors and sponsors. I have never had direct mentors but have had many supporters. Among them, Dr Neil McAdam, a senior lecturer from my MBA course, and Dale Elphinstone, who sits on the Board of Gekko Systems.

I invited them to develop the strategy plan for the business. They were instrumental over the years in helping run and organise the company.

Could you share one or two challenges you’ve experienced in your career and how you overcame them?

The biggest challenge while setting up the company was that I had no connections in mining. I had new technology to sell in a traditional market place and my husband wasn’t from the hard/rock/big end of mining. He hadn’t risen through the usual channels or completed a degree.

In the early days being a woman ended up being an advantage: I used my listening and people skills to understand people’s concerns and needs, how the company could address their problems and I respected their views.

She says she was “a bit more naïve, less battle-worn and didn’t see the problems around her” so ploughed through.

More recently, Elizabeth says that as a woman in a senior position the challenge is “being heard”. Now she knows mining well and knows how difficult it is to achieve change within the sector.

Other challenges she faces are: being competitive selling from Australia (high-cost base) on a global scale.

What are you passionate about in your work?

To respond to that challenge she accepted the position of Chair of Austmine [1] and founded a not-for-profit organisation around improving energy efficiency in mining in January 2011 called CEEC International [2].

I am passionate about changing the industry for the better. Mining has lots of potential to improve. It’s why I set up CEEC. Women in particular through their soft skills can contribute to that change in a collaborative way.

What would you love to do next?

Next Elizabeth will return to her MD duties at Gekko Systems while keeping her other roles. She had stepped down from Gekko for a year (whilst remaining Chair of the Board) to restructure Austmine and bring in a new CEO, tasks that required her full-time attention.

She was previously on the board of Austmine for 8 years and thoroughly enjoys the role. She would like to learn more about mining and project finance.

What is one thing you wish you’d been told when you were starting out that you know now?

What would have been tremendously beneficial then would have been to know that to promote technology and change it is easier to sell the social and financial aspect of how change will be brought on rather than selling the technological advancement.

Her potential clients are people who have been using traditional equipment for years, they are risk-averse. There is little incentive or budgets for them to invest in change and they are partly risk-averse because if they get it wrong they look bad. In contrast professionals in financial roles are prepared to invest in change if it brings financial gain in the long-term.

Do you sit on a board? If not would you like to?

Yes, I sit on a number of boards: I am the Chair of the Gekko Systems Board, Chair of Austmine and Patron of CEEC.

Outside these Chair appointments, I have previously sat on the Board of Innovation Precincts, which was a government initiative that identifies areas of competitive advantage for Australia; on the Innovation Australia Board and on the Resources Supply Advisory Forum (BAHA).

The government board appointments have taught me how to bring about change within a government environment, through the power of debate. Through CEEC I have learned how to bring people together with a common mission.

I would relish the opportunity to sit on a board of a large mining company reviewing projects.

What is your opinion in the women on boards debate? Are you pro quotas or against them?

I am pro quotas for a set period to instigate change.

I was frequently the only woman on the board and it was difficult at first but I quickly got into the hang of things; I am not a shy flower, she says. This is why I suggest companies have a minimum of two women on their board.

Do you believe women in mining groups can help to change the image of the industry and make the sector more attractive to women?

Women in mining groups are essential and there needs to be enough women to feel safe and supported. WIM groups are a place where their issues are debated and solutions sought.

Women bring team building and communication skills to the industry. WIM groups can help promote those skills to an industry that definitely needs it. It is also important to get male champions on board.

Any advice to young women starting out in their careers?

  • Engage positively
  • Look to the future, not to the past and
  • Regard your female skills as an advantage

[1] Austmine is an Industry Association that represents Australian based Mining Equipment Technology and Service (METS) suppliers to the mining sector. This sector is an important one, representing around 3% of GVA (Gross Value Added) to the Australian economy. METS play a critical role in facilitating innovation and productivity in the mining sector globally and is a knowledge based industry. Turnover in the sector was AUD $90bn at its peak in FY June 2012.

[2] The Coalition for Eco Efficient Comminution (CEEC) is an exciting global venture focused on promoting alternative strategies for improving energy efficiency around the comminution for the mining sector. www.ceecthefuture.org

Biography
Elizabeth Lewis-Gray is co-founder and Chairman of Gekko Systems, based in Ballarat, Victoria.  Gekko is a world leader in gold and silver processing technology, and energy (processing) efficient modular plants, design, construction and operation.  The company was established in 1996 and in addition to its head office in Ballarat, has offices in Perth, Vancouver, Johannesburg, and Santiago.
Elizabeth is Chair of Austmine, the peak industry body in Australia for the mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sector, a $90 billion industry. She was a member of the Australian Federal Government’s National Precincts Board and after eight years, recently retired from the Innovation Australia Board.  Elizabeth was inducted into the Australian Businesswoman’s Hall of Fame in 2000, is a Fellow of the Financial Services Institute of Australasia (FINSIA), and has won several awards including the Warren Centre’s Innovation Heroes Award.
The Patron of CEEC (Coalition for Eco-Efficient Comminution), Elizabeth was visionary in the formation of this not-for-profit organisation which aims to accelerate knowledge and change transfer in the field of eco-efficient comminution. CEEC has the capacity to have a meaningful global impact on energy consumption in mining and has recently been awarded the 2013 Mining Magazine Editor’s award.
Prior to her involvement in the mining sector, Elizabeth worked in stockbroking and strategic planning. Her qualifications include a Bachelor Degree in Economics, and a Masters in Business Management.