Simone Wetzlar: Mentors will help next generation

Published: 18/04/2013


By Emily Roberts, HighGrade

A PUNT on promoting a human resources manager to operations manager of its largest mining contract at that time has certainly reaped rewards for both Thiess and Simone Wetzlar. That was eight years ago and after several further management roles Wetzlar is now chief operating officer for Thiess’ new business unit, Thiess Australian Mining. Thiess’ Australian Mining unit consists of 12 mining operations located across Australia, operated on behalf of five major mining houses. The current turnover is more than $A1.4 billion and the unit employs more than 2000 direct employees and over 600 subcontractors.

Life has certainly not slowed for Wetzlar since joining Thiess in 1996. Within a year she was appointed human resources manager for New South Wales. In 2000, when she was given an opportunity to become operations manager at the Mt Owen opencut coal mine, in the state’s Hunter Valley district, Wetzlar made her initial foray into the operational side of the business. She successfully oversaw an expansion of the mine from five million tonnes per annum to 7.5Mtpa.

“As a non-engineer female from the ‘soft side of town’ – human resources – the guys that I have worked with have had to make a number of adjustments in what they expected to receive in terms of leadership, but for me leadership is very much a supporting role,” Wetzlar said.

“It is about providing an environment where the team has the time and discipline to think and plan the direction, improvement and growth of the business, to work ‘on’ the business as well as ‘in’ the business and to ensure the team has all the resources it needs to fulfil the agreed direction and be prepared to hold people accountable. Leadership can equally be the domain of a man or woman. As long as the leadership is what the team needs I don’t think it is a challenge for men to work for a female boss.”

Wetzlar did not have a traditional entry into the mining industry. After years working in the horse husbandry and agricultural fields she changed professions and joined the building and construction industry.

“I was given an adult cadetship with Concrete Constructions as a building cadet [and studied in a supporting university degree],” she said. “I did this for a few years before changing careers into human resources in the same company. I worked for Concrete Constructions [then] changed to Walters Construction for seven years, then joined MIM in the Bowen Basin as the HR manager for Oaky Creek Coal. After working there for a year I joined Thiess as the HR manager for Mt Owen mine in the Hunter Valley in NSW. I continued in various senior HR roles in Thiess across mining, building, construction, rail and telecommunications over the next four years before being fortunate enough to be given the role of operations manager (general manager) for Mt Owen mine in 2000.”

Wetzlar has also completed a Masters in Business (Management) at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) NSW and in 2004 completed the Stanford Executive Program at Stanford University in California, USA.

A strong advocate for good networking, communication and people management, Wetzlar believes these are the key attributes of a good manager. She is also a supporter of getting more women involved in the mining industry, and was awarded the 2007 Queensland Resources Award for Women for her contributions to this cause. She believes women should not be deterred by the industry’s male dominance.

“In my earlier years the last thing I wanted to do was to stand out because I was a woman,” Wetzlar said. “I wanted to keep my head down and tail up and succeed in what I saw as an essentially male world. I did not want any special treatment just to be seen as successful as a person. Now in more senior roles and following the humbling experience of wining the RAW award, I realise the importance of getting out there and supporting other women. “Personally I have not had any trouble in regards to being accepted in managerial positions. While there is still a strong old ‘boys club’ in the industry with different levels of intensity depending on the state in Australia and whether open cut or underground, if you’re willing to get amongst it, and ideally you have some key male supporters around you, you can make a difference at an industry level.”

Male mentors were helpful in assisting women to move through the hierarchy of an organisation, but equally men needed a female role model or mentor to help them get in touch with the real needs of women in the workplace, Wetzlar said. “To me this is fundamental to change and should be actively addressed in organisations by both men and women in positions of influence.

“I feel so unbelievably lucky that I have had some great male mentors in my career and one very important female mentor. When the time is right for each woman from a personal level and if they are prepared to encourage other women to join and/or support the women they know in the industry then it will make it easier for the next generation. Likewise, we have to do a lot in our companies to support and educate men on how to manage and support women in the workplace. At Thiess we are incorporating modules into our supervision programs for women and men to learn more about how to work together. I guess it is a bit like the ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ books: the genders are different and we should celebrate this. So let’s educate people in how to manage the differences not expect one gender or the other to change.”

This article was first published in HighGrade (