She’s a mum of two, a business owner and the longest-serving chair of Geelong’s largest and oldest lobby group – but what Kylie Warne really wants is “old-school roller skates”. ELISSA FRIDAY meets Geelong Chamber of Commerce’s charming frontwoman.
Kylie, where did you grow up?
I’m a Geelong girl, the daughter of an immigrant from Latvia and my mum was born in Geelong. I attended Bell Post Hill primary and Bell Park High, so I’m a northern suburbs girl!
I graduated from Deakin before moving to Melbourne in the early 1990s, where I worked for a series of multinationals for about a dozen years – the I met a boy, came back to Geelong and had a family.
Brett and I have two beautiful boys, Mitchell, 9, and Toby, 7. We moved to Bannockburn around three years ago – we’re on some acreage but run our business from Pakington Street.
What inspired you to join Geelong Chamber of Commerce?
In the mid 2000s I’d just started my business and it was recommended to me that I should join the chamber because running a small business can be quite lonely.
For as long as I’ve known it the chamber has always provided fantastic opportunities for networking and for personal and professional development. I’d started my business only recently prior to joining and saw that it had real potential and scope to welcome the next generations of entrepreneurs in business, so I accepted an invitation to join the board.
How did you initially get involved?
I became a director in 2008 and I’d had a small business for about two years. When I joined the chamber I was six months pregnant with my first child and felt really passionate about flying the flag on behalf of other people in small business, particularly women.
What’s the chamber’s main purpose?
To represent the interests of businesses in the Geelong region and to make sure business is getting a fair deal.
The chamber wants its members to be able to grow and employ and create jobs for local Geelong people, so it’s a fantastic organisation with a really great purpose.
How big is the chamber?
We have over 900 members who in turn employ a third of Geelong’s workforce, so we’re not just about small business. Ninety-seven per cent of our members are small businesses, so we call ourselves the voice of business.
But also among our membership are the region’s largest employers. We have councils that are members, not-for-profits and government agencies.
The chamber’s membership fluctuated over the years, so how did you build it?
It was bit of a surprise to be elected as chair in 2013. It was really only supposed to be for a two-year period but I’m now enjoying my fifth year as president.
The very first board meeting I chaired I spoke to our board about being a high-performance team and that everything we do at the chamber has to be about strategic intent and good, solid governance. Really, everything we’ve worked together as a team for over the last five years has been built on the first discussion held around our boardroom table.
In that time we’ve grown our membership by 30 per cent. We continue to attract and retain really loyal corporate partners – we help to promote their products and services and the help promote us back into the business community.
I’m so proud and satisfied with how the chamber is faring these days and I think we’re one of the largest representative organisations in Geelong.
What are your thoughts on women in leadership positions in Geelong?
I’ve never set out to be a leader. I’ve really just followed what I’m passionate about and I really never think of gender in my day-to-day activities.
I do think it’s really important that women send the elevator down to younger women who do aspire to be leaders and maybe managers in organisations, or in fact small business owners. If roughly 50 per cent of our population are women then it’s logical that women should have just as important influential roles to play in leadership positions as well as in business.
Hopefully, when I finish my time at the chamber I’ll have left a small legacy for people in small business, particularly for female entrepreneurs.
How do all the local women in leadership positions get on together?
We’re a very supportive bunch of girls. I feel like I can contact any of the other women and men in the space and always receive sage advice and also draw on their wisdom.
Geelong has an amazing cohort of women who head up many of the region’s peak businesses, not-for-profits, and government institutions – we’re spoilt for women in leadership positions. I think that really speaks to the calibre of people we have in the region and that so many are females.
Since you do so much public-speaking for the chamber, any tips for the rest of us?
Every month I speak to about 300 people at the chamber’s After Fives. I really enjoy that because I get to speak to, really, 300 friends who are all in business together, so I feel like we’re all cut from the same cloth.
Just recently I just spoke to another crowd of 300 in my role as chair of the Barwon Regional Partnership and that was a very different audience, a lot of community members, mums and dads and young people.
If you want to aspire to be a leader public speaking is par for the course. You need to feel comfortable putting yourself in situations under pressure and deliver a message that resonates with an audience.
I’ve developed confidence over a number of years but there are always opportunities to improve – you’re never perfect.
The After Five networking events look popular. What’s the feedback like?
Chamber members and our corporate members really enjoy an opportunity to get together once a month, have a glass of wine, a beer or lemonade, and share their stories and potentially do business with each other.
Running a business, particularly a small business, is not for the faint-hearted, so it’s really important to surround yourself with people who get it and have your back and understand it can be tough.
It’s a networking opportunity and a fantastic market-research opportunity. You get a great insight into what’s happening around the town.
Any particularly noteworthy events or achievements with the chamber?
When I became president in 2013 we had a very large board and we’ve managed to halve the number of board members. Now we can make better decisions and it’s easier for us to implement innovation, so the nett effect is better products and services for chamber members.
I’ve also had the privilege of representing the chamber at Canberra’s Parliament House and at Spring Street in Melbourne as well as at councils, so our members should feel that their best interests are being advocated for at all levels of government.
We work with both sides of politics – we’re an independent organisation.
What are the opportunities and the future for Geelong?
Recently I represented the chamber as part of a delegation to Canberra to attract the federal ComCare department to Geelong. It’s terrific to attract larger employers whether they’re from private companies or the government sector but, really, I think that Geelong’s future is about the entrepreneur.
We have a vibrant start-up community in the region. I’d like my my two little boys to one day be able to aspire to run their own businesses if they want to, or to create new things that people can purchase and engage with.
I’d like to think that Geelong becomes even more resilient and creative than it is today and that we can continue to drive forward our entrepreneurial spirit into the future.
What new things have you learnt along the way?
Looking at Geelong, I’m always so impressed with how many people are civic-minded and caring. Geelong has one of the highest levels of philanthropy in Australia, so we’re a community that has been through many hard knocks over the last decade but we continue to get ourselves up off the ground, dust ourselves off and keep going.
Geelong just keeps going from strength to strength and that’s a real testament to all of our community members, particularly the people who put themselves forward every day to really put back into the community and to help it go forward in a sustainable manner.
What about your own business, Brand Bureau?
I started it on the kitchen bench back in 2006. Like many small businesses I didn’t have any money really to invest in it, so it was just me and my laptop.
Today we employ four people and provide strategic marketing, graphic design and public relations services. We have clients across Australia, from governments to not-for-profits and the private sector.
Last year we won a Victorian public sector marketing award, so that was really exciting for all of the team.
I want to keep the business small – I’m so busy with everything else I have in my life. I couldn’t be active in my other roles if it weren’t for the fantastic support that I have from the team, not to mention my husband and broader family and friendship circles.
What about your down-time?
You’d find me immersed in water. I love swimming, always have.
I train twice a week with a coach to get my technique a little better. I try to swim in a few open-water races over summer, pier-to-pub sort of races.
Being a woman in her forties, I try to keep fit and healthy. Also because I have two small boys, I think it’s important that their mother is a good role model by keeping fit and in shape.
I also love drawing but unfortunately don’t have a lot of time to explore my creative pursuits. I love cartooning and one day I’d love to do a course in painting and sketching.
And I also love old-school roller skating – I hope Santa brings me a pair for Christmas.