Even within the high-flying world of corporate Australia, Elizabeth Gaines is something of a stand-out.
While many of Australia’s corporate leaders hail from the well-to-do suburbs of Australia’s biggest capitals, Gaines was born in Western Australia’s remote Kimberley.
It was, and still is, a place with a predominantly Indigenous population, where poverty and disadvantage was, and remains, all too common.
As the local headmaster’s daughter, Elizabeth Gaines always had a ticket out of the remote region, but says she’s carried her childhood lessons with her.
“The importance of education and integration has stayed with me,” says the head of the world’s fourth largest iron ore miner, Fortescue Metals Group (FMG).
“I’ve always been open to change,” she adds.
“You’ve got to be prepared to adapt to those changes and have that confidence in yourself that you can achieve.”
Seventeen years after FMG started out in iron ore, she’s now driving a new direction for one of Australia’s great mining success stories, exploring options like hydrogen energy in Western Australia, as well as other minerals like copper and gold in South America.
The vastness of the Kimberley
An outgoing, sporty and musically-gifted Elizabeth Gaines spent her youngest years living among the predominantly Aboriginal population of Halls Creek — a town, at last count, of about 1,500 people on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert in the north-east corner of Western Australia.
Halls Creek and its surrounds has been home to Indigenous communities for tens of thousands of years, including the Jaru and Kija people, as well as the nomadic Tjurabalan people, from the nearby Tanami Desert.
It had a very short stint as a gold rush town after prospector Chris Hall found an 870-gram nugget in 1885 and is the northern end of the legendary 1,850 kilometre Canning Stock Route, the longest historic stock route in the world.
It’s this world that Brian Gaines moved his young family to in the early 1960s when he took up his first posting as a headmaster in Western Australia’s education system.
“In most of my classes I was probably the only non-Aboriginal child, as well as being the daughter of the headmaster — which is always very popular,” recalls Gaines with a hint of irony.
Her mother Pat was flown by the Royal Flying Doctor Service to Derby, more than 500 kilometres from Halls Creek to deliver baby Elizabeth in 1963 during the ‘build up’ — the period of time after the warm, balmy evenings of the dry season before the wet sets in.
It’s a hot and humid, sometimes violent and unpredictable time of the year in the Kimberley, where heaving grey clouds dump rain and lightning pierces the sky.
“It was a vast country, a vast area to grow up in and that vastness does stay with you,” she says.
Gaines, her two sisters and brother lived an idyllic childhood in that vast landscape.
“We would go camping, we would go to gorges, we would drive to Broome to go for a swim at the beach,” she remembers.
“I actually found that it was a very strong community,” she says of growing up in Halls Creek.
‘It’s a hand up’
Indigenous students were brought into town on buses from the nearby communities to attend the school run by her father.
“There was that genuine sense of being in a community and that integration of Aboriginal communities with the rest of the town,” she says.
“My parents would go out to those communities and my father would do film nights out there and try to really engage with the Aboriginal communities.
“It does remind me of the overall principal at Fortescue that [founder] Andrew [Forrest] has had since the outset, which is about full integration.
Not that relations between mining companies and local Aboriginal communities come without controversy.
The Yindjibarndi people’s native title rights cover an area of the Pilbara that includes FMG’s Solomon mine hub.
The decision paves the way for the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC) — the organisation representing about 800 traditional owners — to pursue what is expected to be a multi-million-dollar compensation payout from FMG for both economic loss and spiritual harm.
On the day of the outcome, YAC’s legal representative Tina Jowett said it was a “brilliant outcome” for a group of traditional owners who “never got a cent” from Fortescue.
“Having that huge mine built in their land … they deserve to get compensation so they can benefit their community. This is for their health and housing that they so desperately need.”
At the time of the ruling in May, Gaines said FMG, “has always accepted the Yindjibarndi people’s non-exclusive native title rights and interests,” and it remains “open to negotiating a Land Access Agreement”.
“While we are disappointed with the outcome, as we believe this is an important point of law regarding the test for exclusive possession with potential implications for a range of industries, we accept the High Court’s decision.”
FMG said it has agreements with seven other native title groups in the Pilbara, which it argues deliver native title royalties, training and assistance to more than 1,600 Aboriginal people, and the company said it has also delivered more than $2.5 billion to Aboriginal businesses through contracts with them.
Fifteen per cent of FMG’s workforce at its Pilbara mining operations are Aboriginal people.
A modern education
After moving around much of regional Western Australia as her father’s headmaster postings shifted to the South West and other parts of the state, the Gaines family settled on the outskirts of the city in the Perth Hills.
Following in her older sister and brother’s footsteps, Gaines was offered a musical scholarship to the selective Perth Modern School.
Fellow graduates, or Modernians as they’re known, include former prime minister Bob Hawke, Australia’s 17th governor-general Sir Paul Hasluck, economist Ross Garnaut and Australian Diamonds captain and two-time Netball World Cup champion Caitlin Bassett.
“When it came to me, I realised that pressure,” says Gaines.
“You have to go through three days of testing and interviews and that was the first time I sort of felt that pressure of ‘will I actually achieve this?’.
“So, at the age of 11 I felt that sense of, not so much competition with them [older sister Alison and brother Bruce], but the challenge of achieving entry into Perth Modern School was actually quite a big thing at the time.”
Gaines was selected for her music ability on the French horn.
“The French horn is one of those instruments you need to practice at least an hour a day and that’s just to be moderately good,” she says.
“I don’t play anymore.”
The youngest Gaines, Jo, would later go on to complete the family tradition and the four siblings would travel two hours each way to get to school, Monday to Saturday.
“It was a very disciplined environment, in the context of self-discipline,” Ms Gaines says.
“The discipline of community, of practicing [the French horn] and of the six days a week schooling had a big impact.”
It was a big change from her carefree days exploring the Kimberley.
“You had to be there, you had to do the practice and if you didn’t, you were letting down the whole orchestra or the whole band or the whole choir — you couldn’t be a laggard.”
Say ‘yes’ more often than ‘no’
Ultimately, music wasn’t to be Gaines’ future — a career in finance and business beckoned.
After making the well-worn pilgrimage to London in her early twenties, she spent five years in investment banking before returning to Perth.
In 1997 she landed a role as finance general manager with Heytesbury – the Holmes à Court family company whose vast portfolio once included the rights to The Beatles music.
The company was created in the 1970’s by Robert Holmes à Court, who later became Australia’s first billionaire.
When Gaines joined Heytesbury it was run by Robert’s widow, Janet Holmes à Court and owned Margaret River’s oldest wine estate Vasse Felix, a cattle company covering large swathes of northern Australia and Stoll Moss Theatre — a company set up by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Gaines took over as chief executive officer in 2001.
“It was a great opportunity at the time to be part of a company that was quite an interesting conglomerate of businesses,” she says.
But not long after taking the reins, her husband Kevin Manuel was offered a job in Europe that was too good to refuse.
“It was probably always natural that Paul Holmes à Court would be a successor to me as CEO, but it was accelerated a little bit more quickly with our move to London,” says Gaines.
Giving up her first chief executive role and moving to London to support her husband was a change Gaines had not planned.
“But sometimes you have to make that call when you know it’s the right thing for your partner,” she says.
“I’m not scared by change — I think some people find change very confronting, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I haven’t been confronted by change at various times. But how you respond to change I think is critical.”
That “yes” attitude saw her, years later, running a very different business, first as chief financial officer and later chief executive officer of travel company HelloWorld.
Gaines also began transitioning to a non-executive career.
She joined the FMG board in 2013 and hit it off with Andrew Forrest who also grew up in regional Western Australia.
“There’s no doubt that as we started talking about our backgrounds there was that similarity, and I think more importantly, that genuine commonality about the importance of education and training and therefore jobs and how we’d grown up.”
Gaines says they connected over their shared desire to shape the culture of FMG, a company he founded in 2003.
“Culture can take years to develop, but you could destroy it in two weeks,” she says.
“For a different person to come in as a CEO who didn’t share some of those same views, somebody with a different perspective – they could actually change that culture quite quickly.
“It really is the key differentiator for Fortescue, and it’s been important to the success of the company.”
Since taking on the chief executive role in 2018, after a stint as FMG’s chief financial officer, the company has continued to grow its iron ore output and is now starting to turn its attention to diversification.
“It’s taking what we already do and having a forward view and a vision to what the future might look like,” she says of how she wants to see the company evolve.
Last year Fortune magazine ranked Elizabeth Gaines second on its global businessperson of the year list, behind Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella.
The reason, it said, was the 90 per cent total return she’d delivered since starting as CEO in February 2018, compared with the 5 per cent total return delivered by the ASX 200 benchmark index in the same timeframe.
But she doesn’t take all the credit.
“As a team we’ve worked really well together,” she says of the 5,000 people employed by the Western Australian miner.
“The success at Fortescue over the last 17 years and even over the last two and a half years, I think is testament that we can continue to operate the business and deliver outstanding results.”
While many would argue FMG has proved its value as an iron ore miner (it’s share price reached a company high at the start of this month) under Elizabeth Gaines’ stewardship, it could change into a very different miner in another 17 years.
“I have that vision and think not about what the market looks like today, but what the market might look like in another decade’s time.”
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