Elizabeth Gaines is the first female CEO of Fortescue Metals Group, breaking the ‘C-Suite’ ceiling for women and ushering in a new era for the mining giant.
Gaines took the helm of Fortescue in February this year from departing boss Nev Power. The move has been lauded by the media as the first-time a woman has headed an ASX-listed mining company, and arguably makes Gaines one of the most powerful figures in Australian business.
Gaines has said that while she is conscious of the attention her appointment has generated, she has long been an advocate for diversity in senior executive positions. Though progress has been made in increasing the number of women in boardrooms, she says there is still a void of women in roles such as chief executive officer, chief financial officer and chief operating officer.
“Strong progress has been made in diversity in the boardroom and I am proud to be working for a company that has led the way with over 50 per cent female representation on our board. However, I firmly believe that there needs to be a similar focus on the C-Suite,” she says.
“There are currently more ASX100 CEOs with the name ‘Dave’ or ‘John’ than there are women CEOs. There needs to be enough balance and flexibility to ensure that executive careers are attractive to women.”
Gaines has also been quick to point out that diversity is broader than gender; Fortescue is a big employer of Indigenous people with more than 1200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders contracted across the company. Going forward, Fortescue will continue to focus on delivering workplace flexibility to its team members and harnessing its unique culture to ensure continued success.
“There has been much improvement in the approach to flexibility in the workplace since I started my career, not just for women but for everyone. There is a new generation of workers coming through, both men and women who want to balance work with their family commitments, and we are starting to see more inclusive workplaces.
“Fortescue is a strong example of driving diversity throughout the business and backing it up with practical measures that make a difference. I truly believe in the benefits of diversity and this is supported by evidence that diverse businesses generate better outcomes, financially and socially.”
Gaines has a strong history with Fortescue, joining as a Non-Executive Director in 2013 before being appointed CFO in January 2017. Her number one priority for the company this year is safety, as well as looking at growth and development opportunities.
“We want to ensure the communities in which we operate continue to benefit from our success, while also maintaining Fortescue’s cost leadership position through further productivity and efficiency initiatives.”
Gaines likens her role at Fortescue to that of a coach of a high performing sports team.
“Just like individual athletes, we have high performing individuals and teams working throughout the business and my role is to take the overall strategic view, communicate the vision, champion the culture and provide guidance as to how things should progress in the next quarter or half-year and beyond.
“Another important aspect of the role is communicating to a vast array of important stakeholders including government, local communities, media, shareholders, customers, debt providers and potential investors.”
Gaines has envisioned a career in business since she was 13 years old and announced to her parents that she wanted a job that would enable her to work overseas. Upon their advice, Gaines enrolled in accounting and law at Curtin and later secured a graduate position in Ernst and Young’s chartered accounting program. Gaines has also completed a Master Degree in Applied Finance at Macquarie University.
The allure of travel remained with Gaines throughout her tertiary education, and when she was 24, she bought a one-way ticket to Istanbul and backpacked her way around Europe.
Four months later, Gaines arrived in London and secured a three-week temporary role at investment bank Kleinwort Benson. The story goes that after her contract had finished, Gaines “kept turning up every Monday” until she was offered a permanent position and ended up working with the company for five years.
“When I returned to Australia, the experience I had in the global financial services sector was a significant influence on my later career and the opportunities that I was offered,” says Gaines.
Those opportunities have included C-Suite positions and directorships in Australia and the UK with companies such as Heytesbury, Bankwest, Tourism WA and Nine Entertainment.
Gaines says it’s the people she has met during her ascension of the corporate career ladder who have helped to shape her into the professional she is today.
“Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to work with a number of successful business leaders, including Janet Holmes à Court and Andrew Forrest – in my opinion two of the most influential and philanthropic Western Australians of our generation,” she says.
“While they have been very successful in their respective businesses, it is their approach to the community and giving back through philanthropy that has really inspired me.”
A successful business leader herself, Gaines is no doubt inspiring tomorrow’s generation of corporate figures. Her advice to women seeking a career in the top echelons of commerce is to “be prepared to put in a lot of hard work, stay authentic and be flexible and open to change.”
“Saying ‘yes’ more often than ‘no’ has been a phrase I have embraced throughout my career,” she says.
“It has allowed me to work in a variety of sectors and work overseas, which has brought both individual growth and opportunities that otherwise might have not been available.”