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Romilly Madew – the exit interview, see the videos

Romilly Madew
Romilly Madew

You can just tell Romilly Madew is a sportswoman. She’s all zest and energy. In fact she’s an ocean swimmer, a lifesaver and a keen bushwalker. The whole family is similarly inclined  – her husband and three kids climbed Mount Kilimanjaro when her oldest son was just 11.

The Kilimanjaro reference is apt. This woman seems to like climbing mountains.

When Madew took over the Green Building Council of Australia 13 years ago it was a fledgling thing. Big idea but the journey was still tamping around the base.

Today, Madew is not only putting a sign sealed and delivered stamp on her time at the helm of this important green building movement but about to take on the equivalent of a small Everest. She’s stepping into the job as chief executive of Infrastructure Australia, starting in April.

This has to be one of the toughest gigs in town. A lightning rod for all the political flak you can think of: the cities agenda, transport, congestion, population, energy, water, telecommunications to name just a few. Add for good measure the pressures from growing environmental challenges and the social issues all the above will engender.

Madew, however, is tackling this mountain with her trekking backpack stuffed full with some very useful collateral. 

There’s the experience she’s notched up helping shift an industry from zero – in terms of environmental profile – to another big zero, that of net zero carbon that’s now a publicly stated goal by the country’s biggest property leaders.

Green buildings may have started as idealistic kite flying but it’s now a tide that can’t be turned back.

On the day that we met for a leisurely retrospective on her tenure at the helm of the GBCA, Madew was basking in another piece of handy collateral for her next job, an Order of Australia (AO) award for “distinguished service to the construction sector as a change agent and advocate for sustainable building practices”. Her friend and co-collaborator in the development of the GBCA, Peter Verwer, a long time CEO of the Property Council of Australia, scooped up the same award, with his list of achievements also including sustainable development.

Our location for the chat and video is a still unoccupied corner of a floor in one of Sydney’s Barangaroo towers, part of which she’s recently secured for her team. The new GBCA offices are gorgeous, of course, all soft folds of lush plant life, natural materials such as timber and an atmosphere of calm and light. 

To the individual who grumbled at how a membership based association could afford such salubrious premises, Madew pointed out it was at no extra rental cost, a sizable cut in net lettable area, thanks to shared “community” spaces for meetings, included a few sublets to boot, all within a Green Star community and building.

The recalcitrant questioner no doubt nodded in approval, a tad regretful of his presumption.

For Madew though, this beneficial if not hard-nosed business deal is a fine example of the flip side of her empathetic, always friendly, team player manner.

After 14 years at the GBCA, Madew has learnt a few things about how to engineer the results she wants.

“When we started a lot of doors were shut for us,” she recalls.

Partly it was because sustainability was still a low order priority. The days where ethical funds, impact investment and corporate demands for prestige green buildings were still to come.

When Madew picked up the reins from GBCA founders Maria Atkinson and Ché Wall there were six staff, 23 certifications and 153 members. Today she rattles off a tally of more than 45 staff, more than 2250 certifications and 630 individual organisational members.

And during a big chunk of those 13 years at the helm Madew has somehow been nimble enough to sidestep the most hostile governments in living memory, federal and state alike (in Queensland and Victoria) inexplicably lined up to bring undone an innocent and beneficial gift to the world, clean energy. At one point the words “sustainability” and “climate change” were banned from the federal and Queensland governments. 

A lot of achievements today she says are due to her “amazing” board that’s now transformed to C-suite directors who’ve seized the green agenda with relish and can “talk for an hour” to investors about its benefits, she says.

These are the chief executives and chief financial offers – the decision makers and “risk takers” of the companies they represent. 

Along with the new board, membership came high governance standards and sophisticated processes. Unlike many not for profit organisations that might let processes slide, the GBCA board likes its governance to resemble that of a listed trust, Madew says.

Other green building councils globally are structured differently; their board members are generally a mix of government, professional services, academia, and industry.

But then the whole Australian green building industry is well known as a global leader, Madew says, and that’s partly because of its habit of collaboration and competition at the same time.

“Our industry is incredibly competitive and incredibly collaborative.”  

“We’re all sitting down to solve a wicked issue.

“After the US and Canada we have the highest number of certifications per capita and our market leads in GRESB [the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark].”

Other jurisdictions suffer from much bigger and more fractured markets, she says. They certainly don’t enjoy the advantages of a united front that Australians get from umbrella groups such as the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, for instance.

It’s also very frank. “If this industry doesn’t like something they’re very quick to tell you.

“They’ll say, this tool is too expensive, what will you do about it?

But the seeds of success started right at the beginning. “Working incredibly closely with the Property Council and Peter Verwer [its CEO at the time] was integral in working with Maria [Atkinson] and in gaining the support of stakeholders.

“Because if they didn’t support us we probably wouldn’t be where we are today. They’ve taken some really powerful positions.”

In particular, that’d be during the toxic period of government, right? (As we’d put it). 

When politics turned against climate change and sustainability, the industry took a stand, Madew says.

“The industry could have gone, ‘great, we’ll sit on our hands, no one is holding us to account; the party’s over’. But it didn’t.”

Instead, a new energy seems to stir leaders to action.

“We saw a real change when it came to the boards and senior executives in major members: their engagement changed overnight. They said, ‘we will lead with this’. 

“That was really exciting.

“In the early days we dealt with the sustainability managers; we never had engagement with boards and executives and now on a weekly basis we were engaging on a really high level.”

The result is that CEOs became fully informed of the issues and instead of passing investors onto their staff for briefings, the CEOs themselves could “speak to investors for an hour”.

Not all government

Madew says it’s important to be “very cautious” when we’re being critical of government and politicians. It’s some of the latter that have been inactive. The government and bureaucracy have been “doing some incredible things and we need to acknowledge a couple of examples”.

The CBD disclosure program is one. This is the requirement for office tenancies of 2000 square metres or more to disclose their NABERS energy rating before sale or lease. That’s now expanded to 1000 sqm and it’s thanks to the industry telling the government it’s got no problem with the rule. 

The industry welcomed the regulations and wanted it, Madew says. “It was very articulate that it wanted the change.” And it was united. “We were singing from the same song sheet. 

“They listened to us.”

“It could have all gone by the wayside.”

On its side was a bureaucracy that indicated it liked working with the property sector because of its consistency and united approach. The ASBEC partnership with ClimateWorks also gave the advocacy a strong evidence base to work with.

And when it came to raising the standards of the National Building Code state governments and industry tipped in the majority of the $750,000 that was needed for the challenge, which is now playing out in the recent agreement of the energy and building ministers forums to raise the energy standards of commercial and residential buildings.

The challenges still ahead

If there are a few things that Madew would tackle if she had another five years in the job, one would be the residential sector. It will be 12 years between improvements of the code for resi in 2022 when the changes are expected to kick in.

(The Fifth Estate has long noted the Herculean efforts of big parts of the residential building and development sector to resist any change.)

For Madew it needs to be priority

In the residential market, Madew says, we need more than better energy efficiency for new homes, we need to look at the vast numbers of existing houses that are poorly designed for energy consumption, especially in the current period where energy prices have “gone through the roof”.

We should have disclosure, she says, in the same way Canberra discloses the energy of its houses, new or existing.

“Certain groups say it costs too much to have disclosure and to build new homes with energy higher energy efficiency but why don’t we think about the people who are living in these homes; energy prices have skyrocketed.” 

There are 10-15 key volume builders that can help sway the market, Madew says, the work to engage them is now underway.

Progress is notoriously difficult though.

The reason some countries have been successful in similar ambitions is because they’ve been “very clear and haven’t wavered. You couldn’t say the same in Australia and that causes concern in markets. Look at renewables.

“Markets want certainty and a plan and they want a political leader to be bold and to be certain.” 

We’re not getting that in Australia.”

Today in a global connected investment world it’s never been more important, Madew says.

“Money now flows globally as it’s never done before.”

It’s looking for a consistent approach and it’s looking for more sustainable options.

Another key element will be in the finance and banking sector. Good news is the emergence of insurance companies looking at how they can reward more energy efficient and sustainable housing with lower premiums. 

There’s also the emerging build to rent model which, because investors will have long term interest in the asset, could well mean more sustainable energy efficient outcomes for all.

Mirvac might be a great example of the changes under way with its build to rent project at Olympic Park in Sydney, Madew says.

Globally it’s a given. In Germany and Singapore tenants would look at you blankly if said an apartment was not energy efficient.

“In Australia, it’s not in the mind frame”

Yet.

So how is GBCA likely to fare after her departure?

Madew says there is an “amazing team” in place and the succession planning has been well developed.

Both the executive team and the board work very well together, she says.

“And I’m not saying that because I’m leaving. It’s very much focused on transparency and governance. 

“The way we have been governed, the board absolutely have an expectation that we have every process in place.” 

It helps that four of the six executive team are long term players.

Jorge Chapa is one. He started in Brisbane with his background in architecture and as executive director of market transformation “now has the biggest team in the organisation”. 

“How he’s perceived internationally is amazing. People might think I have a huge level of profile globally but Jorge has his own fan club, let me tell you,” Madew enthuses.

Another key executive team member is Jonathan Cartledge, head of public affairs and membership.

Big reviews changed the structure

A big review of the organisation about four years ago produced a flat structure that Madew says could operate very well indeed for six months without a CEO.

“We went to stakeholders and asked them to be very frank. We changed the way we work.”

Among the feedback were criticisms such as, “we were too rigid, we were too expensive.”  

But the ambition was market transformation so pragmatic solutions were imperative.

A shift started to play out, from “very much an environmental focus” to one that was more broadly sustainability based including social sustainability.

“We’d forgotten we build for people.” The story had to encompass concerns such as liveability, governance, green space, Indigenous engagement and gender equality.

But if some people thought the focus on environmental outcomes would diminish, they were wrong, she says. 

The work and collaboration with partners such as NABERS, the introduction of a performance rating tool, and “changing the credits underneath” the tool were all part of the transformation

And standards are constantly tightened. Achieving good water efficiency in 2019, for instance, will be perceived as much more difficult that it was 10 years ago. “And that’s how it should be’.

“The market seems to be able to bear it, and we found a balance.”

The diversity of assets was another pivot. This meant taking the Green Star rules out from offices to hospitals, schools or a retail portfolio. Even railways stations and universities.

Some of the older assets now have also “really broken the barriers” to better performance and no longer is it true that there are quite as many laggards as there once was.

Major collaborators have been part of the story – ASBEC, the Property Council, BEMP (Built Environment Meets Parliament). And there’s been close collaboration or partnering with other standards and organisations.

When it comes to green buildings, she says, Australia “has a lot to be proud of”.

What’s next?

As for the next challenge, Madew thinks her work as CEO of Infrastructure Australia will resonate more than a little with her old job: similar ambitions and challenges, but a much bigger patch.

Instead of buildings, it will be the sustainability of cities and their productivity that will dominate the agenda.

“It’s taking the skills I developed to a broader market and scaling up.” It’s transport, telecom, energy, water, and social infrastructure.

Besides, she adds, “infrastructure is the next frontier.” 

It will take a lot of stakeholder engagement and collaboration and if there is one thing Madew has sewn up in spades, it’s that.

Romilly Madew in action

A background made for the challenge

But as to whether the job will be overwhelming, that’s another story.

Her background looks made for the task.

Earlier in life she says she and her husband were managing a property of 400 acres near Canberra, including hosting events onsite, while raising three kids under five and working for Mallesons (not as a lawyer; she’s trained in agricultural economics). “That’s busy,” she says.

But even better training, perhaps, was her family background with both her mother and father encouraging her and her sisters to be fully engaged in life.

One thing she’s happy to confess to is a “burning desire to make a difference”.  

She grew up in a household where each member was “supposed to be engaged and supposed to have an opinion.” 

Another thing she was expected to do was play sport and to not give it up when she grew out of her teenage years like so many others. It was considered important for confidence and body image.

“Even today I’m incredibly sporty.”

Her three kids follow suit and just for good measure the whole family does “a lot of bushwalking”

And there’s that mountain the family climbed.

You sense it will be just one of many. 

 

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