ABM Article: Supply Nation CEO


Story by John Huggins

In the media, there is a strong tendency to report on the things that are not working so well in Indigenous communities. More often than not, a negative headline will always win out over something positive. At the ABM, our goal is to work towards highlighting some of the good stories about Indigenous Australia, and there are plenty. On the economic development front, AIMSC is achieving monumental feats in its two and a half years of existence.

AIMSC has a structure that has close ties to ideas that were adapted from Minority Supplier Council models that arein existence in most developed countries around the world. The United States’ National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC) is currently leading the way and was heavily consulted in the development of AIMSC.

Leading Indigenous businessman and Message Stick Communications owner, Michael McLeod, and business partner, Dugald Russell, are the two founders behind AIMSC and facilitated the organisation’s setup on our shores.

To date, AIMSC has been a resounding success. They have facilitated over $38 Million worth of financial activity between Indigenous businesses, corporate and government organisations. So far, they have 130 Indigenous businesses that are AIMSC Certified and 140 corporate and government organisations wanting to do business with Indigenous businesses.

At the helm of AIMSC is their CEO Natalie Walker. She’s a Kuku Yalanji woman from Far North Queensland who possesses a whole lot of promise and a refreshing way forward for this major contributor in closing the gap. While health, law and education have extremely important roles to play in closing the gap, economic development and entrepreneurship is viewed as a way forward for Indigenous people to achieve independence, freedom and better lifestyle. Not to mention the resulting employment opportunities that comes with it.

Natalie Walker kicked off her career by working in Justice in Queensland and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and then on to the private sector through KPMG – one of Australia’s leading accounting firms. In KPMG’s Advisory section, Natalie was exposed to working with governments around Indigenous economic development policy and programs.

As part of a secondment at KPMG, Natalie gained an opportunity to work as CEO of a not for profit organisation for eight months. Being a CEO is something that she enjoys.

“I really liked being CEO and being on the other side of the desk rather than a consultant and advising boards and CEO’s on what they should do. I actually enjoyed being the one accountable for that and actually having to do it and make the change.” Natalie reflects.

After successfully acting as CEO for eight months at the not for profit, there was big change in the air and some of AIMSC’s architects asked her to come over and help start up the organisation. She agreed to help and assisted with building AIMSC from the beginning and was told to apply for the CEO role. The rest, as they say, is history.

Natalie looks back on her experience in the start up phase and says “Once I really got a real understanding of what AIMSC was about and what the board wanted to achieve, I was totally sold and wanted to be a part of it.”

From their Sydney base, AIMSC is achieving big things for Indigenous people around Australia.

Natalie admits that there’s unchartered territory in nearly everything that AIMSC does. AIMSC doesn’t have the luxury of looking to organisations that have made similar decisions to them. But for what they’ve accomplished so far in the short span of time is nothing short of amazing.

On the journey of new discoveries, they’re also identifying more Indigenous owned businesses almost on a daily basis. There are Indigenous entrepreneurs out there that have been operating businesses for year. AIMSC tends to either come across them by chance or they turn to AIMSC wanting to be a part of the process. 

“Every time I meet a new Indigenous entrepreneur who’s been really successful in the work that they’re doing is affirmation to me that we are strong people who can achieve great things. It reinforces that supporting Indigenous entrepreneurialism is where Indigenous policy needs to be at for us to close the gap.”

For AIMSC Certification though, Australian Government policy dictates that Indigenous businesses are defined as having at least 50 per cent Indigenous ownership. Next January, it will up the ante and make the ownership requirement as being 51 per cent Indigenous. This is in line with policies in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

The benefits for new Indigenous businesses to come forward and become certified are obvious. If 140 corporate and government organisations are lining up to do business with you, you would be foolish to refuse.

One of AIMSC’s jobs is to create relationships to benefit Indigenous businesses as they have the direct contacts to large organisations to get Indigenous businesses noticed. It saves the rigmarole of working out who to contact, which can often end up being with the wrong contacts.

“We try to make it as easy as possible for Indigenous businesses to do business with the big end of town. We’re seeing it works” Natalie says.

The reasons for corporate and government agencies to sign up are glaringly obvious too. Look no further than the $38 Million of transactions and contracts awarded to date – AIMSC works. It is indeed possible to do business with small and medium sized businesses, and not all Indigenous businesses are unstable start-ups as some believe.

Similar to the services that AIMSC extends to its Indigenous businesses, AIMSC also offers support to the corporate and government organisation by helping them to do business effectively.

“Just start with belief (in Indigenous business) and then we’ll support you (corporate and government agencies) to actually do the business and make the changes that need to be done internally to get things happening.” Natalie says.

With detractors aside, AIMSC has its sights set firmly on the future. Natalie envisions a future where, in 10 or 20 years’ time, corporate and government agencies are able to sit on a billion dollar roundtable. They will be there because they are annually buying a billion dollars’ worth of goods and services from Indigenous business.

They’re lofty goals indeed. But many would not have predicted $38 Million of transactions and contracts and a little less than 300 organisations signing up for a common goal in only two and a bit years.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done by all of us to get there. But the fact is that we’ve got so many people involved in such an early point gives me a lot of hope that we will get there.” Natalie says.

AIMSC’s plight for the future is also helped in the short term. A recent independent review took notice of the ground-breaking work that AIMSC was doing in the space of Indigenous business and economic development. The review came back looking at AIMSC favourably; it said that the organisation was very much needed.

With the success of the independent review came backing from the Australian Government for AIMSC to receive a new set term of funding. 

With that funding, AIMSC is going national. From their base in Sydney, they’re going to set up hubs in Perth and Queensland. A new research and innovation department will also be established so AIMSC will be able to research the economic impacts and benefits of supplier diversity in Australia.

The research and innovation department will also drive the development of world class programs to help corporate and government buyers do more business with Indigenous business. It will also help Indigenous businesses better engage with corporate and government buyers.

Write AIMSC and Indigenous businesses off at your own peril. From the beginning they have had people underestimating the capacity of Indigenous businesses to deliver the goods (and services). But the strength and diversity of Indigenous businesses is a big key to their success. Without Indigenous businesses making good on their end of the bargain, you would assume that AIMSC would have an uphill battle.

The AIMSC Team are an empowered lot that believe that what they’re doing is contributing greatly to Indigenous economic development and entrepreneurship. They also believe that Indigenous business will one day become an economic powerhouse in Australia.

It’s something that Natalie obviously feels strongly about. “I meet every new team member that comes into the organisation and we talk about the values.  I say to them ‘The moment that you stop believing is the moment that your time with AIMSC has come to an end’”.

Whether you’re at AIMSC or you’re an upcoming business owner, Natalie believes that there are some words of wisdom that can be applied to both. She got this advice from Harriet Michel, the successful 20 year leader of the US NMSDC. “The only thing you need to focus on to make AIMSC successful is to have a laser-like focus on what your purpose is. Your purpose at all times is to get Indigenous business more business with corporate buyers.”

Translated into the business context, Natalie says. “My advice to Indigenous businesses is to keep a laser-like focus on what your core business is, know what it is, and stick to it and be prepared to say no.”

“If something doesn’t fit with your guiding purpose and doesn’t fit with your core business, say no. That will help you stay successful and help you grow.”

Keep a close eye on AIMSC because they’re changing the face of Indigenous economic development and entrepreneurship in Australia. If you want to do more than watch their progress, sign up and become involved at http://www.supplynation.org.au