A Billion Opportunities program history

Fortescue manager of Aboriginal Development Heath Nelson talks about the history and the importance of the Billion Opportunities program.

What is Billion Opportunities?
When I first started with Fortescue, my role was to increase the number of Aboriginal businesses within Fortescue’s supply chain. So looking for opportunities for Aboriginal businesses to get contracts or subcontracts with our contractors. When I first started there was a lot of goodwill in Fortescue to make this happen and hence my role.

The first couple of months in the job, I thought, these mining companies they all run on targets - targets for mines, targets on all railed, targets on all shipped, safety targets. So I thought ‘why don’t I come up with a target?’ that was important for the company to do this. So that’s what I set about doing and that’s where the Billion Opportunities first started.

By 2011 the CEO and our project director said let’s make the target a billion dollars worth of contracts by the end of 2013 and that was our target and it was my job to make it happen.

Was it daunting or exciting?
To make people stand up and actually take notice of this it had to be a bold statement, not just within the company but also outside the company and also to our Native Title partners and our Traditional Owners and other Aboriginal businesses. You’ve really got to put yourself out there and say ‘we’re going to do this’ to get people to listen.  A really key component of the Billion Opportunities program is the opportunities, it’s not the billion dollars, it’s the opportunity. Got to create the opportunity for them to be able to get in there and actually prove themselves.
And as I said to them, you get that first opportunity and you deliver, away you go. You won’t need my help or Fortescue’s help because you’ll get there and you’ll get going and you’ll know what you have to do to succeed, but you must deliver, this is business and you’ve got to deliver.

Did someone give you a directive?
Fortescue had a program called Summit 300 when I first started and the target was to employ 300 people by 30 June 2011, and I could see the whole company was focussed on reaching that target. So that’s where one of the ideas come from, is that yeah I have to set this target.  In every industry they know Fortescue’s very committed to Aboriginal employment. My background is Aboriginal business, but for Aboriginal businesses to actually start to be successful they have to have that foundation of employment. So an Aboriginal person must have a history of employment to know their skill, to get the experiences then to launch from that into businesses. It’s very, very difficult to go from not having a job to start a business.

I knew Fortescue was very committed on Aboriginal employment, my role was to use that, to use its VTEC program and everything else as a launching pad for the Aboriginal businesses.  Aboriginal businesses employ between eight to ten times more Aboriginal people than non-Aboriginal businesses. So an Aboriginal business is an Aboriginal employment multiplier. You’re engaged with an Aboriginal business, they’re going to employ a lot more Aboriginal people - and that’s great for business.

Business is very hard on its own and through the 12 years that I spent working with Aboriginal people in business, the biggest barrier they had to get into business was the opportunity.  So I saw my goal was to try and give them that opportunity - to open that door. I can’t do the business for them but I can help open the door to walk through and to grab that opportunity and support them and mentor them. With these joint ventures that we do with our Native Title groups it’s giving them the opportunity, it’s helping them set up the corporate structures, the corporate governance that they require and once they’re in there it’s up to them to deliver.

Was it difficult?
For the Billion Opportunities to be successful it needed real commitment from the board and from senior executives of Fortescue, and I got that. That’s given me the encouragement and the confidence to keep banging on doors and keep selling the message of Billion Opportunities and how important it is, how important it is to include our partners, our Native Title partners and Traditional Owners in our business.

Many years ago we signed land access agreements with our Native Title partners and we made a commitment to them that we would do things such as employment, training, capacity building, business opportunities and contract opportunities. Billion Opportunities is all about delivering and doing what we said we would and to me that’s very important and I know from the board, and for all our executives in Fortescue, it’s very important that when we say we do something we’re going to do it.

What’s emerged that you weren’t expecting?
We reached the target of a billion dollars six months ahead of schedule. To me, we hit a target, but it’s about beyond the target. The target was there just for us so we had something to achieve, but it’s goes much further than that. It’s about changing lives. Billion Opportunities is about changing people’s lives, it’s giving people a future. Aboriginal people have been a part of the wage economy as employees for a long time, now they’re participating in the business economy and that’s new, that’s a new frontier. It’s very rewarding for me to see someone start their own business.

Any specific memories?
One of the best memories I have from a Billion Opportunities is when I actually found out what this Aboriginal business was doing with their dividends. There’s so much negative press about Aboriginal people, that they don’t know how to manage money. This particular Native Title group was in a joint venture running one of our camps. They were actually using the dividends that were generated from that project to establish their own businesses. They actually set up their own traffic management business. When they set that business up they came to me and said, ‘look we’ve used our dividends to set this business up, can you actually help us find a contract for this traffic management business?’ So I rang one of our Aboriginal contractors that was maintaining one of the roads out at Solomon and I said, ‘Look, instead of you employing your own traffic management business how about you support this other Aboriginal business,’ and they did.