Manufacturing News

Manufacturing leader set for retirement

Vonda Fenwick

Vonda Fenwick has spent much of her illustrious career serving the manufacturing industry. Manufacturers’ Monthly sat down with the South East Melbourne Manufacturers Alliance CEO to reflect on her career as she prepares for retirement.

What did SEMMA mean to you?

I was absolutely delighted when I was offered the role of CEO at SEMMA (South East Melbourne Manufacturers’ Alliance), in September 2019. I was on the inaugural SEMMA Board when the Association was formed 20 years earlier and understood why the association had been formed and the importance of the advocacy and support SEMMA provides for local manufacturers. SEMMA was born as a “Voice for Manufacturers in the South East.”  I was so excited at the prospect of visiting all our members and touring their sites, getting to know their products and capabilities in order to better represent them  and ‘sell’ the capabilities of the South East manufacturing region.

At the time SEMMA was formed, I was working in a manufacturing operations role in a highly vertically integrated scientific equipment company. As a highly successful export business with around 200 employees, our organisation was active in its support for the newly formed manufacturing association. Ironically, we saw our participation in SEMMA, as being more in the role of a ‘good corporate citizen,’ supporting micro and small to medium enterprises however, over the ensuing years, we had the need for SEMMA’s advocacy and support for our own organisation, in the form of advocacy around complex trade and export licence issues. Further, they provided great, direct support across the spectrum of issues common to manufacturers.

After several months of settling in and developing, in conjunction with the SEMMA Board members – primarily manufacturers, many with their own businesses – our Strategic Plan to take us forward for the coming five years, I set about developing the operational plans, objectives and metrics to measure our progress against the new vision and strategy. Things were looking exciting and I had identified the two sectors we would target for growth – food for the first calendar year of 2020 and medical equipment for the following year in 2021.

The best laid plans and strategic goals were no match for what was to emerge in March 2020 to change our direction and upend our plans. COVID hit and we saw a period of dislocation and uncertainty like no other. Our support role and providing information and guidance  on a daily basis became the norm for many months. Lockdowns  and all of the rolling changes and new restrictions and guidelines kept us busy. Keeping on top of the latest government information in order to get it to members in a timely fashion became the imperative. Attendance at almost daily, on-line  government briefings became commonplace.

We surveyed our members over a period of about 15 months to assess the impact of COVID. The results of the surveys were confronting. In the first month the uncertainties in the market meant order books dried up and employers were reluctantly shedding staff – with predictions of many more to go had the Job Keeper wage subsidies not kicked in. Gradually confidence returned and with COVID site plans in place manufacturers, by September of 2020, were beginning to see orders flow and most now had different, COVID-induced issues to contend with; primarily supply chain issues and costs ballooning. Loss of key staff due to vaccination mandates hit just when orders were really starting to pick up and we had another period where members were really looking for support and guidance.

What achievements are you proud of during your tenure?

When I look back over my time with SEMMA I feel proud of how we managed to support our members during such challenging times and this was rewarded by the fact that we actually grew our membership slightly during the worst of the COVID lockdown period. We recognised that our members were hurting financially and established the SEMMA Buying Group to use the power of negotiating group pricing to benefit members. The  on-going skills shortages prompted us to develop our SEMMA 4-week basic welding skills course which saw our pilot programme successfully place 90+ per cent of our ‘graduates’ with SEMMA members. Importantly, our advocacy and representations to both State and Federal Governments meant that we ensured that the importance of manufacturing in Australia, the need for strong local content policy and the critical nature of SMEs in our supply chains were being heard at the highest levels.

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