FAVOURITES: 1 July 2010 – Romilly Madew has a lot on her plate. As CEO of the Green Building Council of Australia, Madew is leading a major restructure of the organisation, which she acknowledges is at a crossroads and is in the process of redefining itself. It has no choice, says Madew, if it is to meet rapidly changing industry demands.

Being at the helm at such as defining moment of the organisation’s development is no mean feat but Madew, who last November won the national Telstra Business Women’s Award for community and government, does not seem fazed by the challenge. She told The Fifth Estate she believes all her previous career moves have been preparation for her current role and that she can’t imagine a more satisfying job.

Calling herself an “accidental CEO”, Madew believes her family background and the mentors she has had throughout her career have given her both the passion and skills to get the job done. Add to this her eclectic choice of career roles.

One of three girls, Madew grew up in Sydney and was educated at Pymble Ladies College. Her father worked as a country magistrate on the south coast of NSW before moving to Sydney and her mother, originally from Adelaide, worked for the Women’s Trade Union Commission. There was much engagement with politics in the household and encouragement by both parents for their daughters to be involved with the community through sport and other activities.

But it was Madew’s choice to study agricultural economics and her decision to do a cost analysis of Landcare in Narromine as her thesis that really sparked her interest in sustainability.

“I had to struggle to do that thesis because my professor didn’t agree on my choice to do it on Landcare. But I thought it was very important to look at the capital benefit of nurturing the land. For me it was like the opening of a door,” says Madew.

Then came the reality of a recession and a shortage of jobs in agriculture, so on graduating Madew joined a telecommunications company, working in various roles until becoming national operations manager in Auburn, in western Sydney.

“This was a great experience for me. I was working with people from an enormous range of backgrounds and cultures and it made me very culturally aware and tolerant.”

Marriage then took her to Canberra where she and her husband David bought a winery and restaurant and Madew also took up a role in marketing in the law firm Mallesons Stephen Jaques.

“I knew nothing about law but it really was an amazing experience. My then boss Tony D’Aloisio is now the head of ASIC [Australian Securities and Investment Commission] and some of the women in the firm were also incredible mentors to me.

Developing a passion for property and politics

“Being in Canberra also stimulated my interest in politics and property. You can’t avoid politics in Canberra and Mallesons did a lot of the work for the Property Council. At the same time David and I were running the winery and restaurant and I was writing about wine for The Canberra Times. We were doing a lot of stuff with the local community which taught me a great deal about collaborative work,” says Madew.

The couple were also running the winery in a very sustainable way with no use of chemicals or sprays. This brought native birds back to the property. Madew was very influenced during this time by her neighbours, environmentalist, lawyer and previous head of the Australian Conservation Fund, Phillip Toyne, and his wife Molly Harriss Olson, a sustainability expert who is now on the GBCA board.

“If you hang around Philip for any length of time you can’t help but become interested in sustainability – this really started focusing my principles,” says Madew.

In 2002 Madew joined the ACT division of the Property Council of Australia as executive director. She stayed in that role for three years and became national director for sustainability development, before joining the Green Building Council of Australia as a part-time consultant after the birth of her third child. A year later she became acting CEO and has not looked back since.

Started in 2002 by Maria Atkinson and Ché Wall to encourage the building industry to adopt green building practices, the Green Building Council has grown from a fledgling organisation to a gangly adolescent since Madew took up her role. Revenue rose from $2.1 million four years ago to $8.1 million in the last financial year and staff numbers have mushroomed from a few in Sydney to 50 in five offices around Australia.

But with this growth has come many of the problems of adolescence.

“We had gone through the traditional growth pattern and then around 2007 we had a massive growth spurt and we weren’t prepared for it. We outgrew our body and we didn’t realise we weren’t sophisticated enough to handle what was being demanded of us,” says Madew.

Ironically, it was took the global financial crisis to bring back some focus.

“We were growing so fast that we weren’t able to stop and think. The GFC gave us time to reflect and to see that we had to change. The market has become more sophisticated – it needs more tools that are more intuitive and less clunky. So we are going to have to step up,” says Madew.

As a result the GBCA is restructuring. Roles have become more clearly defined and there have been changes to the reporting hierarchy. Instead of all business units reporting to Madew, a major chunk of the business now reports to the Chief Operating Officer Frank Romano. Those units reporting to Madew are focused on advocacy and business development and those that report to Frank Romano are concerned with operational matters as well as Green Star tools and certification and education.

“My team is all about communicating and advocacy – we need to be very focused on this. We will also be reporting to the Board every 90 days instead of once a year like we used to. This means that nobody can get away with not doing their job – including me. It is all about empowering people,” says Madew.

And she will certainly need to be empowered, along with her team, because the demands are great. Like any organisation that has broken new ground and that has significant influence, the GBCA is increasingly under the spotlight.

There have been growing rumblings about the Green Star ratings from within the property industry  – concerns that they have too much influence on the materials used in buildings, on the technologies that are chosen and that they are not consistent enough. There has also been pressure from materials manufacturers to be more inclusive which has brought accusations that the GBCA is bowing to pressure from industry and watering down its ratings standards.

Madew does not back away from these accusations.

Green Star needs overhaul
“There is no doubt that we have to overhaul the Green Star ratings and we are doing an extensive survey of Green Star right now. We will be doing a lot more research into ratings tools and we’ll be looking at whether some are being used and if they aren’t, asking why not. We also want to be more consistent across all of our tools.

“We have to transition. The industry has changed and we have to move with it. The way we build buildings has changed and will continue to do so.

“People don’t do traditional buildings any more. There is much more emphasis on mixed use and buildings talk to each other – they work together. In developments like Barangaroo this will be very evident – it is a precinct approach and Green Star has to reflect this,” says Madew.

Romilly Madew at a recent conference

The growing criticism that the development industry has become fixated on chasing Green Star ratings without any follow though on actual performance has also not fallen on deaf ears. The GBCA is working towards introducing a stipulation that Green Star also has to be managed through NABERS certification.

“We’re having conversations with NABERS about how to do this and it is very exciting. We have just employed someone who previously worked with the NABERS team to help us build this capacity,” says Madew.

While she accepts the criticism that Green Star system has its limitations, Madew says there needs to be recognition of its achievements, pointing out it is the only ratings tool that operates across all property asset classes and it has driven fundamental change in the way buildings are designed and constructed. Where much more work is needed is in existing buildings.

“It’s very difficult these days to build new non-green buildings but there is a great deal to do when it comes to existing buildings. This is one of five priorities that we have put to the Federal government – we need a pathway for the whole industry to push sustainability in existing buildings.”

Pressure from materials
On the issue of giving too much ground to materials manufacturers with the modifying of its criteria for timber, PVC, steel and concrete, Madew is adamant that a more collaborative approach has brought positive change. She says this is particularly evident with the vinyls industry.

“The Vinyl Council and the GBCA didn’t have a constructive relationship for years. Now we do – we still disagree but they’ve shown us things and we have got them to agree on things as well. We both had to listen to each other. Australia is leading in the dematerialising of plastics – making great progress in getting rid of toxins from the manufacturing process and we weren’t listening to them. They also recognised they needed to change.”

“Materials is always going to be a challenge. Before Green Star there was nothing that rated materials. We’re going to make mistakes – nobody has got this worked out anywhere in the world but we’re all learning from each other.”

The next area for inclusion in the ratings tools will be lifecycle assessment and embodied energy (see our story on this).

There have also been questions raised about just how independent an organisation can be when it is driven by members, many of which are manufacturers. Governments, both state and federal, also play a large role both through financial support and membership status. Should it then become a government regulated body?

“I don’t ever see the GBCA becoming government regulated. We defend our independence very fiercely. That was the vision when Ché [Wall] and Maria [Atkinson] started it and it hasn’t changed. We maintain a balance between regulation and voluntary action.

“I don’t ever see the GBCA becoming government regulated. We defend our independence very fiercely.”

“And while our chairman, Tony Arnel, is [from Government; he is Victorian Building and Plumbing Commissioner] government there is no push for us to be government run. We have a strong relationship with government and they want us to stay independent. If we were too influenced by either government or industry we would get bad outcomes. I think we are a good example of a really good balance between the two,” says Madew.

So with all this restructuring and pressure to move the GBCA into a new era does Romilly Madew see herself staying in the job for a while yet?

“The only thing that would tempt me would be a job that was more satisfying than this one. I can’t imagine what it would be. I said to our chairman the other day that this job really was made for me.

“I’m very excited about the future, especially all the work we have to do with existing buildings and precincts. We are only touching the tip of the iceberg right now.

“What I love is the fact that I’m in a job that is making a difference. But we have to do so much more and not take anything for granted. If we listen to the environmentalists we only have a very small window to bring about change – the next 10 years is critical.”

She disagrees that either she or the GBCA has power, preferring the word “influence”, her aim being to influence thinking on sustainability and to effect change through this.

And she is not taking anything for granted with the new Prime Minister Julia Gillard when it comes to climate change either.

“I don’t have the measure of her climate change stance as yet. I am concerned about comments that we have to have community consensus for climate change initiatives. My view is that the government must take a leadership position, not wait for the community to make decisions on something so critical.”

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au