Siobhan Toohill

27 February 2014 — Siobhan Toohill has held some of the most high profile positions in Australia’s sustainable built environment space. Now she’s about to notch up her first year as head of group sustainability and community at the giant Westpac Banking Corporation. How’s it going for her? Tina Perinotto reports.

The setting is hip, as you’d expect with Siobhan Toohill. Just a short stroll from the Westpac head office in the Sydney CBD, it’s in a micro laneway. Half the space seems to be attached to some sort of upmarket shirt outfitter. There’s an old Singer sewing machine on the table, cute photos of Chihuahuas with tequilas on the wall, and other hipster paraphernalia.

The menu offers coffee and alcohol, and there’s a moment’s confusion when The Fifth Estate orders something bubbly and “sweet” (it’s stinking hot outside).

“Our bubbly is on the dry side,” says the wait staff. Ah, no, not champagne, thanks, we say. A lemon lime and bitters is more the trick. Toohill remarks she thought bubbly was an unusual choice for an interview.

True that. But along those lines, you might ponder whether Toohill, an architect and urban designer, is an unusual choice for a bank. And whether a bank is an unusual choice for her, for that matter.

Her background is strongly property, most recently with Stockland, where she spearheaded the company’s rise up the corporate and social responsibility charts, and before that with Lend Lease.

And while Stockland is certainly a corporate job, it’s not “big giant” corporate in the way of a major bank, in this case with 37,000 staff compared with Stockland’s 1300.

Toohill’s aesthetic is also not conventionally corporate. Call it strong inner city Sydney/Newtown. In the double terrace in a cramped Newtown street she shares with partner Adrian Wiggins, the pair host “design Fridays” for groups of invited guests who cram in to eat some vegetarian pasta, drink wine and listen to a small line-up of talented imaginative people changing the agenda for the rest of us.

In recent times that soiree series has morphed into a first monthly and now fortnightly interview series with other groovy people, which is posted on a website, Out The Front.

What’s the reasoning, we ask?

“Community is everything,” Toohill says.

“Adrian and I love Sydney and we were tired of people telling us how cool Melbourne is…we want to shine a light on the people who are making this city so great.

“We’re passionate about creating community and bringing together the thinkers and do-ers.

“We have dinner with them, drink a couple of wines then go into the studio for an interview – about half an hour.”

Guests have included a technology innovator, urban designer, a theatrical milliner and a pastry chef.

Toohill hosts the interview; Wiggins does production.

Coffee with champagne and shirts

It’s all part of the unspecific activities that Toohill wants to engage in – that’s about community-building, place-making and social connectivity.

In a way it totally connects with what unfolds in Toohill’s account of her new role at Westpac. She had already started to move into the social/community/urban space at Stockland, when it became obvious that for a residential developer social sustainability was important to financial success, measured at the very least by better marketing and sales.

When Toohill left Stockland she joined Wiggins in their joint consultancy, Pure and Applied, which blended community and technology to delve into some of these new ideas about spaces and people.

The pair were just getting into their stride with ideas such as apps that could connect personal stories, memories or even images with a building or museum, for instance, when Westpac came along with its offer, clearly too good to refuse. Especially for the scale of impact such a job offered, Toohill says.

The new job was nicely timed, very soon after a splashy announcement that the bank would invest $6 billion in clean tech and another $2 billion in affordable housing.

See the bank’s 14 November report last year on progress with those aims, including $3.6 billion of a total up to $6 billion earmarked for cleantech projects by 2017. Read the whole story.

So how does the monolithic Westpac fit into this unusual career path?

Toohill is still deputy chair of the Green Building Council of Australia and a member of the Building Codes Board.

But her work is now skewed away from property and harder to pin down. That’s understandable when the company you work for is one of the four major banks and her work is part of a team within a team that needs to connect with the rest of its broad universe.

The official job designation is “strategy and policy and how we manage ESG [environmental, social and corporate governance] risk”, she explains.

“It’s around risk reporting and tracking and strategy reporting around the organisation.”

She also performs a secretariat role for the sustainability council, which is made up of general managers from various divisions around the bank.

This includes the GMs of the BT insurance business, property and operations, carbon and commodities,  Pacific Banking and other senior people in the organisation who have “accountability for the metrics” around wider sustainability, she explains.

The secretariat, she says, meets four times a year “to review strategy and also have workshops, to see if we’re missing anything”.

Still part of the team is Emma Herd who since 2012 has been executive director, emissions and environment with the Westpac Institutional Bank, and was previously in the corporate responsibility and sustainability team where Toohill now sits.

Herd now “sits close to institutional customers and carbon team, and is closer to the action”, Toohill says, but is still “very much part of the team”.

High profile wins

Westpac recently snared plenty of positive media when it was named in January as “the most sustainable company in the world” in the 2014 Global 100 Index by Toronto-based Corporate Knights, announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The Davos announcement was exciting, Toohill says.

There was plenty of feedback from peers, happy to see this issue making the commercial television news and that their sector was being recognised.

“You need to get that recognition; it’s newsworthy and it’s seen as something worth working for,” Toohill says.

But how does this global recognition manifest in actions on the ground?

There are plenty of critics who say these high profile sustainability awards are at least partly a function of the skills of the people submitting the forms. Some questioned Westpac’s continued lending to unsustainable activities – more than $1 billion to coal and gas export ports in Australia since 2008, according to Market Forces, which pressures organisations to stop financing environmentally damaging activities.

But Australian Ethical Super general manager, strategy and communications Paul Smith said some context was needed. He told The Fifth Estate that while lending to these sorts of projects was one aspect of Westpac that was unfortunate, the positive contributions Westpac had made “massively outweighed the negative”.

Toohill rattles off a long list of commitments and achievements in the realm of social issues. There’s the bank’s work in gender equity and diversity, including its staff payroll giving program, community partnerships such as Mission Australia, a staff volunteering program and its work around developing a social impact measurement framework.

There’s also work on disaster response and how to support communities affected by disasters. There’s also the work around social enterprises and Westpac Foundation comes is here.

Toohill is especially excited about work the “STREAT Series” of cafes that helps place young homeless people into housing and learn about hospitality, and with Pacific Banking, which is bringing banking and skills to enable capital acquisition and management to communities, perhaps for the first time.

“We’re using business skills to tackle social problems. There’s also Indigenous engagement; we’ve got a long history of working with leaders, such as with Jawun.

“We’ve now got close to 600 employees who have been seconded into these communities in 10 years.”

What’s the impact?

But 12 months into the job, what’s Toohill’s view on what she can bring to such a massive organisation?

A strong focus for a start, she says, especially on how to better integrate community and social outcomes and the focus on measuring the outcomes.

The question now is, how do you prove these projects are having an impact?

“We know some social enterprises have been successful and we’re now looking to quantify that and harden up that evidence,” Toohill says.

With the clean tech commitment and the social and affordable housing commitment, “My role is making sure they’re getting there,” she says.

We know how the clean tech commitment is going, so what about the housing commitment? That’s an area that’s stumped many good intentions.

Right now, Committee for Sydney is working on how to turn affordable housing into an investment asset class, according to chair Lucy Turnbull in a recent interview with The Fifth Estate.

See our interview, Lucy Turnbull: on sustainability, politics, cities, the greens… but not the New Feds

Toohill is diplomatic, “There’s a lot of exploration on that. The need is there. Our team is plugged into the Committee for Sydney.”

Influence is key

The bigger job, she says is “always about influence, to have clear strategy, to influence what are the objectives and supporting the objectives, social and indigenous”.

Stakeholders means the community and the staff

Community outcomes loom large, as you’d expect in banking. And part of this is not just around customers, but with stakeholders within the bank, such as staff.

Banks have made a huge effort to reinvent their public image in recent years, from one of grasping corporates with too much profit to a more benign image.

It was not that long ago, Toohill says, when staff refused to wear their uniforms on public transport such was the odium in which banks were held.

The squashed tomato report

Everyone remembers Westpac’s Squashed Tomato Report in 2000, Toohill says.

It admitted the bank had a long way to go to gain credibility with the community after perceptions of excessive fees and widespread bank closures rife in the banking industry.

“The story is that people would not wear the bank uniforms on the train because of bank bashing,” Toohill says.

“We needed to fix the reputation of the banking system in Australia.”

The result was a new stronger focus on ESG issues.

“We were the first to sign up to the Equator Principles [a credit risk management framework for determining, assessing and managing environmental and social risk in project finance transactions].

“I think here we get the balance right. Social impact is just as critical as the environment and financial.” And “being held accountable by the stakeholders”, Toohill adds.

These days employee perception has completely turned around and 87 per cent are engaged to the point they say they want to “go the extra mile for this organisation”.

“They’ve got a real sense of purpose and also about the vision for Westpac,” Toohill says.

Gender equity

Gender equity is another program for which the bank can rattle off a nice statistic – it has 42 per cent women in leadership roles, headed in a very high profile way by the bank’s chief, Gail Kelly.

“I’ve never had the experience here of going into a room and being the only woman,” Toohill says, happily.

But when you strip away the number of programs and the size of the bank compared to her other employers, Toohill says there’s not a great deal of difference in the job to hand.

“It’s the same process: you need to know who to go to, who the leaders are and when to speak up. It’s very much a relationship-based organisation and it’s about having the right conversations,” she says.

How does banking compare to property?

On this Toohill won’t go too far, preferring to stick to her new bailiwick but she does volunteer that the exciting thing about the property sector is how collaborative it is. But she can see banking has the same tendency.

“It’s great to see that collaboration in banking, so that’s quite exciting and to see it leading the way.

“Money touches everything and participation is core. Sustainability in banking is the biggest challenge because it’s the biggest opportunity,” she says.

“The other good thing is the level of goodwill on sustainability. I’ve interviewed 100 people who were so positive and who time and again said, ‘It’s the reason I joined Westpac.’”

Well whatever the reasons Toohill joined Westpac, and whatever reason Westpac chose Toohill, neither can be too disappointed in the message she’s sending.

4 replies on “Siobhan Toohill: on the move to Westpac and making an impact”

  1. Aussie taxpayers supported the banks through the GFC as it was seen as being beneficial to the public interest doing so. That was a successful move & one of the reasons why Australia was far less impacted by the GFC than most – virtually all in fact- of the other developed nations. Another reason was our comparatively strong banking regulations.
    I don’t know whether I’d go so far as to say Westpac is the most sustainable business in the world – it’s a big call – but I don’t have a problem at all with incremental improvement, and it’s pretty clear that the track record of this company is (at the least) pretty good and getting better – as evidenced by Siobhan Toohill’s role.
    It’s clearly not enough to rely on government to address the environmental challenges we face – particularly in relation to climate change.
    If we don’t get businesses on board (and encourage them to recognise that their own business sustainability depends upon our collective environmental, economic and social sustainability) then we’re going to get nowhere at all. I’m for more Siobhan Toohills and more Westpacs.

  2. Aussie taxpayers supported the banks through the GFC as it was seen as being beneficial to the public interest doing so. That was a successful move & one of the reasons why Australia was far less impacted by the GFC than most – virtually all in fact- of the other developed nations. Another reason was our comparatively strong banking regulations.
    I don’t know whether I’d go so far as to say Westpac is the most sustainable business in the world – it’s a big call – but I don’t have a problem at all with incremental improvement, and it’s pretty clear that the track record of this company is (at the least) pretty good and getting better – as evidenced by Siobhan Toohill’s role.
    It’s clearly not enough to rely on government to address the environmental challenges we face – particularly in relation to climate change.
    If we don’t get businesses on board (and encourage them to recognise that their own business sustainability depends upon our collective environmental, economic and social sustainability) then we’re going to get nowhere at all. I’m for more Siobhan Toohills and more Westpacs.

  3. Is less bad now recognised as somewhat good, where money trumps social values?

    Perhaps time to put social values before perceived commercial or their suggested community values?

    Westpac being our worlds most sustainable company?. Aussie taxpayers supported their survival during the GFC. Lets get real!

    Most ‘sustainability’ indexes miss the mark, through companies self reporting with a view to creating public perceptions for their own commercial survival. Recall a songs lyrics..”the buying and selling, the old fortune telling, the knock on the door and the hawking!”

  4. Is less bad now recognised as somewhat good, where money trumps social values?

    Perhaps time to put social values before perceived commercial or their suggested community values?

    Westpac being our worlds most sustainable company?. Aussie taxpayers supported their survival during the GFC. Lets get real!

    Most ‘sustainability’ indexes miss the mark, through companies self reporting with a view to creating public perceptions for their own commercial survival. Recall a songs lyrics..”the buying and selling, the old fortune telling, the knock on the door and the hawking!”

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