September 2012

A good education vital to Elizabeth’s success

In a highly successful career spanning more than three decades, Elizabeth Proust has been a trailblazer and role model for many women, holding numerous senior management and leadership roles in both government and corporate sectors.

BY Stephanie Thomas

She’s been described as “one of Victoria’s most powerful women”, “a prominent business leader”, a “corporate heavyweight” and “among the nation’s most respected directors”.

In a highly successful career spanning more than three decades, Elizabeth Proust has been a trailblazer and role model for many women, holding numerous senior management and leadership roles in both government and corporate sectors.

But Elizabeth is quick to pay tribute to her mother and the Good Samaritan Sisters and their commitment to her education as key influences in her successful career.

Elizabeth’s mother, unable to complete her own education, “had a burning desire that her daughters, in particular, would get the best education that she could afford”.

“Her father thought a girl’s mission in life was to get married,” explains Elizabeth, “and [he] didn’t want to waste money on the last year of high school [for her].”

The eldest of nine children, Elizabeth was born in Sydney, but her early years were spent in the NSW towns of Orange and Wagga Wagga. Her father’s work as an optometrist and businessman meant the family moved around a bit. They returned to Sydney when she was in upper primary school and later settled in Wollongong.

While Elizabeth first encountered the Good Samaritan Sisters at St Augustine’s Primary School, Balmain, the relationship was forged at St Mary Star of the Sea College, Wollongong. She enjoyed her six years at St Mary’s describing it as a “very well-rounded” education, and appreciated “the values of the place” and “the dedication of the nuns”.

“The nuns’ contribution to my education has been a vital part of my success,” declares Elizabeth.

Good Samaritan Sister, Elizabeth Carr, who taught Elizabeth mathematics and religion, recalls her as a reliable, academically bright and considerate student. It seems her leadership qualities were strongly evident then. In her final year, 1968, she was elected school captain.

“She was an excellent school captain; ready to do anything she could for the school,” says Sister Elizabeth. “She was a concerned student, who looked to include and encourage others.”

After completing school, Elizabeth deferred her Commonwealth Government scholarship and position at Sydney University, accepting instead, a role with the Young Catholic Student (YCS) movement in Melbourne. She’d been involved in YCS during her final years at school and was keen to work with them. Moving to a big city, she admits, also appealed.

This decision proved to be significant for Elizabeth on a few fronts. The year-long immersion in the spirituality and social justice ideals of YCS was formative; it was also how she met her future husband, Brian. “[YCS] made an impact on both of us,” says Elizabeth.

In 1970, Elizabeth returned to Sydney to begin university. Two years later, “at the ridiculous age of 21”, she married Brian Lawrence, moved to Melbourne and finished her BA (Honours) degree at La Trobe University. Soon after, she started another degree, this time in law at Melbourne University. But before long, age 22, she had her first and only child, Katrina.

Elizabeth says having her daughter at a younger age than many women do these days worked well for her. “Juggling studies and writing a thesis and the like, and bringing up a child are much easier than juggling an executive career,” she explains.

Reflecting on her career so far, Elizabeth says she’s enjoyed working in both private and public sectors. She’s been described as a “rarity” in having crossed the private-public divide and believes that more people in Australia should do it.

Elizabeth’s first role was in the private sector with BP Australia in Government and Public Affairs. Three years later she switched to the public sector when she was appointed Chief of Staff for Victorian Labor Premier, John Cain. Subsequent roles continued this movement between sectors. It’s an impressive resume that includes Secretary of the Victorian Attorney General’s Department, Chief Executive of the City of Melbourne, Secretary of the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet (for Liberal Premier, Jeff Kennett), Group General Manager HR and Corporate Affairs at ANZ and Managing Director of Esanda.

Working as a senior public servant, Elizabeth says she valued being able “to make a real difference to people”. “Often that’s overlooked, in terms of how people think about public service today, but… you can, I suspect more than in many aspects of the private sector, make a real difference to people lives,” she says.

Toward the end of 2005, Elizabeth decided to leave the ANZ. Since then, she has become a non-executive director of numerous boards and companies, including Chairman of Nestle Australia Ltd., Chairman of the Bank of Melbourne, and a director of Perpetual Ltd. and Spotless Ltd., to name a few. Through these positions she has also been able to focus her efforts mentoring younger women and providing career advice.

In 2010, Elizabeth’s contribution to Australian life was recognised when she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) “for distinguished service to public administration and to business, through leadership roles in government and private enterprise, as a mentor to women, and to the community through contributions to arts, charitable and educational bodies”.

Elizabeth feels strongly about making a contribution to the community. “I think just about everybody in this country who’s got a job and a house and good health and family, we’re among some of the luckiest people on earth today,” she explains.

“I think that there’s an obligation that comes with that… to give back. And it’s something that was impressed upon us as we were growing up.”

It’s obvious that the values and faith instilled in Elizabeth during her formative years still guide her today. While she struggles with many aspects of the Church, Catholicism is “deeply embedded and part of who I am”.

“I still have a strong identification as a Catholic and always will even though so many of our churches are empty, there’s too much bureaucracy, and the appalling failure of the Church to deal with paedophiles is a source of enormous sadness,” she explains.

“I met the late Cardinal Martini… when he came to Melbourne a few years ago, and he was a reminder that you can have strong differences of opinion from the hierarchy and still belong.”

EVENT ALERT – “Our students do amazing things!”

Elizabeth Proust and three other graduates of Good Samaritan Colleges – Malarndirri McCarthy, Krystal Barter and Cheryl Akle – are joining forces with the Sisters of the Good Samaritan to help disadvantaged students access a Good Samaritan education.

You’re invited to a fundraising luncheon in Sydney on Sunday October 21 that aims to establish a scholarship fund for students in need.

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