Career success by playing to your strengths: Ann-Marie Johnston FCPA

Ann-Marie Johnston FCPA, Toowoomba Regional Council. Photo: Luke Marsden.

Ann-Marie Johnston FCPA has forged her unique career path by playing to her strengths: determination, passion for her work and the ability to see potential in unusual places.

When Ann-Marie Johnston FCPA was appointed to the executive of Toowoomba Regional Council, people stopped her on the street to congratulate her.

For some, the significance of her appointment – as the first woman on the council’s leadership team – gave them optimism about their own future.

This public expression of delight was not something she’d been expecting, but it was a message Johnston, now the acting general manager of finance and business strategy, is determined to act on.

What she had initially viewed as a great opportunity for herself has become a more altruistic vision to leave her mark as an advocate for disability and inclusion.

Johnston began working for the council eight years ago, when the then-CEO approached her and offered her a four-month contract. It was the beginning of her unexpected love affair with local government.

“I look at all the volunteer work I have done over the years, but what better way is there to give back to your local community than strong fiscal management and ensuring sustainability?” Johnston says.

“Every time you see a new library, a new sports field or a new road build, you know you have directly influenced that.”

Challenging role

As acting general manager of finance and business strategy, Johnston is responsible for 290 staff, a budget of more than half a billion dollars, and the direction of not just the financial services team, but also information communication and technology, people and organisational development, customer service and stakeholder engagement and communication.

She stepped into the role just before the COVID-19 crisis hit, immediately responding with a A$125 rates concession for the region’s 70,000 ratepayers – a A$9 million investment – and accurately forecasting the 30 June actuals to within a very small margin.

At the same time, the council was going through a local government election that saw four new councillors appointed. When social distancing requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic saw council meetings relocated to an echoey old timber-floored hall, Johnston was forced to acknowledge that her life-long significant hearing impairment was affecting her ability to do her job.

She was awed at the support she received from the council to establish an audio system to enable her to hear the debate, but says the incident highlighted the absence of a diversity and inclusion and reasonable adjustment policy for the council, and added it to her “to do” list.

Unique vision

Johnston’s skill for uncovering the diamond in the rough has led to many requests to join a board or an organisation.

An active participant in CPA Australia’s Toowoomba branch, Johnston has also held volunteer board positions with the Toowoomba Anglican School, Institute of Managers and Leaders (formerly AIM), the Toowoomba Hospice, the Jondaryan Woolshed and the city’s inaugural Women on the Move business networking committee.

One of her most pivotal accomplishments was taking on the task of reviving the city’s historic Empire Theatre and expanding performing arts across the region.

Despite public criticism for pouring money into refurbishing and reopening the historic venue, the council persisted, but did not feel best equipped to run a theatre. The decision was made to separate the operations and establish a controlled entity. The Queensland Audit Office required a CPA at the helm, and Johnston applied for and got the job, taking it from a “qualified audit” to “having no matters arising”.

“It’s a magnificent 100-year-old venue, the largest regional theatre in Australia, and it had been closed for 25 years,” Johnston says. “It used to have all these letters to the editor about the money being spent on it, but now it’s probably the community’s favourite place.”

CPA Library resource: The 99 day diversity challenge. Read now.

Unexpected path

The young Irish girl who left school at the age of 15 could have never imagined the career she would forge for herself.

Naturally good at maths, Johnston was in her element when her first employer, a sporting goods manufacturer, put her in the accounts department. She went on to become the accounts supervisor and, in 1982, the first person in the organisation to receive paid maternity leave.

Johnston was raising two young children, with a third on the way, when the state of the economy in Ireland and a skyrocketing petty crime rate prompted the family to relocate to Australia, with nothing but a cheque for the amount of their entire life savings.

Arriving in Adelaide, Johnston went straight into insurance and then, after having her third child, worked nights recording transactions for a share registry office. Her next role was as bookkeeper for the newly founded Access Cabs, a taxi company for people with special needs. With her then partner in army service, the family moved around, continuing to provide Johnston with opportunities to develop skills in a diverse range of industries, including the Catholic Diocese, TAFE, Ridley Agribusinesses and the Australian Wheat Board.

Over the years, a number of people encouraged Johnston to convert her natural aptitude for numbers into a university degree, but it wasn’t until the family moved to Townsville, when Johnston was in her early 30s, that she decided to enrol.

Because she didn’t have a Year 12 equivalent, James Cook University wanted her to do a bridging course. However, not wanting to delay her education any further, Johnston refused and kept submitting an enrolment form until the university relented, on the condition that she start with an economics degree and only then transfer into commerce, provided she passed the first four subjects.

Johnston describes her university education as “enlightening”. In spite of the long hours, working full time and looking after school-age children, she felt excitement each time she drove to her evening tutorials.

Johnston’s parents flew in from Ireland to attend her Bachelor of Commerce graduation ceremony.

“Graduation was such a big deal for me,” Johnston says. “You walk into that room, and there’s hundreds of people there, but it is all about you, and nobody can ever take that piece of paper away from you.”

Johnston is now committed to developing accounting professionals through a graduate program she established with Toowoomba Regional Council and Deakin University. The program’s inaugural graduate has gone on to become a fully qualified CPA and received this year’s Toowoomba Regional Council’s CEO’s award, ahead of 1800 other contenders.

“I was informally mentoring people, but I realised I could do this formally for something I am really passionate about, which is my profession, because I know the difference my profession can make to any business or organisation,” Johnston says.

“We have almost A$5 billion worth of significant assets, a half-a-billion-dollar annual budget, our corporate accountants deal with Treasury, we have significant cash flows and rates income, so it’s quite a complex local government business.

“To give our university graduates the chance to work in all these different areas, we are really developing them to be the best they can be and building our own skills base for the future."

One piece of advice

“You don’t own your employees, especially your good ones. Be prepared to mentor them, coach them, train them and to let them go to be the best they can, wherever that may be.”

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