Territory Tuesday: Alister Trier
With just 45 days to go until the 20th cohort of the Australian Rural Leadership Program graduate in Darwin on Friday, 19 September, we're dedicating each Tuesday to profiling a Fellow or graduate based in the Northern Territory. It's a huge place, and a unique, highly-rural environment, shaping its own unique leaders. So to get you in the graduation mood, here is one of the Top End's top leaders! (More Territory Tuesdays here: Sally Banfield, Rowan Foley, Annette Burke, Katherine Winchester and Clair O'Brien)
Alister Trier, ARLP Course 8. Darwin.
When Alister Trier first arrived in the Northern Territory, it would be fair to say that the man who is now head of the Territory’s Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries was escaping something.
His parents’ hopes for their son’s future in the navy didn't convince this young adventurer, so he turned away from the ACT, and its Royal Military College, Duntroon, and in 1985 he found himself on Newry Station, on the border of WA and a whole different kind of Territory.
A Brisbane boy; the son of a Jackaroo with country running through his veins, Alister started off working in Newry’s stock camp for a year, then ended up running it for the next two.
He found it cemented what he had already gathered via an agricultural exchange that took him to Denmark, America and England—that rural life was what he enjoyed.
Working at Newry for the company GRM International, a casual chat with a director about what he would like to do next, saw Alister jetting to the Middle East. Here he spent three years in the Sultanate of Oman, working in animal health.
“This was a real privilege,” Alister says.
“I was 24, and I found myself shoeing horses for the royal family, playing in bands and playing a lot of rugby. I just had the time of my life,” he says.
“But you’ve got to come back to reality.”
And the seeds that the Territory often sows in those passing through, had well and truly taken root in Alister.
“I had a couple of years in the transport industry, doing all sorts of things, from driving trucks to eventually getting into the sales side of things. Then I was re-employed by the company I’d been with at Newry, and overseas, and entered the live export market,” Alister says.
“I did that for five years, and it was a great role. The variety and responsibility that came with it was just amazing.”
From his Darwin base, Alister says he would frequently experience the true magic of the Territory’s vast spaces.
“I remember one morning getting up pretty early; flying an aeroplane myself down to Boroloola, spending most of the day there, then back up to Darwin, and by four o’clock the next morning I was 400km outside of Geraldton in WA. Quite literally you would do that, and 24 hours later you’d be in the Philippines.”
After his action-packed entry into the rural and agribusiness space, Alister decided he needed something of a change.
Still with his old company, Alister was made manager of Delamere station, overseeing roughly a million acres, 25,000 head of cattle and 15 staff about 150 kilometres south west of Katherine.
“We had a fairly tight operation. There are tighter ones, but not much.”
A young man running an impressive venture; Alister is understated about what he managed to achieve at Delamere:
“I arrived in 1997, the property sold in 1999 for $8.5 million. I stayed on as manager, and the property was sold again in 2002 for $15.3 million, which pays off debt, and does look good on your resume.”
It was shortly before friend Roger Smith suggested Alister consider a role with government that Alister was able to continue his pursuit of development opportunities, and experience the Australian Rural Leadership Program.
“When I was at Delamere Station, I was sitting on a couple of committees, and was approached to do a Foundations for Leadership Course, which was sponsored by the Western Australian Government,” he says.
“I did it, and I just loved it, and thought golly, this is great. I asked myself, what’s the best thing I can do here? I did some research, and the answer was the ARLP.”
In 2001, Alister commenced with the 8th cohort of the Program; an experience that has deeply shaped the leader he is today.
“I wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for the ARLP, there’s no way,” Alister says.
“It helped me to clarify a lot of things and gave me a lot of tools to help in that regard.
“One of the biggest things I gained from the Program is the ability to understand the different strengths of different people, that are required to achieve an outcome in a complex set of situations.”
And what of leadership in a space as unique as the Territory—about 1/6th of Australia’s land mass, and home to just one per cent of its population?
“I think in the Territory, you’ve got to be willing to take risks. I really think something that leaders must have in their makeup, is not a complete aversion to risk,” Alister says.
“You’re not going to achieve much if you have a very low appetite for risk, but the other thing I’ve come to realise along the way is that you need to be sensible too!” he laughs.
“That’s not rocket science, but you also need to back yourself. I have sat in rooms before thinking, isn’t this obvious? Or, shouldn’t I ask this question? And then you do ask it, or state it, and it’s the thing that’s missing.”
He also says that a bringing a point of difference to formal processes, as many rural leaders do, is important.
“You sit in a room and you’re surrounded by people in suits and ties, and you’re not from that sort of environment and you may feel a little bit out of your depth, but quite often people from different backgrounds bring a lot of value.”
This is a conviction that Alister says has been borne out in his role heading up the Territory’s primary industries division.
Overseeing the areas of agriculture, animal industries and fisheries means Alister deals with diverse people and interests.
“The department has mainly acted as a research and biosecurity group, and we’ve had a little involvement in economic development, but that’s something we’re ramping up now,” Alister says.
As he fluently describes the governance of NT land beneath the Aboriginal Land Rights Act and that governed under Native Title and the Pastoral Land Act, and the myriad factors involved in each, it is clear that Alister leads in a complex environment.
“The biggest industry by area here is the pastoral industry, which represents just over fifty per cent of the Territory, in that it involves pastoral activity taking place on Aboriginal land, as well as pastoral land,” he says.
“That portion is governed by about 240 managers – that’s 240 people looking after 50 per cent of the NT—that’s a huge footprint made by relatively few people, so with that comes a lot of responsibility.
“But there is also a lot of strength in that, because you’ve got quite a focused, tight-knit group, and you can significantly influence the outcomes for a large portion of Australia.”
With economic and agricultural development looming as the major challenges for the Territory, Alister will likely be responsible for managing a raft of diversification occurring in the agricultural sector.
Further afield, immediate economic opportunities also lie to the north.
“If you stand in Darwin and look south, there are 24 million people, and if you look north, there are two billion people within a two-hour timezone of the Northern Territory from north to south. That’s a lot of people,” Alister says.
“So it’s clear that the opportunity is to our north, but we need to be very realistic and clear-headed at a number of levels about that opportunity.
“The discussions about us being the food bowl of Asia are just nonsense—what we need to do is focus on the niche market areas,” he says.
And the advice Alister would give to any graduating cohort of the ARLP is the same as that he will employ to leverage new opportunities for his home Territory.
“Remember to back yourself, but be prepared to listen to other views and take them on board. Don’t be welded to your own in the light of information or additional view points. Keep an open mind.”