Sonia Casanova, Director, Abacus – Australian Mutuals Ltd
Sonia Casanova has over fifteen years’ experience in marketing and business development. Having previously held senior roles in the tourism, aviation and financial services industries, Sonia now focuses on helping small-medium businesses in regional Australia achieve their commercial goals through effective marketing.
With a depth of knowledge to share, Sonia is energetic in her approach and her understanding of the issues facing regional businesses on a daily basis is comprehensive.
Sonia holds a Master of Business (Marketing) and Master of Legal Studies and is a member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.
What boards do you sit on?
I’m a director of Abacus – Australian Mutuals Ltd and Country First Credit Union Ltd. I also serve on a number of board committees including audit and remuneration committees. I am also a director of my own marketing and graphic design business, The Articulate Pear Pty Ltd.
When and why did you decide to be a director?
I first became interested in directorship roles around ten years ago. In my work, I had a tendency to get overly involved in the minutiae and I recognised that a board role would teach me to focus on the big picture, strategic view. My interest in governance of organisations grew from there.
How did you get involved with Women on Boards?
When I discovered Women on Boards, I was immediately drawn to its mission so it was an easy decision to get involved. It was by chance that I originally came across Women on Boards and my involvement has grown over the years. I’m based in regional NSW and it can be hard to travel to Sydney for seminars and events. WOB helps me to feel connected and to stay in touch with relevant issues.
What are your short and medium term board aspirations?
In the short-term, I’d like to continue with my existing board positions. I feel I have more to contribute and more to learn. Although, I am a director of two member-owned institutions with democratically elected boards, so I will need the support of my peers to continue.
With a longer term outlook, I’d like a role with a larger customer-owned organisation, either in financial services or related industries like health insurance. There is something particularly satisfying about the customer-owned business model. It delivers benefits to so many different stakeholders and is authentic corporate social responsibility in action.
I also have an interest in the arts, so a board role in that sphere would be a nice way to combine a personal interest with a professional interest.
What is your career background?
My career started in the tourism industry with a travel wholesaler. It seemed like a good idea to get a job in an industry of which I was an avid consumer! That industry taught me a number of important lessons, including the importance of building strong business relationships and attention to detail. An interesting role with an entrepreneurial company in financial services followed and that opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking creatively to solve problems. A brief period with a start-up airline was a challenging experience and I learned a valuable lesson in aligning work priorities with your personal priorities. I then returned to the financial services industry for a time before moving to regional NSW and starting my own marketing consultancy business. I now enjoy helping other businesses, my clients’ businesses, achieve their commercial goals with clever ideas and cost-effective marketing.
Tell us about Abacus - Australian Mutuals Ltd
Abacus - Australian Mutuals Ltd is the industry body for the Australian mutual financial services sector, a strong alliance of mutual building societies, credit unions and mutual banks. Abacus represents 93 credit unions, five mutual banks and seven mutual building societies. These mutual banking institutions offer Australians a competitive, customer-owned alternative to banks. Unlike banks, profits are not paid to external shareholders, but returned to customers through better products and services.
I’m incredibly proud to be part of the mutual financial services sector. The banking industry often has a negative reputation, but mutual building societies, credit unions and mutual banks are the roses amongst the thorns.
Tell us about Country First Credit Union
Country First Credit Union is based in Griffith in south-western NSW, and most of customers live and work in the region. With assets just over $25 million, we are a relative minnow in the financial services sector and competition is intense. Being small has its benefits – we are close to our customers, we genuinely listen and can meet their needs in ways that larger organisations can’t. Our team does a wonderful job in serving our customers and this is evidenced through remarkably high levels of customer satisfaction and referrals to family and friends.
As an authorised deposit-taking institution, Country First Credit Union is regulated by APRA to the same high standards as the banks. We continue to invest significant resources in compliance to meet these high standards but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
How did you secure your board roles?
My first board role was with an incorporated association – a regional tourism body. I responded to an advertisement in the newspaper and my skills in marketing and tourism proved to be what they needed, so I was appointed to the role. I was new to town and was looking to build my professional network and that board role certainly helped me achieve that.
I took a far more proactive approach with Country First Credit Union. I knew I wanted to develop my board career and a role with an institution in a heavily-regulated industry like banking was appealing. I approached the General Manager and Chair, and again my skills matched their needs.
Getting elected to the board of Abacus involved a concerted campaign. Firstly, I needed to build my profile amongst my peers so I created my candidate statement as a video, posted it on YouTube and emailed a link. It was somewhat radical at the time! Secondly, I had to persuade my peers that I would make a valuable contribution to the board and that they should vote for me. It’s a tremendous feeling when your industry peers put their trust in you in that way.
Are there any directors/leaders you look up to?
I am fortunate to have worked with a number of people that I admire and respect. In particular, I had one mentor who I admire for her courage and tenacity. She taught me to back myself and not to be afraid of giving something a go. In general, there are a number of attributes in many directors that I admire, including the ability to see beyond the immediate problem and identify a range of solutions. I particularly admire directors who demonstrate good judgement, because really, as directors that is one of the most important things required of us.
What’s been the hardest part about establishing yourself as a director?
Building a profile with the people who make the board appointment decision has been the hardest part of my experience. The first step in overcoming this obstacle is actually identifying those decision-makers, gatekeepers and key influencers. Then it’s a matter of making contact and letting them know you’re interested. It’s important to put your hand up and say “I’d like that role”.
Any advice that you wish someone had given you when you started out?
Preparing your resume for recruitment to a board requires a different approach. There is plenty of assistance available for people who are interested in getting started, so make use of it.
The other advice I have is just to get involved. Volunteer, put your hand up and it is amazing how one thing leads to another.
What on-going training/learning do you need to undertake to ensure you continue to be a good director?
Formal training is very important and WOB and the AICD offer excellent courses, events, seminars and the like.
However, being interested in what’s going on around you is equally as important. Read journals, read the newspaper, stay in touch with what’s going in the world and what your competitors are doing. Understanding how external forces affect your business is very important if you are to be an effective director. So many different factors affect the domestic market and you need to understand the broader context in which your business sits – the political context, economic context, social context, etc. So you need to keep yourself informed and that sort of learning is as important as “classroom based” learning.
Do you actively build your networks?
I do try to actively add to my network because it’s useful both professionally and personally. There is something to learn from everyone you meet and I find that people are generally happy to share their experiences with you if you’re interested. There are a number of different ways to build you network, including structured things like LinkedIn and networking functions. But I find that you meet incredible people just by getting involved in different activities, putting your hand up, being available and being open to new ideas.
How do you juggle life?
There is only one answer to this question for me – get help! I don’t think it’s possible to do it all on your own, so ask for help when you need it, whether that is free or paid help. I receive enormous practical help and emotional support from my mother, my mother-in-law, other family members and friends, and I wouldn’t be able to do half the things I do without their assistance.
My children are well looked after by the wonderful staff at the daycare centre and I also have a few energetic babysitters I call on too. My husband is also incredibly supportive of my career and my interests. He encourages me to get involved in things that I find interesting. He’s a willing listener and happy to offer advice when asked, and I find that incredibly important.
I can tend to be a perfectionist and in the past would strive to achieve perfection. But in the past year or so, I’ve realized that is a futile mission and perfection is an illusion! I’ve learned to enjoy the unique journey that each day brings, even if that includes some wrong turns and chaos along the way.
Connect with Sonia by visiting My Profile and performing a search in the Directory. This is only available to subscribers.