Aboriginal entrepreneur offers sporting chance

Cory Robertson knows and loves sport. Many Aboriginals do. And as country boy to boot, his philosophy has always been “play hard, work hard, and have your mate’s back”.

Today, as a Lake Macquarie-based managing director of three companies, he provides opportunities for Aboriginal youth. Blending his learnings and experience from business and sport, he has created enterprises that are good, and do good for good, using a “work family” he describes as “Complete PlayA’s”.

The three businesses are Aboriginal Resource Group (ARG), Goanna Services, and Booma. ARG kicked off seven years ago “to ensure our youth and our Aboriginal mob are connected to the work game”. Goanna Services is a multi-disciplined civil contractor, and Booma is a food and energy business.

“Aboriginal people have for years played sport exceptionally well and been recognised for it, which is great, but careers are only short,” he says. “We now need to start profiling and showcasing Aboriginal people using the work game to get ahead in life with a sustainable career.”

Mr Robertson describes his initiative to improve indigenous lives as “business is our new sport”. It was the basis for ARG, which links high school students and adults from ATSI communities to “the work game”. His enterprises extend from agriculture and food processing through to industrial services, mining, renewables, and construction.

“Across NSW in particular, those industries are revving their head off, and with some good initiatives the government has put in play, there are opportunities and programs for more Aboriginal and youth participation,” he says.

ARG offers education and training, and provides connections. “The aim is to get good people to good companies through our training programs in high schools, and through Jobactive with adult jobseekers,” he says. ARG can transition people to those “good companies” or to Goanna Services, which provides civil works packages including earth moving, concreting, fencing, and drainage and pipes for property development, rail, roads and the mining sector.

“We have plant and equipment and we have operators,” he says. “We’re getting people playing the work game at all levels with the initiatives we have established through local government councils, and corporates such as Lendlease and BHP.”  

Mr Robertson sees his enterprises as “a feeder club” to vibrant industries and supply chains. “If people want to play in the big league, they can start with us and then move on to those large companies that understand what we are doing and want to get access to good people,” he says.

ARG works and interacts with public and Catholic high schools, including St Paul’s Catholic College at Booragul, and in Sydney with the Marist Brothers at the Eastwood campus. It is also a consultant to H&S Advisory Service based at Emu Plains, which does skills-based training and apprenticeships with Catholic Schools NSW in Sydney’s Greater Western Region.

“Showing those linkages, the school-based apprentice/trainee program is a great initiative,” he says. “Kids can still be at school, but one day a week they do a trade, and they get paid for that one day a week. And if they love the trade and love the company and the company loves them, it’s a match made in heaven.” 

The Closing the Gap initiative has struggled, and as Mr Robertson says, “if nothing changes, nothing changes”. He believes his innovative businesses are providing new models for engagement, and onboarding to get good people working with good companies.

“We’re selecting the companies we deal with as much as they’re selecting us and our people,” he says. “We want to ensure there is a holistic approach and that people are doing it for the right reasons. With good companies that have the right intentions, there is sustainability. It’s not just tokenism.”

Along his own journey, Mr Robertson has benefited from excellent leaders – his grandfather and mother, good football coaches, and good managers at work. He sees the mentorship his companies now offer as being like a sports coaching role. “Most kids understand that,” he says. “The work game is like playing a team sport.”

Coaching is about caring and passing on knowledge. The Aboriginal community is about kinship.

“Leaders lead LeadA’s” is his motto. “You have to give back,” he says. “Australia can be proud of having the oldest living culture on Earth. But going forward, we need to entwine heritage and business – a belief system with synergies. The oldest culture on the planet won’t survive unless Australia cares and contributes. Contribution comes from playing the work game and being a ‘Complete PlayA’.”

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