Getting down to business

A career at the forefront of leadership and innovation brings Catherine Livingstone AO to her new role as UTS Chancellor.

Chancellor Catherine Livingstone AOShe is regarded as one of Australia’s most passionate and influential advocates of research, innovation, technology and enterprise. 

She has headed both the CSIRO and the Business Council of Australia (BCA), is patron of the Australian Design Innovation Network and has also been elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.

When she became an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2008 the citation praised her “service to the development of Australian science, technology and innovation policies”.

Yet Catherine Livingstone – who moved into the UTS Chancellor’s office in December, and whose appointment is considered quite a coup given the regard in which she is held by the corporate and political elite – admits her interest in science and technology “was total serendipity”.

It was working for the medical device industry pioneer Paul Trainor that changed the course of her life, she explains.

Until she joined his Nucleus Group of companies in 1983, Livingstone’s career as a chartered accountant had been  fairly conventional, with spells working for PricewaterhouseCoopers in both Sydney and London.

But Trainor “was one of Australia’s greatest entrepreneurs”, Livingstone says.

“Paul had a vision for a medical technology sector in Australia – not just a single company, but an entire industry.”

Known as “the father of Australia’s medical device industry”, Trainor created the Nucleus Group in the 1960s, producing medical devices in Australia and selling them to the world. His most famous legacy is Cochlear Ltd, the world leader in cochlear implants which now boasts over two thirds of the global hearing implant market.

“When I joined Nucleus, Cochlear was just a research project,” Livingstone recalls.

“But there was a big pacemaker division, an ultrasound division, a dialysis division, and a hyperthermia division.

“Paul worked very closely with Senator John Button, who was the Industry and Commerce Minister in the Hawke government.

“At Nucleus I saw what a true entrepreneur like Paul does, and the high risks they take. I saw how a business that is heavily dependent on R&D works, and what sort of culture is required.

“I saw the link between the company and the research sector, because Paul kept in close contact with the universities.

“The Cochlear project, for example, drew on the massive research that had been done at the University of Melbourne.

“I saw the power of what good collaboration between industry and research can do if there is an entrepreneur prepared to take the risk – and if there is a politician like John Button who can create a government policy framework prepared to share that risk.

“It was at that point that I really became interested in technology. How it works, how you can apply it, and how you can apply it in the national interest. Paul’s beacon was always about Australia and the national interest even when he was running a successful business that would make money for its shareholders.”

By the time Trainor sold Nucleus in 1988 to Pacific Dunlop, Livingstone had risen through the managerial ranks – eventually becoming Chief Financial Officer of

Nucleus in 1989. Then when Pacific Dunlop decided to move out of the medical devices sector in 1994, she was made Chief Executive Officer of Cochlear Ltd to steer it through a potentially turbulent public float.

The company’s appearance on the Australian Stock Exchange in 1995 was not just very successful, but one of the first times a medical company had been floated in Australia.

“Dealing with difficult situations is part of life. I’m not saying it is easy. Not at all. But if the difficulties become the focus of your thinking, they become the limitations of your thinking”

Livingstone remained CEO until 2000 – still one of the few female CEOs in the country.

She had arrived in Australia 40 years earlier, at the age of four, having been born in Kenya’s capital Nairobi in 1955. Her British parents, both colonial  civil servants, had met on the ship that was taking  them to East Africa (“very romantic,” Livingstone  adds), but the family had decided to leave Kenya because of the Mau Mau uprising (“lots of people running around with machetes”).

Post-war Britain proved too dreary on their return to the Home Counties so her parents emigrated to Sydney where her father – an economist – took up a job for the Bank of NSW, organising industrial surveys. The family (Livingstone has two younger brothers) settled in Wahroonga, with Livingstone attending the local primary school before transferring to Loreto Normanhurst.

Though she had enjoyed first level science at high school (“the old story – I had a great teacher”), she had already decided to become an accountant and went to Macquarie University in 1973, graduating with first class honours, majoring in accountancy and economics.

Why accountancy? “Because I wanted a job, and because I wanted to travel,” she replies firmly. “Being a woman, I wanted a qualification that would be unequivocal in terms of getting a job anywhere in the world.”

Livingstone’s carefully laid plans paid dividends when PricewaterhouseCoopers transferred her to London in 1980 although she had just met her future husband, Michael Sattherthwaite, who had recently done the reverse transfer. They reunited, had three children together, and  he became Saatchi & Saatchi’s Chief Financial Officer Asia Pacific before becoming Executive Chairman of Pegasus Systems in 2009.

As CEO of Cochlear, Livingstone was invited to join the Australian body Chief Executive Women. The group was founded in 1985 to represent those few female leaders who had managed to break through the metaphorical glass ceiling and reach top leadership positions.

“There are amazing women in that organisation,” she says. “It is a very supportive group.”

She later became President of Chief Executive Women from 2007 to 2008.

Did she feel lonely as a woman at the top of the corporate tree? “That’s a hard question to answer. I’ve never regarded the fact I am a woman as an impediment as to whether I could do a job.

“I was realistic, but I never regarded being a woman as a limitation. I had the usual experiences along the way. Some people were helpful, others were less helpful.”

What would her advice be for female students at UTS today?

“Have confidence in yourself. There will be situations you don’t like. But don’t treat those situations as insurmountable. Find another way through.

“I’m sure men have those experiences too. Dealing with difficult situations is part of life. I’m not saying it is easy. Not at all. But if the difficulties become the focus of your thinking, they become the limitations of your thinking.”

When Livingstone left Cochlear in 2000 to further her career as a non-executive director, the corporate floodgates were opened, along with the accolades.

In 2002 she became a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Services and Engineering. The following year she was awarded a Centenary Medal and the Chartered Accountant in Business Award.

Apart from her stewardship of the CSIRO from 2001 to 2006, Livingstone took on big responsibilities, particularly being the chair of the Australian Business Foundation (2000 to 2006); the chair of Telstra (2009 to 2016); and president of the BCA (2014 to 2016). These experiences, she hopes, will be useful in her relationships within the UTS Council and the management team.

She was invited to replace the retiring Professor Vicki Sara as UTS Chancellor in 2015, but had to delay moving into the office until her term at the BCA had finished. It is a mark of how highly Livingstone’s credentials and standing within the business community are regarded that the UTS authorities were happy to wait.

“That philosophy of blending the learning with work experience is one of the most powerful aspects of being at UTS.”

So what does she want to achieve by the time her  term ends in November 2020?

“To build on the work Vicki achieved with (Vice-Chancellors) Ross (Milbourne) and Attila (Brungs) – that continual renewal of vision and intent. It might sound trite, but I want UTS to be the best it can be, because there is no limit to that achievement.”

Throughout the years, Livingstone has had “quite a bit of contact” with UTS.

“I have always been impressed by how it envisaged itself. It has really developed its sense of purpose, concentrated on a different perspective. It is now truly a university of technology.

“I have been very conscious of how often business people say, ‘Gosh, those UTS students are really good’.

“When I was at Cochlear, we had UTS students on three month rotations. What impressed me then was the whole concept of internships, of having a more porous interface between study and work. It was very crucial then, and it is going to be even more crucial going forward.

“At UTS, you get experience in the workplace while you are studying for your degree. That improves the quality of your learning while giving you valuable experience and a better idea of what you want to do, and what you actually can do. That philosophy of blending the learning with work experience is one of the most powerful aspects of being at UTS.”

Livingstone also praises the physical transformation of the UTS campus in recent years, particularly at a time when “increasingly, you have drive-in, drive-out students who don’t want to spend time (physically) at university”.

She points out of her office window across the lawn towards the building named after her predecessor.

“This is now an extraordinary campus. It – and the surrounding precinct – makes it an exciting place where students want to be. The energy level here is incredible.”

Story by Steve Meacham
Photography by Kevin Cheung