Kate O’Callaghan: on cotton, agriculture and leading change

It’s not often that we hear the stories of inspiring women who are leading the way in modern agriculture.

Kate O’Callaghan, General Manager of Southern Cotton, is leading a team of six to create a burgeoning cotton industry in regional NSW that is being praised for its world-class production.

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Southern Cotton was born from the frustration of local cotton growers, who questioned the necessity to travel 800km to gin their cotton. With this in mind, within three years the team’s vision has become a reality, now processing cotton from more than 100 growers and turning over more than $25 million annually.

There was a perception that the plan to build a gin wouldn’t work, but failure was never an option. When a team of like-minded people work together towards a common goal in challenging circumstances – what seems impossible can be achieved.

Widely acknowledged as improving the outlook of the regional economy, Southern Cotton was recently named the 2015 Australian Regional Business of the Year. We chatted to Kate to find out about her background, role and Southern Cotton and how their business is helping the local economy.

LiH: Tell us about your background, did you grow up in the bush? What was your early career?

I grew up in Sydney. Despite the fact that it was unusual for a young woman to have a passion for agriculture, few were surprised by my decision to enrol in the male-dominated Bachelor of Science in Agriculture degree at the University of Sydney.

It was here that my passion for agriculture turned to action. I represented the agriculture student population on the Faculty of Agriculture Board and represented the Faculty of Agriculture on the university Academic Board.

After graduating from university as an agronomist in the mid-1980s, my drive to make a positive contribution to the agricultural industry shaped both my professional pathway and clarified for me that education is the best way to reach others and influence change.

Following leadership roles at the Department of Agriculture, Novogen (pharmaceutical company) and CopRice Stockfeeds, I have brought together the lessons from these experiences to my role as General Manager at Southern Cotton.

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When I’m not working for Southern Cotton, I run fat lambs and grow rice and cereals with my husband Owen on the family farm at Yanco.

LiH: How did you get involved with Southern Cotton?

I was recruited by Southern Cotton in 2011. The directors gave me a ring and asked if I would be interested in an exciting new challenge and I immediately said yes! The brief was to nurture a new industry for the Murrumbidgee Valley community in southern NSW. Within a year, we transformed a paddock into a $26 million operation.

This year 36,000 hectares of cotton has been sown in the Murrumbidgee Valley, with more than 700,000 bales processed at the facility since 2012.

Through my role at Southern Cotton, I represent the Southern NSW cotton industry at Cotton Australia general meetings and on research panels. I am also currently the secretary of the new Southern Valley Cotton Growers’ Association and am the agricultural representative / treasurer on the Riverina Regional Tourism Board.

LiH: At the Telstra Business Awards, Southern Cotton was praised for its impact on the regional economy. Can you tell us more about this impact, and how important is it to you + the future of Southern Cotton?

This season, in the Murrumbidgee Valley, 36,000 hectares of cotton was sown with the average yield 11.5 bales/ha (400,000 bales). Southern Cotton processed more than 200,000 of these bales. With an average value of in excess of $500 per bale, this is returning close to $200 million to the region. Plus, associated growth in support industries, for example, agronomy, freight, and machinery sales.

Cottonseed sales returned an average $345/tonne to the region’s growers in 2015 ($15 million into the regional economy).

Over four years we have processed in excess of 700,000 bales with a value of over $300 million

We’re dedicated to doing the best job for our growers and showcasing the quality of the emerging cotton industry in Southern NSW.

LiH: What’s the biggest challenge that you have faced so far?

The overarching hurdle was the preconceived idea that cotton would not be a viable crop in the region. As such, funding for the project could not be secured through any of the banks. Backing their belief in the potential of the cotton industry, the Southern Cotton six directors took a risk and invested their own money to develop the ginning facility.

The financial challenges were matched with practical difficulties. Given the location of the gin was a greenfield site, electricity had to be upgraded 15km away and other office conveniences, such as phone and internet connection, were not straightforward.

There are two main lessons we learned from successfully overcoming these difficulties.

The first lesson is that persistence pays off. There was a general perception that the plan to build a gin wouldn’t work. Failure was never an option for the Southern Cotton team, despite the significant personal and financial sacrifices that have been made.

The second lesson is that when a team of like-minded people work together towards a common goal in challenging circumstances – what seems impossible can be achieved!

LiH: What are you most proud of?

Southern Cotton is a compelling winning-against-the-odds story. I’m most proud that I have helped transform a greenfield site into an operational gin, proactively educated local growers about the benefits of choosing cotton as a summer crop, and informed visitors to the region about the efficiency, sustainability and quality of the local irrigated industries.

LiH: How has being named the National Regional Business of the Year impacted your business?

To win the Telstra business awards has allowed us to share our enormous pride in not only our business and its achievements at every level but also the regional cotton industry, our growers and their excellence.

LiH: As a leader for women in agriculture, what advice do you have for other women in the industry?

I would like to share my experiences in effecting change. For me, there are three key lessons in effecting change. Firstly, change doesn’t happen in isolation. Influence is about getting the people around you to want to join you on the journey. Throughout my career, I have taken others on this journey to effect change in many industries.

Secondly, it is important to always stay true to your values – and treat others the way you want to be treated. That is why I have the support of Southern Cotton employees who have worked tirelessly alongside me to gin cotton at the highest quality and provide exceptional customer service.

Thirdly, effecting change can be all-consuming. Balancing these efforts with other interests gives you the stamina to keep going for the long haul. For me, that means spending time on the family farm, keeping up with the activities of my three sons, and catching up with friends and sometimes just having some time out (in my dreams ha!).