- Janelle Hopkins FCA’s first full year as Australia Post’s CFO saw her sign off on an after-tax loss of A$22 million in 2014-15. This was turned around to a profit of A$134 million in 2017-18.
- Her role at Australia Post is unique – she’s the CFO of a government business needing to make a commercial return but with a broader focus on community.
- While the letter delivery business has collapsed, Australia Post’s package delivery service has boomed. Traditional “posties” now deliver more than 40% of Australia Post’s parcels.
Story David Walker
Photography Julian Kingma
Few strategists have a tougher job than Janelle Hopkins FCA. At Australia Post she helps steer a company whose once-mighty letters business is shrinking even as ecommerce expands the organisation’s parcels business.
The size of that challenge was never more obvious than in Hopkins’ first full year as CFO, 2014-15, under then CEO Ahmed Fahour. She signed off on an after-tax loss of A$222 million – the first loss Australia Post had recorded in 30 years. There were provisions for 1900 redundancies.
It was a harsh education on the need for change at the company. From there, she notes, the only way was up.
“People want things faster. The traditional parcels business where it could be delivered five or six days later and people didn’t really care – that’s gone.”
On the subject of money
Hopkins grew up around money, but not in such industrial quantities. Her father, she says, was a salesman with an entrepreneurial spirit. He moved from car sales to insurance sales to his own financial planning business “to try and lift him and our family up into the middle class”. That, she says, “created a drive in me to want to do the same”.
Money was always a subject of discussion, and the young Janelle was soon drawn into it. “I just knew I wanted to do something with money; I just liked it. I wanted to make it. I wanted to play with it when I was a kid,” she explains.
She started really playing with it as an adult. After earning a commerce degree at the University of Melbourne, she spent eight years working her way up at Deloitte with mostly financial services clients in Melbourne, Sydney and Canada, followed by more than a decade at NAB and its MLC subsidiary.
In her last year at NAB, she led its management accounting and operations team. By then she had both her CA and her MBA. It was then, in mid-2012, that Australia Post recruited her, initially as general manager of planning and reporting. Less than two years later, she was Australia Post’s group chief financial officer.
Transformation and turnaround at Australia Post
Hopkins joined a company in the midst of a substantial turnaround. Fahour and the leadership team were dealing with the shrinkage of what had been Post’s biggest business – letters, the line it was named after. Simultaneously they were trying to create a parcel delivery business that could compete with global giants such as DHL and FedEx. Just to add to the pressure, the government-owned Post, familiar to every Australian, frequently became a political football.
Fahour resigned in 2017 following a political controversy over his A$5.6 million annual pay packet. But by then the business was earning more than 70% of its revenue from parcels and ecommerce – enough to survive letters’ continuing decline.
Hopkins says she joined Australia Post precisely because it was going through such wrenching change. “I was interested in being part of the transformation of... an organisation having to make such substantial change across all fronts.” The role is “kind of a unique one” – CFO of a government business needing to make a commercial return, but also with a broader community service purpose.
“It puts me in an interesting position, because I need to make sure the organisation is financially viable and successful, but also think about all those other stakeholders and make sure we’re doing the right thing by the community as well.”
She also needs to take a longer view than just the next set of accounts: the company describes her as responsible for “the delivery of strategic business advice and insight in a rapidly changing and complex environment”. And the job extends beyond finance: Hopkins’ portfolio includes real estate, corporate development, environment, risk and procurement.
Australia Post’s huge ecommerce opportunity
Her broad mandate means Hopkins spends a good deal of time helping determine the next phase of Australia Post’s transformation under Fahour’s successor as CEO, Christine Holgate. The new boss wants a growth mindset. “She’s put big revenue targets out there over the medium term,” says Hopkins. “What is it going to take for us all to... think differently and think opportunistically about where we can grow?”
For Hopkins, some of the answers lie in Australia Post’s history. She notes it is a company “that goes to the home every day” and that it has an “unrivalled” retail network of more than 4400 outlets. And Australia, she argues, has not yet embraced ecommerce to the same extent as many other countries.
That means Australia Post has a huge ecommerce opportunity: it can leverage the brand, with all its heritage, to keep growing the parcels business as Australians order more goods from their homes and workplaces, and to entrench itself as Australia’s leading delivery brand.
It can go beyond parcels and letters into fields such as food. Australia Post also aims to add to its existing range of services, from bill payment to passports. “We have the infrastructure and the brand to be able to provide more of those and we’re thinking about what those could be.”
“We’re about delivery,” she adds. “We can deliver what Australians need ... How do we leverage that, and think about what are Australians going to need in the next five years and how do we help them?”
“No-one can bury their head in the sand around the impact of disruption and the pace of change. Every organisation, big or small, needs to always be thinking about what’s coming over the horizon.”
Putting the focus on stakeholders
If Australia Post is to make itself an ecommerce and service delivery powerhouse, says Hopkins, it has to learn how to do things more quickly. “People want things faster,” she says. They’ve been trained by Amazon and other providers to expect deliveries within hours. “The traditional parcels business where it could be delivered five or six days later and people didn’t really care – that’s gone.”
Australia Post is building infrastructure for rapid delivery. But a new parcel processing facility takes 18 months of planning to deliver, she notes. She also wants a more agile mindset, with people testing solutions more quickly – “try things and see if they work, and if they don’t, move on... I’m about speed.”
Hopkins must also work to ensure Australia Post keeps the pressures of politics and the workforce under control. Perhaps not surprisingly it has adopted wholesale the stakeholder approach to governance. Before any major decision, she says, the company asks: “what will this mean for our customers; what will this mean for our employees; what will this mean for our licensed Post Office group; what will this mean for our shareholder?”
That approach has been supported by board chairman John Stanhope, who became familiar with it over many years at the top of another sensitive business with a government past – Telstra.
The stakeholder approach leads to an emphasis on providing meaningful work, which is seldom heard in corporate Australia. It helps to drive the delivery discussion: giving existing staff more to deliver is an important goal. Hopkins points out proudly that traditional “posties” now deliver more than 40% of Australia Post’s parcels.
And at a time when even bankers are apologising for their lack of consideration for the community, Australia Post is asking more carefully whether they are doing the right thing. “While it’s a conversation we’ve always had, under Christine’s leadership we’re placing an even greater emphasis on this so we continue to meet changing community expectations.”
Keeping ahead of change
Few businesses face the matrix of challenges that Australia Post has grappled with over the past decade. But Hopkins says the same principles apply to most organisations, large or small.
“No-one can bury their head in the sand around the impact of disruption and the pace of change,” she says. “Every organisation, big or small, needs to always be thinking about what’s coming over the horizon, who’s doing it well in comparable industries, and saying ‘well, what’s our response to that and what do we need to do differently to stay ahead of the game’.
“Because if you’re not considering a change, you are going backwards.”
Planning the future of Australia Post
“Top-down, bottom-up, outside-in and inside-out”: it’s the phrase Australia Post CFO Janelle Hopkins uses to sum up how she thinks about planning the future of Australia Post. So what does it mean?
Outside-in: “Looking at what is going on globally around our industry and what are we seeing are the trends out there. What is going on in Australia around population growth, the growth of ecommerce? What do customers and consumers want and value?”
Inside-out: “What [are] our strengths that we can bring to deal with those challenges? So what does that brand give us? What does the fact that we deliver to every home, every day mean?”
Top-down: “What are the funding constraints of the organisation? What is the trajectory we want to be on?”
Bottom-up: “All the businesses go away and create their wish lists and things they’d like to do, and then we meet somewhere in the middle about what we can afford and prioritise.”
The four-year strategic plan
As a government business, Australia Post is required to have a four-year rolling strategic plan.
The plan takes into account the impact of population change, Australian business and economic growth and expectations of workforce needs.
If some European counterparts have seen volume decline, Australia Post aims to find out what that means for its business and tweak the numbers. “The reality is, things are moving so fast you have to update it regularly,” Hopkins says.
Hopkins has found employee buy-in straightforward. “Our employees really believe in the company and believe in the purpose of why they’re here and that’s a really nice thing.”
A system called Post People 1st (PP1st) allows employees to retrain into new jobs in the organisation. “People can see: ‘Well, one part of the business might be changing, but there are growth opportunities in other parts of the business.’”
On roadshows, she says, staff want to know about future growth opportunities, and answers to a familiar question: “What’s going to make us relevant and successful?”