A national approach to defence industry is crucial in securing the best outcomes for the Australian Defence Force.
Defence Teaming Centre (DTC) chief executive Margot Forster joined the Defence Connect Podcast to discuss the organisation’s point of difference as a representative for the diverse and evolving defence industry and its transition from a South Australian organisation to one with a national approach that sees every state and territory get a piece of the growing defence pie.
Forster takes us through her illustrious career in the ADF – which spanned three decades with stints in the Army Reserve, the Royal Australian Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force – why the Defence Force cannot do its job without industry and how Australia can learn from the UK and Europe’s approach to industry.
Enjoy the podcast,
The Defence Connect team.
Listen to previous episodes of the Defence Connect podcast:
Episode 323: PODCAST: Cyber security, a legal requirement? With Clyde & Co’s Reece Corbett-Wilkins and Avryl Lattin
Episode 322: PODCAST: 45 Days – The Fight For A Nation, with Emile Ghessen
Episode 321: PODCAST: News wrap – Chapter closed: Subs program turns new page
Episode 320: SPOTLIGHT: Revolutionising the space domain, with Lockheed Martin Australia and Inovor Technologies
Episode 319: PODCAST: Supporting defence businesses, with DSTG’s Nigel McGinty and Robert Hunjet
Episode 318: PODCAST: Digitising the ADF for better and safer training, with Shane Acorn and Daniel Pace
Episode 317: PODCAST: An uncertain world, with MAJGEN (Ret’d) Mick Ryan
Episode 316: PODCAST: The worsening geostrategic environment
Episode 315: PODCAST: News wrap – Strengthening maritime capability
Episode 314: SPOTLIGHT: Unpacking the Aegis combat weapons system, with Lockheed Martin Australia’s Neale Prescott and Rob Milligan
Announcer: Welcome to the Defence Connect Podcast with your host Phil Tarrant.
Phil Tarrant: Hey, good day everyone, it's Phil Tarrant here, I'm the host of the Defence Connect Podcast. Thanks for joining us today. We're going to have a chat with someone who proudly flies the flag for South Australia, but has a very national focus towards championing the growth of defence industry in Australia. I have Margot Forster, who is the chief executive officer of the Defence Teaming Centre. Hey, hi, thanks for coming in.
Margot Forster: Hi Phil, thanks so much for having me come in today. Really excited about sharing what the Defence Teaming Centre is all about with you.
Phil Tarrant: That's good. I was really impressed, Margot, having a look through your CV. You have quite a varied career working within defence, and now sort of one year into the job leading the Defence Teaming Centre. Let's have a quick chat about your background that took you to South Australia to head up the Defence Teaming Centre. You started off in the navy and then you ended up in the air force, what's going on there?
Margot Forster: Well, actually Phil, what I don't often share is that my journey started in the army reserve, and my journey started in South Australia, so that's where I herald from. I watched my parents who were in the hospitality industry work 16-hour days, split shifts, and I thought that is not for me. So, I hunted around for something exciting and something completely different, and found the Defence Force. My first attempt to enter was to the army, but when my parents found out, they locked me in my room and said, "No, you can only join the reserves until you're old enough to go into officer's school."
Phil Tarrant: There you go, so you joined the reservists as a young 18-year-old or younger?
Margot Forster: 17 in fact.
Phil Tarrant: 17?
Margot Forster: Yes.
Phil Tarrant: Wow, OK.
Margot Forster: I spent a couple of years in the army reserve, and then the first opportunity I had to go into officer training was with navy, so I went off to Cerberus and had an amazing nearly seven years in the navy as a logistics officer right back in the beginning when my course was the first course that had women do the full training, the first course to send women to sea, and actually was the first full-time deputy supply officer, female deputy supply officer to be posted to sea.
Phil Tarrant: That's great.
Margot Forster: It was a long time ago.
Phil Tarrant: Your sea posting, what was it on, which ship were you on?
Margot Forster: The Jervis Bay.
Phil Tarrant: On the Jervis Bay, OK. Then you've moved on to a career in, well, a bit of time at DFAT as well as with the RAAF. You seem to have touched a number of different areas. What's been the transition? Have you enjoyed this pathway to where you are today?
Margot Forster: It's been an amazing pathway, and what has been so fantastic about it is I've always had passion for the Defence Force. It started out because it was different, it was exciting, but then what kept me in the Defence Force was the amazing people that I met and I had the privilege of working with and working for. Finally, what kept me in there was that I really believed that what we were doing was something very important.
We enjoy a very privileged, a wonderful life here in Australia, and having a strong Defence Force contributes to our national security to make sure we can continue to enjoy it. That's what kept me going for nearly 36 years, and my time in the air force was just as rewarding as the navy, and enabled me to have three children, and continue to serve, and I had the privilege of serving on operations commanding a combat support unit. It's been an exciting, diverse, and wonderful journey.
Phil Tarrant: That's really interesting, and now you're still within defence or defence industry, but in a different camp. You're supporting the growth of businesses who are looking to support our defence industry and defence capability. You've been at the Defence Teaming Centre now for a year. What attracted you into this particular role?
Margot Forster: Well, after 36 years it was time to retire, but I still had that same passion, and I saw that the Defence Teaming Centre was a natural extension. I'd been, as I said, been on operations, had a long career, and on that journey seen how important industry is to supporting defence capability. We could not do our job, the Defence Force, could not do its job without industry, so I wanted to get involved in supporting industry in whatever capability I could.
Phil Tarrant: So, 30+ years in the Defence Forces, navy, and air force. Do you think that most aircraft women, or men, or sailors are aware of where all this great kit comes from? Do they have a relationship, do you think, with the defence industry and understand the nature of how this equipment gets into their hands?
Margot Forster: Look, I believe that most of the men and women of the Defence Force understand that the kit comes from industry, and that defence industry is critical to their comfort, their safety, and their capability. Unfortunately, not all of us had an opportunity or have an opportunity to have that very close relationship, but I'm pretty sure they know where their kit comes from.
Phil Tarrant: And by in large they think it's pretty good?
Margot Forster: They do.
Phil Tarrant: Yeah, and when you look at I guess the Defence White Paper, which has outlined considerable spending in the next decade to equip our armed forces with some new submarines and some other great naval shipbuilding about to start taking place. For you and the Defence Teaming Centre, and organisations that you are working with, where do you see the big opportunities are for people within the defence industry right now?
Margot Forster: The opportunities come with the federal government making the decision to turn the way it acquires its equipment, defence equipment, on its head essentially. Going from a country that imports most of its equipment, to a country that is endeavouring to build as much as it can itself. That to me is incredibly exciting. The opportunity to have the dollar spent on defence, which is significant, being able to be used to underpin the growth and the development of our advanced manufacturing and our high-tech industry. That to me is the exciting opportunity that we have, that this money now is available to invest in companies in Australia who are very capable, but just need to be given the chance to show what they can deliver.
Phil Tarrant: I'll touch on some of these businesses that are based both within South Australia and nationally in a moment, but for our listeners that aren't familiar with the Defence Teaming Centre, I doubt there isn't that many that haven't heard of it, but can you just give us a background on what the Defence Teaming Centre, or DTC, I might say, is?
Margot Forster: The Defence Teaming Centre is an industry association. We've been around for nearly 21 years, it's actually our 21st birthday on the 21st of September. It started out as an industry led undertaking. 24 companies along with defence, DSTO as it was at the time, coming together because they saw that individually there was little hope for them as companies to engage defence, but together and stronger with a larger, more complete offering, they had a opportunity, a better opportunity to win defence contracts.
From that beginning, the Defence Teaming Centre has grown in membership, we're now over 260 members. Our largest growing membership is actually outside of South Australia, many of our members have national footprints, and our point of difference as an industry association is that we represent the diversity of the industry itself. Our members come from primes through to your smallest business with three engineers. We have professional service providers in our membership, as well as university and education providers. Our board of directors has that same representation as well.
It does make for sometimes a complex thing for me to manage, because what's good for prime isn't always what's good for an SME, but I've got a great team. I have nine full-time employees who every day come to work and juggle that challenge, and provide the best support that we can to help our members be more successful in bidding for work.
Phil Tarrant: You joined the Defence Teaming Centre in December 2016, so it was about nine or so months ago. From going into the role and having your sort of perceptions about what the role will be versus what it actually is, is it different or is it pretty much what you expected?
Margot Forster: Well, I think the biggest surprise for me is just how much demand there is out there for the type of support that the Defence Teaming Centre offers. Clearly the team has been supporting industry for many, many years, but previously our role has been probably more focused on advocating, and the team was previously very parochial. South Australia chose to be the defence state, and Defence Teaming Centre, Defence SA, worked really hard to attract not only the Department of Defence, but also defence industry into the state. It's different now, as I said earlier, we have a national approach, so we are far more about supporting all of industry to have a piece of the pie, because the pie is so much bigger now.
Phil Tarrant: It is, and we often discuss on DefenceConnect.com.au the, I'm not going to call it bickering, but I'm going to call it competitive tension between the states for winning defence work, and that's an OK thing for it to happen. I think competition is a great driver of innovation, competition is a great driver of advancement for businesses, but what you're saying is something that's resonating a lot more from my side of the fence dealing with the different states around the need for collaboration.
Greg Combet, the Victorian Defence Advocate, was very vocal in saying we don't need to be fighting each other for defence work. It's a collaborative approach to make sure that we can provide the best solution for our armed forces in terms of the capability that we can provide them. Listening to you talk about a shift from being banging the drum about South Australia, and by the way, I think South Australia did an excellent job in building its footprint and its capabilities within the defence, but the challenge now is to sort of say, "Hang on a second. There's enough work here for everyone, let's all collaborate and join forces to deliver what is going to be some major shipbuilding programs coming up."
How is that message going for you guys, rather than sort of banging the drum for South Australia, and going into a national perspective? Is it resonating with the right people?
Margot Forster: I think we're making progress. We do have a persona that was firmly parochial South Australian that we are having to shift. My team and I have been out on the road earlier this year going to every state and territory, going to industry associations, chambers of commerce, state governments, and saying, "We are a successful organisation. We've been doing this for a while, and we want to work with you. We can only be successful as a nation if there is organisations like the Defence Teaming Centre that are reaching out and collaborating, and building supply chains together, and making connections together, and supporting our industry." The politicians can jockey, and, position, and be competitive, that's their job. They are elected to fight for the people in their state. But as an industry association, we should be fighting for industry, and that means working together.
Phil Tarrant: Well, you have a, I guess fortunately a defence industry minister who's on a very similar page, Chris Pyne is obviously a proud South Australian, but he likes to ensure that he's for the national interest. It goes back to there being plenty of work for people who are able to create sound defence businesses, and understand where those opportunities lie and be able to capitalise on them.
For you, what's the one thing that you're most sort of satisfied or proud about nine months into the job now? Is there any sort of big win that you've went, "Yeah, we're on the right path here"?
Margot Forster: For me, the biggest sign that I'm on the right path is the positive feedback that I'm getting from my members.
Phil Tarrant: That's good, and let's have a little bit of a chat about that member dialogue, so he said that there's a spread between the largest primes, and he have some very big primes established in South Australia through to three-man engineering type firms, so that's a big spread.
Margot Forster: It's huge.
Phil Tarrant: How do you ensure you maintain relevant service in one of those members when their needs are so different?
Margot Forster: It's very hard work, it is absolutely.
Phil Tarrant: Yeah?
Margot Forster: But it comes down to having a really good personal relationship with our point of contact in each of the businesses. We spend a lot of time out talking to our members trying to understand what they're looking for out of their membership, because it is different for every member. Understanding what they need, how we can support them, who we need to connect them with, and it's just about that personal relationship.
Phil Tarrant: And your SME type of member, whether it's a three-man, woman, band, all the way through to 100 or 200 people, what is it they most want from the Defence Teaming Centre? What are those capabilities that you can really help to enhance their businesses?
Margot Forster: I think at the moment those who are in our membership, and are established, and own robust businesses with something to offer, they're actually looking for connection and opportunity, and the good part about, for example, the Future Frigate is that there are new contenders coming into the market in that space, new primes, and those primes don't have pre-existing supply chains, so they're very open to any introduction.
Phil Tarrant: So, it works both ways. Most people I think view as industry associations are a gateway for SMEs to connect into primes, but it's very much what you're painting a picture of, it's the opposite, it's the primes wanting to know they've got the capability to deliver these programs, should they win them, by having close connectivity in with the SMEs.
Margot Forster: Absolutely, so that is ... You've hit the nail on the head. That is probably the main difference between an SME member and a prime member. Obviously, a prime member doesn't need any help to be ready to do business with defence, but what they do need is to understand what's out there in the market, what's the new fabulous idea that has been developed by the three engineers, and how they then can take that product and incorporate it into whatever it is they're designing. It's being able to bring potential supply chain members to a prime is one of the value propositions we offer them.
Phil Tarrant: When I chat with SMEs, by in large the biggest issue they have, I'm not going to call it a gripe, but one of the biggest challenges they have is that it's near impossible to crack the supply chain for primes, it's a very, very difficult thing to achieve. From a prime perspective, do you think that the primes actually get SMEs or understand how they can best connect with them, or is it something that they need to get their head around a little bit more effectively?
Margot Forster: Look, I think that the primes understand the SME, but I think it's more about capacity. The experience that I've had, particularly in South Australia, so South Australia has an amazing group of small businesses, but what we don't have is many medium sized businesses, and I have had primes come to me and say, "I don't have the capacity to deal with 200 small businesses. I need to be able to deal with six or so businesses who then roll down through the levels to the 200 businesses." If I had a wish that could be granted, my wish would be that we had a way to fast track our successful small businesses to become medium sized businesses, because that's what defence needs, that's what the primes need, the capacity to have that pyramid shape of industry, because at the moment we're a bit hollow.
Phil Tarrant: What do you think needs to happen to achieve that, because that's a lot of people who, a lot of organisations have great ideas, great people, great capabilities, but they, it's sometimes a ceiling that's impossible to crack through, so what do you think needs to happen to build more M's rather than the S's in the SME?
Margot Forster: Opportunity and shared risk. If I had any more of an idea than that, I'd be owning a lot more money.
Phil Tarrant: But it's a really fair point you make, because only recently I had a chat with someone that provides legal advice into these type of businesses we're talking about, so the SME sector, and they're still very reactive to most opportunities rather than being proactive, and I see organisations like yours and some of the other very good associations within the defence space, AIDN, who you have a relationship with as well, are focusing a lot more on equipping SMEs with the skills and capabilities, which they might not be able to have internally because they're not big enough, but they need to have in order to get to the next level.
There is that essential around the whole issue where I think everyone wants to grow the SME space and there's great rationale for it, but for a lot of organisations it's just near impossible because those resources don't exist. I guess the good thing is that it does exist, because guys like you can provide or help with that connectivity.
Margot Forster: We don't have all the answers, but we certainly have the desire. One of the things that the Defence Teaming Centre does focus on, and it's in our name, it's teaming. We're actually doing a body of research at the moment to try and understand how we can bring small businesses together such that they act like a larger business. The answer could be from one end of the scale that one business buys up all the others and becomes that medium sized business.
The other end of the scale is the medium sized businesses come together in a collaborative environment and act as a cluster or as an alliance. The trouble you have is you'll say the word alliance, and for those who haven't fled the room, you'll get a different answer when they're asked to describe what an alliance is. But I do look over in the UK and in Europe where their defence industry is of course far more mature, and they are successfully alliancing, or clustering, or whatever it is that you want to call it. We're looking very closely at what those models are, what are the characteristics for success, and obviously we're a different country, a different culture, so not ...
The answer isn't going to be to cut and paste and everything will be fine, but there are definitely some lessons that we can learn from them. I guess probably I'll hop back to the risk issue. The Defence Teaming Centre could pull small businesses together and form an alliance, but we need to have primes and the Department of Defence having the appetite to accept that engagement model, and I don't know whether we're quite there yet, whether there is that maturity in risk sharing.
Phil Tarrant: And what do you think needs to happen first to get to that point? An organisation like yours can curate a lot of capable businesses together and create a proposition which can deliver on a need, but looking at the risk perspective, it's understandable why the primes are sometimes risk averse, because the contracts that they enter into have a fair degree of risk associated with them as well.
From my observation, the primes have a much greater appetite to connecting with the SMEs and they're working hard to do so, very visibly and openly. I think they'll ... When I speak to the heads of primes, they speak quite openly about some of the things they could have done better in the past, so they are open for it, but it's a big paradigm shift to get primes and government to change that mentality, because maybe the need and necessity of having companies be able to deliver these projects will just force that change. I don't know, what's your take?
Margot Forster: I think we have the burning deck that you need to force uncomfortable change. The burning deck being our nation has decided it would become a shipbuilding nation. Most countries take 30, 40, 50 years to do that. We're trying to achieve it in an accelerated program, and so we're going to have to take some chances. We can't behave the way we've always behaved. We need to take that risk, because if we exclude a small business because they've never had any experience in doing that, we're not going to get anywhere because we generally don't have experience in being sovereign shipbuilding nation and a sovereign submarine building nation.
Phil Tarrant: It is a challenge, a catch-22, it's a whole bunch of moving parts with it, and your naysayers will say that Australia is not ready to become a shipbuilding nation as a sovereign capability. They'll say that no one really wants to get pinned down on what will actually happen in Australia versus what will happen overseas, what sort of level of local content there will be in there, and this picture that you paint is quite alarming, because the capabilities are most likely there, but maybe the process or the system to turn those capabilities into action aren't.
From your view, and I guess working across the spectrum of defence businesses in SA and nationally, but in SA where, which has got to be the home of what, the majority of the shipbuilding programs, do you think we're ready? Do you think we're ready to go, or is there still some left?
Margot Forster: We are absolutely ready to start.
Phil Tarrant: OK.
Margot Forster: One step at a time.
Phil Tarrant: One step at a time, and what are those critical success factors that need to be reached over the next period for us to deliver the shipbuilding? Is there anything in particular that we really need to sort out?
Margot Forster: Well, I believe that we need as a nation to make a deliberate decision that we are going to be a sovereign shipbuilding nation. We need to have a robust argument about what that looks like, and then there needs to be recognition that it will take time, but what we have to do right upfront is make the decision to do it, and put the milestones, and the framework, and the contracts, and the deliverables in place from the beginning to achieve that sovereign capability.
Phil Tarrant: Do you think we've made the decision that we want to be shipbuilders yet or it's still open for discussion?
Margot Forster: I hope we've a decision that we want to be shipbuilders.
Phil Tarrant: I think that everyone within ... Obviously there is some naysayers, but I think collectively defence industry want these programs to happen in Australia.
Margot Forster: We absolutely do, and we're ready for it.
Phil Tarrant: We are ready. How do you feel we're geared into the future? I know the Defence Teaming Centre has been doing a lot of work to boost the skills capabilities of Australian defence businesses, the Defence Industry Education and Skills Consortium, which is an initiative that you're a big part of. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Margot Forster: The Defence Industry Education and Skills Consortium, or DIESC is less of a mouthful. It's a collection of three South Australian universities. Edith Cowan from the west, RMIT from Victoria, TAFE SA, and South Metropolitan TAFE from Western Australia, and it's also supported by the Defence Teaming Centre and the Indigenous Defence Consortium. We have come together as traditionally competitive entities to ensure that the education sector is ready to respond to whatever the defence industry needs in terms of skills and education. We want to be there to customise the education offering to optimise the vocational system to produce the skills that we need.
We also are very keen to streamline the movement of people between the higher education sector and the vocational education sector, recognising that four out of five workers are going to be from or at least start their careers in the vocational area. We see that this is an amazing opportunity not just for workers who decide they want a change of scenery, a career change, and want to move sideways into our industry, but also for the youth, for the children from around the country who can see that now that we've got an undertaking for a continuous shipbuilding program, we're going to be a shipbuilding nation, that there is a strong future, a strong high tech, well paid future, in shipbuilding.
Phil Tarrant: On a personal note that I sort of connected with this, how have you find defence and defence industry as a career to pursue alongside building a good family environment as well? Has it been a good industry for that basis?
Margot Forster: It's been fantastic. My journey has been fantastic and I really like the closer synergy between defence and defence industry, because there are a lot of people who want to be able to be a part of the Australia Defence Force effort, but for whatever reason, whether it be medical, or whatever, can't serve the country in uniform. Having this robust defence industry now provides an alternate career path where you can serve the country as part of its defence industry, so I think that's a fantastic opportunity. I mean if you look at my children, I have two sons who are profoundly deaf, they're both clever, clever young men, and they would have loved to have followed me into the Defence Force, but it obviously isn't an option for them, so now I'm priming my 14-year-old to be a submarine builder.
Phil Tarrant: There you go. Well, it sounds like there's going to be plenty of work available in that regards.
Margot Forster: Yes.
Phil Tarrant: And for you the transition from uniform to life after uniform, has it been a relatively easy one?
Margot Forster: Truthfully, no, it's quite a profound change. Having to get up every day and work out what I'm going to wear, as simple as that, is challenging. It used to be really easy, it was this uniform or that uniform. But no, to be serious, it has been a shock. I mean coming out of the defence community into civilian life is never easy, but what is good is that I still feel connected through the fact that I've moved into defence industry and I'm still contributing, so I guess it's a soft landing. I'd call it a soft landing.
Phil Tarrant: I love our listeners too, the Defence Podcast, the current serving Defence Force members, both personnel and also senior sort of officers, and for many they need to make a decision at some point, when is it time to leave the service into the corporate or the private world, and fortunately we have such a robust defence industry that it's a very attractive place for people to have a nice landing. You probably see that in a lot of the member organisations that you work with, you probably run across some old friends and colleagues all over the place.
Margot Forster: Every day.
Phil Tarrant: Every day, which is good. Margot, I've really enjoyed having a chat with you, I like the vigour that the Defence Teaming Centre has to proactively try and shape our perceptions about it being South Australia orientated into a national association, and people I speak to are starting to see it that way, so obviously you're getting some runs on the board. I think the opportunity for defence industry from a national perspective is a considerable one as we sort of look at these enhancing and capitalising on these sovereign capabilities that we're looking to develop, so thanks for coming in. Make sure you keep connected to let us know what's going on, and it'd be really good to get you back on the podcast one day with maybe one of your members and we can have a chat about some of their experiences as well, which would be good.
Margot Forster: Yeah, thanks Phil. I really appreciate the opportunity.