By CAITLIN CROWLEY
REGIONAL advocacy will underpin a new strategic direction for Toowoomba and Surat Basin Enterprise (TSBE), spearheaded by newly appointed CEO Greg Bowden.
The new boss sat down with the Caller for a wide-ranging interview, where he outlined his vision for the organisation and addressed some of the ongoing criticisms of the economic development group, including its lavish spend on travel and conferences and reliance on funding from Toowoomba Regional Council despite a paying membership base of more than 500 businesses.
He also addressed concerns raised by the Caller that gender discrimination and sexism was prompting female professionals to pursue job opportunities outside the Toowoomba region.
Bowden said his number one priority was driving a new strategy, which would give himself, the board and his team “real direction”.
“It’s time anyway,” he said. “We’re ten years old and we have to look at those key three points; linking business opportunity, regional advocacy, investment attraction.
“Are they still relevant? If they are, are we still doing them the right way?”
Bowden said regional advocacy would not disappear from the new strategy and was something he’d already spoken to the TSBE board about increasing.
“It’s something that I believe needs to really ramp up and it’s something that I will do,” Bowden said.
“And will that mean me being outside of Toowoomba more than I would like? Probably.
“I said that I would become a regional voice and a regional advocate for industry and economic growth in the region.
“So that’s something I’ve chatted to the board already about – how much do you want me to be out there, and I’m talking about external markets.
Bowden said he’d like to “steal” Wellcamp Airport’s slogan, “From Toowoomba to the World”.
“I want to be part of that mantra if I can – that could be Toowoomba to Brisbane, Toowoomba to Sydney, Toowoomba to Melbourne, or Toowoomba to the world – anywhere across the globe.
“That is something I had started the journey on in Rockhampton in my past three years, it’s certainly something that Lord Mayor Graham Quirk and I focused very much on with Brisbane which has culminated with the Olympic Games at the end of that.
“Toowoomba is the key brand for me – it’s not TSBE, it’s not anything else. Toowoomba – that’s the brand to me. Come and visit, come and invest, come and live.”
Bowden answered key criticisms of TSBE which are routinely raised by the community, including its reliance on ongoing funding from Toowoomba Regional Council to the tune of around half a million dollars a year.
“I think the financial investment helps to ensure that Council is fully engaged and fully involved in economic development,” he said.
When asked whether that funding limited TSBE’s ability to lobby Council, Bowden said he didn’t think that was an important part of his role.
“I think advocating with and for Council is actually a more powerful tool because I’ve been part of the SEQ Mayors in a former role and have worked with Toowoomba very closely.
“So they are an active member of that SEQ Mayors and they’re an active advocate for the region so I’d rather stand with that Council rather than lobbying them for things.”
Bowden said economic development wasn’t an “exact science” but that ratepayers could know the money had been well spent because both the local economy and jobs had increased since TSBE’s inception.
TSBE’s Annual Report 2021-22 showed the organisation spent just over $260,000 on “travel, seminars and conferences” – a figure Bowden defended as part of TSBE’s regional advocacy role.
“Those conferences certainly aren’t seen to be in my eyes, a trip of a lifetime,” he said.
“If people don’t know you, they can’t invest here.”
“Toowoomba is perceived as a very mature economy – can Toowoomba do more? Of course they can.
“Their profile is high in Queensland – a huge amount of respect in Queensland economically – but also as a liveable city, it certainly has that tag.
“Toowoomba probably in some ways has those same challenges Brisbane had back in the early 2000s – how are we going to grow and how are we going to attract that investment?
“I do see similarities 20 years later of exactly how we may be able to do that in Toowoomba.
“The reason I took the role was because I saw not only a city that had matured a lot in the 25 years since I’ve been gone, but also – what a region.”
Bowden also told the Caller he would call out sexism if he saw it, when asked whether he had heard concerns professional women were looking for opportunities outside the region because of how they’d been treated.
“It’s certainly not something I’ve encountered to date Caitlin, but it’s probably not something you necessarily are going to encounter in your first eight weeks either,” he said.
“If you want a job in management and you’re female, come and talk to me.
“I’m very comfortable in this space, my team in Rockhampton was more than 50% women and my leadership team was 50% women so I’m very comfortable in this space.
“It’s a cause – not necessarily that I champion – but I certainly, when asked questions like this, I will be very serious about the fact that I believe in it.
“So if somebody that I do encounter asks me a question or makes a comment, I will pull them up on it if I believe that they are in some way out of line.
“I don’t think there is a place for it (sexism) – there wasn’t a place for it once upon a time, there’s certainly not a place for it in 2023.”
Eight weeks into the job, Bowden said he was most excited about TSBE’s Business Navigators and Indigenous Business Connect Programs and the work being done towards the 2032 Brisbane Olympics.
“They will work hand in hand with energy and infrastructure, with agriculture and ag tech, with health with education – the other four key sectors that we work with,” he said.