Jim Wilson came across the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) at a time when his industry, forestry, and its leadership was regrouping in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis.
“I’d approached the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation, and they were really positive about my application, but there was a struggle finding me a sponsor,” he says.
Having made his application to the ARLP, Jim, who is currently the Plantation Operations and Services Manager for asset manager Forico, spent the next six months seeking to recruit his own sponsorship in his home of Tasmania.
“Then the ARLF let me know that they had been able to partner me with the Thyne Reid Foundation. I was quite amazed,” Jim says.
“Isn’t it incredible that there is an organisation prepared to make a massive contribution and invest in someone who doesn’t quite fit industry boxes? It still impresses me to this day.”
Scholarship secured; Jim threw himself into the ARLP experience.
“I had a strong leadership appetite and ambition to do something that was bigger than my industry and bigger than Tasmania.” he says.
As the sole ‘Tasmanian delegate’ on the program, Jim relished the opportunity to connect with people from enormously broad backgrounds and industries.
“A major strength of the ARLP is the people it exposes you to and the strong foundations you make with a network that you can call upon at any time.
“Following the commercial collapse of managed investment schemes, and political damage attached to our industry, our leadership had disappeared,” Jim explains.
“Forestry was a sector that individuals like me still believed in, in terms of its potential, but there was a lot of reputational baggage and damage to social license to repair.”
As a child growing up on a mixed farming operation in Tasmania, Jim had seen a clear inherited path into agriculture. When his family property was unexpectedly sold, Jim, aged 13, was forced to reimagine his direction in life.
“I looked to an alternative career path that still involved the outdoors and working with people in grassroots industries. Forestry ticked those boxes for me.”
During the GFC, the ANU forestry graduate found himself working for KordaMentha, the receivers of fallen forestry giant, Gunns Ltd, preparing failed forestry assets for sale.
“It was a time where people really valued honesty and candour and empathy, and I had to marry that with corporate responsibility.” Jim explains.
“I have described the ARLP as life-changing,” he says, “But I think ‘awakening’ is a better description … It helped me understand my strengths; build courage; dare to lead and be comfortable in that space. It gave me the platform to develop skills around communication and have real conversations with people and be brave enough to get into the real issues.”
Today, the ‘real issues’ for Jim still centre around strong communication and representation in his industry.
“On paper, my role as Operations Manager means I’m a large corporate tree farmer, but my responsibilities are much broader. I make a much more holistic contribution – my role is also at its core about people.” Jim says.
He now occupies a ‘hybrid’ space, straddling agriculture and forestry, working hard to address the sustainability issues in both industries and contribute impactful solutions to climate change.
“Incorporating trees within our agricultural landscapes is what makes me tick. What engages me is encouraging landowners to build natural capital infrastructure on their farms, planting trees not as a means of replacing agricultural productivity, but enhancing it,” Jim says.
“The value proposition for farmers is much broader than we have understood in the past. All the benefits we see in trees providing shelter for stock; wind breaks; reducing soil erosion and boosting soil health are critical. We must have that whole-farm perspective to achieve the best outcomes.”
Reflecting on the ARLP, Jim can’t help but see the near-miss it could have been.
“In terms of sponsorship, there was no other gateway for my participation. I can’t imagine where I would be now if I hadn’t done the ARLP, but it would be different, and without overstating my impact, I know the Tasmanian forestry industry would be different … Leading people and contributing to my industry and my community is still what drives me,” Jim says.
“The Thyne Reid Foundation plays such an important role in the ARLF’s portfolio of sponsors and the talent that they are able to invest in. It’s so important to me that I was given the opportunity through the ARLP to maximise my contribution. That investment has meant I’m better positioned to give back.”