Fiona Dunster

Growing up with an architect father, childhood was a mix of architecturally designed rabbit hutches, curved walls and ‘smilie’ windows. Early ‘site visits’ were spent with my father on overseas work trips where I would spend hours looking at and learning about buildings and the use of space.

My education in the world of architecture and building continued, often visiting sites with my father complete with pink gumboots and hardhat with the word ‘BOSS’ blazoned across the front in silver glitter pen. Rather than dolls, I wanted Tonka trucks and cranes, a strange passion for a young girl and one that never really dissipated.

According to my parents, I’ve always been an organiser. So the story goes, I was organising anyone and everyone I could from the time I could first talk. As a family we used to joke about how there is a fine line between negotiation and manipulation but it was only really much later that I began to realise the difference and the value of the first.

The other strong influence on my childhood was horse riding. I was fortunate to have parents who were both able and willing to foster a rapidly developing passion in equestrian sport. From four years old through to my early twenties my riding was a key focal point of my life and looking back I realise it played a major role in my personal development. The sport demanded that I learn early the importance of discipline, responsibility and commitment: values that developed further with the unfolding of my career.

While my childhood had established my interest in the building industry, I’d learnt by the end of school that my own strengths were not in design. On leaving school I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. As fate would have it I didn’t achieve the necessary results to be accepted into law and entered the Faculty’s Building (now Property and Construction) degree as a second choice. Being a relatively young course I didn’t know much about it or the future direction it might take me. It did, however, have an emphasis on management and could offer me opportunities to foster my interests in law via electives.

The first three years were tough. Being heavily oriented around technical subject matter, I found it hard to focus and was easily sidetracked. My industry year saw a change in the way I viewed the course. I spent six months working in Sydney for a small construction management company. I was immediately thrown on site and found this experience was exactly what I needed to appreciate the importance of the knowledge base I’d been developing in the first three years of my course.

On returning to Melbourne I took a full-time position with a medium sized project management firm where I became involved in the development of the Juvenile Justice Centre in Malmsbury. The complexity and unusual nature of the issues associated with the design of the facility played on my love for detail and I returned to my final year of studies with newfound zest.

I attacked my final year studies with a passion I hadn’t had before, fired by the program’s shift to management-based subjects and electives in legal studies. I graduated exhausted, but pleased with the degree and filled with high hopes for my future in the industry.

The opportunities offered by the Sydney Olympic Games were too good to resist and in 1996 I moved to Sydney to join a project management company responsible for the delivery of a number of venues. For three years I was involved in a diverse range of projects including a detailed analysis of the infrastructure and operational needs of the international air terminal to cater for the Games and beyond to 2010.

The highlight of my Sydney experience was being based on site at the new Equestrian Centre being developed for the Games. I couldn’t have hoped for such an experience – where I was able to combine work with my long time love. For two years I was responsible for the management of the planning, environmental, quality and community issues of the project. To really augment the experience I was also put in charge of liaising with and hosting the raft of international equestrian team managers and stakeholders who frequented the venue over the course of its design and construction. The project saw me interface with a myriad of government bodies including parks and wildlife, aboriginal affairs, European heritage, quarantine, customs and the major utilities. Developing both design and operational strategies for the movement of spectators, media and athletes around the 400 hectare site exposed me to a rare array of issues addressing disability access, security and servicing.

Burnt out, I returned to Melbourne late in 1999 to spend six weeks pottering in the garden with my father and sifting through thoughts about where to go next. I interviewed a number of companies, finally accepting a position with Clifton Coney Stevens (CCS) as a project manager with an eye to developing experience in the retail sector of the industry. During my time at CCS I successfully managed the design and construction of two substantial regional shopping centres and gained an appreciation for the associated issues of leasing and centre management. I embarked on my MBA part-time in 2000 to strengthen and diversify my skill base in general management, business planning and finance. My final 12 months with the company saw me promoted to Associate taking on more business development, staff and quality management responsibilities and as part of the team managing the design and procurement of a new commercial tower in the CBD for one of the major industry funds investors.

At the end of 2001, I accepted a position with Australian Super Developments (ASD), the property development company of Cbus, as Manager – Project Development. My current role encompasses the identification of potential site opportunities, bringing together appropriate resources to undertake feasibility analysis and market research, and to determine highest and best use development opportunities for sites. The role also includes identification of potential anchor tenants required to underpin development and management of the negotiation process between the parties to ensure core commercial criteria are not compromised in legal negotiation. I have overall responsibility for the definition of project briefs, appointment of consultant teams and their management in the delivery of final product to the market.

I am now in my final year of the MBA, and many of the communication and process-based skills I established through my building degree are being augmented with a new analytical focus. While the importance of those earlier years of the building degree initially eluded me, looking back it is clear the foundation it gave me has served me well. In 2002 I accepted a position on the Faculty’s Property and Construction Advisory Board and via this avenue hope to be able to offer back some support to the faculty that encouraged me to define my strengths and weaknesses and align these to what has and continues to prove a challenging career path within our industry.

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