Childhood memories of her local mall fuelled Fiona Mackenzie’s passion for property. Today she runs the southern hemisphere’s largest shopping centre for Vicinity Centres. What career tips can Chadstone’s general manager offer rising stars?
During her 17-year career, Mackenzie has steered some of the largest shopping centres in the world, including Westfield Fountain Gate and now Chadstone. After spending her years globe-trotting, Mackenzie decided “I wanted to work in something ‘alive’.”
And that something was shopping centres.
“I wrote to every major landlord in the country and told them why they should employ me.” Westfield responded, and Mackenzie landed her first job as an assistant marketing manager at Westfield Fountain Gate.
“It was in the middle of the Kath and Kim era and I absolutely loved it. We were among some of Melbourne’s fastest growing suburbs with a marketing team organising everything from fashion parades to Santa. We could draw a crowd whether we were opening an envelope or bringing in a celebrity. There wasn’t much not to like.”
Consistent promotions followed, first into management before a short stint in Hong Kong had her departing Westfield, although it lasted less than a year.
“Westfield brought me back to lead the team at a much higher level – taking on the role of centre manager at Fountain Gate, which was at the time its largest asset. I’ll never say I was lucky – I worked hard and was tenacious – but the leaders trusted me.”
Looking to expand her knowledge of retail, Mackenzie “pushed” to manage the construction of Westfield Plenty Valley. The decision was questioned by colleagues at the time who “wondered why I’d want to move to one of the smallest assets in the portfolio”.
After the opening of Plenty Valley, Westfield restructured the business and Mackenzie took on a regional manager role leading several sites across Victoria.
“During this period I had my first child, and Westfield’s leaders went out of their way to make it positive. I was relocated to a centre closer to home, was able to build up my days and nothing was too difficult.”
After giving birth to her second child, the transition back to work was, again, “seamless”. But after 12 years with Westfield, it was time to take on new challenges. Mackenzie joined the Pacific Group of Companies as general manager of its shopping centre portfolio.
Reporting directly to the CEO and chairman, Mackenzie was responsible for all aspects of centre performance. “Working directly with an individual owner is an amazing opportunity. Conversations were often robust and there were challenges but it was exceptionally rewarding.”
Mackenzie had her two young daughters at home and had been working at breakneck speed for more than a decade, which is when she decided it was time to pause, to rest and to reassess. She resigned from Pacific Group of Companies at the end of 2015 and took a 10-month break to focus on life at home with her family.
“After a few months I realised I needed to work and I was a much better mother for it.”
When Vicinity Centres approached her to manage Chadstone, “I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to lead Chadstone, it is one of the top five shopping, dining and entertainment destinations anywhere in the world,” she says.
Mackenzie says her “tenacious, results-driven” approach has helped her throughout her career and she’s never felt a disadvantage as a woman, however she acknowledges business practices must continue to evolve to attract and retain women.
“There are times when I have felt challenged. I often remind my male colleagues that I don’t have a wife at home. But that’s not a company problem, it’s a societal problem,” she admits.
The industry is undoubtedly heading in the right direction, Mackenzie emphasises.
“Vicinity Centres embraces diversity and has the flexibility required to get results. There is no barrier to flexible work arrangements. The discussion is around outcomes rather than how many hours you are in the office working or whether you leave early on a Tuesday.
“I’d like to think that one day we won’t be discussing diversity at all because outcomes are valued higher than inputs,” Mackenzie adds.
“Generationally, I look to my daughters’ future and I hope the hard yards that have been done, and are being done now, will provide them with opportunities tomorrow.”
- Be prepared to roll up your sleeves. “Nothing beats grit and hard work.”
- Value honesty above all. “Honest, open and frank communication has held me in good stead in highly-politicised environments and in sensitive stakeholder engagement roles. The ability to be honest has been at the cornerstone of my success.”
- Embrace the unknown. Mackenzie rates her time working on Westfield Plenty Valley among her career highlights. “I gained far more depth to my property knowledge, but more than that, we had such a significant impact on the community that had never before had a shopping centre. When I drive back 10 years after completion and see how it has evolved I feel such pride.”
Fiona Mackenzie is one of 20 women in property featured in Grow the Talent Pool, a report developed by the Property Council and EY in 2018 to continue the conversation on gender representation, diversity and inclusion in the property industry.