She’s championed sustainable property for nearly two decades. Now, as Romilly Madew AO expands her city-shaping agenda as incoming Infrastructure Australia CEO, she chats with the Property Council’s Michael Zorbas about highs, lows and what’s on the horizon.
Madew, the long-serving chief executive officer of the Green Building Council of Australia, and Zorbas, the Property Council’s group executive of policy, have been down in the trenches together many times over the years.
In the early naughties Zorbas, then the Property Council’s chief advocate, and Madew, then executive director of the Property Council in the ACT, were among the first to understand the potential of green buildings. The Canberra Airport’s 8 Brindabella Circuit was the first building in Australia to achieve a Green Star rating, and Madew says it “opened our eyes to the opportunities”.
Zorbas: After 14 years with the GBCA, 13 as CEO, no one is better placed to reflect on the property industry’s green building journey than you. What do you think are the industry’s biggest achievements during your time at the helm?
Madew: A couple of words come to mind that aptly describe how the industry has changed, and what we’ve achieved.
The first is ‘collaboration’. Our industry is fiercely competitive and collaborative in equal measure – and there is nothing like it globally. From the quality of the GBCA’s leadership at the board level to the partnerships the GBCA has enjoyed with the Property Council, ASBEC and others – it means we are never working in isolation and have always had champions advocating on our behalf.
The second is ‘certification’. In my first year with the GBCA I felt like the door was shut in my face every time I had a meeting. Now, all of the REITs have Green Star portfolio ratings. Thirteen years ago, I would never have imagined that nearly every shopping centre would be Green Star certified, or that I could walk through Martin Place knowing that nearly every building boasts a Green Star rating.
Zorbas: Forty per cent of Australia's CBD office space is now Green Star certified – and so is 40 per cent of our retail stock. This must be the fastest trajectory in the OECD?
Madew: Exactly. And that’s the result of a long-standing commitment. Australia’s property industry jumped on board net zero very early. We picked up GRESB and ran with it. When the Commercial Building Disclosure threshold dropped from 2,000 sqm to 1,000 sqm, our leaders didn’t blink. The World Green Building Council’s Net Zero Carbon Building Commitment has signed up 45 international organisations and 11 of those are Australian. You can’t underestimate what that leadership means internationally, and how Australia’s real estate industry is perceived. It’s something we should all be very proud of.
The industry has embraced sustainability in a practical and pragmatic way. It’s been a pleasure to work in the industry – and I often say I’ve had the best job in Australia because I get to work with a proactive and engaged industry filled with passionate people.
Zorbas: Looking forward, what do you see as the property industry’s biggest opportunity?
Madew: I think we have been very successful in bringing the top tier developers and owners on the journey, but there is more work to be done to engage second tier developers. And there’s definitely more work in the existing building space. We need to address market failures in the mid-tier, where more than 80,000 buildings are in need of energy efficiency upgrades. I don’t think we’ve cracked that yet – and it’s urgent.
Zorbas: What role do you think government plays here? We have just started to see governments really step up, with the building ministers’ forum only this month affirming a commitment to low energy a trajectory – something that ASBEC has been championing for years.
Madew: In other countries, governments lead on sustainability. In Australia, it’s mixed and confusing, with industry leading the way. We undoubtedly need a good balance of carrot, stick and government role-modelling.
Zorbas: You’ve been part of the city-shaping narrative in Australia for nearly two decades. Green Star started the ball rolling with a focus on sustainability in CBDs, then broadened to communities. Infrastructure seems to be the next frontier. How will you bring what you’ve learnt to this next challenge?
Madew: When I was invited to consider the role at Infrastructure Australia, part of what attracted me was the opportunity to help shape the direction at a time when we are facing rapid population growth, congestion and climate change.
I think the sustainability story helped the property industry to see it has a much broader role than just bricks and mortar. Sixty per cent of GBCA members have reconciliation action plans, for example. Diversity is front-and-centre – thanks to the leadership of the Property Male Champions of Change. And mental health in workplaces and on construction sites on the radar.
I think there’s a real opportunity for Australians to understand that infrastructure is more than roads and rail – it’s about the energy, telecommunications, water and social infrastructure that support our cities, regions and communities.
I feel like I’m able to bring my skills in stakeholder engagement and advocacy, together with my enthusiasm and willingness to work with diverse groups of people, to highlight our infrastructure opportunities and challenges.
Zorbas: You are the first woman in the top job at Infrastructure Australia, and you will be working with a powerful and effective female chair, Julieanne Alroe. At the risk of generalising, Infrastructure isn’t a space that has been traditionally led by women. What will you do in your role to drive change?
Madew: When I started in property 17 years ago, the industry was a very different place. I was one of few women. It has changed rapidly, particularly in recent years, and I applaud the efforts of the Property Council and our industry leaders for helping people to understand that diversity delivers better decision-making.
I see infrastructure at a very similar turning point. Having worked in one asset class, I can bring my experience to the challenge as the infrastructure sector builds a roadmap not just for gender diversity, but diversity more broadly. It’s going to take time, but never underestimate the power of role models.
Zorbas: Speaking of role models, who are the three biggest mentors of your career and how will the lessons they taught you be useful in your new role?
Madew: I’ve had many role models and mentors during my career, and we’d be here for a long time if I named them all. Many people have supported and guided me across the business, lifesaving and even political spheres.
But three stand out. The first is Peter Verwer AO, who I’ve worked with for over 17 years. From the day I started at the Property Council, he treated me as an executive, and made no distinction between men and women. He drives everyone hard and expects results, but in challenging me, he also helped me to understand my potential.
The second is Carol Schwartz AM. When I started in the industry there were really only four female leaders: Jane Montgomery-Hribar, Di Jay, Jennifer Cunich and Carol, who was one of my strongest supporters. She included me in some wonderful opportunities, was a safe place to explore ideas and issues, and continues to give me frank and fearless advice to this day.
I’m also lucky to have two wonderful older sisters, Nicola and Philippa, who I consider mentors. Few people in our industry have a sounding board like my sister Nicola [Wakefield Evans, who sits on the board of Lendlease, Macquarie Bank and Clean Energy Finance Corporation]. We have an incredibly special relationship. I can have conversations with her that I probably couldn’t have with a non-relative.
All these mentors have given me confidence as I take on my biggest challenge at Infrastructure Australia.
Zorbas: Do you have one last piece of green-tinged advice for Australia’s property professionals?Madew: I do! I think we need to go harder, faster when it comes to carbon and sustainability. We lead globally in the non-residential sector and know we can drive incredible sustainable outcomes by working together. And like the Property Male Champions of Change, we need the leaders to call out the laggards to get serious about sustainability.