From writing legislation that changed the face of the iron ore industry to organising CHOGM – CCI CEO Deidre Willmott has had a diverse career with some surprising highlights.

Since starting out with a law degree from the University of WA, Willmott has lent her skills across many sectors including government, business, major events and as head of WA’s peak business body. 

Willmott will be guest speaker at CCI’s Lighthouse Leadership series on December 4, where she will talk about leading the advocacy charge at CCI and what it takes to be a leader.

Among her other positions, Willmott has been chief of staff to two former premiers including Richard Court and Colin Barnett, director external relations at Fortescue Metals Group Ltd and general manager executive services for the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games.

After serving as CEO of CCI for four years, Willmott will step down early next year. Her affiliation with the Chamber began in 1992 when, she was seconded as a lawyer to write the workplace agreements legislation in 1992, her first exposure to policy.

“That legislation, based on the work I did, was enacted and changed the face of the iron ore industry,” she says.

“Rio Tinto used that legislation to directly contract its employees, removing them from an industrial climate where they could not guarantee the arrival of shipments of iron ore on time and where our biggest customer Japan had gone to Brazil to establish a new iron ore jurisdiction because we were so unreliable as a supplier in WA.

“They went from a shocking record of days lost in industrial action to not one day lost from 1994 until 2008. Thank goodness we have not returned to the culture of the 70s and 80s.

“That experience opened my eyes to the impact that you could have working in policy so when I was invited to go and work for the government I was interested, I was still in a legal role but I got to work on a lot of things happening within government and then I was asked to be Richard Court’s chief of staff.”

Leading the finalisation of approvals for the Gorgon project – one of the largest natural gas projects ever undertaken in the world – is Willmott’s most rewarding achievement under Barnett.

“We really just lined up every part of government including the federal government, and had the project and government all working to one timeline. The Joint Venture parties were able to make their final investment decision almost to the day they’d said a year earlier they wanted to. That was very rewarding,” she says.

“It was the largest single investment made anywhere in the world in 2009 and WA didn’t look back. The GFC passed us by really.”

After stepping down as Barnett’s chief of staff, FMG’s Andrew Forrest hired Willmott to work on the company’s expansion.

“In early 2010 they were ramping up their initial Cloudbreak mine and port and they were already planning their expansion so Andrew asked me about going to work for Fortescue. I literally took what I’d learnt working in government on Gorgon and applied the same discipline.

“Practically the hardest thing I’ve ever done is secure the fifth berth for Fortescue but they now have five berths in Port Hedland Port. That is something I worked very hard on. I was very happy when that came through.”

As the 25th person to join the organising committee for the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, Willmott was able to see the process of organising the international event from start to finish. Perth benefited from her learnings when CHOGM was taken to a whole new level in 2011.

“The Commonwealth Games organising committee had 1500 employees, 5000 contractors, 15,000 volunteers by the time the event was delivered and every single thing that happened in that event was planned. We knew down to the last person what their experience was going to be – what bus they were going to catch, how they would arrive at the venue and what the highlights of the day would be.

It was declared the best Commonwealth Games ever with two million tickets sold and two million people visiting the cultural festival organised as part of the games.

“In 2009, when foreign affairs minister Stephen Smith came to Colin Barnett and said he could organise for Perth to host CHOGM, Colin asked if I could help and I said ‘yes, absolutely.’ So as the inaugural state director of CHOGM I just basically called everybody together and put in place the same structures we had in Melbourne for the cultural program and for the business programs and CHOGM was a huge success – including the Queen’s visit.”

“As a meeting of heads of government, CHOGM didn’t really need to involve the state at all, but we planned a real community celebration around the Royal Visit, the Commonwealth Business Forum and the cultural and sports festivals, so everyone was involved in welcoming our visitors.”

► Don't miss your chance to hear from Deidre as she shares insights into her career and some all-important tips on how to make it to the top. Book your tickets to CCI’s Lighthouse Leadership event here.