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The Y Factor

The Y Factor

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Townsville’s next generation of business leaders are incredibly talented, innovative and ready to push our city forward. We look at who our exceptional Gen Y leaders are, see what they think our growth industries will be in the future and delve into how we can make our city more liveable for younger generations.


Diane Ruhl

It’s often difficult to innovate ‘fixed’ industries such as law, but this is where those in Gen Y excel. Diane Ruhl –Principal of Ruhl Family Law Centre – combined her innovative mindset and unique approach to business to create a boutique law firm in Townsville, which has since thrived.

Whilst opening her own business was certainly an achievement, Diane has also won several notable awards. This includes the 2011 Women Lawyers Association Queensland Emergent Women Lawyer of the Year award, the 2012 James Cook University Outstanding Alumni Award and many others.

Diane isn’t alone when it comes to innovation in fixed industries either, noting that there are several Gen Y leaders who she admires.

“I think we have a number of people in our community doing extraordinary things within their field of work,” Diane says. “Alicia Tam – Owner of Milou Dress house in Flinders Street has created her own fashion label as part of her boutique dress shop, Carly Chiesa and Megan Wessel from The Beet Bar wanted a career change and took a leap of faith creating the Beet Bar. They stepped out of their comfort zone and are doing amazing things. Also Matt Merrin from Jam and the Brine Family at A Touch of Salt. I think these two restaurants are pushing our city forward in terms of everything food.”

Whilst these talented pools of young professionals work to move Townsville forward, Diane says there are also several aspects – such as adapting to technology and change – that will differentiate Gen Y from their predecessors.

“We live in a world of connectivity. For the baby boomers, a new computer was still an item that required effort and knowledge by looking at manuals. What we now have with smartphones and social media means that you can create a business and online presence with a mobile phone,” Diane says. “I think the next generation will embrace change more easily given how quickly technology will change how we do things. I feel that they will have the skill to change any situation in an effective and respectful way. That will be an important attribute that I think differs from the current generation of leaders.”

Diane also notes that utilising the latest technology and social media trends to attract and retain the right type of workers is also another aspect that could benefit our city.

“This generation of people love to be doing things and showing the world that they are. They perhaps have the right balance between work and life,” says Diane. “The tourism industry has a lot of potential – we just have to be brave because industry and work will always play a major part in any individual or families decision to move to a new town. However, seeing the benefits of downtime and where you can spend it also plays a big part as well. A number of people leave the region in their 20s and 30s but return later on knowing that our city is truly something spectacular.”



Donald McPhail

Living in Townsville for five years, Donald has worked hard to make his mark in the business and startup community by co-founding two successful businesses – Be Psyched and Becon Health. Alongside these, Donald has also won the Emerging Leader award in Townsville, been shortlisted for the state award, become Manager for the Intelligent Grid Platform at Energy Queensland and been placed on the Queensland division committee for Engineers Australia.

Since moving, Donald says he has seen a trend towards brave Gen Y leaders who have been helped by older generations.

“Coming off the back off an economic glut has been good for Gen Y because we often have lower levels of responsibility, debt and families so we’re more likely to take risks, start businesses and go after these opportunities because we’re a little bit less burnt from past experiences,” Donald says. “At the same time, a lot of the established business leaders – like Gen X and Baby Boomers – have done quite well for themselves and are more willing to pay it forward. They’ve done well in the city, they know the potential it has and it hurts them to see the current state, which is why they’re willing to pay it forward to other generations.”

When it comes to industries set to see growth, Donald says Townsville’s unique array of industries could work in our favour if we plan it right.

“Townsville has an excellent level of diversity in the economy which is quite rare in a regional and capital city sense,” Donald says. “I think defence, education, health, resources and construction will all still be really fundamental. I think the growth industries will be energy – especially with the opportunities we have around technology and renewables – the Great Barrier Reef and the discoveries that we can get off the back of that from the marine biology and ecotourism aspect. There’s also a real emphasis on Queensland as a whole to evolve the way we manage healthcare whilst also having a focus on healthy cities, healthy communities and being able to service people in their local communities. Townsville could really be a hub for the development opportunity again off the back of the hospital, university and NDIS that are being based here.”

Whilst having growth industries and brave Gen Y is exciting, there is certainly one aspect holding our growth back.

“The only negative is securing talent,” Donald says. “It’s been slow for so many years that a lot of people have left, so you have to look externally. There is the potential to tap into JCU or CQU and take straight from the pool, but if you’re trying to get someone above that level of experience it’s quite difficult.”

Yet there are several things we could be doing to attract this talent back to our city.

“One is job opportunities and creating gateways to that by encouraging employers to take on people through development programs,” Donald explains. “For instance, through Energy Queensland and similarly through GHD, there’s been a very big inflow of graduates who are coming here and ultimately getting set up here because of the development opportunity, then staying for ten or fifteen years. I think those programs from larger employers are important but local, state and federal government also need to help support those initiatives.”

“The other thing is we bring a lot of people in through defence who are ultimately still Gen Y when they decide to leave. We need to support opportunities around that exit and encourage them to stay within the community because they’ll support our economy as a whole.”


Sharell O’Brien

When it comes to inspirational women in our city, Sharell O’Brien is certainly a name that tops the list. Sharell is currently the supervising solicitor for North Queensland Women’s Legal Service (NQWLS), a not-for-profit community legal centre providing free legal assistance to women experiencing domestic violence and relationship breakdown. In 2017 Sharell was awarded James Cook University Outstanding Alumni Award, was a Queensland Young Australian of the Year Finalist and in 2016 received the Lawyers Weekly 30 Under 30 Pro Bono category award for her work.

Whilst Sharell’s dedication to her job and the industry is inspiring, she says that her generation gets a bad rap which is often undeserved.

“I think we should be excited about the next generation of leaders. They are not afraid of hard work and they’re prepared to take risks and look outside the norm for answers,” Sharell says. “Gen Y and Millennials are often criticised for their work ethic or different life priorities to previous generations. This stereotyping is disappointing and can lead to businesses losing great potential because they didn’t know how to engage their employee’s strengths and passions.”

On top of their dedication to hard work, Sharell says Gen Y and Millennials also have the ability to “look towards innovation” in order to grow businesses.

“Gen Y and Millennials continually question why and how things are done and whether it can be improved. This way of thinking is important with the evolving technologies. Gen Y and Millennials also look for careers, businesses or jobs that they are passionate about which lead to longevity in careers and better outcomes,” Sharell says, emphasising that this new wave of thinking has also helped to change views in society. “Importantly to my field of work, community attitudes to what is acceptable behaviour is slowly changing, and the presence of Gen Y in leadership positions is further empowering that change. The same motivation that drives us to question why and how things are done is being applied at a community scale. Behaviour that was previously accepted because it seemed just too hard to change is being questioned by a louder and sterner voice, one which is demanding to be answered. Of course, there are numerous unrecognised figures from past generations that have put us in the position that we are in, but I believe we are on the precipice of significant social change.”

Creating more social and innovative change is certainly a key aspect of evolving our city, which is why it’s important to keep Gen Y and Millennials in Townsville – so how do we do it?

“People in their 20s and 30s want career progression and things to do on weekends. To attract more of them to our region we have to hold events that they would want to attend and show them that living in a regional city will provide its own unique career opportunities and cultural attractions,” Sharell says, adding that once they find Townsville, they’ll never look back.

It truly is an exciting time to be in Townsville. Growth is either already happening or right on the horizon, both new and old industries are being innovated by particularly bright Gen Y leaders and fresh thinking is pushing our city forward with assistance from past leaders. Banding together to improve our future as one is so indicative of the brilliant community we’ve been built on. With fresh minds coming together to create new solutions to existing problems, it’s only a matter of time before Townsville becomes the name in the north.

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