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10 minutes with … University of Adelaide MBA Director Damian Scanlon


By the time Damian Scanlon went to university at the age of 22, he had travelled the world and held a huge variety of jobs from builder’s labourer to tuna fisherman and restaurant manager.

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After completing an economics degree and later an MBA, Scanlon steadily climbed the corporate ladder, landing executive positions across a number of industries including aviation, mining and resources and aquaculture. His diverse career has led him back to university where he is now the director of the University of Adelaide’s MBA program, the same course that helped launch his business career 25 years ago.

What motivated you as a young person?

When I was 14 I had a very clear vision that I wanted to go back to England and rediscover my roots. So when I finished Year 12 I started looking for work and I worked as a builder’s labourer, a gardener, in a fish factory, spent six months as a fisherman on a tuna boat and by the time I was 19 I was running a restaurant. I learnt to cook and then I did the waiting and the wine and the shopping and eventually the owner said ‘I’m leaving now, it’s all yours’. So I took over, worked very hard and saved my money and when the owner came back I packed my bags and bought a one-way ticket to London. I travelled through Europe, the Middle East and Asia, nearly died from Typhoid in India but made it back at the age of 22.

How did you adjust back to life in Adelaide when you returned?

When I came back I was very clear in my mind about what I wanted to do. I wanted to study economics because I’d been exposed to so many different economies and different cultures and it was just a fascinating area for me.

I then got a graduate economist job working for the government in Canberra but I didn’t like it much so I fell into the banking industry, once again I didn’t like it, went into the oil industry and then got into the aviation industry. I stayed in the aviation industry for many years and held fairly senior executive positions and lived in Melbourne and Sydney. The company I was working for then asked me if I wanted to do an MBA. At that stage in 1991 there were only 8 MBAs offered in Australia so I said I’d like to do it in my hometown at the University of Adelaide.

That projected me into a whole lot of other areas. I ended up working at Adelaide Brighton Ltd in the minerals processing industry and became the chief executive of one of their subsidiaries FCT Ltd . I had a young family and it was a very demanding job so I had to make a decision on what I was going to do. I decided to go out on my own with my brothers in aquaculture, manufacturing feed for the farmed abalone industry. That was a very good experience and it’s a very interesting industry to be in. I was then asked by the Royal Institution of Australia to basically establish their organisation – the first sister organisation of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, which was the brainchild of Endeavour’s botanist Joseph Banks who wanted to democratise science and get it out to the people.

I took it from two people to 22 people from 2009 to 2012 before being approached by the University of Adelaide to run the MBA course.

How important for your career development were those early years where you worked a variety of jobs and travelled?

You’ve got to back yourself and you’ve got to explore because if you don’t explore you’re not going to really learn a lot about yourself. For me it was critical. I often say it was my first degree – travelling extensively, being exposed to so many different walks of life, so many different working environments and people from different demographic and educational backgrounds. It just gives you so many insights, but of course I didn’t know half of that when I was doing it, I just wanted to earn money so I could explore as much as I could. I knew life was about experience and it helped me develop emotional intelligence in a way. I guess it was part of my formative years – every year is a formative year even at my age but those years were quite important for me. If you narrow yourself too much and focus too much on academia or whatever your pursuit is, you don’t get to see a lot. Obviously you can’t spread yourself so wide that you’re not giving yourself anything but I think if you can find the balance it’s really important. I do think our education needs to be taught a little differently, we should be looking at so much more of the softer side – and this university does have programs specifically to help people become more aware of themselves and more employable. You employ people, you don’t employ economics degrees, you employ people. There has to also be a focus on making sure we are nurturing creativity, that we’re not snuffing out creativity. You hear about innovation being the new black and there’s a level of creativity in that so there’s a lot of things we should be thinking about at the school level.

After such a hands on and varied business career, what persuaded you to join the University of Adelaide?

I was a bit reluctant at first to be honest because I couldn’t really imagine myself in that space. Ultimately I said yes because I thought I could add some value and I thought it was a very innovative decision to look for someone who’d had a long career in business at senior levels rather than purely an academic. I brought in a very different perspective that made sure the curriculum was what employers were looking for plus I brought in all my connections in the business world.

I’ve enjoyed it, it has its challenges there’s no doubt about it, it’s a very competitive market but I think with our entry criteria and our price point we don’t chase numbers we chase that really diverse quality class that’s dynamic. It’s really hard to write that into as curriculum but it is the magic that happens.

If you’ve got highly motivated bright people who really want to make a difference beyond the classroom who come from different industries and different personal backgrounds, it elevates the whole learning process, the whole experiential aspect and takes a good MBA and turns it into a great MBA.

What does your role as MBA Director involve?

My role is to represent the brand but having said that, everybody here represents the brand whether you’re a teacher, a researcher, a graduate or even a student. With consultation, I’ve got to make sure the curriculum is relevant and via various committees, it complies with the University’s frameworks.

I also have to make sure we have a quality teaching staff, which we do, and they all work in their area of expertise or have done in the past. That means you’re getting very practical, applied teaching, you’re not getting an academic who knows the book but hasn’t actually ever done it. I maintain very strong connections with the business community to make sure we are providing them with great graduates and making sure we listen to them. The numbers have grown substantially and they are at a steady state now. Adelaide is a very small market so I think with our price point, our entry criteria, our population and our business base we are getting between 75 and 90 students each year and I think that’s probably about right.

What are some of the keys to running a successful MBA course?

The MBA is a very personal journey and it should be transformative. It takes people a long time to make the decision to do an MBA because of the commitment of time and the money. It’s a big investment. There are sacrifices around family, sacrifices around recreation and possibly sacrifices around work. Once they’re in here we need to provide an experience where they’re learning with some passionate and like-minded people, they’re going to need teachers who are right on top of their game and we need to give them an experience that is similar to being in business class on an airline. You’re paying business class fares so we provide a lot of support, there’s people who will help them develop their study plans, we provide various events for people to network and enjoy themselves. It’s a very personal journey and we do hope and expect that when they come out the other end they are going to see the world a little differently, they will have different lenses to look at things through.

Are employers playing a big role in funding MBAs for their staff or are most people paying to do it out of their own pockets?

It’s changed over the years. When I was doing my MBA I was funded by my organisation and the MBA was generally the big end of town so there was a lot of that. What we’ve found over the years now is there’s a much more diverse range of small to medium to family businesses represented as well as some of the bigger organisations. Now we have a real mixture – we have less of the support, more of the partial support and a lot of self-funders but we have a number of scholarships people can apply for that can mitigate some of the cost.

Is there a link between the completion of an MBA and career advancement?

Statistically yes. For women in particular, statistically they tend to see an increase in their salaries three years beyond graduation, which is a powerful thing. I’ve been a chief executive, a chief operating officer, a chief financial officer and I’d say the biggest thing the MBA gave me was the confidence to take on some very serious challenges. I say to people, if you want a quicker, cheaper, perhaps less demanding MBA there are those out there in the marketplace. If you want to be challenged and stimulated in a classroom environment, the Adelaide MBA is for you.

What does the future hold for the MBA at the University of Adelaide?

What I’m looking at now is the potential to develop an Asian-focused Executive MBA where we start together and finish together over a set period of time. You can come from anywhere in the country because it’s basically in intensive blocks. It would include a fair amount of time in Asia, probably China, doing subjects about how to succeed in China, how to do business, being aware of the cultural differences and include aspects of language to give students working knowledge of Mandarin to allow polite, basic business conversations with Chinese counterparts. We’ve signed a free trade agreement with China, they are the largest importer of Australian wine, they are in our region, we have many Chinese students here who are very familiar with Australia so there are links being built all the time and I think there’s a huge opportunity to help Australians succeed in China and I think an MBA specifically tailored to that could be a good thing.

Solstice Media has partnered with the University of Adelaide to profile MBA graduates.

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