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40 Under 40 winner of the day: Michael Kay


From a Top End schoolyard to the boardroom of one of Adelaide’s oldest and proudest law firms, Michael Kay’s rise through the ranks has been earned through hard work and determination.

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Kay attended Katherine High School in the Northern Territory before moving to Victoria and then Adelaide to study law at Flinders University in 1999.

Less than a decade after graduating, Kay was made Partner and Employment Practice Leader Workplace Relations, Employment and Safety at Adelaide law firm Wallmans Lawyers.

In June, the 37-year-old was named a winner of the inaugural InDaily 40 Under 40 Awards.

In his role at Wallmans Lawyers, Kay has acted for some of South Australia’s largest employers including Flinders Port Holdings, Dr Jones and Partners and a number of councils.

He has been recognised in Doyle’s Guide to the Legal Profession as a leading recommended adviser in workplace health and safety and employment and was recently recognised, for the fourth consecutive year, in Best Lawyers of Australia for his expertise in labour and employment law.

We asked Kay some more about doing business in South Australia.

What do you believe are the strengths of doing business in South Australia?

The cost of doing business in Adelaide, in my experience, is often less than that seen in other parts of Australia and overseas. Although not necessarily the case for every cost, electricity being a prime example, people in Adelaide save cost and improve efficiencies in other areas. Comparably lower leasing costs and less traffic congestion, reducing downtime travelling between premises or clients, are two particularly salient examples.

The overheads in larger cities can be staggering, particularly for a prime CBD or waterfront tenancy. Inevitably, higher overheads flow on to the rates professionals charge for their goods and services. In Adelaide, many businesses provide the same quality, if not better, goods and services as compared to other states, yet charge significantly less than our interstate counterparts.

Quality of life means quality in business. In business, our people are our most important asset. Happy people are motivated people.

Compared with larger cities, our cost of living is lower, and Adelaide is so fortunate to be home to some of the best food, wine, festivals, sport and cultural experiences in the world.

This is increasingly being recognised by a number of overseas travel publications, and what a delight it is to see Adelaide finally getting this recognition. Gone are the days when even the most ardent supporter would reluctantly accept that Adelaide could be a “little boring” at times. I am very proud of our great city.

The concept of Adelaide having the hallmarks of a “small town” is sometimes used in a pejorative sense. However, in business, this same concept can be harnessed to focus and grow our networking and business development opportunities, regardless of industry. I affectionately term it the “three degrees of Adelaide business separation”. It enables us to harness the opportunities of living in an interconnected city like Adelaide.

When I moved to Adelaide from Victoria when I was 18, I did not have any connections to the legal profession – personally or professionally. However, through hard work, networking and embracing opportunities, I have been fortunate to have developed a great network of clients, referrers and colleagues, arguably more quickly than would have happened had I “started from scratch” in a larger city.

The “youth exodus” or “brain drain” interstate (or overseas) is a very real issue, deserving of our attention. However, we should never forget that there are – and I hope always will be – a significant number of young, talented south Australians who choose to remain here in South Australia. I have been fortunate to have mentored, supervised and worked alongside some of the brightest and personable young professionals in Australia, many of whom remain in Adelaide.

What do you believe are the weak points of conducting business in South Australia?

The inaccurate perception that the best quality services come from the eastern seaboard.

Adelaide is still perceived by some, unfairly, as being the inferior sibling to the three larger cities on the eastern seaboard. As but one example, there are brilliant and pragmatic lawyers in Adelaide who can charge anywhere up to 50 per cent less than a comparable lawyer in Sydney might, yet clients can still be a bit reticent to use services based out of Adelaide, as we do not have that “big city” recognition.

Fortunately, in my view, this perception is slowly changing. The rapid rise of technology has meant that South Australian business leaders, particularly in professional services or those offering their goods electronically, can fully service clients in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane or Perth, without the need for a traditional bricks and mortar offering.

Although focusing on the “youth exodus” can take away from the amazing talent in South Australia, it is difficult to argue that the “bright lights” of Sydney, London or New York are not attractive to many. Whilst I have remained fiercely Adelaide based, I have had a number of friends and talented colleagues move interstate and overseas. Almost every time, this has been to chase a career opportunity and, although I miss many of them, I do not begrudge them their choice.

Do you see your future in South Australia?

Unequivocally, yes.

How can the state encourage more of its young leaders to stay?

Short answer, complex solution: jobs and training tailored to existing and future markets

In my experience, people rarely leave Adelaide for the sake of it. More commonly, people leave interstate or overseas for an employment opportunity which does not exist, at least in sufficient numbers, in South Australia.

We can’t stop this happening. Being attracted to a bigger city can often be as simple as personal preference. However, in my view, work needs to be done to both improve the number of opportunities here in South Australia, and equally as importantly, be open and transparent with our younger generation about exactly where we anticipate jobs (and their numbers) will be – both now and in the future.

There is no easy solution, and greater minds than mine are considering how we address our “youth exodus” in broader policy terms. However, one example is the potential for training and education providers to be clear about the extent and nature of job opportunities after school, TAFE or University. Another is for us to continue to invest in local enterprise, local festivals and local business, including our great bars, restaurants and artistic and cultural festivals, so that Adelaide continues to be a great place to do business, but perhaps even more importantly, a great place to enjoy living.

More about 40 Under 40

An assessment panel representing the South Australian business community judged hundreds of nominees for the inaugural 40 Under 40 awards, which aim to identify and promote a new generation of local leaders under the age of 40.

The final 40 includes a hugely varied collection of South Australian talents, who are making a mark in fields such as health, technology, the media, property, social innovation, agriculture, finance, the law, and much more.

For the full list of 40 Under 40 winners go here.

40 Under 40 is an InDaily initiative supported by the following partners:

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