Interview: Kim Sinclair, CEO of CHC
What does it take to go from living in a cottage with three small children to being responsible for building and managing almost 1,000 properties across Canberra? Kim Sinclair, CEO of CHC knows the answer.
Kim’s life journey is nothing short of extraordinary. However, what got our attention was her deep sense of empathy that drives this not-for-profit to build homes for some of the most vulnerable families and individuals.
Spending an hour with Kim is an inspiration. CHC's disciplined business structures and practices to deliver outcomes that are not only fiscally responsible, but achieve other successes that are not always mentioned in annual reports.
And, most importantly, she really means it.
Many Canberrans may not be aware of CHC Australia. What was the genesis of the company?
Well, the official line is that we are not-for-profit, financially independent company, governed by a skills-based board with a mission to provide affordable housing for rent in Canberra.
What that means in the real world is that we provide sustainable and socially responsible homes and housing programs. We don’t offer a specific type of development, rather we look at what the community needs at any given time.
In addition to our rental portfolio, we are able to offer and sustain specialist housing programs. Whether it is ageing in place, group homes for apprentices or perhaps housing to meet the needs of Canberrans with specific disabilities, by working hand-in-hand with a number of community groups we can ensure that a diverse range of housing needs are catered for.
We’re also looking to assist people in transitioning through the rental cycle into home ownership. A lot of our families are in deep financial stress when they come to us. CHC work with these households to ensure they have relevant support services to get them back on their feet and sustain their tenancy.
Our biggest win is when we can use all the resources at CHC’s disposal to nurture our clients to the point of buying their own property and living independently. There’s a lot we can do in this space, and it is something totally unique for Canberra.
So, a lot of people would quickly assume that CHC is government funded…
Not in the sense that most would expect.
CHC was established as a company limited by guarantee in 1998 as an initiative of the Stanhope Government. This was followed by incorporation in 2000 as Community Housing Canberra Ltd.
The company spent its first five years managing a lot of the ACT Government’s public housing – at the time there was a trend for all state governments to have their public housing stock managed by the community housing sector.
However, on top of that, there was a need to increase available stock. The ACT Government gave us a loan to get on our feet as a development company and now we rely on creating high-quality developments to drive revenue and expand our services.
This is where the company really started to evolve and CHC became a key player in the development and execution of the ACT Government’s Affordable Housing Action Plan. This initiative was aimed at increasing affordable housing stock across Canberra.
The company has seen significant growth over the last decade.
Absolutely. We’ve become such a different organisation to what we were in ’97, that’s why this year’s brand refresh was really important. There was a strong perception – even among our clients – that we were government funded.
However, the reality is quite different – even though we are delivering on our desired community and social outcomes, we have also contributed almost $300 million to the ACT economy. In the period to the last financial year, CHC has created over 1000 full time and 180 part-time jobs as an indirect result of our developments and construction industry.
Render of CHC Australia's upcoming development in Downer
How did you come to be involved in CHC?
I was born in New Zealand. At the age of 17 I joined the equivalent of the Army Reserves which, of all the things I’ve done so far in my life, was the longest-lasting. I was there for 17 years but since then have simply followed my interests: a consulate, New Zealand Post, a multinational pharmaceutical company… it was a pretty broad range of experiences but was increasingly drawn to the finance and administration side. Mix that with a strong passion for volunteering - through the NZ military and surf lifesaving – and I guess that’s a big part of how I found myself sitting here!
But why Australia? Why Canberra?
Maori place a lot of importance on family. When I had the first of my three children, I suggested to my husband that this might be a good time to reconnect with his father who was living in Australia. They had never met, and it turned out the father was here in Canberra.
We moved to the ACT and started a business and a new life for ourselves. The business did well from the start; we were in the swimming pool service trade. But after some time our personal relationship went through an amicable break-up and I found myself on the verge of being homeless with the three children. As a citizen of New Zealand I had no access to any sort of government support.
One day, while treating the kids to some free entertainment at the National Museum, I started a conversation with a woman who had noticed the Maori design on a ring I was wearing. As she slowly came to understand my situation she explained that she and her husband had just purchased a farm in Michelago, and if needed, we could stay in one of the old cottages.
It was the lifeline I desperately needed to get us back on our feet.
The accommodation was very basic – no running water, no toilet. It was snowing when we arrived, but it didn’t matter. We had a roof above our head.
The deal was this: the owners supplied a pot of funds, and I could live rent-free as long as I was using the funds to renovate the cottage and contribute more when I could. It was the perfect solution, and we stayed there for a year and a half until I got myself a full-time job.
You’re clearly very aware of what it feels like to be homeless.
Oh, absolutely. It was very touch-and-go for us. We were right on the edge.
When you’re in that situation, finding accommodation is all that you can think about. By solving that problem, it frees up so much energy to get other aspects of your life back on track. That’s an understanding that flows through CHC – that providing accommodation is just the starting point to so many other positive outcomes.
What was the leap from there to CHC?
The first full-time job after the separation, was working with the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO). It was good to be back in a not-for-profit; I’d had enough of small business and the private sector. NACCHO was great, because it allowed me to make some connections with Australia’s Indigenous population.
In that organisation, I was again in the finance and administration area. When the opportunity came up to do something similar at CHC – a company that I really admired for its aims and ambitions – I jumped at the chance.
That was in 2008, and there was so much to do. We were changing the focus of the business to succeed in a new space and a huge challenge lay ahead of us.
Click here to read Part II of our interview with Kim Sinclair