Take 5 with NED, Helen Cook

Helen Cook

We chat to Helen Cook, former National Partner for KPMG's Energy & Natural Resources group, on her journey from Marketing Manager to her current role.

We chat to Helen Cook, former Partner for KPMG's Energy & Natural Resources group.

Helen Cook
Last role at KPMG National Lead Partner, Climate Change, Water & Sustainability
Partner in Charge, NSW Government
Board Director
Time with KPMG 2005 - 2011
KPMG office Sydney
Current roles
(as of September 2019)
Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia
Chair, Western City & Aerotropolis Authority
Non-Executive Director, Wesfarmers
Co-Patron, Pride in Diversity
Patron, Mental Health Australia

Tell us about your formative years. What was 12 year old Helen doing and hoping to achieve?
In the 70s I was enjoying a glorious childhood growing up overlooking the sea in the relatively new suburb of City Beach with my Mum, Dad, twin brother and older sister. I was a quiet and studious girl at school but also did netball, softball and athletics. Dad was head of the Department of Electrical Engineering at Curtin and Mum was one of the pioneering members of the Save the Forests. We had recently returned from a “hippy” year travelling through all of Europe in a camper van for 5.


You started out at KPMG as State Marketing Manager for the WA office, eventually moving into the role of National Partner leading its Energy & Natural Resources group. Since leaving the firm you have taken on Non-Executive Director (NED) board roles for organisations across a broad range of industries. What do you think has enabled you to progress so quickly throughout your career, often in different directions?
I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to contribute to KPMG and the community across a range of roles. During my time with the firm I always felt encouraged with new challenges to take on and learn from. My career ran parallel to one of the most exciting times in Australia for the mining and energy industry which was lucky for me and for WA. The development of world class LNG projects here and significant investment into mining globally meant there was many opportunities for the resources sector in Western Australia and for firms like ours to play a part.


What’s the most valuable thing you learned at KPMG? Do you have a stand-out memory from your time with us?
At KPMG I learnt how important it is to learn from the people you work with. For example I was incredibly lucky to work very closely with the now National Chairman of KPMG, Alison Kitchen who was an outstanding manager and mentor for me and is one of the most talented leaders I know. I also benefited from the wisdom and strategic thinking of state leaders like Steve Scudamore, Jamie Lutz and Gary Smith and working closely with the former WA Premier Richard Court AO for many years was a privilege. Opportunities to visit clients and KPMG offices in resource powerhouses such as Russia, China, South and North America, Europe were terrific. And all the time – intensely interesting work.


What appealed to you most about becoming a NED?
I started governance work in my 30s in not for profit and government roles and had a keen interest in it. I believed that at the right time NED work would be a natural transition to broaden my industry experience, expand on my contribution to society and provide stimulating work for the next chapter in my life. Luckily it has been exactly that for me, and I am very grateful to be doing what I enjoy.


What are the biggest issues facing directors in Australia?
Climate change and its impact on our businesses, our communities, environment and families. Many intelligent and future thinking directors are now really pondering this deeply. And not just as a peripheral risk issue, as a key strategic challenge for business and community. Its not just a NED issue of course. It’s the big issue for our world now and will affect everyone, everywhere. 


Of all your accomplishments so far, what makes you proudest?
I am proud of the contribution I have made to the arts over the last 15 years in several leadership roles including as Chair of the Chamber of Arts and Culture WA, former Chair of the Art Gallery of WA, the Cruthers Foundation for Women’s Art ( now called Sheila after its Founder Sheila Cruthers) and now on the National Gallery of Australia Council and in the Australia Council. I am a huge believer in the importance of the arts in building a strong and nurturing society so it’s satisfying to have played a small part.


Name three people you admire and why?
My father Alan Cook fills all three spots. He was an understated and quiet achiever. He was a pioneer. Dad took us on world adventures, made our radios, televisions, record players and furniture, taught us about natural wonders from the Australian bush to the moon, while leading Curtin’s electrical engineering school including pioneering its computing school relationships into Asia. He quietly built a stellar career and family and did it with loyalty, kindness and integrity.


What’s the best career advice you can offer?
Auguste Rodin once said that nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely. I think that is sage advice for a career. Get on and enjoy the experience and learn something new every day. The big picture will likely take care of itself over time.


If you had an extra 10 hours a week, what would you do?
I would dance more and sort out my dodgy tennis backhand i.e. I’d spend more time moving... while I still can!

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