Sarah Thornton

Sarah Thornton

BA 1986, Dip Ed 1987 Tas, LLB (Hons) QUT

Sarah Thorton

You’re currently wrapping up a seven year stint at the Brisbane Airport Corporation, what was your role?

I was General Counsel and Group Company Secretary. Aside from putting a lot of time into legal practice management innovation, a highlight was securing the funding to build a new $1.3 billion runway – the biggest aviation infrastructure project in Australia. It was incredibly challenging. It was a team effort and my contribution included developing strategy and negotiating with airlines to get their support – this was crucial to then be able to secure financing and shareholder funds. It took nearly four years and we were under a lot of pressure to get the project moving (with an intense and aggressive media campaign about flight delays snapping at our heels).

Where did your career begin?

After I graduated from the University of Tasmania in 1987 with a Bachelor of Arts and Diploma of Education, I was offered a Westpac graduate traineeship in Sydney. At age 22 I wanted to see the ‘big smoke’ and they paid me $500 to relocate... so I packed my belongings into my Datsun 120Y and got on the ferry!

What happened next?

I worked in a big Westpac branch in downtown Sydney. I enjoyed the work but I found I had all this extra energy – it was pretty much a nine-to-five job, and I was looking for more of a challenge.

I read the book What Colour Is Your Parachute? which was really popular at the time. It helped me to frame up my work experience and skills and use them in a new way. I applied for jobs in sales and marketing, and because there were no tertiary courses on those subjects at the time, I used the book’s advice and reframed my teaching skills in the context of sales. “There’s nothing like trying to sell your lesson plan to 30 disengaged teenagers,” I told an interview panel – who then offered me the job.

I spent eight years in sales and marketing, in industries as diverse as publishing and robotics.

Robotics is quite a specific niche, how did you get into that?

It was the 90s and I had moved back to Tasmania and worked for a Tasmanian company. The company’s founder was a local inventor who designed and manufactured research robots. Seeking to sell them internationally, he hired me as international sales and marketing manager. I was selling robots from Hobart to people as far away as Israel and Japan, with my biggest contract landing with Komatsu. Unfortunately, despite the large volume of orders, the company had limited production facilities and folded.

You then studied a law degree at the Queensland University of Technology - where did that lead you?

I was in my early thirties and hired by national law firm, Clayton Utz in Brisbane. Shortly afterwards, I was seconded to Virgin Australia Airlines. At the time I was the only lawyer in the building, and I hadn’t actually even been admitted yet. I enjoyed it so much that I continued to work for Virgin as their in-house lawyer. It was fast-paced and full of challenges because not long after I joined, September 11 occurred, Ansett collapsed, while the airline was growing at a rate of 400%.

Eight years of business experience, combined with a law degree and the support of mentors at Clayton Utz positioned me to succeed in what was a very challenging role. My business acumen enabled me to add value to the organisation, as I had a keen understanding of how an organisation ‘ticks’ and generates profit, as well as the role lawyers play within that framework.

The team at Virgin felt as though we were part of a revolutionary movement to disrupt the longstanding Australian aviation duopoly that existed between Qantas and Ansett, and bring low cost fares to the country for the first time. It was an exciting time as we felt like we were creating aviation history after so many aviation start-ups had failed before us.

What’s your most recent achievement?

Last year I was named Australian Corporate Lawyer of the Year in November by the Association of Corporate Council Australia (ACC). As part of receiving the award I have been fortunate enough to be flown around the country, delivering talks on contemporary legal practice management. I recently enjoyed presenting one of these talks at the University of Tasmania to in-house legal staff from both the University and a number of local organisations.

Most students at the University know the Stanley Burbury theatre, I hear that you might be related to him.

(Sir Stanley Burbury was a former Governor of Tasmania and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Tasmania, after whom the University’s Stanley Burbury Theatre is named).

My great great great grandfather was Thomas Burbury, a well-documented Tasmanian convict who acquired land east of Oatlands, which is still farmed by the Burburys today. Thomas Burbury’s son had about 18 children, so it’s hard to keep track of how I’m related to Stanley Burbury, but I’m sure it’s in a book I have somewhere.

Describe your time at the University of Tasmania…

I would describe my time at the University of Tasmania as ‘liberating’. I was studying English literature, history and basically all of the things I loved in a supportive and nurturing learning environment.

I’ve always felt that an arts background was invaluable, it sets you up to be able to write, speak and be creative, and those are necessary skills no matter what career you choose.

You’ve passionately supported the University’s Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal for over 5 years now, where does this passion come from?

I feel very strongly that to lose another iconic Tasmanian marsupial less than 100 years after the last Tasmanian Tiger walked the earth would be unacceptable, so from my point of view, it’s a case of doing ‘whatever it takes’ to save the Devils. I’m so grateful for the work the University of Tasmania team is doing to find a solution.

What’s next on your agenda?

It’s time for another change… it’s not going to involve robots this time, but I’d like to use my accrued knowledge and skills for good in a broader sense. I’m setting up a consulting business called Thornton Pragmatix to help in-house legal teams to advance and modernise, and I’m also hoping to utilise my commercial and governance skills at board level. So watch this space!

Sarah’s story will feature in Alumni magazine 2017, out in October.

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