Melissa Spence CA: Senior Strategy Manager, Lion Dairy & Drinks
We speak to the Senior Strategy Manager for Lion Dairy & Drinks - which produces, markets and distributes popular milk, cheese, yoghurt products and more - about her journey from a Scottish island to working on transactions worth $137m.
When Melissa Spence says she grew up “on the mainland” in Scotland she means, of course, that she lived nowhere near the actual mainland. Instead she was one of around 20,000 fortunate souls who spent their childhood in the Orkney Islands, a setting about as far removed from modern-day Melbourne – her new hometown – as it could possibly get.
“I was very grateful for the upbringing I had, on a farm on the mainland in the Orkney Islands, and it taught me a lot,” said Melissa, now Senior Strategy Manager at Lion Dairy & Drinks. “But, I also knew that I didn't want a job like that. I wanted to work in an office.”
Melissa made a decision, when she was just 13, that she’d enrol in Accounting at university. That helped her to choose the right subjects at school that would get her into that degree, and her plan worked.
At the University of Strathclyde, Melissa studied Accounting and Business Law, graduating with Honours in Accounting. During three years in audit at KPMG Glasgow, she earned her ICAS wings, then flew off to the other side of the world.
What brought you to Australia?
Actually, it was connected with my CA training. I made a lot of friends at KPMG and we had a really good bond, particularly those I did my training with. When I first moved to Sydney, I lived with three of the people with whom I’d done my CA, as we all happened to move out at the same time.
Two of the people in my ‘mentor’ year had moved to Sydney on secondment with KPMG the year before, so I booked a holiday to visit them. I tested the waters with a few recruitment agencies before I left and had a phone interview, then a confirmed job, before I got on the plane.
Why didn’t you continue working for KPMG?
I’d spoken with KPMG about a role, but I would have basically been part of an audit team that audited one client for most of the year. I enjoyed the variety of having many clients and learning a lot about different industries, and I wanted to keep that variety. I worked instead with BDO from 2008 to 2012, and while there I did secondments to Auckland (two months) and Los Angeles (five months).
And your next job was with Lion?
Yes. I began in accounting advisory, like a technical accounting help desk for the business. If the business didn’t know how to account for something complex, I helped them figure out what to do. I also spent a lot of time doing financial due diligence for proposed transactions and working on internal and external valuations.
This experience led me into Corporate Development. There I worked very closely on a transaction to sell Lion Dairy & Drinks’ Everyday Cheese business in a deal worth about $137 million, so I got to know the team at Lion Dairy & Drinks. I took a 12-month secondment to Melbourne two-and-a-half years ago and obviously since then I’ve been made permanent.
Now you’re Senior Strategy Manager. What does a strategy manager do?
I don’t think it’s a secret that dairy can be challenging - it is a low-margin industry. Lion have grown by making lots of acquisitions, meaning there are a lot of parts of the business that now could work together better, and lots of legacy sites, products and processes.
So, we’re trying to simplify everything and drive growth. Doing both is hard but necessary, and this is all a part of what my team helps to manage.
How does work culture in Glasgow differ from work culture in Melbourne?
Generally, in Australia it feels as if people work really hard, harder than we did at home, but for less hours. It feels that they’re maximising their lives a bit more in Australia.
That could be because the things you can do here in your spare time and on weekends are more like the things I used to look forward to doing during my summer holidays.
I often joke that I’ve just continued to upgrade the size of the island that I live on. Nothing compares to living in Orkney. I don't know anywhere that compares to that. But it's not somewhere I’m able to live right now to do the things I want to do with my career.
Melbourne is wonderful but is a bit more European than Sydney. Sydney is one of the most unique places in the world. You’ve got a thriving Central Business District (CBD) six kilometres away from one of the most incredible beaches in the world.
I don't know if anything compares to that either. Sydney was incredible.
About the author
Chris Sheedy is one of Australia’s busiest and most successful freelance writers. He has been published regularly in the Sydney Morning Herald, Virgin Australia Voyeur, The Australian Magazine, GQ, In The Black, Cadillac, Management Today, Men’s Fitness and countless other big-brand publications. He is frequently commissioned to carry out copywriting and corporate writing projects for organisations, including banks, universities, television networks, restaurant chains and major charities, through his business The Hard Word.