As we welcome Fiona Williams into her new role as CEO of CatholicCare Victoria Housing, we’ve taken the opportunity to chat with her about her career and what she’ll be working on in the near future.
Photo: Fiona Williams
Tell us a bit about your career journey?
“I started my working career in Canberra in the Commonwealth Bank, then moved into the Commonwealth Public service at the Patents and Trade Marks Office. I worked in a number of different roles and departments including IP Australia, Department of Defence, Industry Tourism and Resources, the Health Insurance Commission and back to IP Australia.
My family and I then decided we would try living in the Northern Territory – originally we planned to go there for 1 year, but ended up staying for over 8 years. The fishing and friends drew us there but the lifestyle kept us there. I went there to do a 12-month Corporate Governance role for the Department of Business, Primary Industries and Mines and then went on to do a number of other Executive roles and ended up as General Manager of the Northern Territory Construction Division where I delivered all the new infrastructure projects for the NT Government.
I then moved to Melbourne and worked in the Department of Human Services looking after Governance, Risk and Strategic Planning and then moved into a housing role where I looked after the department’s 75,000 public housing properties as well as Residential Care, disability and youth justice properties. After around 9 years in this role I was asked to become the Executive Director Social Housing Reform where I led a number of projects to establish Homes Victoria. I then left to work with Ontoit in its Infrastructure Advisory group where I worked on infrastructure strategies, business cases, capital plan development and other front end infrastructure projects.
Until this job came along!
I'm excited to be back in the housing space. But I'm well aware that community housing is very different to public housing in terms of funding, and how we'll be operating versus how they operate, so I've got a lot to learn.”
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
“My involvement in getting funding from the Victorian Government to redevelop a large number of inner city Housing estates in Metropolitan Melbourne was a career highlight and where those projects have ended up is something I will always be proud of.
My business case was to undertake masterplanning to come up with designs which would greatly increase the amount of housing on each site and introduce a mix of social housing and private housing. The idea being that the private housing would pay for a large portion of the new social housing and replace the outdated homes that were there, which didn’t provide good quality accommodation for the current residents. I was able to secure an increase in the amount of social housing over what had been there before, plus a large percentage of housing which was available to first home buyers.
I worked with Housing First and Women’s Housing to develop the first long term Management service agreements. It was a journey of firsts and had lots of ups and downs.
The endpoint is amazing. So it's a great career highlight. I learnt so much and worked with amazingly talented people and I’m really proud of what we achieved.
But I'm sure I'm going to have other career highlights in this role for sure. Getting all these houses built is going to be incredible and achieving this growth strategy for CatholicCare Victoria Housing.”
What inspires you about CatholicCare Victoria?
“I think the values - I live those values.
Also there’s a good synergy and relationship there that we can build off, between CatholicCare Victoria and CatholicCare Victoria Housing.
A lot of the residents that we are going to house, they're not going to have a lot of money and some of them are going to have come from real disadvantage. Some won’t have lived in a house on their own before either, or haven’t looked after a house before, and others may have mental health and other issues.
So I think there's an opportunity for us with what we're establishing to have that kind of more holistic support approach for our residents, and connect them into other services in CatholicCare Victoria.”
What are your first impressions of CatholicCare Victoria?
“People have been really, really welcoming. I’ve been learning about the massive task around the recent amalgamation too, and I'm learning more daily about the strategic plan.
I was really impressed with the plan and the work that's been done with that.
So first impressions are great and people have been really supportive, really helpful you know. It's been good.”
What do you think are the big ideas or solutions to address homelessness in Victoria?
There's got to be a stronger focus on homelessness. And I know that the department knows that and CatholicCare Victoria knows that. I think for us as an organisation, it's about looking at where's the opportunity for us to feed into that space? And how can we grow in that space?
The biggest thing that community housing has faced is the sporadic nature of the funding. The Big Housing Build has been great. Since the Big Nation Building program that was seen around 2010, there's basically been very little money for community housing.
It's very hard for community housing organisations to grow and to get some sort of support from government because we're not in a money-making business. Our residents are not paying market rent for the properties, so it's not easy to make that work.
And so one of the ways that it does work is through programs like they're running now, through the Big Housing Build with grant funding, which helps us all to buy or build new housing for people in need.
And so what the Community Housing Industry Association is working on is something that's a bit more even, you know, where there's a predictable amount of funding available year on year. And I think this will make a big impact in addressing homelessness in Victoria.”
What goals or ambitions do you have for CatholicCare Victoria Housing – and how do you see yourself creating that change?
“Our growth strategy is to achieve a target of 500 properties across Victoria. So we're well on the way to that with what we've started, and we'll continue to participate in different funding rounds to build that portfolio.
So we need the properties to be able to generate the revenue to be able to operate the business so we can provide more homes for people. So growth is one goal.
And then for me to accompany that growth is to get us on a really strong footing to be able to manage the tenancies in those properties. I have a great tenancy team now so its building on their expertise and providing the right systems and processes to support the work they do.
A third goal is one I mentioned earlier, where we’re keen to work with CatholicCare Victoria to provide those wraparound services to residents so that we're not just providing a home. So we’ll be exploring how we can build the community around our residents and work towards creating a thriving community with them.
So it's not just the roof over our residents’ heads that’s really important, but how do we work together with CatholicCare Victoria to make sure that we're actually setting people up for the future, and supporting children that live in these homes with their parents to set up a bright future for them too.”
Talk us through your first 90 days?
“What I've been doing a lot of at the moment is just really meeting a lot of people and understanding what exists. I've spent a fair bit of time and I've still got a lot more time to spend understanding the programs that we're currently delivering and the infrastructure, as well as the Big Housing Build funding rounds that we’re participating in.
We’re currently participating in the second funding round and we're waiting to hear from that, but I'm still going to need to plan for further opportunities.
I've had my first board meeting, so that was great and just getting a handle on how to operate with the board. And we're going to be working on our own plan - taking from the CatholicCare Victoria strategic plan and building our own business plan. So I’ll be starting some planning around this.
We currently own and manage 50 properties, and we manage a further 40 properties – some of which we lease from the Department of Families Fairness and Housing (Homes Victoria) and others which we’re managing under the From Homelessness to a Home initiative (we have partnered with Uniting Housing who are providing the case management services for this program).
So in regard to planning, what I need to do now is to think about how do I get us from the small business that we are, to having something like a potential 400 properties sometime during 2025.
And what do I need to make sure we've got in place by then, in terms of tenancy systems, asset strategy and staffing and structure. So that's how my first 90 days will be working out for me!”
Three words that best describe you?
“Well, family is a very, very big deal for me. So I'm a very family-oriented person.
I'm quite energetic. So, you know, I kind of do a lot of things at once.
And I think I'm also a pretty good communicator. So I like talking to and finding out about people, and I like working with people.
So I’d say Family, Energetic, People person!”
What are some of your hobbies, and what does ‘Life to the Full’ mean for you?
“Well, for me I like to throw a lot of myself into my work, so I need to really like what I'm doing. I invest a lot of energy and time into it.
I do like a balance, though, because family is so important to me. I have four children, all grown up now, but I like to spend time with my friends and family. At any time, I'll have a couple of my kids living with me. To be together a lot is important. And to be available for them.
So life to the full, for me, is a bit about doing all of that.
I’m also a budding house renovator! So any spare time I have on weekends is spent on projects I have running. I like a challenge and I like to figure out how to do things for myself. I’ve renovated two bathrooms from scratch and tackled all sorts of DIY projects. It brings out the problem solver in me.
In fact I think there’s a similarity with this job at CatholicCare Victoria Housing, you know, it's going to be a bit of a challenge for sure. There are things about it that I'm going to have to figure it out. But I like a challenge.”
Liz Gellel | Marketing Coordinator – Digital Lead
Fiona Williams | CEO CatholicCare Victoria Housing