CommBank proudly recognises Clair Applewaite, Business Manager and Board Secretary at Rockhampton Girls Grammar School (RGGS), one of three winners of the inaugural School Business Manager Awards. Clair’s dedication to transforming the school physically and digitally has advanced RGGS’ vision of becoming the most outstanding regional, prep-12 all-girl day and boarding school in Queensland.

RGGS Principal, Kara Krehlik, who led the award nomination alongside Clair’s team, said that when the winners were announced, “we were so excited because Clair is so deserving. These awards are a great way to showcase the amazing work of business managers, especially in an independent school setting”.

Clair says that upon receiving the award, she “was completely blown away and honoured, and so grateful to work in an organisation with such a strong history and tradition. I am proud to see the school is in a good place with a long and prosperous future”.

Balancing tradition with innovation

Founded in 1892, the heritage-listed Central Queensland institution is celebrating 130 years as a leading independent school. Having grown its student population since opening its doors, RGGS has been deliberate in cultivating a relatively small female-only student cohort, preserving what Kara describes as an “essential point of difference” in today’s educational landscape.

Kara explains that this approach gives families assurance of ‘personalised learning’ for their daughters through smaller class sizes, specialist teachers and an extensive choice of subjects.

Steadily growing enrolments has meant Clair had to find ways of accommodating the larger student community. The school has begun capital works projects and facilities expansion programs, as well as transforming its financial, IT and operational systems.

Clair is leading the operational master plan and associated projects. In doing so, she has ensured facilities upgrades keep pace with enrolment growth. Naturally, these come with challenges, from maintaining the heritage foundations of an old school while balancing the modern needs of future students, staff and the broader community.

According to Kara, Clair’s contribution to the ongoing development of the school facilities and processes is “pivotal”, and her leadership provides a driving force behind the delivery of RGGS’ strategic vision.

Making a difference

Clair, a former accountant, had never considered working in the education sector until one of the partners at her firm, an RGGS Board member, encouraged her to apply for the role of Business Manager and Board Secretary. Clair admits that at the time, “I always thought I'd stay in tax accounting”.

Part of the appeal of joining the school’s executive team was the opportunity to make a difference in the broader community. However, achieving this goal requires Clair to take time out from the “nuts and bolts and stress of running financial operations” and actively participate in student activities and initiatives.

For Clair, this makes the role truly worthwhile. “I feel I contribute towards the lives of a lot of young girls, as when they come out of this school, everyone sees how well-rounded they are and what a lovely community it is,” Clair says. “So, I am highly driven to provide a top-quality school for them to learn in”.

Leading sustainable growth

Clair’s dual role carries a breadth of responsibility from advising the Board on critical business and finance-related matters, leading operations, overseeing compliance and risk management frameworks, as well as the HR and finance functions.

According to Clair, success across this broad remit requires collaborative leadership and a deep sense of stakeholder needs, particularly when challenges arise.

“I'm ready for growth”, says Clair, “but a lot has come about unexpectedly, and we’ve had to act immediately”. For instance, organising an extra bus only one month before school started and having to rapidly resolve a lack of uniform shop supplies.

In addition, over the past 18 months, RGGS has been in a fortunate position to expand the teaching staff to support the growing student community. However, as with many industries, attracting and retaining staff is challenging and, as a result, Clair has prioritised staff wellbeing when resources are stretched.

According to Clair, her approach has been to “continually meet with the relevant team members and support them through periods of high stress as best you can just by listening”.

“I’d describe my leadership style as participative,” says Clair. “I want people to feel they can come and see me at any time. I also think letting people know when they've done a good job is the way to get the best out of your team”.

Kara agrees, saying, "Clair is seen as a role model and a collaborative leader who works not just within the finance team, but across the whole school”.

Excellence through digital transformation

Preserving tradition through a digital transformation strategy is Clair’s vision and the savings and efficiencies for a small school with limited resources are already being realised.

One of Clair’s first initiatives was to revolutionise the school’s financial reporting system, taking it from a “spreadsheet to a real-time data forecast”. This has enabled her team to continually update the board on the school’s position and projections and support faster and better-informed resource allocation decisions.

One such Board decision was restructuring the school’s fees, where Clair’s financial modelling helped the school grow significantly by introducing a tiered fee model. Kara says that while “it was a risk, it is one that has paid off,” with RGGS enrolments growing from 280 students to 360 in only two years.

For the rest of 2022, Clair will lead priority projects specifically catering for increased enrolment numbers into 2023 and beyond, starting with a large-scale efficiency drive. “We’re trying to automate systems and bring in electronic records to streamline as much as possible and ensure we’re meeting our obligations”, Clair says.

Resourcing has increased to fund these projects, including grants for a much-needed new digital compliance system and staff learning platform for the 130-year-old school. And a new role, Director of IT, has been established through Clair’s guidance to review current systems and move from a paper-based records system to a digital one.

Together, these initiatives help underpin a bright future for Rockhampton Girls Grammar. Kara sums up Clair's invaluable contribution to the school’s progress and outlook, saying that “without Clair and her leadership, our school simply wouldn't be as successful”.