Now one of the most influential leaders in the resources industry, Sarah Withell came from humble beginnings, growing up on the banks of the Hawkesbury River in NSW.
Sarah Withell is currently Head of HSE Business Partnership – BMC & NSWEC at BHP. Her journey to this top position will not only inspire you but may surprise you.
Sarah grew up on the Hawkesbury River in a tiny community with only around 100 houses. The community was close knit and kids would spend all day outside not coming home until the streetlights came on.
Interestingly enough, in the small town is a mental hospital. Because of this the local community and schools were exposed to a large variety of different people from all different backgrounds. “It was a really accepting community and I think that’s one of the things that helped shape me. Plus, I went to an all-girls school and that really shaped me a lot as well,” said Sarah.
“We used to have a lot of really fabulous teachers and all of what they did was to inspire you – there were no limitations on girls, girls can do whatever they want to do.”
“I think what actually comes out of that as well is that a number of my friends from school have gone on to lead really exciting careers, and really different careers all over the world. They’ve also managed to achieve this success while raising families.”
As a youngster Sarah did a gap year where she worked for one of the big accounting firms at the time called Archer Andersons. “It was a real eye opener for me being able to work in that organisation. You really got to see the benefits of having a professional degree,” said Sarah.
With many females in the organisation in senior levels to look up to for guidance, when they encouraged Sarah to go onto university she followed their advice.
During university, Sarah did all sorts of different roles like working in laundry mats, waitressing and bartending. She even did a ski season down at the snow.
“I did my degree and I then I did some work for an environmental consulting company. While I was working there, I had a colleague who left the organisation to do work in the Northern Territory in roads construction,” said Sarah. “They seemed to have a really good time and so I became interested in trying to get a job in a remote part of Australia, specifically in the Northern part of Australia.”
Thinking about what kind of work she wanted to do, Sarah was drawn to the number of mines in the Northern part of Australia and ended up interviewing for a job at the Century Zinc Mine in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Going through the interview process, including an interview in Brisbane, Sarah remembers feeling excited from the moment she walked in. “I just really wanted that job and so I was fortunate I managed to do a really good interview,” she said.
“I really didn’t know what I was getting into and I was lucky enough that my boss came with me on my first trip up there or I might have changed my mind. We got into the smallest plane I have ever seen, and the landing pad was just a dirt strip,” Sarah chuckled.
Going up North, Sarah had the mindset that she would leave after 6 months if she didn’t like it. By the end of her first week she thought she would be lucky to last 6 weeks.
But before long Sarah found that the job was everything she had hoped it would be and more. Before she knew it three years had gone by. She loved all the challenges of working remotely and the unbelievable work situations it brought about, plus it allowed her to see some of the most amazing and beautiful parts of Australia. But the best part was working with the indigenous communities and the property owners up there which made it not only interesting for Sarah, but extremely rewarding.
“But the whole reason I went up there was the whole reason I left – just how remote it actually is. Eventually I decided it was time to try and get a little bit closer to home,” she said.
When asked what she currently loves about her job, it became apparent that the community, her team and her connections were important. “Compared to when I first started in the industry, the way we now work in with the community is really important and we’re talking a lot more now about social value. I think particularly in the Hunter Valley we are unique because we’ve operated in that space for quite some time.”
These days the community often come forward to the mining industry when they think they aren’t doing the right thing or expectations aren’t being met which Sarah said is a good thing. “We need to continue to get better and if the community don’t tell us how they’re feeling or what they are thinking then we find ourselves not being at the forefront of where we want to be.”
From an environmental perspective, Sarah said, “it’s all about making sure we leave a really good legacy.”
Aside from her flat-out working career, Sarah has taken up a love for running starting around 3 years ago at local park runs. From there, picking up distances as well, Sarah competes in a half marathon every year.
“The kids also keep us pretty busy with sport, but we have been really enjoying some of this time during the COVID-19 with the ability to work from home,” said Sarah.
“We can go for a walk in the afternoon and because I am in Singleton, just around the corner from us is a paddock that’s got lovely horses in it, so we take the kids down to pat them.”
Back into the swing of things with COVID restrictions lightening and work around Australia getting back on track, Sarah’s time management and planning ideals have become more important than ever as she takes on more and more roles in our industry.
One of those is as a mentor with the ‘Women in Mining’ mentoring group. Another is Chair of the Upper Hunter Mining Dialogue. All this on top of working fulltime and raising a family. She really is a powerhouse. Need more proof? Sarah also won the award for Exceptional Woman in NSW Mining in 2019. For Sarah it was humbling to receive the recognition for a job that she loves to do.
“I was proud to receive the award, but what makes me really proud is when a member of my team does really well,” said Sarah, expressing the importance of empowerment. “They all support each other and they all give each other recognition as well,” said Sarah proudly.
What advice does this born leader have to share? “One of my best pieces of advice is be prepared to take a risk. Don’t be scared to jump in sight unseen and take the gamble. Take those opportunities when they are offered because they often don’t get offered twice. It’s also really important to have people around you who believe in you.”
Sarah also has a lot of advice for those looking to enter our industry. “It’s an incredibly rewarding industry and there is a huge amount of variety. It’s only once you get into the industry that you realise how many opportunities that there actually are as it’s requires people with so many different skill sets. I’d encourage people to actually think about what they like to do and then find a role that allows you to apply that skill set, whether directly or indirectly.”
Sarah’s not leaving our industry anytime soon, recently accepting an Executive General Manager role with Whitehaven Coal after 12 years with BHP. “I am still staying in the industry and I am really excited about this next step for me at a higher level role,” Sarah concluded.
All in all, Sarah Withell really is an exceptional woman both in the mining industry and as a Hunter Valley community member. We can’t wait to see what she achieves in the years to come.