No two days are the same: A risk management career that led to being part of Australia’s frontline of defence against COVID-19

2020 was the year that all Phil Rice’s experience and studies in the field of risk management really came to the fore.

In October, Rice took up the role of regional work health and safety manager for Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory at TFE Hotels, which manages well-known brands such as Vibe and Travelodge hotels as well as Rendezvous and Adina serviced apartments. Before that, he was portfolio risk manager at InterContinental Hotels Group, which is headquartered in the United Kingdom.

Rice’s experience as a waiter in restaurants as a student sparked his interest in the service industry and led him into the field of hotel management and operations.

“I did a marketing diploma and was trying to get into a marketing coordinator’s role,” Mr Rice said.

“But the executives recruiting for that role suggested I take up another role instead, one in health and safety management. I begrudgingly accepted, but soon saw how much workplace safety added to the business and how much attention it received from senior management.

“My role grew from there and became more strategic. After a few years, I realised that I did not have the technical background in risk management that I needed. I started investigating some courses and came across the Governance Institute of Australia.

“I obtained a Graduate Certificate in Applied Risk Management, a short course, through the Governance Institute and then spent three years studying for a Graduate Diploma in Applied Risk Management and Corporate Governance. That helped me build up an understanding of the technical aspects of risk management theory.

“It also helped me to talk to general managers at hotels and to educate them from a risk management and corporate governance perspective. I could guide them on what reporting they should be providing to their senior stakeholders and how their risk management could be improved. That then sat well with their senior stakeholders because they were ahead of the game and were providing more refined and streamlined lead and lag reporting, rather than being asked for that reactively.”

Then came 2020 and hotels became part of Australia’s frontline of defence against COVID-19 and had to decide whether or not to become involved in the quarantining of returning travellers.

At InterContinental Hotels Group, Mr Rice received updates and resources from London and had to adapt these for Australian conditions. His technical training helped him identify new risks and conduct extensive multi-faceted risk assessments.

“In an environment where things are changing quite rapidly, those skills become important. You have to create risk assessments that are going to stand up to a judicial inquiry,” he said.

He found that the board and senior executives also became interested in understanding key business risks, what the organisation was doing about these and how these were being documented.

“Audit and risk committees wanted to receive short, sharp snapshots of where things were at. Also, without my technical education, I would not have had the confidence, particularly so early in the role, to be recommending that we improve our reporting at TFE.”

While Mr Rice may have entered the field of risk management begrudgingly in 2010, he hasn’t looked back since then.

“It really is the adage that no two days are the same,” he says. “Time has to be flexibly spent on prevention and preparation then response and recovery. With a portfolio of hotel sites spread across several states, there are always emerging challenges to address.

“A large proportion of my time is spent on operational engagement, both on-site and virtually, supporting local hotel leaders. Facilitation of risk assessments, auditing and training are other key focuses. There's also continual requirements for the creation, review and communication of key policies and procedures across the organisation.”

Mr Rice describes risk management is a technical, analytical approach to looking at a business.

“It’s a way of allowing a business to take risks that enable it to grow,” he says.

“It’s about moving away from compliance towards accepting upside risk. It’s also about being proactive and not just doing what the regulators tell you.”

He adds: “When great risk management practices and understanding are part of a successful organisation, there is an understanding of what risks to take, when and why. Such success is critical to business growth and longevity – so you have the opportunity to really add value as a risk manager.”

So what is the most challenging part of his position?

“Pivoting from investigating an incident to presenting to a senior leadership group then to reviewing complex strategy with an insurer. Maintaining up-to-date with all the information is also essential,” he says.

Looking ahead, Mr Rice is considering the possibility of doing some professional Recognition of Prior Learning work to support the 10 years he has worked in the workplace health and safety space. Watch this space!

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