Emma Bowyer and ICMSA: no-one gets left behind

By Brad Foster

What does it take to be a leader? Not one in good times either. One in the worst. One where a sinkhole has opened up in the blink of an eye and swallowed your entire revenue stream for the foreseeable future. One that has your 35 full-time staff wondering about their futures as well as the company’s and looking at you for answers. One that over the past 12 months has seen you grieving at the loss of not only your soulmate but your business partner who you could bounce ideas off at the end of a long day.

We’re talking General here. Not foot soldier, although you’re just as likely to muck in and get on the front line with your troops if you have to.

A General who talks and acts and plans and encourages and reassures.

A business leader who says “F*^X it… We’re in this for the long haul. We start together. We finish together. No-one gets left behind!”

Emma Bowyer, general manager of Australia’s oldest professional conference organising company, ICMS Australasia is, right now, that leader; that General.

When COVID-19 hit in mid-March she made the decision to keep all of her staff on full-time at full pay. A few weeks later, the Federal Government announced the JobKeeper payments to help affected businesses like hers. She’d made her decision. There would be no JobKeeper at ICMSA. End of story.

Some may say that the company is lucky to have cash reserves to allow her to make that decision.

That may be true but it certainly isn’t luck. Good fiscal management over the past decade and longer has ICMSA in a strong financial position. Spending has always been tempered. Profits have been saved. And, thank goodness now.

In a recent blog, Emma said: “With an average tenure of eight years from the ICMSA team I consider myself honour-bound to repay their loyalty by keeping everyone in full employment and lucky that I am able to do so.”

They were there when she was spending precious time with her husband for doctors’ appointments and during his final months and she is there for them now.

“I’ve made additional time for staff and industry friends who have expressed genuine concerns and also made time to learn about guiding the ICMSA team through this crisis,” she said in another post.

“The inner workings of our team are a joy to witness and I will never underestimate the resourcefulness of the ICMSA team to achieve our priorities.  Keeping us together was the very best decision I’ve ever made…”

ICMSA executive director Suellen Holland, a 14-year veteran of the company, describes Emma Bowyer as one-of-a-kind.

“She was already steering the company when Bryan fell ill. She’s now gone to another level and taken her team with her,” she said.

“Emma is a beacon of sunshine in our darkest hours; she seems to have an endless supply of positivity coursing through her, with a genuine desire for us to continue to learn and succeed; inspiring us every day, listening to us and bringing out the very best in each of us. In return, she has full support, respect and loyalty.”

Staying strong

Emma Bowyer has always been a positive person. The COVID-19 crisis that has affected the world so much and seen so much uncertainly in the live event arena has only strengthened that in her, say those in her team.

“… a calmness under pressure is something I’m glad to possess and does go some way to ease panic,” she says in another blog post.

“It is easy to be reactive and overcome by the fear of uncertainty but it does have a paralysing effect. Instead, we must focus positive energy into goals and work towards achieving them.  No matter how small each achievement may seem, they are all a step in the right direction.”

And, in the months since March 2020 when the live event sector shut down globally, ICMSA has been anything but paralysed.

“I think Emma would have to agree that the entire team at ICMSA has been working harder than we ever have,” Suellen says.

“Emma has been saying that this situation is, in one way, a positive thing for us. It has allowed us to do many of the things that we have been talking about for a long time but haven’t had the time to do.

“We’ve been able to upskill and put processes in place that are futureproofing the company and which will help our clients achieve their goals in the longer term.

“Emma’s priority after us – of course – is the events community and our clients. For ICMSA, it is all about the delivery of our events for our clients.

“She is the epitome of authentic leadership. It’s why ICMSA works and we work for Em.”

Staying the course

In another recent blog post, Emma said: “In his 1843 book, Past and Present, Scottish philosopher and social commentator Thomas Carlyle suggested that important truths emerge during times of tribulations.  So, what truths have emerged from COVID-19?

“I believe the first is that we are very much all interconnected.  We are social animals who desire relationships, contact and interaction with each other.  Whilst we are finding new ways to connect virtually during these times there have also been many beautiful stories, such as through music, neighbourly actions and volunteering, demonstrating there will always be a need to meet face-to-face.

“We are also seeing new levels of innovation.  So many businesses are adapting and reinventing themselves to survive and create a `new business as usual’ approach.  There are commercial rewards for those who can remain strong whilst being nimble. Further, there is a drive for a new wave of corporate social responsibility.  The global pandemic has become a litmus test for how seriously companies take their work with stakeholders, especially their employees.  Are they walking the talk?”

ICMSA is fortunate to have a strong future pipeline of meetings. But it’s not really fortunate. Fortunate is more like if you were walking along a street, fell down a manhole that you didn’t see was open, were uninjured and found a rare gold coin. Fortunate is more like luck and that’s not ICMSA or the reason why the company has future business on the books.

Emma, in another blog, describes their future as being in “an extremely strong position”.

That’s how good Generals talk. Not fortunate and not luck.

“We have 15 conferences confirmed in 2021 that will attract over 13,000 delegates, in 2022 we have seven confirmed conferences hosting over 11,000 delegates and in 2023 we have six confirmed conferences totalling more than 9,000 delegates.

“We will be ready for our clients to deliver benchmark events again when restrictions are lifted.”

And, we imagine they can’t wait to be standing alongside you Emma Bowyer when they do so.