When Tim Strong and Steve Cheyne showed up for the first session of their QUT Executive MBA in 2015, they had no idea it would lead to a partnership that has seen them help build one of the most respected engineering services businesses in the Queensland Resources Industry.
The life-changing decision to embark on an Executive MBA has seen the pair successfully transition from roles with large multinational mining companies to leadership positions with Brisbane-based Waterline Projects (Waterline).
With Tim as Chief Executive Officer and Steve as General Manager of Strategic Growth, they are supported by a team of nearly 90 people who work closely with large asset owners and operators (mainly mining companies) to improve the safety, productivity, and capacity of their operations.
Tim’s desire to undertake an Executive MBA was triggered by missing out on a promotion because he didn’t have additional qualifications beyond his undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering.
His many years of experience with some of the country’s top mining companies, including Vale and Xstrata, were still not enough to differentiate him in the very competitive market for mining industry executives.
“I always knew I would have to do some formal management training to further my career growth. Missing out on that opportunity spurred me into action, so I started studying an Executive MBA in Western Australia,” he said.
“When I moved back to the east coast, I wanted to transfer to a local university and liked the cohort model of the QUT Executive MBA where you start and finish with the same group of people.”
Like Tim, Steve had many years working with large miners, but was motivated to undertake an Executive MBA to fulfil a desire to work for himself and have his own business.
“I wanted to get the skills to manage the transition from that big company environment to small business,” he said. “I started with a Graduate Certificate through another university and didn’t get much out of it, so I was looking for something that had a bit more substance.”
“The structure of the QUT Executive MBA suited my commitments and work schedule at the time, so I signed up.”
The QUT Executive MBA is designed specifically for executives with at least ten years of industry experience who have a desire to hone their leadership skills with an elite cohort. With one annual intake in January each year in Brisbane and Canberra, it focuses strongly on creating an intensive learning experience (three days over one weekend every month in Brisbane or bi-monthly in Canberra) with a cohort of like-minded executives.
The Executive MBA program at QUT offers students the choice of two distinct pathways – Complex Project Leadership and Strategic Procurement and International Leadership.
Despite working in the same industry in central Queensland for several years, Tim and Steve had never met before showing up for their first session of the Executive MBA in 2015.
With a 15-year break between completing his undergraduate degree and starting the Executive MBA, Tim remembers the initial units as “intense” with plenty of late nights pushing through group assignments.
“There were many nights at the business school, but it was made much easier by the cohort approach. We gelled well and had some fun along the way… it wasn’t all just work,” he said.
The QUT Executive MBA program culminates in an international study tour to one of the world’s best universities or undertaking a deep dive with some of the world’s largest companies.
During the tours, students are given the opportunity to leverage emerging digital technologies and data analytics to drive organisational transformation at MIT (International Leadership Stream) or investigate the challenging and complex nature of leading global organisations such as Airbus, Pilatus, and Boeing (Complex Program Leadership and Strategic Procurement Stream).
Tim and Steve’s 2016 graduating cohort had the opportunity to attend a 15-day study tour of China and present a business idea to the global Board of health care device maker Cook Medical in Shanghai.
“It was a great finish to the program and a really important insight into how we could apply our learning in the real world and make a tangible difference to organisations,” Steve said.
Despite developing a solid friendship during the Executive MBA, it wasn’t until after they had completed their studies that they came together at Waterline. Waterline had been founded several years earlier by Randall Makin (who also co-founded a cloud and mobile SaaS business, RedEye) and was ripe for expansion.
Steve joined the business first as Operations Manager, with Tim joining not long after. Together they were part of a small team of six consultant engineers, but equipped with their Executive MBA learnings, they had big ambitions.
“We knew of Waterline from our previous roles and saw the potential to build something,” Steve said. “We said from day one that we wanted to build a business that could provide the type of support we needed when we were in site roles ourselves.”
“We put into motion all the things we learnt and the contacts we had made. QUT really got behind us and championed our journey, and today we are closing in on 100 people and still see a huge opportunity for growth.”
The pair remain closely aligned with QUT and hold their quarterly strategy meetings on campus in the city.
“It has been a really valuable relationship for us, and we would recommend it to anyone. In fact, our General Manager of Engineering Tom Barber has signed up to start his Executive MBA next year,” Tim said.