Where are they now - with MBA Alumni, Jim Whalley
From not so humble beginnings as an F18 fighter Pilot, to Co-Founder and CEO, and now South Australia’s first Chief Entrepreneur, Jim Whalley’s career is still flying high.
As a self-described “accidental entrepreneur” and Adelaide MBA alumni, Jim Whalley is a South Australian success story that demonstrates where hard work, perseverance and an entrepreneurial spirit can get you.
A less than traditional career path, Jim came straight out of boarding school into the air force, showing an aptitude for flying from a young age. A rising star, Jim was given the opportunity to become a test pilot in the UK and worked on all things weird and wonderful while chasing his dream. As with all great stories, there was a romance and soon Jim found himself following his heart to South Australia where he set his sights on one day becoming the Chief of the Airforce. Thus begins his MBA journey.
“I figured I would stay… and hopefully reach the higher echelons of the air force, there weren’t too many fighter pilots that had MBA’s and I thought if I was going to be the Chief of the Airforce one day, an MBA might be quite useful. It was very much to further my airforce career when I started, but this evolved slightly differently…”
While tough, Jim saw his MBA journey with the University of Adelaide as instrumental in his career transformation.
"I would say that the MBA I did at Adelaide was life changing for me, it was absolutely fabulous. I really enjoyed a lot of the strategy units, I enjoyed the entrepreneurship unit that probably led to where I am now and I think one of the great values of doing the program was the interaction with my fellow students. I made some great friends and without the program, Nova Systems would not exist."Jim
As part of an entrepreneurship course and drawing on his previous experience as a Fighter Pilot, Jim identified a rare business opportunity.
“I figured there was a need for an independent (defence) organisation that solely worked for the Commonwealth and had no conflicts of interest, so yeah that was the basis of the business plan”
This business plan was the basis of Nova Systems, a South Australian professional service provider, specialising in the provision of engineering and management services. This was just the beginning of some of the greatest career challenges Jim would soon face.
“Basically I had no business experience whatsoever, I was totally clueless when it came to commercial. With the exception of the MBA… my exposure to commercial operations was all of zero. So it was really learning from the start”
Jim credits his business partner Peter Nikoloff, as well as his wife, with giving him the support, advice and business acumen he needed to get the business off the ground. Through his networks built during his time in the MBA, Jim enlisted the help of fellow alumni Jill Noble to help write their first tender, not knowing that she would become CFO for Nova Systems years down the track.
Twenty years on, Jim would have no idea of just how successful his business would become.
“I was looking for a job at the time and the fact that it grew to the size it has… we have a workforce approaching 1,000 now, I never dreamed it would get to that stage. The great thing is that I am looking forward to seeing what happens over the next 20 years, hopefully it will be up closer to 10,000.”
After stepping down as CEO in 2016, and following a brief stint in Paris with his family, Jim was approached by the South Australian Premier to take on the role of Chief Entrepreneur for South Australia.
“It was a newly created position and I was very honoured that the Premier asked me if I would take on the role, and obviously I said yes. It has been great fun and great to be part of all of the things going on in the state in entrepreneurship. We have a great history of innovation and technology in terms of Nobel laureates… so there is no shortage of technology, innovation and great science in SA”
For Jim, it is hard to pinpoint just one project he is most excited about in this role.
“Just building the whole ecosystem…we’ve got a start up accelerator hub in Lot Fourteen, a space agency and soon the Australian Cyber Collaboration Centre. I guess the thing that really gives me a buzz is all these young companies that are cranking up and starting to make some real inroads, doing stuff for Adelaide and the state, nationally and internationally. It is great to be seen as hopefully making some small contribution to their success.”
While there are challenges in the current COVID-19 climate that will no doubt hit some entrepreneurs hard, Jim is optimistic that innovation will birth from these times.
“I am a bit of a believer in what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger… I think it is far more acceptable to be doing business electronically and I think in the post COVID-19 world that is going to become the new norm. So I hope that actually creates more opportunities for those really good start ups who are doing some great work.”
Not even the sky is the limit when it comes to Jim’s ambitions, with plans to make South Australia a leader in the Space Industry. Through extensive campaigning, Jim secured the International Aeronautical Conference to be held for the first time in South Australia in 2017, which was the catalyst for a range of other space related programs to be based in the state.
“It has been great to be involved with that and hopefully we are building an industry that is going to give not only lots of jobs and economic benefits to the state and Australia, but also a real inspiration piece to young guys and girls who might of thought about engineering. But a viable space industry in Australia… that could be a driver for getting kids involved in more science and engineering”
Jim believes in the power of space to help ignite the passions of the next generation, continuing to spark interest in STEM and creating jobs for the state and country in years to come.
But space is not the final frontier for Jim, with plans to hand over the title of Chief Entrepreneur within the next year.
“I think that is important as this role should turnover every 2 years or so because they need someone fresh, someone that is desperate to get things done and I think 2 years is a good time to really motivate you to do things”
When it comes to Jim’s future endeavours, it is clear he is still looking to make an impact,
“Hopefully I will still be considered vaguely useful somewhere (laughs) in the state or the country and I will be offered some opportunities to help somewhere else”
As a successful entrepreneur himself, when asked what advice he would give to budding entrepreneurs, Jim offered:
"Do your research. Make sure it is something you are really passionate about, you love and you enjoy. You know it is hard work but it is certainly less hard if you really enjoy what you are doing. You need to make sure that you have the skills and the education, I think equipping yourself with something like the MBA is a very useful tool if you want to go and do something like that."Jim
From an F18 fighter pilot, to business owner and founder, and now the first Chief Entrepreneur of South Australia, Jim’s career journey is just one of many incredible Adelaide MBA success stories.
For more information on the exciting developments in the state, please visit the Lot Fourteen website.