YREC celebrates a decade and a legacy left by Executive Officer Alison Fitzgerald

Alison Fitzgerald at YREC. Picture: ON FILE

By Lindy Schneider

With a background in Economic Development, having a passion for small business development runs in Alison Fitzgerald’s veins. But it was her interest in establishing her own practice as a jewellery maker that saw her take her first steps onto the property at Yarra Ranges Enterprise Centre (YREC) in 2014.

Returning to Warburton, after several years living in the expat community of Hong Kong with her husband Steve, Alison wanted to check out the studio spaces at YREC with a view to starting up her own business.

“I saw the potential immediately, even though it was really run down and seemed to lack any real focus or direction for tenants,” Ms Fitzgerald said.

Before she could even take the next step, an encounter with Director of YREC Jeff Gill on the main street of Warburton resulted in a job offer that would set in course enormous change for YREC and provide Alison with the opportunity to live and work locally while using her finely honed business skills to help others.

“At the job interview, I was asked to present to the board. I couldn’t as I was booked on a flight the next day, so instead I agreed to review some financial documents and write a report. I worked on it until 3am. I accepted the job offer while overseas. My first day as Executive Officer was a baptism of fire,” Ms Fitzgerald said.

“Jeff met me at the door, handed me the keys and the computer password and that was it, I soon found that the previous management had neglected keeping up with the operations of the business leaving many problems to be solved.”

Instead of feeling disheartened, Alison rose to the challenge. During the years of her employment, she was able to transform the underperforming incubator, catching up on financial requirements, reshaping the tenant arrangements, and prepare a maintenance plan. In the midst of this consolidation, an unexpected phone call arrived from the State Government advising her the property, developed in 1940 as a former Board of Works site, was being placed on the ‘excess stock’ list and was to be sold. Suddenly YREC faced an uncertain future.

“I knew the value this incubator brought to the community and what a unique model it

provided,” Ms Fitzgerald said,

“I knew there had to be a solution and I posed to the board the question: What would it be like if we, YREC, bought the site?”

Over the next 18 months, Alison found skills in advocacy, lobbying government ministers and visioning she didn’t know she possessed. In late 2017, after significant planning and negotiation, a deal for purchase was struck, and a payment plan was agreed to. Today YREC is the proud owner of the site, and this has enabled Alison to realise a range of new plans for site improvement and tenant services.

As she acknowledges her ten-year anniversary, Alison’s vision is to leave a legacy that serves her local business community well into the future. To date, she has supported more than 200 start-up businesses and is proud of her ability to nurture and guide her tenants towards sustainable success. Her goal is for 100 per cent occupancy with the right mix of tenants. She is continually developing the strategic direction for YREC’s growth and exploring new ideas for unique responses to the very real challenges faced in the Upper Yarra Valley. She has steered the incubator and its people through challenges such as the pandemic and been a survivor of her own personal journey with breast cancer in 2018.

“It’s rewarding work for me to see people come and then ‘graduate’ from the incubator because their businesses have grown so much,” Ms Fitzgerald said.

“It’s really special. They provide services and products we need locally. We all work in the community, for the community.”

With big plans for future capital improvements, Alison still finds her role as challenging and fulfilling as when she began.

“No day is ever the same,” she said.

“And I love my job for its flexibility and opportunities to interact with all types of creative and interesting people.”

She is dedicated to giving back to the community and has an ethos of collaboration, rather than competition.

An avid explorer of other incubators in the state she can proudly say the YREC model is distinctive, reflecting the culture and community in the region.

“There’s no blueprint for us because we are really vested in a sense of place, and there is nowhere quite like Warburton and the creative ideas that blossom here,” Ms Fitzgerald said.

Ms Fitzgerald believes ultimately YREC is successful because of its like-minded people.

“It’s not about me, it’s about a whole village,” she said

The YREC board takes great pleasure in congratulating Alison Fitzgerald for her contribution over the past decade and extend their thanks on behalf of all tenants past and present, and the community of the Upper Yarra.

“YREC would not exist today without Alison’s commitment and stewardship,” they said.