The region's peak networking body The Illawarra Connection celebrates 25 years

Silver anniversary: Warren Steel, Peter Kell, Janine Cullen and Geoff Phillips at the June dinner reflecting on first TIC gathering 25 years ago. Picture: Greg Ellis.
Silver anniversary: Warren Steel, Peter Kell, Janine Cullen and Geoff Phillips at the June dinner reflecting on first TIC gathering 25 years ago. Picture: Greg Ellis.

Next Tuesday the Illawarra business community will celebrate a significant milestone.

Leaders from across the region will gather at the Novotel just like they do every second month for the region’s peak business networking group.

But the August meeting of The Illawarra Connection will be extra special. Not only because of guest speaker Mark Bouris. But because it is the 25th anniversary dinner of what has been a valuable organisation for so many business, political and community leaders.

The significance of TIC was clear at the June meeting when many original members got together and spoke about the first meeting 25 years ago and why they have kept coming. They included Geoff Phillips, Peter Kell, Janine Cullen and Warren Steel who recalled a brilliant address by David Lange who set the bar very high. But the standard and benefit from the bi-monthly networking event has been maintained ever since

Among others at that first meeting in 1993 were former Illawarra Mercury editor Nick Hartgerink. “Peter Newell was on the founding committee, and signed me up – no questions asked. He told me it would be good for me and good for the paper if I was to get to know the region’s business community”.

“Despite thinking I was busy enough already, with a demanding job and three young children, I loved TIC from the first night and have been a most enthusiastic attendee every since. With David Lange as the first speaker, it blew me away that we would be having speakers of that calibre coming to Wollongong every two months.”

“Of course not all the speakers have been as good as the former New Zealand Prime Minister, famous for forging a very independent international path for his country (the envy of many Australians!) But TIC has maintained an incredibly high standard with our speakers over the years, which of course is part of the appeal.”

Mr Hartgerink said the other really appealing aspect of TIC for him has been the friendships and business connections he has forged over the past 25 years.

“When I left the Mercury in 2001 one of the first things I did was to re-join TIC in my own right. I established a media consultancy in the Illawarra, and knew that maintaining the networks that only TIC can provide would be essential to my business’ success. So it proved, with many of my clients people who I had got to know through TIC.”

Mr Hartgerink joined the Board 15 years ago and has been Secretary for the last decade.

“I am so pleased to be able to give back in this small way to the organisation that has been so valuable for me,” he said.

The Illawarra Connection is a business gathering like no other and set the benchmark for networking in a region that now boast many network groups. And can proudly boast to be an extremely well connected business community.

Mr Phillips recalled how the former Prime Minister of New Zealand used the best line in the last 25 years.

“He rattled off all these names and spoke about Ronald Reagan as the most interesting person her ever met because he was almost uninhabited by himself,” he said.

“David Lange set the standard for all speakers here. He got up without a note and spoke for an hour and 10 minutes without an umm or an ahhh. He talked about Bob Hawke, he talked about Margaret Thatcher and all these people he know. It was a really interesting talk and then he took questions for 10 minutes. Everyone went “WOW how good is this”?”

Mr Steel described Mr Lange as larger than life and someone he would never forget.

“We have had some great guest speakers,” he said.

Nearly all the dinner meetings have been held in the Grand Ballroom at the Novotel but ones was held at the University of Wollongong Innovation Campus and one at the Mercure Resort in Bowral with John Fahey as the guest speaker.

“He was the Premier of NSW at the time,” Mr Phillips said.

He was sitting next to Mr Fahey and recalled discussion at the table coming up about the Hawks having to leave the Snakepit and the need for a new entertainment centre in Wollongong.

“That was on the Tuesday and on the Friday he rang me at work to say he was going to give us $16 million to build the entertainment centre,” he said.

.”He was the one who committed to the entertainment centre. He was fantastic.”

By bringing everyone from politicians, to mayors, vice chancellors, professors, bishops, civic leaders and a broad range of business and industry leaders together – The Illawarra Connection has done just that in a way that says something about the region. 

It has thrived by helping make important connections that have achieved many good things for the city and region.

But like any organisation the many highs have been interceded by a few lows.

“In 25 years with six speakers a year you are looking at 150 speakers. And not everyone of them has been top shelf. Most of them have been good. But there have been a couple of terrible ones,” Mr Phillips said.

While the bi-monthly event is attended by many senior leaders there have also been an increasing number of young leaders and a good mix of men and woman.

And that has created many opportunities that have helped aspiring business owners and managers to further develop their careers through scholarships, networking and memorandums of understanding.

The Illawarra Connection has evolved and moved with the times but kept its core ingredient of success. The willingness of everyone involved to get together in a non political environment and connect in ways that have been good the the regional community.

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