Country practice

Mary Harney has forged strong links between the dairy industry and Monash. By Muriel Reddy.

Mary Harney
Mary Harney, the Chief Executive of the Gardiner Dairy Foundation.

Chief Executive of the Gardiner Dairy Foundation was a homecoming of sorts for Mary Harney. After all, this is a woman who was raised on a sheep and wheat farm in the small Victorian town of Elmore. The land is in her blood. It has shaped her, forged her into a character who is down-to-earth, decent  and determined. She’s the kind of woman to whom farmers can comfortably relate, an asset since she has been dealing with them on a professional basis for the past four years. Her brilliant career has earned her the respect of the foundation’s stakeholders.

That career began more than 35 years ago and has been moving at full throttle ever since – across the health, science and agricultural sectors. She’s now a player in the dairy industry, one of the most critical in the state, worth an estimated $3.1 billion. On her own admission, it has been  her ‘can do’ attitude, her humour and her passion that have been key to her professional success. “There’s an element of being driven, of seeking challenges and achieving,” she says. “Whatever I do, I throw myself into it optimistically. I am very good at bringing  people from all walks of life together around a table to resolve issues.”

She graduated from Monash University in 1978 with a BSc, majoring in immunology and pharmacology. It was not her first choice. She had wanted to study medicine but fell short on the entry points because her school years were frequently disrupted by surgeries to correct congenital hip and spinal  defects.

Her passion for immunology and pharmacology drew her into the field of medical science, in particular to the specialty of cytopathology. By 1985, she was head of the Cytopathology Department at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and was appointed the inaugural Chief Examiner for the Australian Society  of Cytopathology, a branch of the Royal College of Pathologists. Her reputation earned her an international profile, and in 1991 she was invited to give the plenary lecture on central nervous system cytopathology to the International Academy of Cytopathology.

Harney then moved into the worlds of biotechnology and pharmaceuticals before returning to the health sector as Chief Operating Officer of Research Division and Director of the Office of Clinical Research at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in 2007. She was instrumental in establishing the inaugural  Sir Peter MacCallum Department of Oncology at the University of Melbourne. By this time, Harney had also broadened her personal horizons. She completed a degree in fine arts history at the University of Melbourne, and also completed the course offered by the Australian Institute of Company Directors.  And she was also juggling the demands of being a single mother to two children.

She owes her indefatigability to her belief that change every five years keeps her both motivated and energised. “It means you never become complacent,” she explains. “I’m always motivated by advances in technology and knowledge in new sectors. I love working with the extraordinary  people in these sectors.”

“I am very good at bringing people from all walks of life together around a table to resolve issues.”

When she was appointed Chief Executive of the Gardiner Dairy Foundation, she was determined to make a difference across the value chain of farmers, manufacturers and researchers. Under her stewardship, the foundation has launched its flagship ImProving Herds, a $3.3 million project that aims to  increase rates of genetic gain in the dairy industry by demonstrating the value of genetics and herd improvement, and the link to profitability.

Perhaps one of the more innovative strategies introduced during her watch has been the foundation’s investment in the Monash Industry Team Initiative (MITI). The industry-university partnership was recognised last year with a national Business Higher Education Round Table Award for Outstanding  Excellence in Collaboration. Her round-table discussions with dairy manufacturers identified the need to enhance capability in their engineering and IT activities. To address those difficulties, Harney contacted her alma mater where the Monash MITI program had been piloted. Under this collaboration,  high-achieving under-graduate and graduate students spend three months in regional Victoria providing dairy manufacturers with innovative solutions to real-world challenges. The program has proved to be so successful that the initial intake of seven multidisciplinary teams in 2014 has grown to 15 teams  this year. “All I really did was join the dots by linking the dairy industry to Monash and MITI,” says Harney.

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