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Michael Gabriel holds the keys to industry change

Michael Gabriel has always had an analytical mind. The Group CFO of NRMA originally studied science at the Queensland University of Technology and went on to work as a sales engineer at Caltex. It wasn’t long before a passion for corporate finance took hold.

“I went overseas and worked in different countries for a large multinational – it was clear that you had to hold different types of roles to become a rounded finance professional…”

Michael Gabriel

“My first job was as a sales engineer in the commercial area at Caltex, but I wasn’t really in the finance department and [started working towards] an MBA because I wanted to get more involved in the running and direction of the business,” he says. “I went overseas and worked in different countries for a large multinational – it was clear that you had to hold different types of roles to become a rounded finance professional. From a personal perspective, I always wanted to live in different places and experience different things and one of the great things about multinationals, at least when I was younger, was that you could do that.”

For the next 16 years, Gabriel would work as a finance director at Diageo, a multinational alcoholic beverages company – a job that saw him oversee the company’s financial and strategic projects everywhere from Japan, India and China to Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. Working in Brazil, Singapore and Tokyo, he learned the art of balancing country-specific regulations and cultural nuances alongside commercial imperatives. A sound knowledge of accounting principles – honed via an MBA and later, a CPA – meant that Gabriel could back up strategic decisions with financial acumen.

“The accounting function is very critical for growth,” says Gabriel, who left Diageo to work as General Manager, Corporate Finance at Woolworths, during a period that saw retail giants undergo swift transformation to keep up with changes in customer behaviour. Gabriel was made a Fellow of CPA Australia thanks to his achievements in his field. “If you think about leading a business and being a business partner, you need to have good base control of your delivery environment. If you don’t get the fundamentals right [in relation to] numbers, then you can’t do the other things around driving insights, improvements and change.”

Since August 2016, Gabriel has served as Group CFO at the NRMA, Australia’s largest Member organisation best known for its roadside assistance service, and one of the most trusted brands in the country. A particularly rewarding aspect of his job, he says, is the process of making decisions and investments that will serve the organisation’s member base.

“The great thing about our business is that it is a mutual – it has a fantastic member base and funds that [give us] a lot of opportunity,” he says. “We have opportunities to do things for members and the community, but we have to [exercise] discipline so we invest the funds wisely. [One part] of our business is motoring and membership and the other is travel and tourism so we have two [parts] of our strategy. We say that our job is people moving people and making members’ lives easier.”

Gabriel says that a key part of his job is anticipating how the motoring industry will transform and invest in changes that support this transformation. In the end, he says, being a good leader is as much about commercial decisions as it is about empowering the NRMA community. Initiatives such as a new electronic vehicle charging network (EV) are a case in point.

“We are spending over ten million dollars building one of the largest charging networks in Australia around New South Wales and the ACT and “as a mutual it allows us to make these transformational investments” to help drive community change he says. “That is the big challenge for us – how do we invest members money and how do we get the best return for our members? NRMA is a very multifaceted business – we own holiday parks, ferries, hotels, car servicing and in addition to motoring we also have a major loyalty program, called Blue. Cars are breaking down less and with electrification and the other [shifts] that are coming, it’s all about how we help communities – especially regional communities. We are on the path to doing that now.”

Gabriel says that navigating industry change – while equipping his customers and team members for the future – has made for one of the most satisfying chapters of his career.

“What I love most is having a team and what my team does for the business,” he says. “Working for a business that is transforming and evolving while helping the community is also very rewarding.”

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