Businesses striving to boost First Nations procurement will have greater success if support is widespread throughout their organisation, those who attended an Ai Group webinar on the topic heard last week. 

And when done well — with an intent to make a difference rather than tick a box — the benefits of supporting Indigenous businesses are far-reaching. 

Joining Ai Group Chief Operating Officer Jodie van Deventer for this important conversation during National Reconciliation Week were:  

▪ Adrian Lepou, Relationship Manager of Supply Nation; 

▪ Michael McMillan, Managing Director of AEP Engineering and  

▪ Joseph Wallace, Managing Director of Multhana Property Services. 

“If you’re in a position where you want to boost procurement from Indigenous businesses, it's got to be a commitment shared internally by more than just one or two people and it’s got to come from the top down,” Mr Lepou said. 

“If I look at our members (buyers) who are really kicking goals and working towards increasing their spend year on year, they've got awesome internal buy-in — from the executive level right through to their RAP (Reconciliation Action Plan) steering group.  

“Make sure you've got really good stakeholder engagement, with people prepared to commit to this journey for the long term.” 

In a wide-ranging conversation about successful First Nations procurement, the panellists highlighted the importance of building trust through genuine relationships and avoiding tokenistic gestures. 

Supply Nation   

Supply Nation is a member organisation that facilitates connections between Indigenous businesses and procurement departments. 

Its database of verified Indigenous businesses is the largest of its kind in Australia and represents a diverse range of sectors including building and construction, facilities management, administration, support services, recruitment services, catering, arts and entertainment.  

“I don't think there is a service or product that you can’t procure from an Indigenous-owned business these days,” Mr Lepou said. 

“We see a prosperous, vibrant and sustainable Indigenous business sector and we work towards that by driving understanding that the purchasing power of businesses and organisations can be used to deliver real and positive social outcomes. 

‘We also have a world-leading, five-step verification process for onboarding new Indigenous businesses to the Supply Nation database.” 

Ai Group Chief Operating Officer Jodie van Deventer talks to (clockwise) Adrian Lepou, Mick McMillan and Joe Wallace at our special National Reconciliation Week webinar. Picture: Vivienne Filling

Tremendous growth  

“We started in 2009 with 12 Indigenous businesses on our database and now we have close to 5000,” Mr Lepou said. 

“Interest is increasing as aspiring entrepreneurs see successful outcomes from the Indigenous suppliers on our database within their own communities. 

“Every business on our database has gone through our verification process. We also conduct regular audits throughout the year to ensure compliance with the requirements to be on our database.” 

There has also been an uptick in membership from organisations looking to procure from First Nations businesses.  

“There is growing commitment to embed more Indigenous businesses into supply chains,” Mr Lepou said. 

“To support this effort, Supply Nation members get a dedicated relationship manager to help unlock the impact procurement can have. 

“We also help members break down stigmas they might have internally around their procurement policies.” 

There are tools to help members track their Indigenous spending, set goals and search the Indigenous Business Directory for suppliers. 

“Everyone's at different stages of their journey when it comes to supply diversity, so everyone's goals are going to look different,” Mr Lepou said. 

Defining a First Nations business 

“There are two levels of membership when it comes to Indigenous ownership in Australia,” Mr Lepou says. 

“The first level comprises certified members — a global standard that represents 51 per cent Indigenous owned, operated and managed businesses. That’s been in place for close to 60 years and comes from the Global Supply Diversity Alliance (GSDA) that we're part of. 

“As part of the rollout of the Indigenous Procurement Policy (IPP) in 2015, another level of membership was introduced to recognise 50 per cent ownership of indigenous businesses.  

“We are the only GSDA member globally to recognise those two levels of membership.” 

Why First Nations businesses need support 

Unconscious bias and accessing specialist skills in areas such as governance and finance are some of the barriers First Nations business face, especially new ones. 

“A lot of our members don't understand that there is a lot of unconscious bias throughout their supply chains,” Mr Lepou said. 

Mick McMillan, who established AEP in 2016 to provide mechanical engineering services and advanced manufacturing for the defence, mining and energy sectors in North Queensland, sees it regularly. 

 “A major challenge of recruiting First Nations youth in a town like Townsville is that unconscious bias is everywhere,” he said. 

“Even within my team, we've had to bring on some cultural training for our senior staff to help them lose some of that unconscious bias. 

“Inclusiveness is the goal: if we can achieve it, everybody is the same.” 

Supply Nation has developed and provides support programs to give First Nations every chance of success.  

“It’s a huge part of what we do,” Mr Lepou said. 

Results matter  

Despite the challenges they face, First Nations people need to be able to compete, operate and deliver within the same environment at the same level as everybody else, Mr McMillan, whose business is wholly Indigenous owned and operated, said. 

“How you come to the start might be different, but everybody has to deliver,” he added. 

“That’s ‘business 101’. So, when you’re engaging with a First Nations business, show them that what they're doing is a major contributor to the overall outcome.” 

Mr Wallace agrees. 

“You can sell a business as much as you want, but you still need your employees on the ground to deliver a good service,” he said. 

Multhana, a Supply Nation-certified, Indigenous-owned company providing commercial cleaning, landscaping and building services across southeast Queensland, has never shied away from opportunities to grow and now counts Tier 1 companies among clients. 

“When we started out in 2017, we approached companies with RAPs and secured Lendlease as our first major client,” Mr Wallace said. 

“Another turning point came in 2019 during Covid when we won a contract with Brisbane City Council, which led to further business. 

“Doing the hard yards and saying ‘yes’ to the smaller jobs helps to build capability and client trust.” 

About 26 per cent of Multhana’s 135-strong workforce is Indigenous. 

Avoid tokenism 

“You can certainly tell a genuine approach from someone who's looking to you to just fill a number or tick a box,” Mr McMillan said.   

“Tokenism is evident on the first approach, and I turn away from it very quickly. 

“Engage with a First Nations business for no other reason than because you need a function supplied. 

“Articulate what your needs and requirements are, because if it's a token outcome, it'll get picked up and people just walk away, and credibility is lost.” 

Mr McMillan said it was imperative RAPs had targets that could be measured and were understood throughout an organisation. 

“Token outcomes are not acceptable for First Nations businesses,” he said. 

“Outcomes have to be meaningful and engage not just the business, but the community.” 

Mr Wallace has learnt from experience “it’s about picking the right companies that want to engage you”. 

“Some companies get quotes just for the sake of it and don’t even have the decency to get back to you,” he said. 

“It’s a waste of time. But then you have good clients. It’s about building the right relationships.” 

 Mr Lepou sees this, too. 

“Most Supply Nation members are incredibly genuine,” he said. 

“As far as you know, they’re doing everything they can to ensure they're creating a culturally safe place for the Indigenous businesses they’re engaging with. 

“Unfortunately, some would prefer to simply hand over a donation.” 

Connection is key. 

“To me, ‘good’ looks like picking up the phone and having a yarn with these Indigenous businesses,” Mr Lepou said.  

“Visit their sites to see projects they have completed.  

“Have a cup of tea. It might take you two or three hours because our Indigenous business owners love a good yarn, but that’s the start of a really good relationship.” 

Making a difference 

For every dollar spent on First Nations procurement, $4.41 is the social return on investment, Supply Nation research shows. 

“What that looks like is our Indigenous businesses are 100 times more likely to employ from within their own communities,” Mr Lepou said. 

“They’re 53 per cent more likely to offer pro bono and low bono advice and support to aspiring entrepreneurs within their communities, as well.  

“Supporting Indigenous business has a big impact.” 

Wendy Larter

Wendy Larter is Communications Manager at the Australian Industry Group. She has more than 20 years’ experience as a reporter, features writer, contributor and sub-editor for newspapers and magazines including The Courier-Mail in Brisbane and Metro, the News of the World, The Times and Elle in the UK.