#53 | Leadership in Architecture with Cameron Frazer, CEO of ThomsonAdsett

With an impressive resume of leadership positions in and out of the architecture field, Cameron Frazer bravely took on the role of CEO at ThomsonAdsett in the midst of a global pandemic and national recession. 

In this episode of Creating Australia, we discuss his history (and love) of taking on challenging roles and his ability to see opportunity. As Cameron has achieved a lot his insights into his past experiences are valuable with the clarity of hindsight. 

Speakers: Jessica Reynolds, Cameron Frazer


Jessica Reynolds:

Hi there. Welcome to the Creating Australia podcast. My name is Jessica Reynolds and I’m a private town planner and business owner based in Brisbane, Queensland. I’m passionate about engaging with the amazing people that make the property and development industry what it is today. In creating Australia, I want to learn from experts in the industry and share their knowledge and wisdom with you.


In each episode, we’ll talk with different people and unpack their past experiences and innovative ideas for the future. Join me now for an episode of Creating Australia, where we dive into the industry exploring local stories, projects, businesses, people, ideas, and more. Thank you for joining us today, Cameron. Your full name is Cameron Frazer, and I believe your current title is CEO of Thomson Adsett. Is that correct?

Cameron Frazer:

That’s correct. Jessica, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Jessica Reynolds:

Thanks. So what do you do at Thomson Adsett? What is Thomson Adsett in the first place for people who don’t know?

Cameron Frazer:

So we’re an architecture and design firm, 50 years old this year. So we’ve been around for quite a while. We’re architects, we design stuff every day. We’re at the sort of the front end of building creation and building delivery. And as architects, we obviously see buildings through from the early, this seems like a good idea to build a school or an aged care facility through to the, you know, handing over of the keys for a finished building.

Jessica Reynolds:

So what type of projects, do you niche into anything? Because a a 50 year old company, you must be quite large?

Cameron Frazer:

We’re not huge. We’re about 80 people, so it’s yes, it’s a relative thing that I think that probably puts us in the sort of mid-size architecture firm bracket, I guess. And in terms of the work we do, Thomson Adsett at 50 years old. So we’ve been around quite a while, started out with a very strong sort of Christian ethic underpinning the work that we’ve done. And the way I put it now is there’s still a really strong care ethos through the work that we do.


And we specialize in seniors living in aged care, which is very topical with the aged care Royal Commission report landing last week. Education, health, community facilities, sports facilities. We do some retail and some leisure and resort work around the sides of that, but very much this sort of strong underpinning care ethos, which is really important to us and the work we do.

Jessica Reynolds:

Yeah. So you’ve just recently become CEO. How has that come about? How does someone just go, I’m now CEO of a 80 person, mid-tier firm that’s been around for 50 years? What has that journey been? Did you know this is where you were gonna be?

Cameron Frazer:

Interesting question. There are different pathways to a role like this. Mine, my long journey’s been an interesting one. I’ll talk about that. But the short version of getting here was, it was the classic heard about the job through a recruiter, went through the application process, went through an exhaustive interview process. It all happened based in Melbourne, and it all happened online during Covid in sort of the middle of 2020.


So I did it all through lockdown in Melbourne, which was most interesting and unusual. So I sort of, I landed in the role like that from a, from a business point of view. Thomson Adsett, you know, as an architecture professional services firm, one of the real challenges is always having people who can lead the firm and provide that governance and leadership oversight, but work in the firm every day and be architects and design and deliver buildings.


And Thomson Adsett had arrived at a place where they decided they wanted to bring someone in fresh and clean, if you like, from outside. Who didn’t, you know, hadn’t, hadn’t been in the business before. And for me, my background I started my working life. I trained and started life as an architect. So I’ve been in the game as it were.

Jessica Reynolds:

Always in Melbourne?

Cameron Frazer:

Yes, yes, I, I’ve always worked as an architect in Melbourne, although I’ve worked for a national firm. So I’ve done work sort of around Melbourne and I’ve done a little bit of international work as well from an Australian base. But at one point in my career, I took a bit of a left turn and ended up in the public sector for 13 years.


And then sort of became, moved away from architecture, you know, on the tools, designing more into management leadership type roles. And have really just come full circle back into architecture, albeit not on the tools, as I say, nobody’d let me near a drawing board or the equivalent anymore of a computer in a management leadership role.

Jessica Reynolds:

Yeah. Don’t have any of those drawing boards.

Cameron Frazer:

I love a drawing board and I still love sketching and scribbling on yellow traces. There’s still lots of yellow trace. So even in the digital world, there’s a lot of hand drawing that goes on, which is wonderful.

Jessica Reynolds:

So you’ve started in architecture on the tools and then you’ve kind of diverged and it sounds like you’ve gone more into leadership roles.

Cameron Frazer:

Yeah, I did about, I worked for about 10 years or so as an architect and I sort of rose up in a relatively short time through the ranks in various firms, and started doing a little bit of leadership work. But I found myself a bit disillusioned at the time with architecture and what was happening in architecture. And it was probably more personal career stuff than really about architecture, I think.

Jessica Reynolds:

What were they? Could you detail that a little bit more? Cause I think that is very relatable. I think everybody gets to a point in their career where they’re like, is it me or is it them?

Cameron Frazer:

And the benefit of hindsight, you can look back and go, oh, that’s what was going on. I think for me, I’d started work as an architect. I loved creativity, I loved working on creative things. I really enjoyed buildings, but I loved, I really loved all parts. So I liked being in the office and scribbling on the yellow trace, like I said.


And doing that. I quite enjoyed drawing in it. And this was in the nineties in the beginnings of computer drawing. But I also loved getting out on site and spending time with people and a broad range of people. I enjoyed builders, and subcontractors and being on site and the messy, dirty environment of actually building buildings.


And I think for me, I’d risen up into a sort of a medium leadership role in a firm and really enjoyed the leadership piece where it wasn’t very rewarding from that point of view. And again, you know, as I say, with the benefit of quite a few years of hindsight, I can look back and say, I really wanted more leadership experience.


And that for me is not about kind of the power of leadership, it’s about the opportunity to work with people and to create opportunities. Open pathways. You know, I say to my team at Thomson Adsett, I might be the CEO, but my job is to help you.


My job is to smooth the path, remove the roadblocks, clear the problems, and make it easier for them to do their jobs, which is really what we’re all about, which is designing and delivering buildings every day. And that’s the piece about leadership that I like. It’s working with people, it’s helping people find their own pathway.


Enabling people to, you know, do better work, find out what they want to do in their careers, move and grow up through their own careers. And for me, I think I wanted more of that. And so I, as I say, I took a bit of a left turn. A friend had rung up and said, you know, you asked me about what I did. Do you want to come and do what I do? And he worked in the public sector as a project manager in the Victorian government.


And I said, well, that sounds really exciting. And frankly had no idea what I was doing getting into the public sector at the time. But I moved from a 20 person architecture practice into a 2000 person government department, which was a fairly big wake up call. And took my building and construction and architecture and contracting skills into a role where government had put a whole lot of money into an area, into science and technology area.


And so they had people who knew a lot about science and technology, but the money was being spent on buildings and equipment and they had no one who understood about procurement and buildings and construction. And I found that even though I was working with a whole bunch of people with PhDs, which was quite sort of confronting and daunting, my skillset was really valuable because I didn’t understand how buildings went together.


I didn’t understand the processes, and the breadth of people involved in that process. So I started carving out a path for myself in the public sector, initially building on that construction architecture background, but public sector’s a fabulous place in, from an opportunity point of view. And I interested in the leadership piece.


And so I took every opportunity I could to do a training course, be an acting manager of something, and get more leadership experience. And over about 13 years or so in the public sector, I developed a much stronger, both a skillset and a capability, but also aligned that with my personal goals about leadership and management and then the public sector.

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And I decided we’d part ways, I thought I’d probably had enough. A mutual parting of ways. And I actually decided that I did want to come back into architecture. It was a funny thing. I’d bump into people and they’d look at me and the public sector and say, you’re an architect, what are you doing here?


And I’d say, well, I’m doing what you do. I’m, I’m doing a job and I’m helping people. And, you know, doing it in the public sector. And ultimately a role came up with the Australian Institute of Architects, like a commercial leadership role. And I thought, right, well that’s a terrific opportunity.


So I jumped at that and so moved out of the public sector into the not-for-profit space. So sort of somewhere between the public sector world and the commercial world is not-for-profits. And I worked at the Institute of Architecture for a while.


Which was really interesting because it was about seeing a lot more of a broad view of the profession and where the profession was going, and the sort of the challenges, you know, what are the roadblocks? What are the barriers to the profession? And you know, that idea I talked about with leadership, about smoothing the path, clearing the roadblocks.


That was a really interesting part of my role at the Institute of Architects. And then from there, I actually went back into architecture practice in a commercial sense. I was the business manager for a firm called Hayball for about four years. Which was fantastic because that was really kind of for me, took everything I’d learned about management leadership, combined it with my passion for the built environment in architecture, and got to put those things together and learn how to make those things work.


And really interesting, you know, bringing together creativity and business, not natural bedfellows, but something I really enjoy is finding that sort of constructive, valuable nexus between the blunt reality that you’re running a business, you’ve gotta make money. You’re running a creative business, you want to enable people to create great architecture. How do you do that effectively?


How do you help the people who want to be creative do it within a framework that is ultimately bounded by time and money? That’s the commercial world. And then Covid came along, and life changed for everybody, including me. And then lo and behold, surprisingly this role at Thomson Adsett popped up and I thought, this is a gift. I will take that and I’ll have a go at it.

Jessica Reynolds:

I’ll take that, I like that.

Cameron Frazer:

I’ll take that gift. You know life throws interesting curve balls at you and it’s what you make of them that is really important and I think defines who you are as a person. And for me, this opportunity was just, just the most fabulous and exciting one. And I’ve loved every minute of it. It’s not what that challenge is, but I really like it.

Jessica Reynolds:

No, definitely. You’re making it sound like a very natural progression in your career. Was that from hard work or was it you are just very good at finding opportunities and or are you just good at the pivot?

Cameron Frazer:

I think probably what you’re hearing is the benefit of hindsight. It’s easy to look back and make something sound like a natural progression. I can assure you. There was nothing natural. You know, there was I think quite a lot of some of that career I was thinking, I’m not really sure where I’m going or what I’m doing.


I’ve always been one to grab an opportunity, you know, for someone to come up and say, you’re interested in what I do? Do you want to do it like this person did when they offered me the role in the public sector. And I do that, you know, as much because I really like experience, you know, life is all about experience and I really enjoy that.


And I don’t necessarily, perhaps I’m getting better at it now, but I didn’t necessarily think through what are the implications of this choice. It sort of, it seemed like a good idea at the time. And so I grabbed it. And so with the various opportunities that have come along for me in a professional sense, like I said, I haven’t always known where I’m going.


And sometimes I would look and think, I’m really not sure what’s happening here or whether this is the right choice. I mean, an example is, you know, I started off using my built environment skills in the public sector. I ended up in the public sector working for a group called Sustainability Victoria, who are, as the name implies, they’re a sustainability agency in the Victorian government.


So much more about sustainability. I was running a team that was all about renewable energy waste and recycling sort of sustainable business, sustainable commercial business practices. So, if I’d said to the Youngme, you’re gonna end up there, the Young me would’ve said, don’t be ridiculous.


Opportunity knocked, I’d grabbed the opportunities. It was it was a fabulous leadership experience. I had a I worked for a really great CEO there, a woman called Anita Roper, who was terrific. She was both one to offer opportunities, but also from a learning and development point of view, she was great. And so, you know, it hasn’t been a smooth, straightforward exercise, but it’s been an incredibly valuable one.


And because when I joined Thomson Adsett, or when I was in the process of joining Thomson Adsett, I think the fact that I had been an architect and so I could talk the talk if you like. But I’d also done a whole lot of other things outside of architecture. And so I brought a very different perspective and particularly a perspective of public sector, not-for-profit commercial world.


And also having been a client on the client’s side of a lot of architecture, I guess I had a pretty broad view of how architecture works in the world and how it could work in the world. And I think that was pretty valuable in terms of the way I pitched it, I guess to the Thomson Adsett Board when they decided to bring me on.


And, you know, again, the benefit of hindsight, I look back and I’ve done a lot of interesting and unusual things, and they’re all incredibly valuable. Albeit not strictly speaking for an architect, but from a breadth of knowledge and experience and especially in a leadership role like a CEO, it’s really, it’s great to have a pretty broad experience base to draw on.

Jessica Reynolds:

Yeah, that’s definitely something that I have heard more and more often. And I think it sounds like it’s been a great alignment with Thomson Adsett and what I’m hearing is you love a challenge and you seem to be a fairly quick or good decision maker, so you make the decision, you go with it, you’re not always sure where it’s going, but you’ve made a decision and you do it, you follow through with it.


Yeah. It’s, it’s interesting. I do like a challenge. And, you know, take on being the CEO of an architecture firm through covid is certainly a challenge. Cause it’s been a pretty tough time. The decision making’s interesting. I think I’ve to be a better decision maker.


Probably as a, you know, as a younger man, I pre vacated too much about some stuff and should have just made decisions. And I’ve learned to make decisions, but I’ve also learned how to make decisions, at least for me, how does my brain work? How does my gut work?


And what do I need to bring in for the outside so I don’t make a mistake when I make a decision? So I’m fairly consultative in terms of, I try and get some good information to inform a decision, you know, within a relatively short space of time.


Because often you can’t take very long, but then you make a decision and, you know, a lot of the management tones would have it that the best way to do things is often to make the decision. Sometimes it may not be the right decision, but the fact that you’ve made a decision moves everything forwards a bit further, even if it’s not necessarily in the right direction all the time.


And we all make mistakes and there’s, there’s no one who says, you know, they’re a decision maker and always gets it right. It doesn’t happen. Life isn’t like that again. I think that’s, you make a decision, you look back at the decision, if you think it was the right one and it seems like it’s working, that’s great.


It’s when it’s not working that you have to go, okay, that decision didn’t work. Let’s make another quick decision here and fix the one that we made before that wasn’t the right one.

Jessica Reynolds:

I assume that happens a bit. Can’t always be perfect.

Cameron Frazer:

No, look, you can’t, you can’t. And as I said, I think, you know, part of my learning about decision making is understand how I work and, and recognize the shortcomings of that. Make sure you get other points of view. As a CEO, you are a bit like the jack of all trades, master of none. You can’t really have the detailed knowledge of anything much that’s going on in the business.


And if my board is listening, I’m very focused on the finances, so don’t worry . But you’ve gotta have a good coverage of things. And when a decision comes up in whatever it is, you’ve gotta say, well I need expertise in in particular areas. I need expertise in that sector or that business.


A key employee leads for example. I’ll go and talk to the education leaders and say, right, well there’s a gap. What do we need to do to fill the gap? What’s the right is, is it just like for like replacement? Is there an opportunity here to step back and make a more strategic hire?

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But I get their input, bunch of sort of fairly quick discussions and then make a decision, okay, that’s the way we’re going. Let’s go down that road, make a higher, I have, you know, not recently, but in time’s gone past I’ve made employment decisions and live to regret them because you’ve made bad decisions.


And again, I think one of the great challenges of a role like this is people make bad decisions and sometimes they make bad hiring or not bad, they make poor hiring decisions. The best thing you can do is turn around say that didn’t work, cut the strings, don’t keep that person around and move on. Can be a bit hard, but it’s really important for the rest of the business and too many people.

Jessica Reynolds:

It’s good for them though too. I’ve read a lot of things now where it’s sometimes you need to cut those bad hires because it’s fairer on them. They’re not gonna fit in, they’re not gonna have a good time. It’s best that they find their path elsewhere.

Cameron Frazer:

Yeah, I think so. And again, I mean it comes back to that, you know, one of the things I love about the job is it’s about people. And people are all different and not all people fit into all jobs. And you’ve gotta be able to acknowledge sometimes when a person’s not fitting, can you help that person?


Can you adjust, can you tweak? Or actually is helping them really making the hard call and saying, no, look, it’s not working. We need to part ways. So I’ve learned to do that too, despite that being very hard thing to do. I think it is often a good thing to do for everybody concerned.

Jessica Reynolds:

No, that’s amazing. So you’ve mentioned it a couple of times, you’ve become CEO in the middle of Covid in a global pandemic

Cameron Frazer:

Timing is everything.

Jessica Reynolds:

Timing is everything. What have you experienced over the last couple of months as CEO? What has been the hardest part about the pandemic? Has it been getting procuring business? Has it been dealing with the fallout with people’s personal lives? Like what’s been happening?

Cameron Frazer:

Yes and yes. I think the biggest thing is just spectacular uncertainty. And I’m living in Melbourne, so we’re probably the most uncertain of any state in Australia when, you know, thinking when’s the next lockdown gonna occur? But uncertainty is the really difficult part and that flows through into people’s personal lives and the upheavals that occur.


The challenges of workflow, of getting work, you know, uncertainty from either an economic point of view or indeed, you know, to look at aged care. Which I mentioned before, the aged care rule commissions, the final report landed recently. And you know, the uncertainty in that sector is quite profound.


And, you know, as the sector that delivers the built form in that space, there’s been a real lack of work. And so, you know, the uncertainty there is really challenging. The report landing is important and, you know, getting into 2021 and vaccines and things obviously is really important for creating more certainty.


And we’re seeing that occur, I think mixed with a fair bit of hope, of course with around vaccines. But yeah, uncertainty’s been the really challenging thing in a whole lot of ways. And one of the things I’m working quite hard on with the team at Thomson Adsett is about trying to create some certainty.


And I say trying, I mean, I am doing, I am doing creating certainty, but you can only control so much. The external world can still be a fairly uncertain place. So it’s about giving people as much information as we can about where the business is at.


And you know, helping them understand their roles, and how that all works and helping them understand the value that they bring to the business to create as much as you can a sense of personal certainty for the individual within the framework of a business of 80 people or so.

Jessica Reynolds:

Yeah. No, that’s cool. I’m interested to know, were you in a leadership position during the GFC?

Cameron Frazer:

Ooh, cast my mind back to the GFC. Yes. I was in the public sector at that point.

Jessica Reynolds:

I’m just wondering if it was anything similar or bit different with, you know, the virus and things?

Cameron Frazer:

Well that’s true. I think the GFC, yeah, different because the gfc, I mean, it affected Australia but not as much. And the GFC was different because, at least from my point of view, because people individually didn’t feel quite so affected, that they weren’t scared.


Whereas with the pandemic, I think everybody individually feels like, I could get sick, I could get this thing, you know, I could catch it from someone on the train or in the street or something. And it’s, I think there’s a very different sense of uncertainty.


Notwithstanding, you know, in the GFC, and in this pandemic governments have been quite profound in the way they’ve been able to affect the economic circumstances, which flows through to people in that sense of certainty or, or, you know, reducing discomfort.


Yeah, the GFC was very different though in that there was a whole bunch of external factors that they sort of flowed into the Australian borders. But not like a virus where every single person individually felt like they could be impacted quite badly. I think a lot of people probably sort of went through the GFC thinking, this isn’t much fun and maybe.

Jessica Reynolds:

It’s probably more just financial, I guess.

Cameron Frazer:

Well it was, it was much more about money and the economy. And I think for a lot of people, they’re kind of those bigger morphous stings that, you know, that hurts them when they lose their job or, you know, their business is changing or something and that’s when it hurts. But for a lot of people, happily that didn’t happen.


And so, you know, you sort of, you’ve, you’ve got this sense that there’s these big global forces at work over which I can have no control, whereas the pandemic is much more personal. I think everybody thinks, yeah, I could get sick if I’m not careful and, you know, I could catch it and die, which is fairly frightening and profound for people.

Jessica Reynolds:

No, it’s, it’s quite intense. So thank you so much for joining today. I have one last question for you. If you could design and construct one building in your lifetime, no budget or constraint, you don’t have to draw it yourself, what would that building be? What would you like to leave on this earth? You can draw it if you want.

Cameron Frazer:

Thanks. I’ll have a bit, I’ll get some yellow post and have yellow traces. Have a scribble. This is my quick decision making comes in is being tested on the fly in person. One building? I think I’d like to do a school. But it wouldn’t be a school in your traditional sense of our sort of, you know, kindergarten, primary, secondary, tertiary education.


I’d probably like to do a school that was more engaging in terms of a more of a community facility and brought people together in other ways. And this kind of draws on my background. I did do schools as an architect and Thomson Adsett’s does a lot of schoolwork too, but educating children, educating everybody, you know, education’s a lifelong thing.


Educating children is really important because you’ve got these, you know, these fresh sponge brains that can soak up stuff, and one day will become prime ministers and rock stars and leaders in the community and stuff. And so that’s a really important place in the world and in the community for me.


So, you know, doing a school I’ll get the trace out and go to town on the actual creativity part of the design. But a school that was like, you know, really a center for the community rather than maybe a place where, you know, kids get sent to learn. It’s far more an engaged part of the community.


And ideally, you know, I said education is a lifelong thing and for me that’s really important. I try and learn all the time because by learning, I improve and grow. If we can make schools, you know, more at the center of the community and I could design this fabulous school that would be at the center of the community.


But engender learning as a way of life for everybody all the way through life, I think that would be a really fantastic opportunity. Which is probably a think I’ve just described. Designing a community, not just a building, but, you know, gotta have big dreams.

Jessica Reynolds:

Oh, definitely. No, I’m following you. And I think that is such a fantastic response and I think really something that maybe is in our future.

Cameron Frazer:

I hope so. I’ll have to try and find a benefactor now who can put my dreams into reality.

Jessica Reynolds:

Well we’ve put it out there now. It’s out there. We’ll manifest it, you’re a manifestor.

Cameron Frazer:

Yep, I am, I am. Put it out to the universe.

Jessica Reynolds:

Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Cameron.

Cameron Frazer:

It’s been a pleasure, Jessica. Thanks for the time.

Jessica Reynolds:

Thanks for joining me on today’s episode of Creating Australia. Don’t forget to subscribe and join us on our socials to keep updated on our latest content. On Creating Australia, I love talking about everything to do with people, property, and development, so if you have something you’d like me to explore, let me know by searching Creating Australia on Instagram or searching Jessica Reynolds on Linkedin.