Elaine Bensted

Elaine Bensted


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When a fear of needles and the sight of blood put paid to her aspirations to become a vet, Elaine Bensted put her tertiary education on hold and took a job in a bank while she considered her future. She stayed for 17 years. Then, looking to consolidate and transfer her skills, she completed a Masters of Business Administration at UniSA and moved into the public sector. Today, she works in the not-for-profit arena as Chief Executive of Zoos South Australia.

Information correct at the time of receiving the award

Having emigrated as a family from Scotland, Elaine Bensted (nee Walker) and her siblings grew up exploring the foothills of Adelaide; she rode horses and raised dogs. With a passion for animals and conservation, she set her sights firmly on a career as a veterinarian, choosing her school subjects accordingly. Unfortunately, she never grew out of her squeamish tendencies, so that option was not practical, and her university studies were put on hold.

Elaine spent many years in the banking sector, swiftly rising through the ranks and gaining diverse experience in training and later project management. “While I did some traditional bank roles, it ended up being a really wonderful 17 years with quite diverse jobs,” says Elaine.

“My career path was never really planned, but I did say ‘yes’ to just about every opportunity. In those early days in the banking sector, you didn’t apply for jobs, decisions were made, and you were asked to take on new roles. When I first was asked to be the project director for a major restructure, it was just after I’d returned from maternity leave. I was learning on the job – there was a lot of sink or swim, but that’s where you learn.”

Elaine set her sights on exploring new horizons but chose to stay in Adelaide after a short time in Melbourne. She pursued an MBA part-time at UniSA, aiming to consolidate and transfer her skills. Her MBA journey not only equipped her with strategic planning abilities but also introduced her to a network of public sector professionals who would become invaluable in her future career.

“Having worked in private industry, I hadn’t had a huge interaction with people in the public sector and I met a lot of incredible public servants during the MBA.”

Elaine is proud of having achieved success in a number of quite different industry sectors. After leaving the bank, she took on roles in local government, moving into state government and then becoming responsible for transforming TAFE into a statutory authority. “Most industries rely on relationships, so good communication in its broadest sense, whether that’s communicating with stakeholders, communicating with staff, or presenting fundraising opportunities, is critically important.”

She also prides herself on being able to move fluidly between detail and operational issues to strategic thinking. “You can’t lose sight of the details of critically important things, but you can’t get lost in that and forget about looking at the big picture.”

One Saturday, in 2012 Elaine opened the newspaper to see an advertisement for the role of CE of Zoos SA. “I thought, ‘wow’ — I really know nothing about running a zoo, but the thought just kept churning through in my mind.”

A phone conversation with the recruiter the following Monday gave her the confidence to apply for the position. With the Zoo in dire financial circumstances, Elaine’s skills were just what was required.

“A chief executive must have a sound understanding of financial skills – you’ve got to be able to make sure that the business is sustainable.” Within four years, conversations could turn from debt back to conservation.

And then came the challenges of navigating the global pandemic; ensuring the welfare of the animals was paramount, but also ensuring staff and the huge volunteer workforce were supported and informed proved vital.

Unlike most other zoos, Zoos SA is a membership-based non-government entity and must constantly seek grants and sponsorships to continue its valuable work. “A good zoo, in our definition, is one that has a really strong focus on animal welfare, on conservation and on engagement and education. We’re lucky in Australia and New Zealand that the vast majority of our zoos, I would say fall into that category. We’re all accredited by the Zoo and Aquarium Association (ZAA) for animal welfare. So, it’s something we take really seriously.”

Elaine is on The Australian Rhino Project board, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums Board, and their Conservations, Environment and Sustainability Committee. She is the Current President of the ZAA Board and sits on their Finance, Audit and Risk Committee.

Outside the zoo sector, she sits on the Children’s University Advisory Board, the UniSA Business School Program Advisory Board, and the Regional Development Australia Murraylands and Riverland Board. “I’m not the best at work/life balance,” she says. “By saying ‘yes’ to some of these boards, you meet some amazing people, and I guess they are all in some way connected to the zoo world. It’s important, so I make time for it.”

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