It’s a clipping from a Belfast newspaper, featuring what, at a quick glance, looks like the same man – first dressed as Chancellor sporting an academic bonnet and a blue and gold robe and then bedecked in the unmistakable plum-purple of an Anglican Bishop.

Having read the Chancellor’s CV, I knew I could not have missed a random bishop-hood. 

The man in purple is his identical twin brother John, recently made Bishop of Clogher in Northern Ireland, while James (Jim) was taking on his new role here in South Australia.

It is a point of justifiable family pride that these Belfast brothers, born into the time of the “Troubles” and the first in their family to attend a university, have become so very successful. 

An Honours graduate in Law from Warwick University in the UK, McDowell’s decision to test the working world instead of undertaking a PhD, was the first step into a career made across almost every continent and in more than 12 countries.

His first job was with Bombardier Shorts, an aircraft manufacturer in Belfast where he worked initially in industrial relations, but later branched out into commercial and marketing. 

He says that experience and his global travels have taught him that while everyone is different, “the important thing is that you treat them the same”.

“There are stereotypes about every country and their national characteristics but at the end of the day, successful negotiations rely on both parties walking away from them feeling good,” he says.

It is these little truisms about the nature of people that value-add to an incredibly sharp business mind. 

“If you want to stand out in your career, sometimes the road less travelled is the one to take – it gives you a point of difference,” he says. “I became ‘Mr Overseas Man’ someone who would travel, and could do business in new and different environments.”

And McDowell’s career has been stellar. He joined British Aerospace in Singapore in August 1996.

In just three years, he was made Regional Managing Director for Asia, following the merger of British Aerospace and Marconi Electronic Systems. 

It was then just a stepping-stone to Australia where he was sent to turn around the company’s fortunes. Which he did – transforming the $300 million business, which was bleeding about $50m annually, to an enterprise worth $1.6 billion by the time he stepped down as Chief Executive.  

He successfully managed its integration with Tenix Defence in 2008, broadening operations to include capability across the land, aerospace, maritime and joint (electronic systems) environments. 

In 2011 he went off to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to run the company’s $6 billion business there through a time of great change before returning to Adelaide in 2014 to build his non-Executive portfolio. 

McDowell is no stranger to UniSA. When former Vice Chancellor Professor Denise Bradley met McDowell at a business lunch, she was inspired to ask him to consider being on the University Council, an invitation soon officially extended by then Chancellor David Klingberg and accepted in 2008. 

“UniSA has been really fortunate to have the right leaders for the right periods of its evolution – all of them, Chancellors and Vice Chancellors, have been able to manage changing times and adapt accordingly and for the advancement of the institution,” McDowell says.

McDowell makes no bones about his attraction to “challenger” brands.

“Being a challenger brand or business has so much more potential than being the incumbent leader,” he says.

“Youth makes you agile as an institution.

“It can be a burden to have history and tradition to manage – it can tie you down to a narrow view.

“UniSA is just all potential and opportunity.

“We don’t need to define ourselves in any other context than that – the group of eight, for example – it’s just a list of old universities.”

McDowell says that like any large organisation, UniSA does have challenges to manage.

“I’d say managing the substantial capital develop-ments we have on the go is challenging,” he says.

“Attracting more international students to come and study with us is another challenge, but it seems to me we have the right management team – cohesive and with a shared vision – to meet these challenges.

“There are other areas that are more complex – how do we become a top tier institution and still maintain our commitment to equity, or how do we really lift Indigenous participation?

“The Council’s role is to approve good strategy and plans, such as Crossing the Horizon, and make sure we deliver on them.”

McDowell says one of the most fundamental things UniSA can do to ensure its continued success is please its customers – the students.

“I truly believe in the transformational power of education,” he says. “My brother and I, from a working-class family, are examples of how education opens up enormous possibilities.

“We have to do all we can so that our students feel really fondly about their days at UniSA and so that they’re proud of their achievements here. We want them to feel they have gained something special.”