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November 3, 2022

Running towards a challenge

As a former Navy clearance diver, David Mallett thrives on challenges. The proud Ngarrindjeri man founded his project services company while completing an MBA and growing his family by two, and now he's opening up interstate to encourage more First Nations people into professional services.

  • This article was produced in collaboration with Adelaide Business School.

David Mallett talks about his eight years in the Australian Special Forces as giving him the “discipline and direction” that he needed while fresh out of school. It also strengthened his endurance.

“We had it ingrained to never give up on anything,” he explains over the phone. “We embrace challenge. We pass one challenge, we want another one – a tougher challenge, whether it’s mental or physical.”


To learn more Adelaide Business School programs on offer and how you can accept the challenge, click here.

When we speak, David has just returned home from his second trade show in less than a fortnight, where he’s promoting Yanun Project Services, the project services company he founded while completing an MBA at Adelaide Business School at the University of Adelaide. One of his company’s aims is to provide First Nations people with a career path in the sector and encourage more to take their place in the corporate world.

“We’re on a bit of a growth trajectory,” he says. “We’re getting more involved in projects for defence out of Sydney and Canberra.

“The Commonwealth and government contracts have some pretty strong targets in there to be able to improve Aboriginal employment and Aboriginal spend in the supply chain.”

David says while the project management space is highly competitive, he sees a lot of opportunity and Yanun has been partnering with large companies to win contracts.

“We’re able to complement some of the offerings of the multinationals,” he says.

“[And] we’re not just being procured because we’re an Aboriginal business, we’ve been procured because we do good work. And we’ve got defence cleared personnel that have worked on some of the biggest infrastructure programs in the country.

“And in terms of First Nations project management businesses and project controls companies, I have yet to come across an Aboriginal business that’s delivering the services that we are.”

As the company continues to expand its work in defence, it has also been working in the resources sector with BHP and in utilities with SA Water.

“We’re also doing a bit of work with Tetra Tech International Development out of the South Pacific,” David says. “So, what started out as a very defence-centred business is starting to expand some other areas – which is pretty exciting, because it’s all still complementary to what we do as a business. And it’s nice to have some variety for our employees.”

Yanun is currently a team of nine, including two female First Nations trainees, with a target of 30 per cent First Nations people employed. Trainees at Yanun undertake a Certificate IV in Project Management or Project Controls, provided through a registered trainer working with Yanun.

It was David’s own time as a project manager with John Holland and then engineering consultant AECOM that made him think about how to encourage more First Nations people into the field and build lasting careers.

“I was always really passionate about creating something, building some legacy,” he says.

“I saw that First Nations people were pretty well unrepresented, and still are in professional services. And definitely in the defence industry.

“I thought picking up an MBA might just help with building my confidence in making the leap and teaching me more of the formal side of business administration.”

He says he chose to do his MBA at the Adelaide Business School because of its reputation and their First Nations Scholarship, which he was able to access. Talking with then MBA director Damian Scanlon sealed the deal.

“[Damian] was extremely supportive and provided a lot of guidance up front,” David says.

“We had a number of catchups talking about what that MBA journey was going to be like and whether it was something that would be good for me [and my business idea].

“I’ve always felt that MBAs are really easy to start and extremely hard to finish. So, I didn’t want to start and then have to fall away and drop it in some down the track.”

The mentorship program was also mentioned, but at the time David had no idea how invaluable it would prove to be. The school’s strong ties with its MBA alumni and the business community saw David assigned Jim Whalley, who was South Australia’s chief entrepreneur at the time and is perhaps better known as the driving force behind Nova Systems.

“[Jim] and I just hit it off and we’re still good friends. I’m always ringing him for advice,” David says.

“He opened a lot of doors for me early on, gave me a lot of really crucial guidance, and was just a really good sounding board. If it wasn’t for Adelaide University and Damian linking that up, it probably would have been more of a bumpy road.”

Simultaneously undertaking an MBA and launching a business provided David with more than a few challenges. He says he knew it was going to be tough “but I probably took on a little bit too much, in terms of growing the family – we had another two children during the MBA journey – and also starting a business as well”.

While David says it’s “not advisable” to do all of this at once, having supportive family helped in the process. “Certainly, I owe a lot of thanks to my wife, Jessica, who really carried the load,” he says. Jessica was also a key sounding board. “There’s the mental bandwidth that [starting a business] takes, and it becomes a little bit consuming. I’d get home and it was hard to stop talking about it.”

David is only the second First Nations person to achieve their MBA at Adelaide Business School, and the school is hoping that more people take up the opportunity via their scholarships program. Now that Yanun is established and growing, he says he gets joy out of seeing how the business is changing the lives of its employees.

“Our First Nation trainees are a great example,” David says. “We’ve taken them from some pretty standard-type careers at Foodland, out of the AFL system, as a sales person in retail. Now they’re on a positive pathway in a professional career [and] the sky’s the limit for them.

“I’ve seen their confidence just improve out of sight – seeing them come in and not want to talk in the meeting to being able to run meetings and talk to the rest of the team.

“I think if we can leave a legacy like that and look back in five or 10 years’ time at the numbers of First Nation trainees that have come through the program that have gone on to successful careers, be it with us or others in in this space, that would just be an ultimate success.”

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