Now the Chairman of Coca-Cola Amatil and holding a number of other non-executive roles, Ilana Atlas received an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in this year’s Australia Day honours.
Ilana was at King & Wood Mallesons for 16 years, making significant career strides in that time, including running the firm’s New York office and as a managing partner. We spoke to Ilana about the diverse opportunities she embraced throughout her career and why it’s important to pursue work what you are passionate about.
You joined the firm in 1983 - can you give us a little bit of background regarding your time with the firm and progression to partnership in only two years?
I initially came to Mallesons as a tax lawyer, but I would say not a great tax lawyer. I wanted to explore a different area of law and the firm offered me that opportunity. I joined the corporate team in ’83 with Rod Halstead, who very generously worked with me to develop my skills in that area of law.
I became a corporate partner in ’85. In those days it was a bit easier to become a partner, I would say, than it is today. In ’89 I was asked to run the firm’s New York office, an all-female office, just Katrina Rathie, Nicola Wakefield-Evans and myself, our office manager and executive assistant.
It was an amazing time.
And when did you come back to Australia?
I came back to Australia in ’91 and went to Melbourne for a few years where I took on the role of Executive Partner, People and Information, a newly created role that I was really interested in due to some previous involvement in the firm’s recruiting process. I moved back to Sydney when I was offered the managing partner role for that office in ’96.
From managing partner, I transitioned back into a practicing role in Sydney. I moved into an M&A role alongside David Friedlander and John Atkin. The three of us worked on the NRMA demutualisation, giving birth to IAG, which was an epic transaction.
Westpac approached me shortly after that, and if I am entirely honest, I needed a break from private practice at that point, so it was a fantastic opportunity for me.
I was Westpac’s general counsel for three years when they asked me if I’d be interested in running HR. It was a chance to do something entirely different. I’d always loved that part of the business and had been involved in it a little at Mallesons, so I said I would give it a go. I ended up running HR at Westpac for seven years.
It was quite a transition, but a very enjoyable one, and it was supported by the organisation. Westpac are very good at moving people around and giving people opportunities in areas they are passionate about.
It was after ten years with the bank that I started moving into non-executive director roles.
"I initially came to Mallesons as a tax lawyer, but I would say not a great tax lawyer. I wanted to explore a different area of law and the firm offered me that opportunity.
How would you say that your day to day has changed since taking on non executive roles versus executive roles at KWM and Westpac?
It’s very different. With an executive role you are on 24/7. There is constant pressure to do what needs to be done, which in my case was as general counsel or running the human resources function.
With a non-executive director career, you obviously are not managing the organisation, you’re very much a steward of it, so it’s quite a different type of tension and pressure. As a non executive you can cover some very diverse ground from one day to the next.
At the moment I probably dedicate two days a week to Coca-Cola Amatil, which as the chair takes up a little more time and I’ll either be in board meetings or working with management on various issues.
My other days will be spent with ANZ and Jawun, the not-for-profit organisation I chair. I also do quite a bit of travel and am often in Indonesia for Coca-Cola or Melbourne for ANZ. It really does depend on the week.
You progressed into very senior roles before gender diversity received the attention and focus it does now. How would you say the environment for women in these roles, and on boards, has changed over the course of your career?
A lot has changed, although on some days it feels like not much has. Mallesons was a very supportive environment for women and quite revolutionary for the times. Our all-women New York office was an indicator of that.
Obviously now diversity and inclusion is much more structured; it’s objective and benchmarked, but even then there was a real attempt to give women opportunities. Mallesons was one of the first firms, if not the first, to give women partners paid maternity leave.
You might be aware KWM are now on track for a stretch target of a 40% female partnership by 2025?
That is excellent. I think at our highest when I was at Mallesons it was about a 28% female partnership, which led the way for professional services firms at the time.
How would you say your time as a partner at Mallesons has impacted the influence you have been able to have on young women who want to tread a similar path, or are looking to achieve that level or type of position?
I’ve always regarded it as my responsibility to sponsor and support young women, just as I’d been sponsored.
You are involved with several community groups with whom Mallesons also has close ties, for example the Paul Ramsay Foundation, Human Rights Law Centre and Bell Shakespeare. What is it that attracts you to carve out time for those sorts of organisations?
I’ve always worked with not for profits and community organisations – for as long as I can remember really. I’ve been fortunate that Mallesons and Westpac encouraged it. I have quite eclectic interests. I don’t do anything I’m not passionate about, so it is quite an interesting, diverse group of organisations that I work with, but it’s something I’m very committed to.
"Mallesons was a very supportive environment for women and quite revolutionary for the times. Our all-women New York office was an indicator of that.
Having reached what many people would describe as the pinnacle of the Australian corporate world, where do you see the next few years taking you?
What’s always interested me and kept me going is learning, so I try to do things that involve continuously being exposed to new ideas and people. Tony, my husband, and I have a winery in Victoria, it’s called Oakridge, and that’s something that really engages us. It’s a small business we’ve built up ourselves, so that’s an interesting part of life. So that will continue to be a focus and so will my engagement with the not for profit sector.
Is there any advice that you have received over the course of your career, maybe particularly at Mallesons, that you would pass on to young lawyers coming up through the ranks?
When we were young lawyers at Mallesons, the thing that was drummed into us was that it is always about the clients.
It was how we knew we could sustain the firm, particularly during recession, because it was all about relationships and connection.
You were given a lot of freedom if you could show you could build those connections.