At a glance
If being the CFO of a large, publicly listed corporation is seen as the apex of financial stewardship, then the work of Darren Greentree FCPA might offer some food for thought.
Greentree is the CFO at Western Sydney University (WSU) and has been with the institution for over a decade. More recently, he also assumed the responsibility of vice‑president finance – but these are just job titles, he says. His work, and the team he leads, seem to have adapted and diversified at the same rate and complexity as the region of Western Sydney itself.
Over the course of Greentree’s career, the region has become one of the country’s fastest growing and most diversely populated areas. It now boasts the third‑largest economy in Australia, behind the central business districts of Sydney and Melbourne, says Greentree. His role and WSU’s mission both reflect this.
Greentree laughs as he recalls the job he entered 13 years ago and compares it to what he does today. In 2010, the finance function was almost entirely back-office focused. Now, it is fully embedded in the university’s decision-making process.
What Greentree does now is not just about accounting and cash flows – these are a given in the job. Rather, it is about “understanding and developing linkages between operational activities and financial requirements through respected business partnering”, he says.
The real job of a CFO is about making a difference – through informed financial decisions – not just for today’s students, but for those who will enter the university in 10, 20 or even 30 years’ time, says Greentree.
“It’s about establishing an intrinsic value connection to what you do and sharing that connection with those around you. But even more importantly, it’s also about making a net difference to the lives, careers and wellbeing of others,” he says.
In a way, Greentree has to be a kind of “financial soothsayer” – hypothesising the university of tomorrow by making insightful decisions today. There is a strong legacy element attached.
“That’s where this really is so very different to the standard corporate role, where the focus, through necessity, tends to be more short to medium term and about results,” Greentree says.
“The university’s horizons are intergenerational. We are not obsessed about the next quarterly result, as there is a longer‑term learning, research and social benefit attached to everything we do.”
WSU is enormous. It has a turnover of about A$1 billion, 2500 staff and almost 50,000 students across 13 campuses.
The university was founded in January 1989, under the terms of the University of Western Sydney Act in 1988.
Today, it is not a standard corporation, nor is it exactly a charity – it sits in between the two. WSU is a self‑governed entity with a respected and diverse board of trustees.
WSU has a clear mandate to serve its local communities, of which there are many. It is served by multiple campuses, which serve a large catchment area that ranges from Hawkesbury in the north-west, to Parramatta in the central west, Penrith and Blacktown in the west and Campbelltown and Liverpool in the south-west.
“You couldn’t visit all the campuses in a single day,” Greentree says.
Greentree and his team keep both the micro and macro perspectives in mind when making decisions.
“We also are a university that offers a hybrid model of both the large, sprawling traditional campuses and the centrally located, high tech vertical environments,” he says.
While finance is clearly at the core of what Greentree does, there are commercial and spatial prerogatives to his role as well.
“Demographic changes and urban sprawl mean it is beneficial, in some cases, to move to vertical high-rise CBD locations such as in Liverpool, Bankstown and Parramatta. This includes the redevelopment of ‘excess to need’ campus locations to further build on the university’s financial sustainability through the development of an intergenerational corpus,” he explains.
Leadership with impact
Greentree is candid about how important it is to love what you are doing, understand and care about the community you are serving and believe that you are making a difference.
“Education has an element of responsibility that sits over the top of everything, so when you are making decisions, you need to think not just of the financial fundamentals, but also the social impact and the greater good over a longer period.
“I don’t ever want to suffer what I call ‘the glass office syndrome’ – that is, to make decisions based on technical factors without really appreciating what’s happening at the ‘coalface’ and how those decisions might impact people doing their job or those relying on that service.”
To him, the CFO part – the technicalities of finance – is simply the baseline.
“What matters more is the leadership component over the top. There is the challenge of staying relevant with operational requirements, and being able to filter out the day-to-day noise and to know what the true issues are.”
Greentree believes culture is critical to success, and the culture that the university has developed over time really came home to him when the pandemic hit.
“Almost overnight, we transformed into a hybrid and online learning environment for our students, but we still had to make sure that those from disadvantaged or low socio‑economic backgrounds could have the critical campus infrastructure available to them to continue their education.”
The university kept delivering on its learning, teaching and research commitments throughout the pandemic, including supporting students, staff and the community on many levels.
A student hardship fund was established, partly funded by staff contributions, to help those who had limited means of supporting themselves. This included student food hampers, food vouchers and financial support.
Greentree and his team were front and centre of the university’s crisis management team, which was established when COVID-19 started raging through the population. This allowed all key decision-makers to act promptly and decisively.
“My team, and the entire university, lifted to the next level. It made me realise everyone’s value connection to what the university does and that we had in place a team that could dig deep and deliver. If we had been culturally dysfunctional and fractured, we could not have delivered to the levels we did during that difficult period.”
A better legacy
Greentree is clear that all facets of university life must be managed with careful planning and foresight.
“We have to always make sure that we are financially viable, and that we invest intelligently and sustainably, because we have a social licence to operate that demands the highest standards from us. We can never allow our standards to drop, as a leading educational and research institution.”
“You have to stay grounded to who you are, your values and what you are here to achieve.
“These are some of the core attributes I value in others around me, rather than societal status or pure monetary wealth as measures of true success. The latter is a superficial proxy for intergenerational success and leaving a legacy, in my view.
“What better legacy to leave than to lift those around you, to help them aspire to their own success through education and career development?”