The history classroom leads to a remarkable career

(Image source: Woolworths Group)

When asked about the defining challenges of his career, Christian Bennett (OM 1986) mentions two world events: the 1999 East Timor crisis, and COVID-19.

Working as First Secretary (Political) at Australia’s Embassy in Washington DC between 1997-2000, Christian’s role became dominated with an unfolding international situation on Australia’s doorstep. “Dealing with the crisis in East Timor took me to every corner of US politics, from the State Department to the White House Situation Room, to Congress, NGOs and think tanks, as well as the media, to help secure support for Australia’s position,” he explains. “It was a unique challenge for Australian foreign policy and a privilege to play a small role in navigating a successful outcome.”

Working for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) was the result of a keen interest in history and politics that began during Christian’s time at Melbourne Grammar. “The School instilled a real passion for knowledge largely because the quality of teaching was so high,” he says.

“My American History teacher, Campbell Bairstow, was so passionate and enthusiastic. He started the obsession with international relations and US history that led to my choosing DFAT over other roles. I speak to Campbell every so often and remind him: ‘It all started in your classroom!’” 

From Washington, Christian moved to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and progressed through senior DFAT roles including Assistant Secretary (Americas Branch), North Asia Adviser to Foreign Minister Downer and the Australian High Commissioner to Brunei. He later joined the private sector primarily in government relations and public policy roles, working for Santos, BHP and GE before taking on his current position as Group Head of Reputation at Woolworths. 

Unsurprisingly, 2020 has been a particularly busy year. “Government regulation touches on every corner of the food supply chain. In a crisis such as COVID-19, my team was at the centre of many of our most pressing challenges to preserve food security, staff and customer safety, and store operations,” explains Christian. “I was incredibly proud of how my team, as part of the broader Woolworths effort, rose to this enormous task.”

Taking a moment to reflect, Christian describes this extraordinary period in terms of future opportunities. “We’ve seen a permanent change in the role of digital platforms in meeting everyday needs, and the convergence with bricks and mortar assets,” he says. “What I’m most proud of is that, as a company, we responded in a purpose-led way. It was never a question of cost, it was about what was the right thing to do, and especially to support the most vulnerable groups in the community.”

With two sons at Melbourne Grammar, Christian sees a continuation of the values he learned during his own time here. “There was that underpinning emphasis on values, on excellence – on giving people the confidence and capacity to excel – and on contributing to the community,” he says. “Watching my boys, my sense is that all three characteristics are stronger than ever. The School has done an incredible job during this challenging year. I never underestimate the value of my Melbourne Grammar education as the foundation for my career.”