ByAdam Zarth -- Executive Director, Business Illawarra

As a region, the Illawarra has so much opportunity coming its way. 

We are the destination of choice for major investments in energy and renewables, and will undoubtedly play a major role in supplying the nation with more affordable energy, while helping it meet its commitments to net zero emissions by 2050. 

Our proud history in manufacturing and steelmaking will be reflected in new, high-value jobs in clean manufacturing, with exciting developments in the local fabrication of wind turbine componentry just the tip of the iceberg.

We at Business Illawarra spend most of our time looking forward; perhaps rightly so, as we continue to advocate for the skills, infrastructure and industry support needed to make these opportunities become realty. 

Throughout the pandemic, floods and bushfires we directed our efforts to helping governments understand the critical challenges facing local businesses, and to advocating for the vital support that was needed. 

But by far our greatest privilege is to celebrate and recognise the incredible business community that is a defining feature of our region; one that continues to work hard and grow, overcome adversity and incubate great ideas.

The Illawarra punches well above its weight, with a business culture steeped in innovation, collegiality and success. 

For 28 years, the Illawarra Business Awards has been the platform on which countless local businesspeople and their staff have been acclaimed and cheered on by even greater numbers of supporters, friends and family.

This is the most prestigious business awards program in the state, the most competitive and the most rigorously judged; thanks to a panel of expert judges impeccably helmed by Mr Warwick Shanks. 

It also has the unfortunate honour of being the only business awards that ran through both years of the pandemic in altered formats; another testament to the strength of our community. 

Through thick and thin, the resilience of our program has prevailed, and over the last seven years has benefited from the primary support of another long-term champion of our region’s businesses, IMB Bank. 

Last week, we were excited to announce our 2022 category finalists at a live face-to-face event for the first time in recent history. 

We received an overwhelming response to this year’s awards program, with a record number of entries received. We look forward to celebrating all winners, finalists and entrants alike at our annual gala dinner on 14 October, to be held at the WIN Entertainment Centre with the fresh theme of ‘La Dolce Vita’, celebrating the sweet life, Italian-style.

Last year’s winners and finalists prove the quality of our local businesses, and the community spirit that permeates them. 

It was a fitting swansong for Kylie Flament, the outgoing head of Warrawong social enterprise Green Connect, who was our 2021 Outstanding Young Business Leader. Green Connect, which also won Excellence in Sustainability, incorporates an urban farm, op shop, zero-waste services, staffing and recruitment solutions, and gardening and landscaping services. 

Kylie’s leadership saw Green Connect play a vital role in helping young people and former refugees settle into work and life in our region, while at the same time keeping 157 tonnes of waste out of landfill, growing and distributing 35,118kg of fresh, local organic food, and selling over 40 tonnes of gently used items through their op shop.

Meanwhile the Shoalhaven shone brightly in the Excellence in Tourism & Hospitality category, with Cupitt’s Estate in Ulladulla and Silos Estate outside Berry jointly awarded by the panel of judges for being unmissable destinations in their own right. Incorporating multi-faceted premium food and wine experiences, both are family businesses that play a leading role locally on environmental sustainability. It is easy to understand why the judges had trouble selecting just one winner.

Our business community is typified by outstanding staff who support businesses year in, year out, and we celebrated the story of Susan Finn, who won the category of 2021 Outstanding Employee. Susan is the much-loved, longest-serving member of the Burnett’s on Barney team, where she is Nursery Manager. Our judging panel couldn’t go past her genuine passion for her job, which is visible in everything she does and every customer she interacts with. 

We are a community that looks after its own, and an initiative to support men’s mental health, Barstool Brothers, is part of the special sauce that saw local sport, burger and beer bar His Boy Elroy return after a highly successful 2020 to win Excellence in Small Business. 

Our region is also home to larger enterprises that make a pivotal contribution to our state economy, as well as being outstanding employers and corporate citizens. Last year the Port Authority of NSW were crowned the IMB Bank Business of the Year for keeping Port Kembla - our gateway to the world - open, operating and safe during particularly challenging times. Their team also played a pivotal role, working with NSW Health and NSW Ports, to enable seafarers to be vaccinated while visiting our ports.

Thank you to the Illawarra Mercury, and all of our sponsors, partners and suppliers for making this important and unique celebration of local businesses an annual event.