From the Olympics in 2000 to Fire Fight Australia in 2020 (and every event in between!) Sue Max, General Manager of Venue Management, has seen it all. We sat down with Sue to chat all things Olympics, how she’s survived 21 years with Daryl, and why she’ll always have a soft spot for the ‘Old Girl’, Stadium Australia.
You are one of the 12 permanent staff members that have been with VenuesLive throughout the entire 21-year journey, tell us how it all began?
I joined in two parts, the first is that I was working for the Sydney Olympic Organising Committee (SOCOG) and that’s where I met Tim Brady and Daryl. While working for SOCOG, in February of 1999, I joined the Stadium as a member of our casual team to get some big venue / event experience and then joined Stadium Australia permanently in the May of the same year, prior to the Olympic Games. I started working for Daryl Kerry, and I’m still working for Daryl Kerry! He has been my only boss. I started as the Venue Operations Coordinator, and then worked my way up over the years to where I am now (General Manager, Venue Management).
We are just days out from the 20-year anniversary of the Sydney Olympic Games, what are your favourite memories from that time?
I think there are two stand outs for me. Being able to do an Olympic Games in your own city is just an incredibly special experience. Lots of Australians go and work around the world to be involved in the Games, but I don’t think there is anything like working at an Olympic Games in your hometown, it’s just like the athletes being able to perform in front of their families. My family and friends were so excited about it also, it was just fabulous.
I did the morning shift, meaning I started at 4.30 every morning. Daryl managed to get the evening session! Every day I loved driving into Sydney Olympic Park and all you could see was the cauldron burning, and there was just this sense of calm, but you knew that within 4 or 5 hours it was going to be completely the opposite. I still think about it, it was so special.
Working with the SOCOG Ceremonies team was a major part of my job at the time and I was lucky enough to see the first 5 minutes of the Opening Ceremony. I was able to duck out of the control room and see those horses gallop out, I still get chills up my spine. And of course, seeing Cathy Freeman run. I have never heard a noise like that before, or since.
When you started your journey at Stadium Australia in 1999, did you ever think you would be here celebrating the 20-year anniversary?
No, I really didn’t. If someone had told me that after all these years I would still be at the Stadium, and still working with people who are not only great colleagues, but really wonderful friends I just would’ve said no, that’s not possible. What has made these years so special is the people, we talk about our Stadium family, and it really is a family. What we do is quite extraordinary and hard to explain to people outside our industry it’s definitely not a normal job.
Given the pressures of your senior roles throughout the years, how on earth have you done it?
I just found something that I loved. I took a long time to find it, when I was young, I actually wanted to be a physiotherapist! I floated around, travelling overseas, doing different jobs, not knowing what I wanted to do, and then I fell into the industry (by chance) with the National Body of Surf Life Saving in 1985, working as the Manager of the organisation’s National Championships, at the time one of the biggest sporting events on the Australian calendar. There I found something that I really loved, which was working with people, and organising things (and the people!)! From there, I worked in various sports, and then the Olympics came to Sydney, and I decided that’s really what I wanted to do. I found something that was new and different when I started working at SOCOG – from a venue rather than sport perspective. But what does it for me, is seeing everything and everyone come together. It’s the human heartbeat which makes an event come to life.
Do you often catch yourself looking back at the last 21 years?
I really do and for those of us who have been around a long time – we always say “there is a book to write” about the good, the bad and the ugly moments of hosting so many amazing events. But in thinking about those events which have touched me personally, for very different reasons, I will always have the most special memories of the 2010 ACDC tour and the recent Fire Fight Australia concert. For me, I think about all the people who come together, every department, every operational partner and every single person for every event we do – we all make such an important contribution.
On a personal level, what do you think working in this industry has done for you?
I was always painfully shy. Even though I absolutely love people, I’m really a behind the scenes person. But what this job has done is make me come out of my shell and to have a voice. I’ve always been about being part of the team and doing my piece, but sometimes you have to be in that scary place of making the call and taking the lead, like evacuating 12,000 patrons from the arena at the recent Queen concert in the middle of a major electrical storm! I have had some great people who have helped me along the way including Daryl, who has always been really good at pushing me to do things which sit outside my comfort zone. I’ve also learnt that it’s ok being a bit ‘scared’ sometimes – just understand what needs to be done and have a plan! Over planning should not be underestimated – annoying as it may be to others!
You are well known for your commitment to the job, but what does Sue Max like to do on a rare day off?
Whenever I can, I love to spend time with family and friends. I try to stay connected with friends, who are very patient – given that I have worked most weekends over the last 21 years! I love to read, I love to cook, and I love my home. I think it’s important to find some quiet space and disconnect from work a little bit, because our work is anything but quiet. What I love most about days off is not having to say “copy that” when people talk to me!
You spent time in Perth after VenuesLive was awarded the contract to operate the new Optus Stadium in 2018, and you opened Bankwest Stadium in 2019. With two flash new venues, do you still have a soft spot for the old girl?
The ‘Old Girl’ will always be my favourite. I really think she was ahead of her time. It was a long time before we had another brand new stadium in the country – our beautiful and very sexy Optus Stadium and of course the fantastic new Bankwest Stadium. But Stadium Australia has stood up well, if you look at how beautifully she was built and what we continue to be able to do getting people in and out safely, holding incredible major events, she is pretty special. It sounds funny the way we personalise the venues, but you have to understand what they do when you put people in them, they come to life, we are so lucky to have 3 beautiful venues to operate.
Who has been the most annoying staff member you have encountered over the last 20 years? *Arthur has told me I cannot accept an answer of CEO Daryl Kerry.
Everybody at some stage is annoying, in terms of what you need to get done. Some of that annoyance comes because we have things to achieve. I have no doubt I can be very annoying to some in our organisation! But I’ll say the GM of Media, is the most annoying just because he won’t let me say Daryl Kerry! We are all annoying, but mostly for good reasons.
What does the future hold for you?
I think I’m at a stage in my career now where it’s all about legacy. However, if there’s a part of my job that I have enjoyed the most it has been watching the development of the next generation of our VenuesLive team – our future is bright. Personally, I would love to leave something behind, it doesn’t have to have my name attached to it, but it just means that everything we do is better than how we did it yesterday. Daryl has given me some time now to do that, and that’s been the primary reason for my recent role change and not being so involved in the day to day planning for events, but having some fresh air to think about how we can do things differently at VenuesLive.
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