University of New England Chancellor John Cassidy has been there and done that in the business and professional world – now he’s giving back to his community.

Story By Jane Milburn

Annette and John Cassidy are down-to-earth people. They have heaps of common sense and great community spirit, which has seen them become a huge influence in the New England district of New South Wales. When John sold his major shareholding in the Sydney-based construction company Abigroup three years ago, he had plenty of money in the bank and an enviable reputation as an elite businessman which saw him recently honoured by his peers with a prestigious industry award.
Since returning home permanently in 1996 to “Merilba” at Kingstown, south of Armidale, John has redirected his problem-solving talents to help create and build capacity on an individual, community, educational and business level. At its simplest, it is the Cassidys making their 18-metre indoor heated pool available for swimming lessons for Kingstown Public School children to save them the 90-minute round trip into Armidale that is required to develop their skills to competition standard. And at the next level, it sees him help establish the New England Conservatorium of Music with a recurrent funding stream from the New South Wales Government and underwriting a $4 million loan enabling the New England Girls School (NEGS) to have a new lease on life. Both institutions are perfectly suited to the regional city of Armidale with its old buildings and traditions in the heart of the New England district.
In the bigger picture, the Cassidys have achieved spin-offs from consolidating a large and successful agribusiness running Merino sheep and South Devon cattle. And John, as Chancellor of the University of New England (UNE), continues to create a sound educational and economic future for this institution. On a family level, John and Annette educated their two children, Emma and Johnny locally, and have backed his nephew Shaun’s family in setting up a cold-climate vineyard and winery on adjoining land, and are surrogate parenting another teenage nephew and two teenage nieces who are the children of John’s deceased brother.
John is a civil engineer and Fellow of the Institute of Engineers and uses networks and contacts across industry and political groups to provide effective leadership in the local community. John’s diverse activities in New England represent an emerging trend in Australia, which has seen successful businessmen transferring their considerable influence in financial, positional, ceremonial and personal roles from the city to the country. This trend is well established in business literature in the United Kingdom and Australia, where rural and regional leadership has shifted from historic rural landholder families to a new breed of business elite.
Managing director of Armidale’s Agricultural Business Research Institute (ABRI) Arthur Rickards says John is highly influential in the New England community. ABRI is a business associated with the UNE, and Dr Rickards says John as Chancellor, is actively involved in progressing the university at a time when regional universities are under challenge to maintain student numbers and funding. “John is very innovative, and very determined in everything he does,” he says. “He has made a fantastic contribution to the cattle industry, running the largest South Devon herd in the world that is performance recorded, and greatly influenced the overall development of the breed at an international level. John is also an innovator in the sheep industry and runs high performance Merino sheep.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #53

Outback Magazine: June/July 2007