Helen Hewett: a legacy spread far and wide
Helen Hewett, one of the superannuation industry’s finest leaders, the mental health sector’s finest battlers and the women’s movement’s finest warriors has died.
When she became a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 2019, her first thought, she said at the time, was to how proud her parents would have been. The last of 10 children born into a struggle-street family in the then working-class Sydney suburb of Glebe, she was the third of them to be awarded such an honour, following her brothers Tom and Don.
After battling neuro-endocrine cancer for several years, in and out of remission, Helen died on Saturday, February 19, age 74. She is survived by husband Rex and children Peta and Ken, a large extended family and many friends.
The AM, talking about which she was otherwise offhand, was awarded for her contributions to those three seemingly endless battles – super, mental health and women’s welfare.
With her achievements in super, Hewett (nee McDonald) it was fitting that her most senior position, or at least best paid, was as the chief executive of Cbus. Brothers Tom and Don both had long successful careers in the building and construction industry unions.
Tom, a communist advocate, was the national secretary of the Building Workers Industrial Union and an assistant secretary of the ACTU, as well as a super fund trustee, who retired in 1991. Younger brother Don, who died in 2018, was the NSW secretary of the BWIU, who retired early to devote his time to mental health issues, particularly fund raising for schizophrenia research.
Don’s efforts for the Schizophrenia Research Institute were recognised through his being made the organisation’s lifetime patron. Sadly, his son Warwick, who was diagnosed with what became chronic schizophrenia when he was 15, also died that year from a medical complication.
Once asked after a gathering of representatives from the mental health fraternity and large super funds whether there was any hope for schizophrenics, he said that he still believed in the science; that one day there would be a cure.
That gathering of more than two-dozen people in a Sydney boardroom was organised, of course, by younger sister Helen. She was not only the driving force behind the formation of the SuperFriend organisation in 2007, she had become, following her seven-year stint at the helm of Cbus, the chief executive of the Industry Fund Forum, a group consisting of about 20 of the country’s largest funds, almost all of which were also backers of SuperFriend.
An accountant by training, Hewett’s bloodline shone out when she joined the NSW Teachers Federation and became its senior accountant at age 28, also helping with advocacy and public sector submissions.
And for the women’s movement, Hewett had a starring role as one of the four women who are generally regarded as the founders of Women in Super (WIS) in 1994. They were: Mavis Robertson AM, the late convenor of CMSF and AIST, who had also been a secretary of what became Cbus in its early incarnation; Sheridan Lee, then, as now, a leading third-party marketer for fund managers; Shirley Clark from Norwich Union and Hewett, when she was an executive of Jacques Martin, an administration joint venture which became SuperPartners (now a part of Link Group).
They were the first to openly discuss the concept of WIS, but others, in particular Louise Davidson, joined Mavis and WIS to do the hard yards in building the biggest annual event in the entire industry, the WIS’s Mothers Day Classic.
According to long-time friend and colleague Fiona Reynolds, a former chief executive of AIST and more recently PRI in London, Hewett was active in many organisations aimed at “creating a better world”.
In a tribute published by Conexus Financial, Reynolds, now the chief executive of Conexus in Sydney, noted Hewett was treasurer of the Search Foundation, which is built around the need for economic and social equality, environmental sustainability, human rights, and international peace and cooperation.
Hewett had recently asked Reynolds to speak at a Search Foundation event about COP26. “Helen was fighting the good fight, right up to the end,” Reynolds said.
Greg Bright is a writer and publisher specialising in funds management and superannuation.