Michael Close
Sat, March 5, 2011 at 16:46
Stephanie Hunt in Coffs, Coffs Harbour, ETC, Interesting, James Parker, Michael Close, People

I met Michael in my second week living in the region at the Welcome to Coffs function.  Michael and I chatted at the function, and I met with him again at the ETC offices.  I wondered how someone could be so enthusiastic about running an employment agency in a town renowned for its high unemployment.  That interested me, so I asked Michael if he would be my very first interview for The Most Interesting Person I Know – he very kindly agreed.

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The General Manager of the ETC is a country boy with a passion for helping others    

Michael Close is a country boy at heart.  Born and raised on the Breeza Plain, near Gunnedah in western NSW, he’s taken on the big cities and settled in Coffs, but his heart lies back on the land.  “There’s just a different feeling when you’re at home.  There’s a settling inside you and a comfort comes over you.  I walk into the Bowling Club and a few of the old bowlers are sitting there and we’re all comfortable in silence.  We say a few words every 10 minutes and watch the cricket.”

But this country boy with his relaxed and sunny manner and ex-footballer’s gently broadening girth is full of surprises.  As he let’s his coffee get cold and chats about his life so far, one catches glimpses of the leadership and compassion that have propelled him to his current role as head of the Coast’s largest employment, business and training centre.

Michael grew up on a sheep and cattle property.  Describing himself as “an enthusiastic, ratbag child”, he was educated at the primary school in town before being sent to boarding school at St Johns College near Lismore  in year 7. “I still remember my first day at school.  I rang Mum and Dad and said “I promise I’ll be good if you bring me home.””  But it is here that Michael’s leadership skills took shape, and he went on to become school captain and the captain of the football team.

It is football that first pulled Michael away from the western plains.  He headed to Sydney to play professionally with the North Sydney Bears, and with the encouragement of the club he also found himself on the first rung of his business career with Cable and Wireless Optus.  “It was a big adjustment going from a town of 1000 people to working in a building with 35 floors and thousands of people.” 

But Michael thrived in the city.  He rose quickly at Optus, played football well enough to get a contract in the UK, and met his wife Leeanne.  After a 12 month contract in England, he was reunited with Leeanne and moved to Brisbane.  It is here that Michael began his career in the employment industry, working in both Brisbane and Sydney for Ingeus Work Directions before finally deciding he’d had enough of the big city and joining the ETC in Coffs.

“I still remember coming back one night on the plane from Brisbane.  The first flight was turned around and then the second flight finally landed at about 11pm.  It was pouring rain.  I got up to my car and I’d left my lights on.  I finally got home for about an hour’s sleep, drenched wet, new baby, tired wife.  I made the decision then and there.  I’m not going to do this anymore.”  Michael, Leeanne and their growing family have called Coffs Harbour home for 5 years now, and three of his four sons were born here.

Life on the Coffs Coast has been good to the Close family.  Michael has continued to excel professionally, becoming General Manager of the ETC.  Although he’s hung up his boots professionally, he continues to play touch football with his friends.  “I’m enjoying my lifestyle at the moment.  I’ve got wonderful friends, wonderful relationships at work, great company, great people and my family is settled.  I’m involved in a number of different committees around town so I feel like I’m able to contribute.  You can’t have it much better than that.”

But as good as Michael’s life is, he can’t help but feel that things in our community need to change.  Michael becomes suddenly animated as he speaks about issues of youth disengagement.  “I see it a lot in my work.” he says.  “They’re disengaged from their families and their communities.  They become socially misfit and behave that way because that’s what they know.  We need to find programs to get them re-engaged.”

“(At ETC) we’ve placed people up to 22 years unemployed into sustainable jobs.  You have to ask, did the system fail them 22 years ago?  Our job wouldn’t be as challenging if the system picked them up earlier instead of letting them get to us after suffering for years.”

Michael sits on a consortium for Headspace, Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation, and says this and other organisations are doing a good job.  “But they can only look after so many people.  And there’s so many more wanting that service.  What happens to them?”  What’s needed is more funding.

It is when Michael begins to speak so passionately about youth issues that you really start to understand what drives this man.  He wants to make a difference.  Michael recalls a time when he was able to find a job for a man who was really struggling just before Christmas.  “About 3-4 months later he came in to say thanks.  He said that was the first Christmas that he’d been able to get his kids some Christmas presents.  That’s when you know you’re doing a good job and you’ve made a real difference to someone.”

It is empathy and those country roots that drive Michael’s passion for improving the lot of others.  “We weren’t a wealthy family growing up.  Having done it a bit tougher when we were younger, I recognise and respect how difficult other people’s situations are.”

Still a country boy at heart, but Coffs is lucky to have someone with this country boy’s heart, leadership and compassion.

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The most interesting person Michael knows on the Coast is James Parker.  "James is a fantastic person," says Michael.   "He is heavily involved in the business community and is always willing to help people out, supporting many community groups."  A man after Michael's heart, I look forward to meeting him!

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By Stephanie Hunt                                              www.themostinterestingpersoniknow.net

Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (http://themostinterestingpersoniknow.net/).
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