Jan Strom
Mon, January 9, 2012 at 8:43
Stephanie Hunt

Graham Singleton tells me that Jan Strom is the most interesting person he knows on the Coffs Coast.  They met years ago when he was a young presenter at NRTV and Jan was doing a Jazz Fitness show.  Later he was her campaign manager when she ran for State Parliament. “She has just done so many things with her life,” says Graham.  “She’s unstoppable."



“I’m exhausted!” So begins the conversation with Jan Strom and as her story unfolds I can certainly understand why she might be tired.  But she looks youthful and vital, snappily dressed for the Coffs Coast Digital Strategy launch function from which she has just departed.  Despite a touch of grey in her short-cropped hair she certainly doesn’t look her 57 years of age.

She was only 27 when she first arrived in Coffs Harbour in 1981.  “I came up in a VW named Biggles, with a sound system and a bag of leotards,” says Jan.  An actor by training, Jan had long before worked out that actors need other skills to pay the bills.  After several years working in aerobics training in Adelaide and Sydney, she had acquired a Jazz Fitness franchise for the entire north coast of NSW.  “I started my classes at the Catholic Club and the Sawtell RSL in the Princess Room,” Jan recalls.  Her timing was perfect, the aerobics phenomena was about to take off and Jan was able to ride the wave. 

Jan struts her stuff!Within three years the rising tide of success had carried her business from Port Macquarie to Mullumbimby and she was employing over 60 staff.  Along with business success she found love.  She met Peter in her first few weeks in Coffs.  “We met briefly a couple of times, then met formally, had a date the next day and started living together the day after that,” says Jan, still obviously delighted by the spontaneity with which a 30 year relationship began. 

Peter is a trained property valuer and combining his financial nouse with Jan’s theatrical, aerobic and marketing skills kept the Jazz Fitness business rising to new heights of success.  They established sub-licensing arrangements, expanded west to Armidale, Tamworth and Moree and went national with a Jazz Fitness TV program in 1984.  Jan was the producer, director and star of her own TV show as well as running a prosperous business.  (Are you starting to see why Jan has every reason to be tired?)

Caught up in the “women can do anything” culture of the 1980’s Jan didn’t stop there.  “I was pregnant with our first son when the TV program started, so I got tubbier and tubbier,” Jan recalls.  Prancing around in a leotard on national TV when you are pregnant was not the done thing in those days, but that didn’t stop Jan.  “I did five series of the Jazz TV show.  In two I was pregnant and two I was breast feeding,” Jan laughs.

But the Jazz chapter of Jan’s life was about to close.  When regional TV stations aggregated, she lost her television program and by then the aerobics sector had shifted from the community hall to the gym.  It was time to look for new horizons.  Despite Jan’s wealth of marketing experience she was unable to get the jobs she wanted because she didn’t have a degree.  In 1994, at the mature age of 40, Jan enrolled in Management and Professional Studies at SCU and began her shift from leotards and step-two-three-four to academic, politician and community advocate.

Five years later, with a bachelor’s degree under her belt and a job as Marketing Manager and Community Liaison Officer at SCU Coffs, Jan decided to run for Council.  “There was a lot of dissent, frustration and anger at the time,” Jan recalls.  “People were saying ‘they should fix it’ and I realized ‘they’ is ‘us’, so I put up my paw and ended up as Deputy Mayor.”

Jan as Deputy Mayor visits the Coffs LibraryIf this sounds naïve, it probably was.  “Alf Williams, one of our Councilors, used to call me Pollyanna,” says Jan, who readily admits that she entered politics not really understanding the game.  And perhaps it was that ingenuousness that made her run as an Independent in the state elections of 2003.  “I thought the only way Coffs Harbour would get any real attention was to have an independent representative,” says Jan who describes the 6-week campaign as “madness”.  Friends and family pitched in, her father tirelessly handed out leaflets, she invested her children’s education fund, but in the end she lost. 

Just as well she now believes.  “I remember one of the Councilors leaning over to tell me that I took it all far too seriously, it was just a game,” says Jan.  “I think it’s a blessing that I didn’t get elected to State because I just can’t play those games.”  Exhausted from the campaign, and depleted by a bad virus Jan decided not to run for a second term of Council.

Jan with son Tim as she earns her PhDBut don’t think for a moment that Jan took a rest: not her style.  Instead she threw her energies into academia and community engagement.  While up to her neck in politics, Jan had continued to work at SCU and managed to complete her Masters of Professional Management and a Graduate Certificate in Research Management, using Council as her case study.  (I hear you, no wonder the woman was exhausted!)  The next step obviously was a PhD.  The university was finding its feet on community engagement and offered Jan a doctorate to explore how the university and community can and should engage.  She was off again!  She continued to work for the SCU Office of Engagement while she was working on her doctorate, before being elected to the Board of the Australian Universities Community Engagement Alliance (AUCEA).

The same year as she began her PhD she was appointed to the state Regional Development Board, now a joint federal and state program called Regional Development Australia.  Here she influences the regional projects that receive federal and state funding, finally able to make a difference to the community without having to suffer the cruelty of politics.

Dr. Jan accepts her PhDToday that girl who rattled into Coffs with her bag of leotards is Dr. Jan Strom, with a thesis about to be published, executive officer of AUCEA, on the board of Regional Development Australia and mother of grown sons Tim and Christopher of whom she is unashamedly proud.  “I’m really fortunate to have a family that has supported me in whatever I wanted to do,” says Jan.  “Peter never tells me no….he did all the cooking and shopping when I was on Council…he said ‘Sure, spend the kids education fund.’….he’s been fantastic!”  

When Jan was approached to run in the last federal election Peter finally said NO.  “As nasty and toxic as politics is, there was still a part of me that thought, ‘Oh, we could do this or do that.’”  Jan just can’t stop herself when a challenge is presented.  Thank goodness her husband has finally learned how to say no.  It’s exhausting just following Jan’s story.  Imagine living with her!




Jan has just come from the Coffs Coast Digital Strategy launch, so her first thought when I ask about the most interesting person she knows is Wayne Houlden.  Wayne presented at the NBN function, and his business Janison Solutions has just won an international Microsoft award and Telstra Australian Business of the Year.  “He’s a quiet sort of bloke,” says Jan.  “But he’s done some amazing stuff – he’s innovative, very creative.”  My sort of man….can’t wait to meet him.

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