AMONG any accolades or commendations that come Peter Maher’s way as he retires as Vinnies’ chief in Queensland none are likely to be more precious than a few words from one of his daughters.
Looking back over more than 14 years in the chief executive officer’s chair, a comment from Peter’s daughter Belinda was up there among his most cherished memories.
“One of the things (I remember) – and I think the highlight of my career, particularly with Vinnies – was when one of my daughters said to me, ‘Dad, I’m so proud of you …’,” he said.
“That means more than anything else to a parent. So, that, to me, is what the society’s been about for me.
“If that’s the message I’m giving my kids, that’s what’s important.
“It’s not how much money I make or what I own or anything else like that.
“That’s not what’s important. What’s the example I’ve set for my kids (is important).”
Heading into retirement at the end of this month the 61-year-old’s looking forward to spending more time with those kids – Belinda and Juliette – and four grandchildren, with his wife Derrelle.
Since becoming Vinnies’ Queensland CEO, and then Northern Territory CEO as well for the past three years, Peter hasn’t had the chance to spend as much time with them as he would’ve liked.
“I’ve been basically working seven days a week for the last 14 years nearly,” he said.
“You’re on call all the time with Vinnies.
“Nearly three years ago now I took on the role of CEO of the Northern Territory as well so I would often travel on a Sunday morning to the Northern Territory.
“I’d then work all week, I’d usually have board meetings or whatever on the Saturdays and I’d fly back Sunday afternoon, and then I’d start back here (in Brisbane) on Monday.
“So there’s been many, many weekends when I just haven’t had a weekend off, so there are lots of things around the house that I think my wife wants doing, and just even to basically clean up.
“My garage is an absolute mess and the study’s all over the place so I need to spend a little bit of time on those things.”
In the beginning, Peter was drawn to the Vinnies CEO role because it built on his previous faith-related roles as a Catholic school principal, working with the Catholic Education Commission in Canberra and having studied theology.
It linked, too, with his experience of working with the Prime Minister and Cabinet on government welfare reform in Canberra, and managing parenting and disability programs across Centrelink.
But there was more to it than that.
“My father (Terry, deceased) had been heavily involved with the society and, even as a young teenager, I can remember I used to do quite a lot of things for Dad with St Vincent de Paul,” Peter said.
“I remember I’d come home from school and I used to have to go down the street and chop some firewood for an elderly lady, so I’d do that and carry some firewood into her place from her shed.
“At Christmas time in Canberra, Vinnies used to have a crib at the local shopping centre, and so I would go down and sit at the crib with a big jar and people would donate money for the society.
“I also did some volunteer work at the Vinnies shop, so I suppose I’d been heavily involved in Vinnies as a young child, and then even when I was school principal I had a close relationship with Vinnies in my local parish.
“So I’d known a lot about Vinnies, and I think it was a mixture of all of those things, in a way, linking together …
“Initially when I came to the society it was a drop in pay but I sort of thought, ‘Look, you know, this is something where I could hopefully make a difference’, and hopefully I’ve been able to achieve that.”
Apart from the work and projects he had to complete, it was the people around him who had much to do with why he stayed so long.
“The people in the society are what I really call salt-of-the-earth people,” he said.
“They are really genuine, sincere, hard-working people who, in many cases, make a lot of self-sacrifice to help others, and that’s a lovely environment to be around.
“When you’re working and interacting with people like that you say, ‘Hey, there’s something special about this’.”
One of the things Peter is most pleased about is the way the society has grown in Queensland, “and it’s grown not just in terms of its financial assets, it’s grown, more importantly, with the way it’s been able to assist people”.
“When I started we had 22 units of accommodation; we’ve got nearly 500 units of accommodation now,” he said.
“Last year we assisted 331,000 Queenslanders.
“We’re running education services, we’re running migrant and refugee services.
“We’ve got a couple of hundred people who are out there tutoring migrant and refugee kids and helping parents with the notes from school and getting assimilated into the community.
“We’re doing work with people with disabilities. We’re doing work with people in child safety issues.
“We’ve got transport services. We’ve got home maintenance services. The list just goes on.
“We’ve opened shelters for women escaping domestic violence.”
Not long after he started with Vinnies, society members on the Gold Coast wanting to do something about a particular problem – housing single fathers with children – came to see him.
There was nowhere in Australia to cater for such a need.
Peter backed the local Vincentians in establishing 27 accommodation units in a project called Families Back on Track.
“That’s just one example but there’s hundreds of those all the time through the society that I have come across, and you really become humbled in your dealing with people,” he said.
“I remember – and it’s really stuck in my mind – not long after a I started with the society – I went to a place where we were handing out Christmas hampers, and this lady was there helping and she introduced me to her 16-year-old daughter.
“And she said, ‘Peter, do you know why I do this?’ and I said, ‘I suppose you do it to help people …’
“She said, ‘Peter, this is my ninth year of coming to give out the Christmas hampers …’
“She said, ‘Ten years ago I had a marriage split up a few days before Christmas. I had four children, our entire possessions were in two suitcases.’
“And then she looked me in the eye and she said, ‘Peter, how do you think it makes a mother feel to have nothing to give her kids for Christmas?’
“And that really hit home.
“And she said, ‘The society came in and helped us with accommodation, with clothing, with food, but also with some presents for the kids’
“And she said, ‘I come back every year and I help’. That’s what it’s about.”
For now, Peter wants to take “a good month or so just to have a good break and then decide from then exactly what we’re going to do”.
“I want to do a bit of board work. I’ve actually been appointed to the Queensland Parole Board – just in a part-time capacity, but that I think is something where I can again bring my skills and experience there,” he said.
“And I’ll probably maybe do a few director boards, volunteer work … we’re even considering whether we may even do a stint overseas with some volunteer work …
“So I’m not rushing into anything.
“At 61, I’ve still hopefully got a few years up my sleeve.”