Business achievers were awarded and COVID champions rewarded at the 2020 Hunter Business Awards, sponsored by the University of Newcastle, at the Civic Theatre on Friday night.
It was a year in which responses to COVID-19 inevitably figured prominently in the judges' deliberations.
Awards were presented in 17 categories before nearly 300 people at a ceremony that itself took on a distinctly COVID-era feel, with the usual gala dinner replaced by a more socially distanced theatre-style event.
Major award winners included:
- Hunter New England Health Chief Executive Michael DiRienzo, who was named Business Leader of the Year;
- Ampcontrol won the Innovation and Adaptability category for its emergency ventilator;
- Out of the Square Managing Director Marty Adnum received the President's Award for his pro bono campaigns supporting business during the pandemic;
- Newcastle Permanent Charitable Foundation won the Contribution to the Region Award after implementing a range of COVID initiatives, including an additional $600,000 in community grants;
- Fund-raiser and Ronnoco Managing Director Jodi O'Connor was voted the region's COVID Business Hero.
Ms O'Connor won the COVID Business Hero Award by polling the highest number of votes from more than 800 cast in the 'people's choice' category. The design and brand studio owner raised nearly $90,000 for Soul Café when COVID forced the cancellation of its major annual fundraiser, Sleepout for Soul. She stepped in to organise a COVID-Safe alternative called Sleepout for Soul at Home.
Mr DiRienzo was named Business Leader of the Year in recognition of his strong, consistent and purposeful leadership of the Hunter's largest organisation, which the judges said had come to the fore in a year in which health institutions were thrust into the frontline of pandemic response.
Mr Adnum was recognised for his support for the business community during the pandemic, which included launching three pro bono campaigns promoting businesses and tourism.
Electrical engineering firm Ampcontrol demonstrated its versatility by developing an emergency ventilator in response to a government callout for manufacturing firms that could pivot to produce frontline medical equipment.
Chamber President Tony Rhodes congratulated all winners and finalists on their resilience and entrepreneurship in what has been the most challenging of years for business owners and operators.
"Winning a Hunter Business Award in any year is a significant achievement. In 2020, the year of COVID, bushfires, drought and many other challenges, it is all the more remarkable," Mr Rhodes said. "Whether businesses have had to scale up or scale down, tweak their business model, change it entirely or just grind it out to survive, the past twelve months have demanded flexibility, versatility, courage and innovative thinking. Those qualities, essential in building great businesses, are reflected in all of the finalists who collectively demonstrate the strength and resilience of our diverse business community."
Whiteley Corporation, an innovative manufacturer of medical and infection control products, won both the Excellence in Business and Excellence in Import or Export awards. Whiteley has had to step up production significantly in response to COVID and has increased its export sales by over 60 per cent over the past 12 months.
Elizabeth Napier, of the Animal Referral and Emergency Centre, was named Kristen Keegan Young Business Leader, an award bestowed in honour of the Chamber's late former CEO.
Singleton Business Chamber won the Local Chamber of commerce Award for a range of initiatives including its successful 'Spend in Singleton' gift card program.
Former Hunter Business Chamber President Richard Anicich was formally presented with Life Membership of the Chamber at the event, in recognition of his contributions over 10 years on the board. Mr Anicich is now the interim Chair of the Committee for the Hunter, an organisation he worked to establish during his time as a Hunter Business Chamber director.