On sitting down to chat with Nicky Oatley it’s clear, before we’re even on the record, that this reverent, forthcoming professional is just so down-to-earth. An integral part of the Oatley family empire, Nicky shares her time between Sydney and the family owned Hamilton Island where, as Brand Manager, she continues her pursuit to honour her late grandfather’s (Robert ‘Bob’ Oatley) legacy of one vision for the business. Flanked by her two miniature Italian Greyhounds Luca and Isla, Nicky talks respect for her beloved grandfather (or Popeye, as she affectionately refers to him); glass ceilings for women in business, and the extraordinary resilience of those living and working on the glorious island in the wake of this year’s Cyclone Debbie.


I was in Sydney when we were watching Cyclone Debbie track in the complete opposite direction than it was supposed to…

“We were awake all night panicking, trying to have communication with the island whether it was for a business perspective or for our mates; and when we lost communication that was the scariest thing, we didn’t know what we were doing, we couldn’t even get texts through, nothing. We were panicking but we were trying to be rational. Dad and I were already buying gloves and rakes and chainsaws and we’d ordered every piece of corrugated iron because we knew we’d lost roofs.”

Our main goal was getting to the island to be a support network. Dad and our CEO were just pillars of strength…

“They made the decision very quickly that we weren’t going to close, that we would stay closed for one week while we made sure everything was safe. I was the first one to put my hand up and say ‘there is no way this is possible, give yourselves a month, it’s not that important, it’s just money at the end of the day’. And Glenn and Dad were like ‘no, the island needs the confidence from us to know that everything is going to be fine. Everyone needs to maintain their jobs cause a lot of them have lost their own personal belongings, now imagine losing your job as well’. 

In hindsight we did the exact right thing, got everything up and running; we might have made a few mistakes in terms of where money was spent or priorities but when you’re trying to do things that quickly you’ve just got to make the right decision with the information you’ve got at hand. That community; the staff, the residents, you’ve never seen anything quite like it. The bond that they now have; you cannot create that unless you go through something so hideous.”


It was incredible how the community pulled everything together in time for Race Week this year. We were up there every week mainly in a support capacity…

“It was all hands on deck – we had staff that had never been gardeners, being gardeners.  At Qualia we spent an enormous amount of money regenerating those gardens quickly, because Qualia was probably hit the worst in terms of the vegetation. Dad made the decision pretty quickly that it didn’t really matter what the insurance company was going to do; you can’t wait for that, we just had to try and manage the costs the best we could and do it as quickly as humanly possible; it was huge.”

Our partnerships with Audi and QANTAS are amazing: both partners are fantastic.

“Having a partner like Audi and having their support and trust is amazing. They could’ve easily said we might just push back (on Audi Hamilton Island Race Week) this year, we don’t want to be involved in case it’s not great, but they were incredibly understanding. We’ve built a very strong partnership with them corporately but also now with the sailing; they trusted that we would look after them and it was amazing having Race Week as that line in the sand to focus everyone towards. All of the Hamilton Island staff love Race Week, they love the fanfare and the camaraderie that event brings to the island so it was something for them to look forward to. Had Audi pulled out, and I’m sure most brands probably would’ve, it would have been so heartbreaking for the island.”


When it came to the cyclone, Qantas and all the airline partners were incredible…

“All we had to do was just pick up the phone – and we didn’t know who to ring in that situation – and they were just ‘yes no problems, how many aircraft do you need’ and again you’re like ‘how much is this going to cost’ and they said ‘don’t worry, it’ll be fine, we’ll sort it out.’ Even all of our food and beverage partners, all of our travel agents, wholesalers, so many people were so understanding. We were constantly moving dates as to when we were going to reopen and people just have no understanding of how cool everyone was.”

For me personally, this year’s Race Week was really weird…

“It felt wrong to be celebrating because everything had been so sombre. I still haven’t quite worked out how I felt at Race Week, it certainly wasn’t normal for me; I think I was still very much in protection mode for our staff and for the family and just trying to protect everyone.”

Continuing Popeye’s legacy is at the forefront of my mind every single week no matter what planning I’m doing…

“We’re working on a refurbishment program for the Reef View Hotel and we’ve worked with some incredible interior designers on that. It’s an enormous building and to try and do that without impacting cash flow drastically; it’s just a little bit of a balancing act. Apart from that and the continual redevelopment of Hamilton Island; we won’t be building any new accommodation offerings at this point; we just want to keep it ticking along.

My grandfather first sailed past Hamilton Island in the ‘80s, and he really admired Keith (Williams) for what he was embarking on…

“It was at a similar point in Popeye’s career where he was trying to develop something big in his own right – that was Rosemount – they were both running parallel courses. Some years later Popeye won Race Week, had a couple of chardonnays and thought this is a pretty cool place; and they came up to him and said ‘you know we may not be here next year Mr Oatley do you feel like giving us a hand?’ He looked at the numbers and they all decided it was a good investment.” 


Hamilton Island was running for about two years when I started work in the call centre. I loved it – I loved hearing from and talking to the guests.

“At that stage hardly any money had been spent on Hamilton Island and it was so important in hindsight to hear from the guests; I know it’s so basic but some people get to have one holiday every two years, or if that, and they’re trusting you with their hard earned money and time – if you stuff it up that’s an enormous responsibility and that’s when I started getting really passionate about it.”

I grew up in the Hunter Valley but I first went to Hamilton Island on holidays when I was about four…

“Because we grew up in the country and dad was so hands on we didn’t really go on holidays, we were farm kids; but we’ve still got all those photos from that time and I’m so very very fortunate to have all of those memories and to know that feeling you get when you go on holidays to Hamilton Island and what it means to Australians; there isn’t really anything like it in Australia. I’ve always got to keep reminding myself of how to emulate that feeling and the reconnection; our role is helping people to reconnect in their families or friendships so that’s a really important part for me, I’m so glad they took us when they did.”

Country living was so good…

“Hamilton Island’s like a little country island in itself and that’s why I love it or I can relate to it so well because I grew up in a small country town. It’s really important to maintain that feeling because it’s so different from anywhere else. You can go to a resort and it’s really resorty but there’s a whole community on Hamilton Island.”

I wouldn’t say I had a traditional grandfather-granddaughter relationship…

“We worked together a lot and he set the bar high. You’d know when you did well and it might only be once a year but when you got that nod or the ‘good one baby’you knew you’d done well. Having someone that sets that bar so incredibly high, it was so good. Dad and I have a much more traditional father-daughter relationship even though I work with him each day but it’s very cool to be continuing Popeye’s legacy. I know he would be so incredibly proud; I had an enormous amount of respect for him and what he achieved and it’s so motivating.”


My role changes weekly…

“It can be anything from working within the marketing team on brand and product development and then going to island is more in a product custodian type role; working with interior designers, maintaining the quality, maintaining the vision and reinterpreting the vision. I think we’ve now got 1500 staff up there, and a lot of them didn’t get to meet Popeye so it’s important to interpret his vision for them so that it’s relevant.”

I’ve always worked within a family business and I’ve always been treated equally, there’s never been a sense of entitlement

“Popeye always made us have a job interview to make sure we went through all the right processes. And in terms of women in senior roles, on Hamilton Island we have so many women in management it’s unbelievable. Our head of finance, sales, marketing, reservations, our executive concierge, there are so many females; there is no glass ceiling, it’s a non issue.”


Part of Popeye’s legacy surrounds the idea that Hamilton Island is a destination that anyone of any income could enjoy…

“There are literally so many different options for the different price points; whether it’s hotel style or moving into the private homes. Everything on the island is family friendly with the exclusion of the two hotels that aren’t; the whole marina precinct was built with family in mind. Family is the most important thing at the end of the day and even when we’re creating menus and those things, it’s so important that kids are looked after because so often they’re overlooked.”

I’m not sure what’s next for me to be honest…

“I just can’t imagine doing anything else. I love my job so much and I love my little team immensely. I love the guys on the island and after going through what they’ve gone through…it’s the dream, it really is. I’m very very very lucky.”

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Words:  Felicity Bonello  @felicitybonello_

Images: Ken Butti and MyMediaSydney


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