Industry mentors: Bonnie Connellan

7 min read
Continuing our series on mentors in the thoroughbred industry, we chat to Inglis’ Chief Commercial Officer Bonnie Connellan about major influences throughout her career.

The racing flame was kindled early on for Bonnie Connellan and it has burned brightly ever since, fuelling a love and passion for the thoroughbred industry that has seen her forge a successful and rewarding career in administration and management.

The Chief Commercial Officer for Inglis in Sydney, Connellan grew up in Melbourne with father John and mother Joan, with both parents racing enthusiasts their interests have had a lasting effect on their daughter.

“My parents owned shares in horses and one of my first memories is calling out the scratchings from Teletext on Saturday mornings for Dad and his form guide,” she said.

Bonnie Connellan

“I started to follow it and develop a love of the industry. My parents used to take me to the races and I loved the excitement, emotion and passion that I felt.”

Connellan’s love for the game saw her apply for a job at Flemington at the first possible opportunity.

“I was working in the trainers and strappers’ café on race days serving pies and coffee because I was too young to serve alcohol,” she said. “That was amazing. I started to see people that to me were only ever superstars on TV.”

“I started to see people that to me were only ever superstars on TV.” – Bonnie Connellan.

That led to a variety of different roles at the Victoria Racing Club before taking time out for university and it was then straight back to the club in Business Development and Events where Connellan would subsequently encounter three major influences on her career.

“Probably the person who had the biggest single influence on my career is Julian Sullivan, he was the Executive General Manager of Membership and then the CEO at the VRC and the CEO of Perth Racing.

Bonnie credits Julian Sullivan for having the single biggest influence on her career

“He was also a hobby breeder. Whilst I worked for him on the racing side of the business, he taught me a lot about breeding when I was in my early twenties.

“He taught me how to read pedigrees, he taught me about broodmares and bloodlines, and encouraged me to go to a horse sale with him.

“He was the first person to really ignite my interest in the bloodstock side of the industry. I’d been to a couple of sales at that point, I then came up to Sydney for the carnival on my own with friends and we would go to the Easter Yearling Sale at Newmarket and Derby Day and Doncaster Day at Randwick. The frenzied bidding at the sales and the excitement on the track was incredible.”

Special mention

Connellan also singled out Rod Fitzroy, who was Chairman of the VRC during her time there, for special mention.

“He is a true visionary and had really big picture ideas,” she said. “I remember going to meetings with him and I learned pretty quickly not to go to a meeting thinking one dimensionally, thinking about a problem with only one answer.

“What are the different ways we can attack this – he really taught me to think of an idea or a response to something and then continually question it and refine it.

Bonnie's first role in the industry was at Flemington

“He rebuilt the Flemington track, he put in bold plans for the water strategy and created the wetland. He was an amazing Chairman and he is an amazing thinker.

“Interestingly getting back to bloodlines, he also loved Carbine. He gave me a book on Carbine. Rod and Julian from the VRC really taught me about breeding.

“As a young person working with leading administrators in Julian and Rod, as well as getting business advice from Dad, was when I started to aspire to be a CEO in the industry.”

A fair bet

Eight years later, Connellan furthered her experience with Betfair for two and a-half years.

“That was really interesting and if I think back, it really developed my career. Betfair was a new brand and quite controversial for many people because of the regulatory environment but also in that it had no shop front,” she said.

“You knew every move your customer made when they were doing something online. I look back now and all the things I learned about customer service at the VRC helped me to act strategically because you know every one of your customers’ habits when you worked at Betfair. It took the guess work out of marketing and consumer behaviour which was invaluable.

“A big part of my role now in marketing and commercial negotiations is about understanding the customer and I learned a lot from Betfair.”

At that stage, Connellan was pondering a move interstate or overseas.

“I’d never lived outside Melbourne and that’s when the Inglis opportunity came up and it was in Sydney, so it was perfect,” she said.

“I’d never lived outside Melbourne and that’s when the Inglis opportunity came up and it was in Sydney, so it was perfect.” – Bonnie Connellan.

During her VRC days, Connellan handled the Inglis sponsorship account and first met Inglis Managing Director, Mark Webster. “They used to sponsor the Carbine Club S. on Derby Day,” she said.

Connellan started her Inglis career as the Business Development Manager, moved to Group Marketing Manager and now Chief Commercial Officer, which includes running the marketing department, international market development and commercial aspects such as sponsorship and technology.

“What Julian taught me was that customers don’t necessarily base their loyalty on price or product, he taught me to build loyalty through experiences people receive.” she said.

“At Inglis, one way we aim to build loyalty is through the great experiences that people can have in Sydney and Melbourne at the sales and races. It’s a privilege to work for a fifth-generation Australian family business, who treat their staff and clients like family.

“What I also quickly learned was because horse ownership and breeding are so unique, is that you can have skin in the game, logic can go out of the window with people’s passion.

“In other sports you can’t have the same level of ownership at all levels like you can in racing. This drives the emotion and enthusiasm of the sport, I love that.”

Influential figure

Connellan also paid tribute to the influence Webster has had on her during her seven years with Inglis.

“Mark has an incredibly strong sense of family and work life balance and enjoying what you do,” she said. “Over the years working with him has taught me to be a lot more empathetic, to walk in other people’s shoes.

Bonnie paid tribute to the influence Mark Webster has had on her career at Inglis

“That translates to our breeders and when a horse comes to an Inglis sale, it could be five years in the making. In terms of walking in other people’s shoes, that is important to our clients.

“Also, because he is very composed and measured, I’ve definitely learned to maintain a sense of calm no matter how many things you’re juggling at one time.”

"I’ve definitely learned to maintain a sense of calm no matter how many things you’re juggling at one time.” - Bonnie Connellan

Connellan is also passionate about continued learning and post-University she has gained a graduate Diploma in Sports Law and travelled overseas to undertake further study.

“I lived in London for a month last year and went to the London Business School to complete a month long Executive Leadership course. It was so motivating and inspiring,” she said.

“It hit me between the eyes like it never had before, if I step up and choose to make an impact on the world, I can.”

Connellan has also experienced the thrill of ownership with shares in three thoroughbreds – “amazingly all city winners but no stakes horses, yet,” she said.