Petula Thomas: From ordinary to extraordinary

Presenting the Indo-Australian Chamber’s key highlights and achievements at their 30th Anniversary event in Chennai
Presenting the Indo-Australian Chamber’s key highlights and achievements at their 30th Anniversary event in Chennai

There are some people in the world who strike you as extraordinary, gifted and God-sent in your very first encounter with them. Petula Thomas, Director of the Indo-Australian Chamber of Commerce, is one such person.

Headquartered in Chennai, the Chamber has members in both India and Australia. With a mandate to facilitate bilateral trade and investment between both countries, she has gone ahead in her job in quiet haste, linking businesses, enhancing member-engagement, analyzing market trends, forging alliances of commerce, promoting industry, setting a new vision and standard for the organization. Stephen Manallack, Australian author, blogger and a keen observer of developments in India, remarked that Petula’s appointment as director is a “new era for India-Australia”.

At just 42, Petula’s journey to the present position has been both challenging and fascinating. She first joined British Airways in 2000 after going through a rigorous selection process and emerging first out of 8000 odd candidates who had applied for the job. Over the next five years, she worked across departments — Customer Service, Retail Sales and the Audit and Revenue Management desk which she headed.

Her performance was consistently recognised with many letters of appreciation from senior managers, cash prizes and a team CASAMEA (Central Asia South Asia Middle East & Africa) Award for outstanding performance in Revenue Development and Sales. Her innate curiosity to learn why the company did certain things and how she could help the organization succeed has served her in good stead, not just in British Airways, but in the roles that would beckon her ahead.

Petula moderating a roundtable discussion on ‘India-Australia: Where are the opportunities? How can we boost bilateral trade and investment?’

Petula’s next assignment, which lasted for a year and a half, was with the Australian Trade and Investment Commission where, following her training in Sydney, she led on Marketing Support activities for South India and was a member of the Building and Construction Industry team. She was responsible for budgetary management of events and programmes in South India and also helped conduct industry events in various cities in India as well as in Australia.

Towards the end of 2011, she moved to the British Deputy High Commission in Chennai as Consular Officer. Within a year she was promoted to Head of Consular Operations, Southern India, a role that saw her progress to leading Customer Engagement for the MENASA (Middle East North Africa and South Asia) Region and Consular Communications/Digital Strategy for India.

Along with the title came great responsibilities and intense levels of work. Her core role was to ensure that her team catered to the welfare of British nationals in this part of the world, and every day brought with it its own baggage, often not very pleasant. She had to deal with rapes and kidnaps and murders among other things, and not just the policy, media interest and diplomatic work associated with such incidents, but the emotional trauma which the victims and their families underwent. She led on the sensational Chennai Six case, wherein six Brits (besides others) were held for possessing weapons aboard a ship in Indian waters. It was also her job to keep the Ministers, the Foreign Secretary and other officials periodically briefed about developments related to the case.

Delivering the keynote address on ‘Integrity: Across Government, Business and Cultures’, at Vigilance Awareness Week 2019,  Indian Customs, Chennai Zone
Delivering the keynote address on ‘Integrity: Across Government, Business and Cultures’, at Vigilance Awareness Week 2019, Indian Customs, Chennai Zone

It is not just the mental qualities that she brings to the table, but also her intelligence, dedication and vision, that sets her apart; it is her kindness, care and concern for the people she meets in the course of her tasks, that has made her really graceful, unique and endearing. Her annual performance ratings were always exceptional and she has received letters of commendation from the Minister and High Commissioner to India. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London acknowledged her immense contribution with four global and regional performance awards. But, more than anything else she was aware that she had reached the maximum level that a non-diplomat could rise to in her Department.

In November 2018, the offer of Deputy Director of the Indo-Australian Chamber of Commerce came her way, and she took it with both hands. She soon busied herself meeting key personalities and stakeholders, seeking their opinions and interests and even organized conferences where members of trade and government could meet on a common platform. She was also able to combine her work and her socio-cultural life with consummate ease and energy.

In a short span, she had become both business leader and socialite, and before she knew it, she was promoted as Director of the Indo-Australian Chamber in May 2019. Almost immediately, she shepherded their office move to Khader Navaz Khan Road and also took a delegation of Indian business persons to Sydney. Very soon, she opened the Mumbai Chapter of the Chamber. In July, she was a member of the Australian Consulate General’s delegation which met the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh to promote bilateral engagement with the State.

Being felicitated as jury for Womennovator 2019-’20, in the presence of Shri. Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Road Transport & Highways of India and MSMEs, Government of India
Being felicitated as jury for Womennovator 2019-’20, in the presence of Shri. Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Road Transport & Highways of India and MSMEs, Government of India

Petula is blessed with tremendous energy, but this asset is more her doing than happenchance. She is wedded to her work, and believes that whatever one does, one must do well. She has a post-graduate diploma in Management (with distinction) to her credit, and her desk at her office has a range of business dailies and magazines which she reads to keep herself abreast of what is happening in the world of business and economics. She is presently on the jury of the India Australia Business & Community Awards (iabca.com.au/iabca-2019-judges) in Australia and Women in Chennai sector for Womenovator 2019 (womennovator.co.in).

Women in business is a subject she is deeply passionate about, as she knows from experience how every woman has to work doubly hard and often against the grain to prove herself in a sphere traditionally ordered by men. Behind her exquisite looks is a mind that is razor sharp and quick on the draw. She strongly believes that leaders should have the courage to stand up for what is right regardless of the odds faced.

Petula is an Anglo-Indian who lived for fifteen years in the railway colony of Vizag (her father, Noel, retired as Divisional Mechanical Engineer) along with her two elder sisters, Rowena and Renata, both equally exceptional in their fields of endeavour, one a doctor and the other a school teacher-coordinator, now settled with their families in Manchester and Melbourne, respectively. Petula has two sons Aaron (16) and Nathan (13) who are all-rounders and undying optimists like her.

As Chief Guest, giving the Valedictory Address to over 1,000 students at her  alma mater, St Joseph’s College for Women, Visakhapatnam
As Chief Guest, giving the Valedictory Address to over 1,000 students at her alma mater, St Joseph’s College for Women, Visakhapatnam

An all-rounder, Petula has always been, right from her school days at St Joseph’s, Vizag, where she was Miss St Joseph in her final year and House Captain due to her proficiency in badminton, and also to her being outstanding in debates and quizzes. Reading has been one of her hobbies thanks to her father being a great example and her mother, Sheila, being a librarian at school.

Her other interests are music, dance, drama and travelling. In Chennai, she tries not to miss anything on show that is significant. Petula is also a great speaker, emcee and a natural hostess who puts people at ease in her company. She herself has overcome several challenges on her life’s journey, and has embraced transition and change without fear. She believes that young people are the hope of tomorrow, and has this to say to them: “In those moments when you question yourself, know that there is a plan for you. You need to just keep going and persist and never give up… If you do your best, you have a purpose as to what you want to achieve and keeping at it, you will get there.”

(Courtesy: Anglos In The Wind)
Photo credits: Nicholas Moses

Richard O'Connor
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Richard O'Connor

Richard O’Connor is an Asst. Commissioner of Customs at Chennai and has been closely involved in documenting the heritage of the Anglo-Indian Community. He was co-convener of the 2019 World Anglo-Indian Reunion and has been the architect of the documentary series The Anglo-Indians of Madras available on YouTube.