Economy

Meet the new chief executive of the Ai Group, Innes Willox

SmartCompany /

For Innes Willox, it’s about what kind of Australia we want.

Do we want to be a “one-trick pony” that relies on China’s demand for our resources, with some services and a lot of healthcare, or do we want to something broader?

“It’s a matter of us looking at what kind of economy we want, through the resources boom and then beyond the resources boom,” says Willox, the newly appointed chief executive of employer body Australian Industry Group.

Willox, who will take over the top job on May 1, replaces the well-regarded and high-profile Heather Ridout who has just joined the Reserve Bank board – in the process boosting hopes that the manufacturing industry’s voice will be better heard by the central bank.

Before the words come out of my mouth, he delivers them: big shoes to fill. Ridout, who has led the employer group for eight years and worked there for 33 years, has been dubbed “Heather everywhere” and was recently ranked the second most influential lobbyist in Australia by our sister publication, The Power Index.

Willox joined Ai Group – which covers sectors including manufacturing, construction companies, food, automotive, information technology, labour hire, defence and mining equipment and airlines – in 2008 to serve as director or international and government relations.

He says he’s taking the job at a “challenging time” for his constituents, with some sectors doing well and some parts of sectors doing well again.

Take manufacturing. Willox says although it’s being pressured by the resources sector pushing up the dollar, luring workers and lifting labours costs, it still employs about one million people directly and has a strong skills, innovation, and research and development base. The sector is also well-placed in the Asia-Pacific century.

Still, questioned on the outlook for the resources sector and the associated strong Aussie dollar, Willox says there aren’t signs that the local currency will drop appreciably, so a relatively high dollar is “going to make it tough for industry on many levels”.

Similarly, Willox notes indications that Chinese demand is going to remain strong for our resources, but whether the resources boom lasts for two or 20 years, Australia ought to consider what will come afterwards.

His immediate priorities? Industrial relations and contributing to the review of the Fair Work Act. Willox says Labor’s industrial relations laws have shifted the balance too far towards unions.

Then there’s the carbon tax, which he describes as a “huge issue for industry”. Willox says that not only is the price too high, but the regulations are too complex, and transitionary measures need to be brought forward to allow companies to adapt.

A related issue is energy costs, given gas prices are tipped to double in the near-term. And finally there’s the skills issue; finding the right skills for business.

His jobs have included journalism, serving as Australian Consul General to Los Angeles, working as chief of staff to then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, and working in global public affairs for Singapore Airlines.

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