leadership

Australia’s most powerful board director: Why David Gonski rules the boardroom

Myriam Robin /

Our sister site, The Power Index, has for the past month been busy figuring out just who is Australia’s most powerful board director. Yesterday, they awarded the top gong, unsuprisingly perhaps, to David Gonski, the chair of Coca Cola and the Future Fund. In this extract from the full profile, Crikey sleuth Andrew Crook reveals why.

 

Twenty minutes into our interview, David Gonski makes a startling admission?—?he’s not sure why The Power Index even exists: “Frankly, I don’t know what power is … who’s to say if I’m less or more powerful than the man who turns on the lights to let me in the lift each morning?”

It’s a curious approach for Australia’s leading boardroom fixer, a “Mafia don” who surfs the upper echelons of Australian government and business life like some kind of beneficent deity. Renowned for his mad skills since being crowned a Freehills partner at 25, the Cape Town native insists his power?—?if it’s real?—?is symptomatic of his head-down attitude.

“My name is synonymous with hard work. That’s all I offer?—?hard work. I think that they expect me to work very hard in these roles and so I have to make sure I can. If you look at my background I haven’t been a CEO, I’m an immigrant … I’m hopefully someone who has some skills from experience,” he said.

In a rare, wide-ranging conversation, Gonski exudes torrents of humility given his genuine, far-reaching impact. A veteran of over 40 corporate and not-for-profit boards, he currently chairs Coca-Cola, Investec Bank, Therese Rein’s welfare-to-work operation Ingeus, the $80 billion federal government Future Fund and the Sydney Theatre Company, amid a swag of other senior gigs that, in his words, “round out” his life.

“All of us have to be rounded because when we come to the board or decision making we can bring experience from other sectors, we can get trust from those sectors and we can also use our contacts,” he explained.

Now 59, he may not command an ASX market capitalisation the size of Lindsay Maxsted or Michael Chaney, but he’s the undisputed go-to man for government and a sounding board for capital?—?and therefore No. 1 on The Power Index’s business directors list. Slap his name at the front of a controversial report?—?like his recent review of education funding?—?and discover how his famed objectivity can work as a political wedge to turn bills into law.

The softly-spoken operator they call “Mr Networks” gives off the air of someone who’s seen and heard it all before, even if he never explicitly spells it out. And for someone whose views are taken seriously by most of the top political and business figures over the past 30 years, the “who, me?” schtick occasionally comes off as a bit humblebraggy.

Indeed, he’s in constant demand, but regularly turns roles down. “Of course I say no! I don’t want to big note myself but I say no often. I don’t just do what is given to me. I’m choosy, people don’t pick me because they think ‘you know we should have him on the board ‘cos he’s a good name’, they choose me for my advice,” he said.

(Gonski’s bulging CV boasts previous stints at the Takeovers Panel, ANZ, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Australia Council, the National Institute for Dramatic Arts and his alumnus Sydney Grammar. He’s also been adviser and confidante for the country’s biggest media honchos like Kerry Packer and Kerry Stokes.)

The semi-regular tennis player isn’t a total slouch when it comes to market cap. He may sit well down the Optimice Market Capitalisation Influence Index at No. 268 with oversight of $10 billion (and No. 87 on the MCII connectedness index at $284 billion?—?see a graphical representation below), but throw in the Future Fund and he’d be well inside the top 20.

Just like his coy approach to power, Gonski is circumspect when quizzed about the existence of a “directors’ club”?—?a group he’s sometimes considered near the centre of. ”I don’t really know what a directors’ club is. There are lot of people who are asked quite regularly to go on boards. But I think it’s the same as brain surgeons who are asked regularly to do operations because they’re good, because they have the skills,” he said.

What about networks, the formal and informal channels that enable elites to co-ordinate their actions? Eschewing Castells, Gonski isn’t convinced of their special status either.

“I don’t know about informal conversations. The reason that people gravitate to people they already know is because they trust them and they know their strength and expertise. It’s very natural, if you look at any professions or business or any sporting thing, people tend to choose people they can trust because they know what they can do. The outsider, the person they don’t know, has to prove themselves … sometimes that works, sometimes that doesn’t,” he said.

To read the full profile, along with pieces on all Australia’s most powerful directors, subscribe for a free two-week trial of Crikey

 

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Myriam Robin

Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.

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