David Gonski: a man for all seasons

We should have put David Gonski onto one of our power lists long ago, because he’s probably Australia’s best-connected businessman. But now he’s chairman of the $70 billion Future Fund we’re delighted to find him his own special spot.

Gonski’s job will be to bring peace to the warring factions on the Future Fund board, a task that was deemed to be beyond former Treasurer Peter Costello, who is one of the warriors.

And we doubt anyone could do it better.

Born in Cape Town in 1953, Gonski came to Australia with his parents at the age of 8, and was regarded by his schoolmates as “an extremely serious nerd”. But he shone at Sydney Grammar and came top of his year in law at the University of NSW, where he won the University Medal.  He quickly went on to become the youngest ever partner in one of Sydney’s leading law firms, Freehills, at the age of 25, before leaving in his mid-30s to set up his own investment bank.

Since then he has worked for the Packers and the Lowys and just about anyone who’s anyone, and earned almost universal respect.

Grey, bespectacled, balding and conservatively-dressed, Gonski is a dead ringer for Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes Minister, and he may well possess all the same guile. He claims drily to take orders from his wife and get all ideas from his children, but clearly has a few talents of his own. “I think humility is very important,” he protests. “If you have the view that frankly you are a nothing each day and you’ve got to work on it, I think it’s a better way of looking at things.”

But don’t be fooled.

Gonski says modestly he’s never been a leader or a CEO, so he has never really run anything himself. But he has been a great leader of teams in an extraordinary range of organisations in business, government and the arts.

Back in 2007, in a long interview with Management Today, he described “team management” as like “conducting an orchestra.”

“A good chairman,” he explained, “is someone who is able to listen, to summarise what’s going on, to tease out what people are thinking.”

On the Future Fund board he may have to tell some of his players to pipe down a bit so the others can be heard. But he won’t have to be making investment decisions himself.

Now nearing 60, (October next year), Gonski admits he is still driven by the immigrant’s need to prove himself. But he’s also powered by a deep sense of duty. “I feel it’s not enough to rise in business. You’ve got to be doing something,” he confessed back in 2007.

“Recently, my father died. He was a neurosurgeon. The letters poured in: ‘He saved my life’, ‘He saved my mother’s life’, ‘my sister’s life’, and so on. This made me think, ‘What will my son receive as letters?’ Will it be that I cut somebody’s fees in an underwriting or managed to take over a widget factory? Not the sort of thing I really want my son to read about. I have to contribute so that I make them proud and so that I, frankly, make myself proud.”

Gonski’s father expressed contempt for those who were “just” businessmen. And David has no intention of dying with that as his epitaph. He wants to be remembered for his contribution to philanthropy, arts, education and medicine. And he’s certainly on target.

He’s currently chairman of the Sydney Theatre Company (and a great supporter of Cate Blanchett), Chancellor of the University of NSW, and a member of the nomination panel for the ABC and SBS. In the recent past, he has been Chair of the Australia Council, Chairman of the board of trustees at Sydney Grammar School, and President of the NSW Art Gallery Trust.

He has done all these jobs while holding board seats or the chairman’s role at Transfield Holdings, Westfield, Coca Cola Amatil, John Fairfax, ING, Mercantile Mutual and the ASX, among others, and running his own boutique bank.

To cope with the demands on his time, Gonski works out of the back of his chauffeur driven car, which he has set up as an office. Yet he is constantly asked, “How does a person like you do as many things as you do?”

“This is not a stupid question,” he says, “but it is a question that doesn’t understand what I do,” which is to set the direction, guide the team and make time to do it all.

“Anybody can do it, and if they all do it a bit I think that corporate social responsibility, the donation to our nation, will increase. I’m actually a bit tired of people saying to me ‘I can’t do it because I have a full-time job’. That’s rubbish.”

Finally, perhaps, he has found a job that is worthy of his talent. Investing $70 billion well is certainly an important task.

This article first appeared at The Power Index.

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