James Strong knows how to keep entertained. He bikes, climbs, wears bowties, and chairs the boards of three very different entities: Woolworths, Kathmandu and the Australia Council.
Some might call the adventurous businessman Australia’s very own Richard Branson – except that he’s got some humility, not just entrepreneurial zest.
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Add to the CV his latest appointment – chairing the ICC World Cricket Cup 2015 – alongside his role as a non-executive director on the board of Qantas, and Strong’s almost got the full spectrum of life covered.
“There are so many interesting and stimulating things all around,” he tells The Power Index enthusiastically. “You meet so many different people, in business, the arts and in sport.”
Strong’s the real deal people person. He doesn’t rely on a PA to schedule in time for our chat, but rather calls up to talk himself. He even tells us to “send his regards” to the competition when we mention we’re interviewing Wesfarmers chief, Richard Goyder.
No wonder he’s one of the country’s most in-demand chairmen, up there with the likes of his good friend and fellow arts fanatic, David Gonski. And no wonder, having breathed some life into the once struggling outdoor clothing specialist Kathmandu alongside his role at the 191,000-employee strong Woolworths, he’s got the ear of some of the business community’s key players.
On the board at Qantas where he served as CEO for 10 years, some sources say it’s hard to believe he was oblivious to Alan Joyce’s decision to ground the Qantas fleet in response to industrial action last year. It’s a matter Strong tells us he can’t comment on.
Strong’s little black book of connections must be a motley mix of contacts. He likes to build relationships with people well away from the boardroom.
He rides motorbikes with logistics tycoon Chris Corrigan, recently making it from Sydney to Phillip Island — and making a pit stop along the way to sign off on some Australia Council documents on the side of the road. He flies planes (he owns a twin engine Beechcraft Baron that his wife pilots) and drops into Broome for a surf during the dry season with Dymocks chairman John Forsyth.
But his more distinguishable pastime is climbing. He met Rip Curl creator Brian Singer on a mountain in Antarctica back in 1991, after striking up a friendship with Sir Edmund Hillary’s son Peter at a fundraising event.
“He [Peter] came and did a talk on his first climb of Everest, and I said, ‘Is there anything a village idiot can do?’ He rang me two weeks later and said, ‘How would you like to climb the highest mountain in Antarctica?'”
Sir Edmund himself was also a great mate and “one of the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet”, who emulated Strong’s most admired qualities: modesty and humility.
Back in the office, Strong gets on with what he considers his core responsibilities: setting the tone of the board, and selecting a CEO.
The stakes are high when you’re picking a chief for Woolworths, one of the country’s largest portfolio businesses that’s difficult for Australians to avoid on a daily basis. After all, Woolies is not just a supermarket chain — it also covers general merchandise, fuel, hotels, liquor and finance. Last year, Strong and the Woolies’ board appointed Grant O’Brien as the massive conglomerate’s new CEO, replacing the long-serving Michael Luscombe.
Promoting an individual internally, came in dramatic contrast to Ian McLeod, the guy Wesfarmers plucked from the UK to lead a turnaround of rival Coles. At the time, the Woolworths board was accused of playing it too safe.
“There’s always a great risk in bringing somebody from another market. You usually have to entice them by paying them a lot of money,” Strong says. “We stuck our head up and had a look around before we said ‘No, we’re satisfied that we have good enough people here’. Nothing’s changed my mind about that.”
And with the disclaimer that it’s not his style to criticise, Strong reminds us that Wesfarmers paid handsomely for their UK charge. Still, the $15 million McLeod received is starting to look like value for money, given Coles is hot on the heels of Woolies for the first time in years — a fact that Strong’s reminded of regularly.
“There’s a lot of talk about it, but then there’s very little talk about the ground that they lost in the previous 11 or 12 years!” Strong fires back.
“I can assure you our management and board are under no illusions. We’ve now got a much more capable opponent than we’ve had in recent years. It’s up to us to make sure that we respond and provide real competition. It’s as simple as that.”
Strong can hold his position against even the most emotional of annual general meetings. When proxy shareholders fired questions at the chairman during the 2011 Woolies AGM, urging the company to support the government’s then proposed poker machine reforms, Strong was unmoved, declaring the business would continue to resist the reform and operate its “legitimate” division.
But some say he was too heavy-handed, especially in declaring the attack on Woolworths was tantamount to “bullying”. Lobby group GetUp! filed a complaint with the corporate watchdog claiming Strong misled investors by saying it’d be difficult for the retailer to exit its gaming business. The grassroots movement plans to intensify its efforts against Woolworths later this year.
Strong grew up on a farm in Lismore where his days were “dominated by the cows” — he milked them in the morning by hand before heading off to school. And long before he ever considered himself interested in business, he liked having things to do.
“Laughingly, my mother once said, ‘You just had a paper run, you were a telegram boy, you used to do gardening for fees, you used to look after the tennis courts for fees. No, you weren’t interested in business activity at all!’,” he chuckles. “Your parents sometimes say things to you that you’re not even aware of yourself.”
Of 6000 applicants, a 16-year-old Strong was selected to undertake officer training at the military academy, Duntroon. He dropped out prior to completing his fourth year, having difficulties with the “command and structure of the military” that were suitable for battle conditions, but not for him.
The short stint Strong later undertook working in an abattoir where his father was a superintendent proved more influential to Strong’s business career: “I learned more from him than anyone in my life,” he says. “How you treat people and how you deal with them and how you behave is what most determines what they think about you and the job you’re doing.”
And that applies to how he works with boards. “He is intuitive about the balance of discussion, information and decision-making,” Kathy Keele, who Strong backed as CEO of the Australia Council, tells The Power Index. “This allows boards to get to know each other, to develop a collegiate environment and do more substantial thinking in the lead up to their decision making.”
Strong’s term chairing the Australia Council comes to an end later this month. It’s been a “rewarding and productive” working relationship, according to Keele. And despite all that multi-tasking, she says he’s always been available.
Leaving the government body will offer a little more spare time for life outside work. In true Strong style, he’s struck up a friendship with one of the globe’s most renowned counter tenors, Andreas Scholl, and will travel to Salisbury for the Opera Festival to stay with, and watch, Scholl sing in Julius Caesar later this year.
As Keele puts it: “One never knows where you’re going to find him.”
This article first appeared on The Power Index.