David Gonski is corporate Australia’s Mr Teflon: nothing sticks for long, like the controversy over his appointment to run the Future Fund. It helps that he’s smart, humble and Australia’s most well-connected businessman.
Grey, bespectacled and balding, Gonski is the fixer and negotiator favoured by the big end of town. Listed companies, major not-for-profits and governments of all persuasions ask him for advice, to headhunt board members or chair inquiries.
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He’s thick as thieves with famous business dynasties the Packers, Murdochs and Lowys, chairs an investment bank and works as a highly sought-after company director.
Most recently, he delivered the long-awaited Gonski review of school funding for the federal government. It’s the first inquiry into education spending for 40 years, with the report recommending a $5 billion injection into schools.
“He’s incredibly bright,” explains corporate adviser John Connolly, who sits with Gonski on the board of the Sydney Theatre Company.
“At the same time he’s not arrogant and he’s got the ability to make very complex stuff accessible.”
Supporters praise Gonski’s intelligence, charm and work ethic, which he’s used to assemble a much-vaunted network of friends and allies. His philanthropy — particularly in arts, education and medicine — is well regarded, while those who know him say he is exceedingly self-effacing, perhaps even fey about his success.
Born in Cape Town, Gonski (whose voice retains echoes of his homeland) came to Australia with his parents as a child. He admits the immigrant experience of “having to prove oneself everyday” has been a key motivation.
“Humility is a very good thing,” he once explained in an interview with CPA boss Alex Malley.
“If do 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 you don’t rise like Gonski has without an element of ruthlessness. Big business deep throats liken him to a kind of ‘Mafia Don’, who does favours for you but always gets something in return.
“He does things for people. He becomes people’s consigliere, if you like,” offers one associate when asked by The Power Index how Gonski has become so powerful.
“Everyone wants to use him or talk to him and he rations it out as a quid pro quo thing,” says another, adding that the IOUs collected by Gonski are rarely for his benefit but for others.
Not that it always go to plan. Gonski drew rare criticism earlier this year after he was appointed by the federal government to chair the $73 billion Future Fund.
Despite acting as an adviser on a potential successor to run the sovereign wealth fund it was Gonski who ended up being given the job. Former treasurer Peter Costello called the process a “shemozzle”, as others raised issues with perceived conflicts of interest.
While the firestorm largely evaporated, the attention would have been extremely uncomfortable for someone who so assiduously avoids the spotlight.
“He wouldn’t have liked the shit around it,” says a Gonski acquaintance. “It’s not his style and there will be people who remember.”
Gonski is renowned for favouring privacy, shunning the trappings of wealth and power. A family man, he has little time for much else outside work apart from the odd spot of tennis. After finishing top of his class in law at university, he went on to become the youngest ever partner at leading Sydney firm Freehills at age 25.
Three decades later and his CV reads like a roll call of the country’s top companies and organisations: he’s been or remains an adviser, board member or chairman for (amongst others) Consolidated Press, Westfield, John Fairfax, Ingeus, ING, Transfield Holdings, ING, Coca-Cola Amatil and the ASX.
Unsurprisingly, he’s probably got a pretty good idea of where all the bodies are buried.
“He knows the strengths and weaknesses of all these monster corporations and all of these monster families,” says one mahogany row insider.
“He knows everything about everyone and when somebody has that amount of information about you, you don’t cross them.”
And all the while he’s maintained a strong desire to give back. As well as his charity work, Gonski’s been chairman of the Sydney Theatre Company, chancellor of the University of NSW, and a member of the nomination panel for the ABC and SBS.
In the recent past, he’s also acted as chair of the Australia Council, chairman of the board of trustees at Sydney Grammar School, and president of the Art Gallery of NSW trustees.
It was during that last role the studious Gonski would visit the museum at lunchtime to feed his love of art and escape the pressures of big business.
With his fingers in a Four’n Twenty factory full of pies, The Power Index is willing to allow the unassuming South African the occasional breather.
This article first appeared on The Power Index.