The jagged path to corporate leadership: Why Tatts chief Robbie Cooke says the days of the career plan are over
Sunday, October 27, 2013/
Company: Tatts Group
Title: Chief executive officer
Studies: Bachelor of Laws/Bachelor of Commerce, AICD Directors Course
Motivation: Applying what he learnt at Wotif to an old business with new challenges
Top tip for leadership: “Getting the best team around you is how you build a successful business.”
Robbie Cooke never really had a career plan, he admits to LeadingCompany. And he’s amazed at anyone who does.
“I often read about people who plan out things 10 years in advance,” he says. “My philosophy around careers is that it’s very difficult to plan where you’ll be in five years’ time. It’s never worked for me.
“I’ve taken risks, and I’ve been prepared to chop and change. And I don’t think you should listen to people who say, ‘if you take this or that approach, you’ll eventually reach this dream job’.
“The days where you went from operations head to the head of a division to the CEO role have come and gone. Companies are looking for different skill sets at different stages in their evolution. And if you see a chance, you should take it.”
Cooke is the CEO of Tatts Group, a $4 billion listed company that sells lottery products and instant ‘scratchies’ in most Australian states and territories.
It’s been far from a straight line to leadership.
As a teenager, Cooke says, he had a vague notion that he wanted to work in business, but it was fairly non-specific. Towards the end of high school, he was veering towards a commerce degree, but was convinced by a careers adviser to do a law degree as well.
“I was reluctant about law,” he says. “I did the extra two years to graduate with both degrees and took another two years to qualify as a solicitor. I wasn’t entirely happy.”
Cooke, figuring he had a commerce degree, began training as an accountant. But he only lasted six months, saying he “absolutely hated it”.
He jumped back to law and spent some years working on native title claims for resource firms.
It was when doing this that he spotted an opening into a business role. A small miner called Mount Isa Mines, now part of Xstrata, had an opening for a lawyer helping them to negotiate joint venture contracts. Cooke got the job and, he says, “it was fantastic”.
“That was my first real move out of being a lawyer and into working for a corporate,” he says.
A few years down the track, Mount Isa Mines began divesting assets in a bid to get back to its core operations. They hired a merchant banker to run the sales process. Cooke worked with the due diligence team. Afterwards, he was offered a role back in the miner’s legal department and another role with the merchant banker he’d gotten to know. Cooke jumped ship.
He did that for a few years, before returning to the mining industry as a commercial manager with Santos.
And then, he started on the path that led him to where he is today.
TAB Queensland, which was a privatised government lotto business, was looking for someone in Strategy and General Council – in effect combining Cooke’s two areas of expertise. It was an unusual and uncommon opportunity, and one Cooke jumped at.
He was hired by Dick McIlwain, then the CEO of TAB Queensland, and spent six happy years at the business.
“It was a fantastic period, and I enjoyed the business immensely,” he says.
In 2005, however, another opportunity came knocking.
Wotif.com was an online travel business that had made its founders rich. After a few years, it was transitioning to the next stage of its growth, and wanted a CEO able to float and grow the business during its next phase. It was chaired by McIlwain, who had hired Cooke at TAB, and once he heard about the opportunity, Cooke threw his name in the ring.
He spent a year heading operations and became CEO in 2006. Wotif tracked impressive growth with Cooke at the helm, and it was there that his star began to rise.
Last year, a position opened at Tatts, which was formed out of the merger between Tattersalls and TAB Queensland in 2006. Cooke left Wotif to become the CEO of a business similar to the one he’d left seven years earlier. Only, now, the business was far larger and needed someone with the online expertise he had developed at Wotif.
Cooke says he had never planned a return to the wagering industry. “It was a bit like coming home,” he says. “A fair portion of the team was in the company when I left seven years ago.”
Reflecting on his career, Cooke says he’s been very fortunate with the bosses he’s had. “I’ve always been given autonomy to do my role,” he says. “I was never micromanaged. And that’s made a difference. If you’re working with people who give you the ability to turn something around, or to change something, it’s a great opportunity.”
His advice is to never stay in a role just because it more directly matches your degree.
“When you’re young, it’s your chance to take risks and chop and change things. It’s your opportunity to go into different roles and different industries. And if you widen the spectrum of things you’ve been involved in, well, you never know what opportunities that can open up.”