Masters of business target opportunities

08/04/2009 - 22:00

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No matter what the economic conditions, an entrepreneur will always find the upside.

Masters of business target opportunities

OPTIMISTIC may be too strong a word for the mood among Western Australia's business statesmen and women, but there was definitely a strong case for opportunism.

It is probably what you'd expect if you put seven of the state's most successful entrepreneurs in a room together and asked them about the economy, as happened at a recent lunch attended by WA Business News.

Nevertheless, entrepreneurial minds are not prone to 'group-think'. There were plenty of differences of opinion on how bad things have got, at what point the bottom may be reached, and when a savvy investor might want to move.

Perhaps this divide is best illustrated by the contrasting opinions of former media and wine magnate Jack Bendat and Coogee Chemicals executive chairman Gordon Martin.

"I don't think it's that doom and gloom," an upbeat Mr Bendat said.

In comparison to other economies, he believes Australia is holding up well. Despite some increase in unemployment, people are still taking holidays and spending their money.

"The newspapers only print bad news," said Mr Bendat, a major investor in media for decades, who also berated the broadcasters for the same sin.

He said the downturn had been blown out of all proportion by news-hungry organisations that fed on each other and fuelled consumer concerns.

"If you are able to hold on, it's not that bad."

But Mr Martin was less optimistic, believing the credit crunch continued to starve businesses of the vital oxygen needed for medium-term survival.

"I think it will get worse," he said.

Nevertheless, he sensed opportunities for those who could afford to act and also be patient.

"I think you can take your time, you are wiser to take your time," Mr Martin told the gathering.

"Lots of things look terribly cheap, but you have to be incredibly selective.

"You have to choose things that can add value and can have an incremental improvement to your business."

The pair was part of a group of seven business leaders who spoke to WA Business News during a forum arranged as part of the judging process for Ernst & Young's WA Master Entrepreneur of the Year, to be awarded later this year.

The other five attendees at the luncheon were: former Clough chairman Harold Clough; former Wesfi and current Wesbeam chairman Denis Cullity; former MG Kailis Group governing director Patricia Kailis; property and car magnate Stan Perron; and Gull Petroleum director Fred Rae.

This is a Rolls Royce group of entrepreneurs, collectively worth several billion dollars, even after the impact of the global financial crisis.

The experience rides across a wide range of industries and involvement, from the overview of scientist and fishing family matriarch Mrs Kailis to the likes of Mr Clough, who took his family company to ASX and eventually sold out.

Mr Cullity, an entrepreneur in timber products, offered another view on the current crisis that met with general approval from those gathered around table.

"This is not a depression," he said.

"We should not exaggerate it. It is not a depression, it is a correction due to excessive availability of debt finance and the unthinking extension of it by people who had access to it."

Mr Cullity offered a personal experience concerning his father's decision to start a business in the late 1920s, then surviving the tough times of 1930s by controlling his costs and avoiding heavy debt.

He looks at the bad news around housing, the key sector for his business, and believes the statistics are being wrongly interpreted, exaggerating the size of the fall and missing the underlying strength in the market.

"The economy has not stopped," he said.

"There is no comparison with the 1930s," agreed Mr Perron who, at 86, was a young boy during that period.

The group generally saw much in the way of opportunity from the current malaise but most agreed that a cautious approach was best.

There was some irony in Mr Martin's view that investors could bide their time, for he also believed that it would take private investment to reinvigorate the economy again, with government spending either too little on its own, in the case of infrastructure, or wrongly directed, in the case of handouts.

Mr Perron also added that investment allowances provided for by the government's stimulus package were a very small window, barely a few months.

The group was highly critical of the short-termism that had driven much of the investment and decisions that had ultimately led to the downturn.

Public companies were seen as always in the spotlight and, as a result, their CEOs were required to perform on a short-term basis because they were inevitably subject to their share price.

There was a general view that CEOs' remuneration had to have a bigger long-term component to it, one that would potentially provide rewards after they had left the company if it performed the way it was expected to.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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