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Social obligation remains a driving force

WONGATHA (Goldfields Aboriginal) man Allan James is a successful businessman who has just sold his half of Zenith Insurance, a flourishing enterprise servicing indigenous organisations Australia-wide.

In just four years Mr James took the company to a position whereby it attracted a healthy buy-out of his half of the business by his non-indigenous partners.

His success, however, will never mean personal wealth.

Mr James won’t be buying an expensive house or luxury yacht due to his familial obligations.

Born in Kalgoorlie in 1968, Mr James was raised on Albion Downs Station near Wiluna and attended high school in Kalgoorlie before doing a business degree at Curtin University.

Mr James said he’d always been interested in commerce as a school subject, and the often less-than-positive attitude taken by teachers toward Aboriginals’ employment prospects made him determined to succeed.

He got his first job in insurance at the age of 24 after an apprenticeship with the Auditor General’s office.

The organisation was keen to increase its indigenous business, particularly in remote communities, which were not being serviced well by the industry.

“I started to really enjoy the contact with the people because for about two or three months out of the year I was travelling out to various communities Australia-wide and going through their insurance needs,” Mr James said.

“Usually they didn’t know anything about it. I’d sit down with them and go through all of their insurance papers and it seemed to me that many of them didn’t know what they were getting and what was covered.

“I enjoyed that contact, making sure that all of their policies were in order and showing them how to make a claim.”

Mr James said that, while he decided to leave the industry after a couple of years, Corporate Insurance Australia intervened and invited him to set up a franchise.

“After about three months I decided to give it a go and I went into a joint-venture with them,” he said.

“It allowed me to bring other indigenous people into the insurance industry, but even today there are only two or three Aboriginal people in insurance.

“My clientele at the moment is 100 per cent indigenous.”

Finally, Mr James is getting out of the insurance business. Well, sort of.

“I’m selling my half of the business to Zenith and then I’ll complete my commerce degree and move into accounting or some other financial services role,” he said.

“Whatever I make from the sale will be poured back into private enterprise because there’s such a void there for any indigenous person or group in accounting or insurance or whatever.”

While business is often called ‘white fella business’ by the indigenous community, Mr James said the fundamentals of business do not have colour.

“I think the fundamentals are the same no matter who is in control, because at the end of the day you have to make money,” he said.

‘But I think Aboriginal organisations generally have a bigger social conscience than non-indigenous businesses.

“As a businessman I have a big obligation to the community socially and economically by providing things like scholarships, and there’s always an expectation from clients that I’ll give something back.”

Personal wealth is something that does not come into any future equation.

“I would feel pretty bad if I was going out to remote communities and seeing health problems and all of those things and then I turned around and bought a big expensive yacht or mansion,” Mr James said.

“I’ve tried to set myself up to be secure but there’s no way in the world I could ever lavish riches upon myself, even if I wanted to.

“The rest of my immediate family are still struggling on unemployment benefits and that sort of thing, and that’s the obligation that you come back to as an Aboriginal person.”

Mr James said personal wealth was still extremely rare in the Aboriginal community.

“The Aboriginal economy is still very weak and it’s true that Aboriginal participation in the economy is only one or two generations old,” he said.

“It will take at least another 100 years the way we’re going before we can say that there’s a strong indigenous economy in Australia.

“It’s as difficult to attain Aboriginal economic independence as it will be to fix up the health problems and all of the other social problems.

“One of the reasons I went into business in the first place is my belief that Aboriginal people have to become more economically viable, and the way to do that is through education.

“I believe that universities should look at diversity when offering career choices to Aboriginal people, and stop the drafting into health and education.”

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