They started life as ‘organisation men’ and have seen incredible change, including the WA Inc era. They are Western Australia’s corporate elders identified in a new book by Professor Leonie Still.
Depending on which way you look at them, Western Australia’s management elite are nothing special or a unique species.
According to Professor Leonie Still’s recently published study of 50 top executives aged between 50 and 59 years old, the state’s business leaders are exactly what you’d expect them to be – divided by their eras and concurring with all the key theories on management.
Yet there is also something very different.
Most of Professor Still’s subjects, who all remained anonymous, were well-placed to witness the events of the late 1980s, when Perth’s special breed of entrepreneurs briefly rewrote the rules of business in an era that affected the state in terms of lasting monuments and harmful excesses; the WA Inc years.
This era not only shaped many of their careers but also provided an abundance of what Professor Still found to be one of the key drivers of top performing business leaders, and perhaps the reason why, she suggests, men will remain on top of the corporate food chain – adventure and fun.
The fact that few of this “cohort” (the collective noun provided by the author) denounce this period and, in fact, embrace the time as memorable and uplifting provides terrific insight into the mind of the elite executive.
“They are flamboyant and exotic creatures,” says Professor Still when discussing the subjects for her book Corporate Elders: ‘Organisation Men’ Look Back, the first publication from a series of studies she undertook on executives from different age groups.
Professor Still said this was the first time she’d focused on men after a career examining women in business, culminating in her present role as director of the Centre for Women and Business within UWA’s Graduate School of Management.
WA’s entrepreneurial era is a major part of the business lives of these men, dominated as it was by the likes of Robert Holmes a Court, Alan Bond and all those big Friday lunches at the former Mediterranean restaurant.
“All these people wanted to be part of it or learn from it, or they cleared out of the country,” Professor Still said.
“These guys believed in adventure and fun, and if they didn’t get that they moved on.
“Guys are more socially orientated. That is the Australian executive culture.”
Professor Still claims this is the most comprehensive study of Australian executives to date and, while it has elements that are distinctly Western Australian, due to 1980s era, its lessons go beyond the state.
She believes a key strength of the study is based on rare access to 50 top-flight executives, a task aided by well-connected local businessman Tony Howarth and the fact that Perth makes such a process much easier.
Ironically, that point is underscored time and again in the book, with many of the subjects believing that WA became a focal point for business in late 1980s because the business leaders were so much more accessible.
This was especially the case with the role of The Mediterranean restaurant as a corporate hub. The venue no longer serves food, housing offices instead, including that of federal member Julie Bishop.
But in those days it was a packed house for lunch at the end of the week.
“Everyone could go; you could wheel and deal, there was no status,” Professor Still said.
It was a point made directly by one of the book’s subjects, an entrepreneur and chairman of his own group, aged 54 at the time of the interviews in 2000.
“Why did this unique time of entrepreneurs occur?” says the unnamed executive in Corporate Elders. “If you go to Sydney or Melbourne and try and meet Packer or Murdoch it is impossible.
“But I can guarantee you on Friday afternoon at The Mediterranean during the (ex-premier Brian) Burke period there would be 300 people there.
“You would know everyone there, and the deal making was being done.”
The businessman said WA offered a fresh slate at a time of easy money.
“It was just too easy,” he recalls.
“The conservatism of the establishment of places like Melbourne, more so than Sydney, where the establishment still had a protocol – over here it didn’t exist.
“There were no real wealthy people except the Bunnings family, the Boans family, the Aherns family.
“The rest were all baby boomers just starting fresh.
“They all had the same ambitions.”
While The Mediterranean may have gone, Perth remains as easy for corporate networkers to navigate today as it was in the 1980s.
However, ease of introductions in WA does not remove the truisms Professor Still found.
The generational differences between the older half of the cohort, which Professor Still calls ‘the matures’, and the slightly younger ‘baby boomers’, is stark.
While both entered the workforce at a time of the ‘organisation man’ when males were breadwinners who took jobs for life, climbing the executive ladder within the same firm, there is a clear difference between the two sub-groups in their experiences and attitudes, even when it comes to the frequency of divorce.
There are, according to Professor Still, numerous examples in this cohort of people who have had their careers severely affected by the changing times – entering the workforce at a time when jobs lasted at one firm and retirement came beyond 60. These days, younger people are climbing the ladders faster and older executives have lost their perceived value.
This is quite an issue in the professions, especially where long service used to result in goodwill, which was sold on to the younger set coming through, giving long-serving partners the payoff for their loyalty and hard work.
“That provided something for you to go out on,” says one retired managing partner of his own firm.
“You sort of lived your life on that basis. In the middle of all this, things changed quite dramatically.
“… the older generation were locked into a system and were not in a strong situation to walk away from it.
“It has been an interesting change, but there have also been a lot of casualties from it Australia-wide.”
Outside the law, other careers are also vastly different from those times and these men are survivors of that transition, though the author points out that, even though these are competitive people, some did not reach the positions they aspired to and feel somewhat disappointed by that.
Professor Still notes that those who had a setback – such as redundancy – rarely made a fully-fledged recovery to leadership.
As a sidenote, Professor Still found there was an obsession for fitness within the group, along with the recognition that good health prolonged their ability to be at the top.
Many were concerned by retirement, notably the resulting removal from the networks and positions that provided their social lives and gave them status.
“I think the lesson for me was that the worry was they were physically fit, had lots of experience and were at the peak of their powers and they were about to be put out to pasture,” said Professor Still.
“How were they going to keep life meaningful?”
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