03/12/2013 - 05:42

Taking the edge off business

03/12/2013 - 05:42


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All credit to Sam Walsh for being a business leader that transcends a typical view of the genre.

Taking the edge off business

Last week could not have been a great one for global mining giant Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh.

While the initial announcement that Rio Tinto had deferred the development of greenfields mines in the Pilbara could be justified as prudent, it preceded much more devastating news that Rio would close the Gove alumina refinery in the Northern Territory, bringing the axe down on up to 1,500 jobs.

It would be the kind of week that would leave most CEOs ducking for cover, especially when home base is now London, where anonymity is more readily available.

After all, CEOs are just there for salaries and bonuses in the good times, right?

But Mr Walsh was in Perth on Friday night for a long-scheduled Chamber of Arts and Culture event, at which he was recognised as an honorary life member and ambassador for the organisation.

Such credit marks the very different way Mr Walsh approached the job of running Rio Tinto’s iron ore business in Western Australia, his role until the beginning of the year when he was drafted in to take the company’s top job.

During nearly 10 years heading the iron business, Mr Walsh spent a lot of time in Perth and eventually put down very strong roots.

That included a significant amount of engagement in the arts community, which he championed as a necessity for WA if it wanted to be competitive in attracting the global talent required to take advantage of the state’s unique period of high growth.

The arts community welcomed his influence, both in a financial and political sense.

As a salaried executive, Mr Walsh’s involvement in the arts scene could easily be construed as self-serving; but that would be unfair.

The Rio chief didn’t just take arts board positions, write a few cheques and send his lobbyists up the hill to bang on the right minister’s door. Rather, he immersed himself in a cultural sector that was as undernourished as might be expected in a state with relatively brief history focused on mining, agricultural and quick fortunes.

The difference that a leading global executive can make in a small growth town thousands of kilometres from anywhere is unquantifiable.

But the chamber’s warm reception for Mr Walsh on Friday night signifies that many in the sector recognise the invaluable personal leadership he provided when there would have been easier things he could have done.

And we are all a bit richer for it.



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