Clearly there is no white line fever in the business world for John Welborn.
A rarity in the sporting almanacs – a Perth-raised national rugby player – Mr Welborn admits to being less than caring about what the rulers of the game thought about him when he was at the peak of his athletic powers.
“One of my weaknesses was a lack of respect for authority,” he told WA Business News in a recent interview.
“I was seen as an abrasive character.”
It is hard to imagine that side of Mr Welborn as he speaks of his career and his role for the past two years as CEO of Equatorial Resources, an African iron ore explorer that is part of a stable of companies incubated by Perth-based businessman Ian Middlemas.
Equatorial is his second crack at running a company after taking over the helm at Prairie Downs Metals in 2009. He remains on the board at Prairie Downs.
Like many a professional sportsman, Mr Welborn had to find a new life at the end of rugby, a point usually decided by the body’s frailty and the mind’s ability to take physical punishment.
As Mr Welborn puts it: “I surfed rugby into the car park but I needed to get a real job”.
Unlike many of today’s big names, though, the former Wallaby already had career, as an accountant specialising in insolvency, from which he had earned a living prior to the game going professional. He studied commerce at the University of Western Australia and had taken a graduate role in Perth at the now defunct Arthur Andersen before slipping off to Sydney to complete his professional year with the partnership and play serious rugby that was not on offer in Perth.
When rugby went pro in the mid-1990s he became a full-time player, initially in Australia where he played six test matches in the national team and later for clubs in South Africa, England and France (his command of the language has been helpful given Equatorial’s assets are in French-speaking Republic of the Congo) before returning to Perth as part of the Western Force’s inaugural season.
Mr Welborn said it was at this time, while reacquainting himself with the WA scene, that he discovered just how pervasive the mining scene was.
“Everybody I met was running a little mining company,” he said.
“It would be zinc in Queensland or copper in Botswana.
“I am somewhat embarrassed to say it now; everyone I run into and asks, ‘John what do you do now you are out of rugby?’ and I say, ‘I run a mining company’.”
It would probably fit neatly into the match report of Mr Welborn’s life if the kid who started a local newspaper in grade five stepped off the rugby field into an entrepreneurial role like CEO of a mining company – but it did not quite work out like that.
Post rugby, the former lock position player ended up as the Perth representative of South African investment bank Investec, which, as he built a local business, gave a unique vantage point to view WA’s resource sector.
“Perth is one of the few places in the world where you bring together technical expertise and capital in high risk early stage resource development and we probably don’t understand how rare that is.”
He notes the irony of being in a global business that has attracted investment from the UK and has exploration assets in West Africa, but is based in Perth.
“The real connection is the appetite for risk capital and risk from Australian investors and this particular economy,” he said.
Life as an investment banker ended in December 2008 when the very worst news from the global financial crisis was coursing through international markets. At that point Investec closed its Perth office.
“That was a time when people were planting vegetable patches in London because it was about to become a barter economy,” Mr Welborn jokes.
That particularly shortsighted move by Investec put Mr Welborn back into the market, where his potential as a CEO was noted by another investment banker, the late Adam Rankine-Wilson, who wanted to restart Prairie Downs.
“I never thought about being managing director,” said Mr Welborn.
“I had always operated in a team environment, so it was a big jump.”
The Prairie Downs position and his role at Equatorial have brought him into the sphere of Mr Middlemas whose Apollo Group spawned a number of very successful mining companies.
“I like the way Ian (Middlemas) runs companies,” Mr Welborn said.
“What I probably had not done well was look around for a mentor.
“It was the opportunity to learn from someone.”
Mr Welborn doesn’t use the word coach in this context, but it is certainly suggestive of it.
However, he does extend sporting analogies to his business, pointing out that Equatorial is an aspirational company.
“That is where it is similar to being a sporting team, if you are in a sport you have to be number one, you have to win or else your supporters get beleaguered, whereas a lot of companies don’t recognise they have to be number one and just continue to function.”
“It is about coachability,” he adds.
“Being vulnerable enough to say I want to learn something or I would like you to tell me where I went wrong.”
Mr Welborn recounts being part of the Australian squad that beat England 76-0, after which coach Rod McQueen proceeded to pick the faults in the performance. That is common in elite sport, but not so much in the business arena, he said.
“That attitude is very confronting in the business world.”