29/07/2010 - 00:00

With runs already on the board, Every plays a straight bat on all wickets

29/07/2010 - 00:00


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Bob Every is very comfortable in the chair of WA’s biggest home-grown company, even if he is relatively unknown in Perth.

With runs already on the board, Every plays a straight bat on all wickets

SPORTING prowess may be overplayed as a way to test the mettle of future leaders, but there are times when the on-field experience is hard to beat.

How about facing Jeff Thomson and Len Pascoe in a grade cricket game, without a helmet or even a protector? Fronting up to those bowling demons, who both represented Australia when fast bowling was the team’s entire attack, must have prepared the unfortunate batsman for anything else life could throw at him, surely?

If the career of Bob Every, one of Australia’s most accomplished CEOs and directors, is anything to go by, the answer must be in the affirmative.

“It was the most terrifying experience,” Mr Every recalls.

“You just made sure you didn’t get hit.”

Since those early days of grade cricketing terror as a young man in Sydney, Mr Every has gone on to build a career that would be difficult to rival, and has not come from ducking the hard deliveries.

His executive success was in the steel sector, one of the toughest fields in any developed economy let alone Australia where manufacturing has been on the wane for decades.

Last year he took on the chairmanship of the Wesfarmers board, a position that is also not for the faint-hearted. Mr Every will know that, of course, he was on the board when Wesfarmers bought Coles in the biggest and much-critiqued merger in Australian history.

Still, at least the sporting side of life is less dangerous these days. For Mr Every it tends to be golf at courses such as Cottelsoe, Lake Karrinyup or Collier Park, the latter being a venue with a group of local mates.

Bob Every might be a relative unknown to the WA business scene, but Perth is not unknown to him.

Having married a local, he has stronger connections with the west than would be expected of a Sydneysider from the steel industry. In fact, his plan was to retire here and, as a non-executive director, Mr Every has opted for board representation on companies with a WA presence such as Wesfarmers and before that, Iluka Resources, which he chaired for two tumultuous years until May. As a result of these positions, he says he spends about half his time in Perth where, coincidently, one of his children has decided to raise a family.

Steel sector

Mr Every also worked in Perth in the mid 1980s, running the local arm of Tubemakers before heading to New Zealand to become CEO of a business which was 40 per cent owned by his then employer.

Ultimately, he became CEO of Tubemakers and, after BHP took that over, he became president of BHP Steel. By 2000 he was CEO of OneSteel as part of the spin-off of BHP’s steel businesses, part of the demerger strategy he recommended that also included the creation of BlueScope Steel.

OneSteel was the last of his executive roles, running the business for five years in what was effectively a turnaround scenario to the debt-laden position and abysmal market the company started with when BHP set it free.

“We were seen as the ugly duckling,” Mr Every said.

“When we listed it was probably in the worst steel market we have seen nationally and globally.”

At the time, Mr Every recalls OneSteel had a market capitalisation of about $350 million, with a debt of $1.2 billion. These days the market values the company at around $3.75 billion.

“It was a very satisfying time period, not just because it was a financial success but seeing 8,000-9,000 people (employees) who were feeling unloved,” he said.

“They could go to dinner parties and hold their heads up and say ‘I work for OneSteel’.

“My view of leadership particularly with a turnaround is people need a flag and inspiration to march behind.

“You have to articulate the vision, you have to imagine a future and communicate that.’’

Mr Every said that as a CEO he would define his operating style, making sure his behaviour matched the talk.

For example, he recalls spending time at DuPont in the US learning about managing for a safer working environment. As an anecdote, Mr Every remembers the lesson that the CEO could not overlook minor issues on the factory floor, even if they were raised with middle management later.

The workers had to see the boss was not ignoring things.

“You have to make sure your actions match the rhetoric,” he said.

“As soon as you walk past something that is wrong you are, in effect, condoning it.”

Performance culture

Another of Mr Every’s focuses as a CEO was developing a performance culture where achievement was rewarded and those who failed were held to account.

He believes in setting ambitious targets and, on a regular basis, mark the company’s progress against them – recognising milestones along the way, and also the gaps.

“We would have a beer and celebrate but we would stop after that and say ‘hang on’,” Mr Every said.

“That worked for me. You have to create the impression that you are the sort of person that people believed in and wanted to go on a journey with.”

While the Wesfarmers board position may have fitted with the former steel chief’s desire to spend more time in WA, there is also a natural fit that comes from a shared background with the company’s CEO Richard Goyder.

The pair actually worked briefly together in Perth when Mr Every arrived to run Tubemakers, which also employed Mr Goyder.

“I was aware of Richard,” Mr Every said.

“He was earmarked as a high-potential young executive.”

But he said their paths barely crossed because Mr Goyder was whisked off to Sydney to be groomed for greater things.

Nevertheless, their shared background at Tubemakers has helped them work together at Wesfarmers because of the cultural similarities they have experienced.

“From that point of view Tubemakers had a very good and strong culture, that is similar to Wesfarmers,” Mr Every said.

Having a past as a CEO has helped Mr Every assume the chairman’s role, though he acknowledges that not everyone can make the leap successfully.

“The CEO’s job is 24/7,” he said.

“You eat, drink and sleep it. I must have seemed to my wife to be a boring and one-dimensional person.

“As a director if we meet and make a big decision I don’t have to get up at 6am and have to implement it.”

Transition to the board

Mr Every admits that he had to remind himself that, after becoming a director, he was not running the company.

“As a non-executive chairman you really are a part-timer,” he said.

“You have to go through the transition where you are not driving the ship.

“The CEO’s role is pretty lonely and a good relationship is when a chairman is prepared to listen to a CEO and occasionally, on the back of prior experience, add or modify, not interfere; that [interference] is a recipe for disaster.

“That is where the CEO and chairman’s relationship is vital, the most important thing I can do is be a good listener.”

Clearly, the market sees that Mr Every has achieved that, given his move to chair two of the nation’s most important boards, having recently taking on the chairmanship of building materials giant Boral after two years with Iluka, itself a significant company, which was not without turmoil as a result of the global financial crisis.

One prominent Perth director who has served on a board chaired by Mr Every viewed the experience as very positive.

“He’s very experienced and astute,” said the director who wished to remain nameless.

“The role of chairman is very much to work with the CEO to get the best out of the CEO and to work with the board to get the best of the board.

“It is managing all of those relationships very well and he was very good at that.

“Having been a CEO he understands what the challenges are, he has made the transition well. He uses his skill as a people person very well.”

Another prominent director and former Alcoa Australia CEO, Wayne Osborn, said he had only met Mr Every a handful of times before they ended up the board of Iluka together.

Mr Osborn joined the board of Wesfarmers earlier this year.

Mr Osborn described Mr Every as “one of nature’s gentlemen” and a very straight shooter whose experience as a CEO and natural leadership skills were very evident at board level.

“The fact that he was asked to chair Wesfarmers I think is an indication that his skills are highly regarded,” Mr Osborn said.

Wesfarmers chair

Mr Every assumed the role of chairman at Wesfarmers in 2008 when Trevor Eastwood stepped down.

Despite his recent elevation to chairman he was on the board when the momentous decision to acquire Coles took place, a turnaround strategy that would match his past experience at OneSteel.

“Wesfarmers has a track record of taking entrepreneurial growth steps,” he said.

“As an executive I have been in the driving seat of several acquisitions and I know the critical steps you have to go through to be successful.

“The early stages of implementation were put in place well by the company.

“It is going from the head office approach of the old Coles to Wesfarmers divisional thinking where we put in a lot more autonomy.

“I call it loose-tight. Those things that are tight must be adhered to. Loose is where they have freedom.

“You draw the boundaries and make sure they are free to operate within those boundaries.”

Mr Every likes Wesfarmers’ ability to take on such tasks without the hubris that past success could generate. This is a familiar tune, in familiar language, recited by Wesfarmers’ leadership for decades.

“When you start believing your own PR is when you are in trouble,” he said.

Mr Every believes this is a Wesfarmers attribute ingrained in the company’s DNA that has developed in the isolation of WA. Contrary to the belief of many commentators who want Wesfarmers to move its headquarters east to be closer to the bulk of its customer base, employees and investors, he believes Wesfarmers is entrenched in Perth.

“I see no good reason to change that, it is part of the culture,” said Mr Every, easily deflecting that corporate fastball to the boundary.



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