Dozens of talented young people leave Perth every year for the excitement and opportunity of bigger cities. But there is also a steady flow of returnees. What brings them back? And how do they cope with ‘Dullsville’? Mark Beyer reports.
LAWYER Geoffrey Grice spent 23 years away but always planned to return.
Finance manager Sean McGuinnees intended to be away for 10 years but came back after three.
Stockbroker Brad Gale worked in London for 18 months and that was enough for him.
These people have very different stories to tell but they share one thing in common: they wanted to live and work overseas but saw their long-term future in their home town of Perth.
The local business community includes many people who have brought international or interstate experience back to Perth.
People such as Mark Barnaba and Tracey Horton, who returned to Perth to work at corporate advisory firm Poynton & Partners.
Or lawyers Geoffrey Grice, Ken Mildwaters and Rupert Lewi, who left senior positions in London and Tokyo to return.
And investment bankers such as Simon Withers and Gavin Rezos, who have returned to pursue new opportunities.
The key attractions for nearly every person returning to Perth are the city’s easygoing lifestyle and family connections.
Mr Grice, an old Kojonup boy, said that despite the many years spent overseas, he and his Canadian wife Alix always hoped to make the move to Perth.
The prompts for their return from Tokyo included the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 and a desire to give their young children a “home” and a sound education.
Having a young family was also a key factor for Ms Horton, who had been working in San Francisco for eight years.
“It was family and children that brought us back. We wanted to raise our children in the kind of lifestyle that we remembered,” Ms Horton told WA Business News.
For many people, seeking the Perth lifestyle is the easy part. Finding the right professional opportunities in Perth can be much harder.
“For some of these people it’s very difficult coming back to find a suitably challenging role,” said Bruce Henderson, general manager WA for recruitment firm Roberts Walter.
“They might have to cut their salary in half or a third to come back here, and much of the experience they have had can be redundant in this market.”
Scott Stacey, a practice manager at recruitment agency TMP-Hudson Global Resources, said many people returned with unrealistic expectations.
“The people who go away for a couple of years are extremely attractive to the market but they often come back with unrealistic salary expectations,” he said.
Another issue is that the highly specialised work in London or New York is often not available here.
“The local market may not demand the skills that people bring back from overseas or interstate,” Mr Stacey said.
For people who have worked overseas, one of the big changes is the increased recognition by local employers of the value of overseas work.
“I remember leaving Perth for one year and being told by people in the legal industry that I would be putting myself back,” said Mr Rezos, a former lawyer who moved to London in 1988.
“There was a perception you were having a holiday.”
Mr Rezos said Perth people struggled to get a fair hearing when they tried to demonstrate the skills and experience they acquired overseas.
“Yet someone from the UK or US with the same experience would be lauded.”
Dr Mildwaters, who spent 17 years away from Perth, agrees the city has become a lot more international.
“The difference today is that a lot more people have experience outside WA. The South African influx has made a big difference,” Dr Mildwaters said.
Nevertheless, Perth is still a small market with limited opportunities.
A partner at law firm Jackson McDonald, Dr Mildwaters recognises that Perth is unlikely to provide the same intensity or adrenaline rush that he got as a mergers and acquisitions specialist in London.
One of the main reasons is the sheer size of the transactions he had been working on.
For instance, he was given responsibility by Guinness to plan and execute Europe’s biggest merger, the $70 billion union of Guinness and Grand Metropolitan to form Diageo.
In contrast, Ms Horton feels the work opportunities at Poynton and Partners are “equally challenging and interesting” compared to the work she did in San Francisco for Bain & Co.
“There is a wider range of clients in San Francisco and their overall size is larger, but the type of work and the advice and relationships are very similar.”
Ms Horton also admits she probably would have moved to Sydney if the right work opportunity had not arisen in Perth.
Sean McGuinness chose to cut short his time overseas when a highly appealing work opportunity arose in Perth with stockbroking firm Hartleys.
“Like a lot of people who go overseas, I was concerned about what point you can re-enter,” he said.
“There is always a fear that the opportunities won’t be there when you want to come back.”
He returned to Perth at the start of July to take up a new position as chief financial officer of the management company that is buying the Hartleys broking business.
Mr Henderson said that for every person who lines up a quality Perth job while still overseas, there are many others who return in search of highly paid and challenging roles.
For Goldman Sachs JBWere State manager Brad Gale, his 18-month stint in London with Credit Suisse First Boston was always going to be a temporary break.
“I always thought it was important to travel,” he said. “I’m very conscious that Perth is one of the most isolated cities.”
He described London as “a brilliant city to spend time in”, but was not tempted to stay.
“I was adamant I wanted to return and develop a career in Perth.”
After returning to Perth in mid 2000, Mr Gale was promoted to a position in Melbourne as executive assistant to the managing director of retail broking.
Twelve months in Melbourne set him up for his current position, where he spends about one third of his time managing the Perth office and the rest working with clients as an investment adviser.