John Brogden on business, politics...
and the whole damn thing
THE way he sees it, John Brogden was “kissed on the backside by a rainbow”. The former NSW Young Liberals president and Liberal Party staffer had only ever wanted one job – to be premier of New South Wales. In 1996, the boy from Balmain was elected the youngest member of the NSW Legislative Assembly at the age of 27, for the seat of Pittwater, on Sydney’s northern beaches. In 2002, at the age of 33, he was elected the youngest ever leader of a state or federal Liberal Party, when he became Opposition leader.
He seemed on the way to achieving his dream when, in 2005, his political career was undermined by a harmful media leak. The leak was about comments he was alleged to have made to journalists at a function. He was rushed to hospital late one night after being found unconscious in his electorate office in an apparent suicide attempt and left politics soon after. He had no idea what he would do when he was offered job only a few months later as chief executive of health insurance company Manchester Unity. It was the beginning of a successful career in the private sector that has paid considerably more than a career in politics.
Brogden’s career has taken a new turn this year with his appointment as chief executive of the Australian Institute of Company Directors. With a membership of some 35,000, the organisation represents many of the most distinguished company directors and chairs in the country. If he gets his way, the organisation will play a much bigger voice in the national and economic policy debate, becoming the company directors’ equivalent of the high-profile Business Council of Australia. “We will get more broadly into the economic debate because that is important to our members – whether they are on the board of the Commonwealth Bank or whether they are running a business in the suburbs with 15 people,” he says in an interview in his offices opposite Sydney’s Australia Square. “All of these people have an interest in a strong Australian economy. The BCA is speaking out on behalf of companies and we are speaking out on behalf of directors. There will be a difference of views, but in those critical policy areas there should be no lack of willingness by an organisation like us to participate in important policy debates.” Outgoing and media savvy, Brogden’s unique background of business and politics, and his extensive Rolodex of contacts, gives him the skills to raise the profile of the organisation.
It is a long way from dark days of 2005. To this day he remains grateful to the board of Manchester Unity which handed him a career lifeline in 2006 after a near death experience. “I had really only ever wanted to be premier of NSW,” he says. “As tragic as that might sound to some people,” he jokes.
“When I left politics, in incredibly difficult and unplanned circumstances, I had no idea what I would do.” “It was a phenomenal opportunity that came my way. The board of the company was phenomenally trusting in giving someone who hadn’t run a business that opportunity. It was a $250 million business. It was a conglomerate that had a lot of businesses – health insurance, life insurance, retirement villages and nursing homes. It was a fantastic opportunity for me.”
Just over two years later, in late 2008, he was out of a job when Manchester Unity was taken over by HCF Insurance in a deal worth some $260m. Then came the chance to take on a much more high-profile role, with his appointment in 2009 as chief executive of the Financial Services Council, the representative body for Australia’s big retail superannuation and life insurance companies such as AMP, BT, MLC, Colonial First State and Challenger. With the superannuation industry already worth more than $1 trillion at the time, thanks to the Federal government’s compulsory superannuation policies, the sector was becoming an increasingly important part of the economy.
“My objective was to raise the influence of the funds management and superannuation sector in the public policy debate,” he says. “The sector is now sitting on assets worth almost $2 trillion – bigger than the capitalisation of the stock exchange, bigger than the GDP of the country, and it will continue to get bigger.”
But it was a challenging five and a half years. Brogden jokingly describes his role running the FSC during that time as being like “wartime consigliore”, taking a quote out of the movie, The
Godfather. It was a time of turmoil in the industry as the Federal Labor government began widespread reform of the business pushing for the end of commissions on superannuation sales and other changes in the financial planning industry and the introduction of new low-cost My Super policies. The FSC devoted time to debating a suite of changes first from Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government and then from the incoming Abbott government that appeared to undo some of Labor’s changes.
Brogden significantly raised the profile of the organisation. The slew of changes saw Brogden and the FSC involved with extensive negotiations with the two governments. “At the end of my first week in the job I was giving evidence before the Bernie Ripoll inquiry into the collapse of the Storm financial group,” he recalls. “My last week was when FOFA [Freedom of Financial Advice legislation] fell over in federal parliament. The amount of reform in financial services – in superannuation and financial advice in particular – was extraordinary and deep,” he says. “The industry had never seen so much reform in such a period of time. We were very much in the trenches of policy and legislation. We were working on many fronts. And we also had the Commonwealth Bank financial planning scandal and others coming along to make life even harder.”
The retail superannuation funds, which had traditionally dominated the industry, were also being challenged by the rise of the industry super funds; funds jointly run by unions and employer groups. At times, it seemed like a battlefield – with the FSC on one side and the industry funds on the other. “We were always written up as the enemy of the industry funds,” Brogden says. But he adds things are changing in the industry with the advent of the My Super policies, which he argues will see the interests of the retail super funds and the industry funds aligned.
He is at pains to say that his new organisation, the AICD, touches a much wider base than many people think. “People see us exclusively as the big end of town,” he says. “But only about 10 per cent of our members are directors of companies listed on the ASX. Another 10 per cent are directors of not-for-profit operations. There is also a huge number of our members who are small business people. We have quite a big tent.”
BROGDEN says skills learned as a politician can be useful in business but he warns the two are “different beasts”. “The pressure you are under every day in politics, with every decision under scrutiny, is very different to the pressure you are under in business.” During his first year in the private sector, running Manchester Unity, he said he suddenly found he had time to think. “I wasn’t jumping up to do a press conference or a 30-minute radio interview or going to meet and greet people. I actually had time to do things. I had to train myself not to jump up and run around every five minutes. You have to train yourself to have a better focus and discipline.” Moving from politics to business, Brogden says, means “you get your weekends back.” But
he rejects the idea that the 24/7 media scrutiny and the “crazy life” of a politician is dissuading good people from going into politics. Politics, he says, can still be “incredibly fulfilling”.
He admits he still suffers from depression and is taking medication for his condition, which remained undiagnosed in his earlier life. He believes more people need to talk about mental illness. “I have depression and I talk about it openly,” he says. “I have made it very clear at the Financial Services Council and here at the AICD that nobody should be ashamed of having a mental illness. “You wouldn’t be ashamed to have a physical illness. You shouldn’t be ashamed to have a mental illness.” He compares taking medication for depression to taking medication for a physical illness. “If a doctor told me to take a pill to fix my knee, I would take a pill to fix my knee. On this occasion, the medication I take has to do with depression.” He says he has learned how to manage his condition. “I know what situations to avoid. I know when I am getting too stressed. I know it will knock me about if I don’t get some normal hours of sleep.”
Brogden has been a board member of the charity Lifeline for the past five years and its chairman for the past two and a half years. An organisation, with some 11,000 volunteers, its main role is its around-the-clock phone counselling service for people in distress. The organisation has seen a dramatic increase in calls from the public in the past few years. “The first year I joined the board we got 440,000 phone calls but we only answered 66 per cent. This year we will receive 950,000 calls, which is just extraordinary. We will answer 86 per cent of them.”
Brogden says the organisation sees an increasing number of people under the stress of big mortgages and credit card bills. He says he does not know the exact reason for the big increase in calls. “We don’t have any big revelation as to what is causing the increase other than the fact that a lot of people are really under stress.” But he feels that a big part of it is that discussion of mental illness has come out into the open. “We have come out of the dark ages in how we think about mental illness in Australia. People in our society who would never have talked about their mental illness are now talking about it. The more we talk about mental illness, the more we normalise it and the more we encourage people to ask for help.”
MEANWHILE Brogden has no plans to go back into politics, but he will watch with interest the outcome of this month's NSW election, He is long-time friends with NSW Premier Mike Baird. His wife’s family knew the Baird family as a young girl living in the US. Her father worked for Exxon while Baird’s father Bruce was Australia’s Trade Commissioner in New York. “We have a photograph of a 10-year-old Mike Baird with a 10-year-old Lucy Hooke, when they were in New England with the autumn leaves falling,” he says.
Baird’s success, he says, lies in the fact that he doesn’t act like a politician. “Mike is not a natural politician. His approach has been non-political in most things. He has very cleverly communicated the infrastructure message. And, unlike (former Queensland Premier) Campbell Newman, I think he has actually got his message across.”
Brogden admits that his career was never going to be a conventional one. His one career advice for anyone in business or politics is to “take opportunities when they come”. “Not all opportunities will be successful. Some will be dismal failures but it is better to take opportunities when they come along rather than sitting there waiting for the right one to come along. By walking through the door and taking opportunities you will have some failures, but you will have more successes.”
John Brodgen, left, at work this year; above, out in the electorate as NSW Opposition leader in 2004; and, below, with his wife Lucyat her graduation ceremony in 2003