John Brog­den on busi­ness, pol­i­tics...

and the whole damn thing

The Australian - The Deal - - Front Page - Pho­to­graphs by: NICK CUB­BIN Story by: GLENDA KORPORAAL

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

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