I started life after school as a mechanical engineering student, but I probably didn’t give that the thought I should’ve done. I was attracted to the fact that I had won a scholarship from GKN who paid a generous scholarship. But when I got on the course, I found that I was there with a whole lot of people who were deeply interested in it, who had been building race cars and it was just not of so much interest to me.
I couldn’t just change to any course, it had to be within a science/engineering discipline. I ended up looking for the thing that was least like pure engineering, which was a new course called Human Factors Engineering, which they called Ergonomics. So rather bizarrely I did an honours degree in Ergonomics.
Having been born and lived all of my adolescent life in Kenya and East Africa on a farm, I’d done university in the UK. On graduating England was in a pretty dire economic situation. So I decided to go on a kind of year off round the world and backpack, see what was going on, see how the dust had settled when I got back.
On that tour I arrived in Perth. I had come here to reunite with a sister who was way older than me but had been living in Perth for many years, and I hadn’t seen her since I was about six. When I got to Perth I just fell in love with it. I thought ‘what a great spot’! It was small enough that it appealed to someone who had come from that Kenyan farming environment but big enough that it was interesting to be in.
It’s not something I pursued, but in hindsight I would’ve been very disappointed if I hadn’t done it.
My first job was as an ergonomist with Woodside Petroleum. The ergonomics proved to be very useful as it was on the skilled shortage list, so it gave me the opportunity to migrate to Australia. So I migrated, moved into management consulting with a company called Earnst and Whinny (which became Earnst and Young); that was really interesting. I was there for about 5 years, and I was involved in a whole wide range of non-accounting consulting assignments.
After that I left and joined a law firm called Parker and Parker (which has now become Herbert Smith Freehills). That gave me my first line management job. I had a wide range of responsibilities through from marketing, to precedents, to libraries, a whole range of bits. During the time I was there I did an MBA and my accounting qualifications.
I found the whole idea of business and leadership and management really challenging and interesting and fascinating, but I wasn’t 100% sure the legal environment was where I wanted to do it. An opportunity came up to join Hartley Pointon, at that time a Perth-based private client stockbroker business, and the partners were looking to professionalise the management, grow the business nationally, diversify into other activities like funds management.
I was with Hartley point for 10 years, which was really exciting. I became the managing director and CEO. The business was listed on the ASX. It took on 2 major institutional shareholders, Westpac and Royal Bank of Canada and diversified into what was then a very new area; outsourced share trading companies who wanted to offer online internet trading. Unfortunately, that diversification happened during the dot com boom at the end of the 90s so when the bubble burst there was a lot of focus on whether software and the internet really had a role to play in stockbroking. The business went through a difficult time and I left the business at the beginning of 2003 but by that stage I had got a bug for the whole area of tech and software and what could be done.
I had married a West Australian, Rose, had 2 children and was keen to stay on in WA and throw myself into the software area, and the industry which struck me as being very West Australian and a good place to be was the resources industry, about which I knew extremely little.
If you apply your energy to something you really enjoy, you’re going to be a lot better off
I had a close personal friendship with Tony Packer, and we were on a charitable organisation board together, Kids Helpline. We identified a well-established but fledgling mining software business called Surpac, so we teamed up and jointly bought a controlling stake. During 2003-08, that business grew by acquisition and then through a merger was listed on the Toronto stock exchange, which gave me the opportunity to become a director of an internationally listed company, which was really interesting. Through that period there was a mining boom underway, so the business expanded to the point where it had 450 staff and was operating out of 17 different locations.
In 2008 the business was taken over by the world’s largest private equity fund, Carlisle Group based in Washington DC, and following that there was an opportunity to really sit down and think about what the next chapter of my life could be.
As someone who had had a career in finance and investment, I was concerned that the level of returns and particularly the volatility of returns from traditional stock investments was not something that appealed to me, so I got into examining property and it was that examination that led to teaming up with Tony’s son Peter, and Thomas to found Dorado Property.
The listed securities market had 2 big attractions for a lot of people very much not available in property: daily pricing and liquidity. Daily pricing means you get sucked into that buzz of what goes up, what goes down, the whole chatter of the market. The volatility means you can change your mind and say, ‘well I was in it this morning but now I can get out of this and into something else’.
I had a real hesitation about the fact that the world of property seemed to be more opaque. It was harder to get a sense of what was moving up or down and once you made a commitment to something you were in it for quite an extended period of time. I think that it was only really on doing research and starting to make a number of investments that I started to get an understanding about how big an industry property really is, how much capital it consumes, how complex it is, how many different facets there are to it, and within that to realise that it had more intellectual interest than I had previously considered to be the case because I had seen it as sort of ‘set and forget’.
I think that the fulfilment and excitement that I had got from starting the tech business at HP, a business called JDB, was something I got a huge buzz out of. Though acquiring and running Surpac was an extremely successful venture, I really did like the idea of starting with a white board and working through things from first principles.
I think the second thing was that in the early discussions, when we only had the germ of an idea between Peter, Thomas, and myself, you just had that overwhelming feeling that this would be a good idea; you got carried away with the excitement of it. A big part of it was that desire to be part of a start-up.
There are too many business ideas where someone has decided it’s a clever or interesting thing but when you actually sit down and coldly ask yourself ‘what problem is this solving for customers and clients’, it’s all a bit vague.
I would actually say no. Starting my own business sounded terrifying because what if you did it and it didn’t work, and you were subject to people thinking you had made a fool of yourself? With JDB, HP was pressured by Royal Bank of Canada who were keen to start something in that area and taking responsibility for its running came as a surprise to me how much fun it was. But I was doing it not for myself but for my employer, even though it genuinely was a start-up. And Dorado suddenly was a real start up, just with 2 colleagues and friends. So no, it’s not something I pursued, but in hindsight I would’ve been very disappointed if I hadn’t done it.
That’s actually a very interesting point. I had a number of business interests, but I had done a fair bit of reading and reflection, and there was this real theme coming through of you really need to find something that you just really love doing. If you start applying your time to what will be the most profitable or where your skillset best suits or all those different kinds of things, you may get a perfectly acceptable result, but if you apply your energy to something you really enjoy, you’re going to be a lot better off.
I just found that the whole Dorado Property experience was just so much fun, working with people who were under enormous pressure trying to finalise capital raisings to do a land subdivision or build apartments, and taking that from the stage where you were looking at initial sketches through to driving past a fully completed project where people were living there or working there. Having the opportunity of being involved with that I just found more interesting than alternate things, so it became a natural place for me to spend my time and energy and has been now for 10 years.
I think that in the online share trading platform that we built, which is all now plain vanilla but was pretty Avant Garde at the time, it actually quite shocked me how you could deploy technology to pull out a process a whole lot of unnecessary steps and transform things, so I got religion around that.
A lot of friends I had that were in the position of owning a business or being a CEO were what I would call a ‘grudging tech adopter’. They would use technology because competitors were using or it had become an industry standard, or if regulators were pushing them into doing something. I just came at it from a different mindset of saying, let’s just look for tools that might streamline the business, that might make for more accurate decision making and take cost out of things, and not be scared to try something and decide that it doesn’t work.
Again, in terms of doing the things that we find satisfying, in that journey there have been a couple of things that would be considered very much in the early adopter stage, which have ended up becoming quite important to how we do things at Dorado, and that was really quite fun.
I’ve got admiration for people who can drop the drawbridge and be completely focused on friends and family and pastimes and then come back and be completely focused on work, but I can’t do it.
I think that’s probably true, it would almost be you’re sort of trying to fight the fight with one arm behind your back.
If you’re involved with an operating company as a private equity investor or a start up as a venture capital investor, and to balance my portfolio I’m interested in both, then you’ve really got 2 choices – in one mode you’re in there with your sleeves rolled up, and there’s only so many hours in the day, or in the other mode you put enormous stock in the people you’re backing and they carry the responsibility.
I’ve just been incredibly lucky that with a very few limited exceptions the businesses and tech products I’ve backed have had amazing, hardworking, gifted people and they have the passion for those businesses that I have for Dorado Property, so that means that aside from the normal things about thought leadership and strategic planning involvement and annual budgeting, I have broadly delegated that to them and live and die by that, and that has worked very well.
I think that in any commercial endeavour there are lots of complexities, lots of people involved, lots of decisions that need to get made, lots of things that need to be documented, lots of meetings that need to be held, and that whole swirl of stuff tends to create a lot of inertia. People are hesitant to take responsibility or make decisions.
I like to think one of the things I contribute is trying to focus on the big things, move things along, keep momentum up, get decisions made, get consensus, and really have it that at the end of the process people reflect and say, your involvement through that process meant that we had a lot more momentum or creativity; a real catalyst for getting things going.
I think there’s a couple of fundamental things people need to examine. They need to work out if, by personality, they make a good partner because I think there are people who might be a great business person on their own but probably shouldn’t be in partnership, and others who would never do something on their own and thrive on that partnership. That’s a crucial thing to reflect on.
The other one is there are too many business ideas where someone has decided it’s a clever or interesting thing but when you actually sit down and coldly ask yourself ‘what problem is this solving for customers and clients’, it’s all a bit vague.
I think the third one for me is that you mustn’t be swept up with any perception that there’s some status benefit of being your own boss or starting your own business. There are lots of people, probably the vast majority, for whom the right thing to be is to be an employee. It might mean they have a much better work life balance, they might deal with stress much better, they might be able to focus on doing the things they really enjoy. Sometimes it might be family pressure or peer pressure or losing a job or whatever that make people contemplate going out and starting their own business, when in reality they’re ill-suited to it.
I think there’s a need to be resilient and a need to be optimistic. There are so many setbacks where you are let down in some way and if you’ve got a neutral or negative view of the world or lack resilience, I think what would happen on that journey is you’ll say well this is all too hard. That’s a fundamental attribute to have.
I wonder if the payoff is genuine… it’s a lot of hours at the wheel but is it the right return for those hours?
I think from a planning perspective, in my mind it would be about the three or four key things you’re trying to achieve within a 6-month timeframe. Then at the day to day or week to week level, I’m a lot more flexible around doing a range of things that tease out that objective, but not getting too put off if there are deviations, setbacks or changes, so no I don’t think I do.
No, I would say over the years it has probably not been optimal from the family point of view, but I’ve very much seen that the most important thing in my life is my wife and kids, but work is a consuming hobby, so I find it blends much more together. I’ve got admiration for people who can drop the drawbridge and be completely focused on friends and family and pastimes and then come back and be completely focused on work, but I can’t do it.
You’re right, there’s some tech changes that have added pressure, but there’s also a big background issue. My father was an entrepreneur, passionate about and interested in business, and so was [my wife] Rose’s dad, so both of us were brought up in an environment where, although they were family-oriented people, there was talk of business involvement through our whole childhood. For me to evolve into doing the same thing going forward has felt very natural.
I spent my early family life in an environment where mental health was a big issue. I was brought up by my father because my mother had chronic manic depression and spent a large amount of my childhood overseas from Kenya and institutionalised. In the early days of my career, my feeling was very much that if you didn’t have the resilience to put up with a very demanding work schedule then you shouldn’t be in that environment.
Twitter is quite interesting if you curate it carefully
I think that’s evolved dramatically over time, principally as a result of the leadership and insights that have come from Thomas, where he has opened my eyes to saying there’s a real value in understanding that if you want to attract and work with the most talented, passionate people, you need to have an environment where, as best as is possible, their work life is positively contributing to their mental wellbeing, not a drag on it.
So I would say that I’m a late convert, but over the period of time where we’ve developed the culture we have, which I’d say is extremely respectful of peoples’ home live and very supportive of people as colleagues and that whole cultural thing, I wouldn’t wind back to anything else now because I think this is vastly superior.
In many of the organisations I’ve worked in and worked with, when people are regularly working into evenings and weekends, I actually wonder if the payoff of that is a genuine thing because I think the motivation and productivity isn’t there; it’s a lot of hours at the wheel but is it the right return for those hours, and they might burn out in a shorter time frame.
I like to try and keep up with what I suppose in old fashioned parts is called ‘what’s going on with the world’, in the industry or generally in the country. Though that’s often in a scanning mode instead of deeply absorbing, I find that of the different modern tech platforms, one that’s quite interesting if you curate it carefully is Twitter, because you can have a mix of stuff come through that picks up hobbies and interests or work things and in a time effective way can keep your finger on the pulse, whereas if you sat around reading monthly newsletters or reading articles in the newspapers you’d end up getting more detailed but cover much less ground.
Though Tony and I had a controlling interest in the business, the remainder was owned by the staff, and by and large they were very smart very passionate computer geeks with limited interests in the wheels of commerce, so that relationship necessitated an enormous amount of trust because in essence we were deciding where the business was being taken, where the investments were being made. The idea was there was an operation out of Perth to build a world class mining software platform, and I think the fact that it happened and was able to so profoundly have a positive impact on the people who had been involved, that would be something I’m very proud of.