The expected appointment of Scots-born John McFarlane (former CEO, of the ANZ Banking Group) as chairman of UK insurer Aviva – where Australian Trevor Matthews (ex Friends Provident) is a divisional CEO (and perhaps CEO in waiting) – prompts two thoughts:
1. Australia is trending away from importing foreign CEOs; and
2. Australians are climbing fast throughout world business
‘Fill up the jumbo jet and leave’
Wal King, former CEO of Sydney-based construction group Leighton Holdings, commented in 2009, when prodded about his possible successor: “About all I can say is that it won’t be any high-flying American parachuted in at an outrageous salary that makes mine look like chicken feed, stay for two years, fill up the jumbo jet and leave. You name one American Chief Executive that’s stayed in Australia. All they have done, in fact, is ratchet up the salaries for guys like me. They’ve parachuted in, told us what a crappy country we have and how we’re all dopey, we don’t know what we’re doing, sort it out and get a big loan.”
King made his pure-tabloid comments when he was being attacked by investors over the size of his pay packet. Perhaps he was serving at American Sol Trujillo, then CEO of Telstra, on a package consistently higher than King’s mere A$12m.
Those were the days when foreign-recruited CEO’s all but dominated the roster of Australia’s leading public companies.
Quite a lot has changed since. The resources boom has powered the Australian economy into the big league, and non-resources companies, not least News Corp., Westfield, Lend Lease, Macquarie, and AMP, have made huge Aussie footprints around the world.
Switching to ‘exports’
Today, only five of the top 20 companies on the Australian Stock Exchange have foreign-born CEOs ( BHP, Brambles, Commonwealth Bank, Rio Tinto and Suncorp). And Aussies are to be found at the top of overseas companies as diverse as Smiths Group, Morgan Stanley, Etihad Airways, Hemisphere Capital, UK Railtrack – and Aviva. Not too long ago, that list also included McDonald’s, Kelloggs, Ford, DHL Express, Aegis, and British Airways.
It is clear also that Aussie business leaders are fast becoming the most international in their class: 67% of Australian CEO’s have at least a year of international management experience, according to a 2010 survey by headhunter Russell Reynolds.
Away from the resources market, it is easy to believe that Australian executives and companies have grown strong from skills honed in a (still) relatively small but highly competitive domestic market where, perhaps, only the best can survive. Is it possible that major markets like the US can sometimes allow the mediocre to prosper in the lower reaches of a sector, however strong the leading companies?