John Alexander is now CEO of Packer’s PBL – cementing a formidable network of influence in the Sydney business community.
Is John Alexander close to being the most powerful CEO in Sydney
business? Having Kerry Packer as your number one supporter certainly
helps, but Alexander has developed a powerful set of
relationships of his own from his time as a finance reporter, editor
and media executive.

His elevation to the top of the tree at PBL brings to mind the Kevin
Bacon factor . Remember the idea of degrees of separation? And how many
people stood between actor Kevin Bacon and you? Six, I think was
supposed to be the maximum.

Well, it’s something you could ask about JA, as he’s known to many of
his acquaintances and reports at PBL, ACP and the Nine Network and to
former workmates across the media.

For example he speaks highly of Roger Corbett, the CEO of Woolworths,
knows Julia King, formerly of Louis Vuitton, and knows Ron Walker, a
Packer mate from Crown days. Deeta Colvin, the former PR queenbee of
Sydney and now promotions director of ACP is close, along with her husband,
Rod McGeoch, a well known Sydney businessman and former head of the
city’s Olympic bid. Deeta Colvin did PR for Julia King at Louis Vuitton.

That has given JA a wide introduction to parts of the Sydney business
community he wouldn’t had without the Colvin connection. Ditto for his
close friendship with Chris Corrigan when the latter was at Bankers
Trust Australia. Together Corbett, King and Walker are on the board of
John Fairfax, as is David Gonski, another person who is well connected
in Sydney business circles, being chairman of Coca Cola Amatil and with
fellow South African and sometime business partner, Geoff Levy,
provides an entry into the South African side of the Sydney corporate
world.

Levy is mad about rugby union, but not JA. He’s mad, or rather very
enthusiastic about art, music and other fine matters, so long as
there’s an Italian bent and its 20th Century.

Gonski provides further connections through membership of the ANZ
board, ING Australia board and Westfield Holdings, where Fred Hilmer,
the CEO of Fairfax is also a member. Gonski is also chairman of the
Australian Council of the Arts, another useful network to have access
to.

Chris Corrigan of Patrick is another degree of separation and
friendship. Corrigan was probably one of Alexander’s best supporters
when Chris was at BT and JA was at the Sydney Morning Herald as finance
writer, finance editor and then editor in chief and publisher of the
paper.

Corrigan also gives access to Peter Scanlon, chairman of Patricks and a
wealthy man after quietly moving away from his long association with
John Dorman Elliott in the nineties.

JA of course knows Sam Chisholm and John Singleton. Chisholm is still
the grey eminence around PBL, helping with some early staffing
decisions and advice, as well as providing an eye on pay TV and the
future of subscription TV in Australia.

Alan Jones would on side through the part ownership of Macquarie and
his relationship with the Packers and Singleton. Chisholm was running
Nine when JA was editor of Australian Business magazine, which was
published by ACP.

Lunches between the two and with other Packer reporters were well known
in the seventies and eighties. Chisholm’s membership of the Telstra
board unfortunately doesn’t provide very much in the way of links past
Chisholm.

Telstra remains highly suspicious of PBL and regards the Fox Sports
business of PBL and News Ltd as a a way of ripping money out of Foxtel
and Telstra. Telstra might have tried to buy PBL’s Nine Newtork four
years ago, but there’s little in the way of warmth left, especially
after the way former chairman Bob Mansfield was flicked.

Mansfield was well-known at Park Street for a while, but his departure
and the leaking of it to a PBL journalist was a sign the relationship
had ended. That’s the way the Packer camp sometimes sends its former
‘friends’ a message.

Chris Anderson, who chose JA to run the SMH first time around, provides
a link to the other Telco, Optus, and to the Singapore business
establishment from Anderson’s time on the SingTel board. Anderson also
drove the Optus end of the Pay TV deal a couple of years ago that
allowed Foxtel a monopoly.

Foxtel’s difficulties remain something to be fixed. Anderson will be
looking at that, you can bet, from his new position on the PBL board.

Geoff Dixon, CEO of Qantas is another degree of separation, especially
with James Packer parachuted onto the Qantas board a couple of months
ago in something of a surprise.

Macquarie Bank used to be Peter Yates’ bailiwick, but that’s gone
now.
But JA still knows former herald journos like Alex Pollak, the
well-regarded media analyst at Macquarie. His wife is Liz Knight, SMH
finance pages columnist.

Financial services group, Challenger, is of course, in the orbit. Chris
Cuffe was brought in by the Packers to fix up the problem in
Challenger. A Packer-owned investment trust was merged with Challenger
last year, providing much needed capital and reassuring key regulator,
APRA which was concerned about the health of the old Challenger group.

At one stage, the wealthy Hannan family, owners of the huge IPMG
printing group, would have been in the Packer and JA orbit. But since
the Hannans decided to go deeper into magazines, where they have run up
against ACP, and a boast that they had ambitions to grow that
involvement, the amount of work sent to IPMG by ACP has fallen sharply.
Not so close any more.

Through his links to Sydney’s arts world, JA would have met Woolworths
chairman, James Strong, who also fronts the board of Insurance
Australia Group. Remember Strong was the former CEO of Qantas and was
followed in the job by Geoff Dixon.

Alexander occasionally likes to reward friendships with small gifts,
like a good pen. A short note or phone call from his PA when travelling, especially overseas. And he is secretive about his
movements, as staff at Nine can attest to in the past couple of years.

But all this makes for a formidable set of relationships, and power, which he is not afraid to invoke in some way.

Peter Fray

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