The tributes have been pouring in for AFL President and long-time Spotless managing director Ron Evans after he succumbed to stomach cancer last Friday. In the cruelest of twists, this was the day that Ron and his great Spotless mate Brian Blythe had planned to retire from the board after 29 years of service.

Spotless told the market about Ron’s death at 2.03pm on Friday and then confirmed Brian’s retirement at 4.07pm after what must have been a very sad board meeting.

It’s hard to quibble with much of what has been said about Ron. He was the Essendon full forward who went on to become President of the club and then the competition, while simultaneously building Australia’s biggest services company and amassing a tidy $180 million fortune along the way.

Many have remarked about Ron’s integrity and his desire not to hog the limelight. This might reflect the nature of the Spotless business – big government contracts, 28,000 staff not getting paid much and operations which include a large coat-hanger manufacturing business in Mexico.

The Herald Sun editorialised as follows this morning:

Evans was a quietly inspirational man of power who used his leadership in business and sport for the public benefit.

Ron did lots of great things but people seem to forget that Spotless had pretty ordinary corporate governance and tolerated dreadful conflicts of interest. The Australian’s Michael McGuire wrote the following in August 2000:

The chairman of the AFL has provided absolutely no leadership as the AFL has stumbled from one disaster to the next at Colonial Stadium. Evans is fatally compromised by his position as managing director of Spotless Services. A Spotless subsidiary called Nationwide Venue Management runs Colonial.

Spotless eventually surrendered its 25-year contract but suffered no loss and in December 2000 then won another five-year contract to provide the catering at the MCG as well.

Spotless also made a fortune from the Kennett Government’s out-sourcing obsession in the 1990s and the Herald Sun editorialist clearly seems to have forgotten a story the paper ran in April 1997 which began as follows:

Felicity Kennett’s being paid to host a monthly lunch by Spotless Services — the company that has the catering contract for the Victorian Arts Centre. Premier Jeff Kennett is also Arts Minister and has responsibility for the centre.

A correct portrayal of Ron is that he was a good footballer who also performed well as AFL President. Though he wasn’t big on corporate governance, he was a shrewd businessman who worked his connections well, thrived on big government contracts and made it onto the Rich List.

He’s clearly an over-achiever, but let’s just stick with the facts.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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