We should have put David Gonski onto one of our power lists long ago, because he’s probably Australia’s best-connected businessman. But now he’s chairman of the $70 billion Future Fund we’re delighted to find him his own special spot.
Gonski’s job will be to bring peace to the warring factions on the Future Fund board, a task that was deemed to be beyond former Treasurer Peter Costello, who is one of the warriors. And we doubt anyone could do it better.
Born in Cape Town in 1953, Gonski came to Australia with his parents at the age of eight, and was regarded by his schoolmates as “an extremely serious nerd”. But he shone at Sydney Grammar and came top of his year in law at the University of NSW, where he won the University Medal. He quickly went on to become the youngest-ever partner in one of Sydney’s leading law firms, Freehills, at the age of 25, before leaving in his mid-30s to set up his own investment bank.
Since then he has worked for the Packers and the Lowys and just about anyone who’s anyone, and earned almost universal respect.
Grey, bespectacled, balding and conservatively-dressed, Gonski is a dead ringer for Sir Humphrey Appleby from Yes, Minister, and he may well possess all the same guile. He claims drily to take orders from his wife and get all ideas from his children, but clearly has a few talents of his own.
“I think humility is very important,” he protests. “If you have the view that frankly you are a nothing each day and you’ve got to work on it, I think it’s a better way of looking at things.”
But don’t be fooled.
Gonski says modestly he’s never been a leader or a CEO, so he has never really run anything himself. But he has been a great leader of teams in an extraordinary range of organisations in business, government and the arts.
Back in 2007, in a long interview with Management Today, he described “team management” as like “conducting an orchestra.”
“A good chairman,” he explained, “is someone who is able to listen, to summarise what’s going on, to tease out what people are thinking.”
On the Future Fund board he may have to tell some of his players to pipe down a bit so the others can be heard. But he won’t have to be making investment decisions himself.