James Strong knows how to keep entertained. He bikes, climbs, wears bow ties, and chairs the boards of three very different entities: Woolworths, Kathmandu and the Australia Council.
Some might call the adventurous businessman Australia’s very own Richard Branson — except that he’s got some humility, not just entrepreneurial zest.
Add to the CV his latest appointment — chairing the ICC World Cricket Cup 2015 — alongside his role as a non-executive director on the board of Qantas, and Strong’s almost got the full spectrum of life covered.
“There are so many interesting and stimulating things all around,” he tells The Power Index enthusiastically. “You meet so many different people, in business, the arts and in sport.”
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Strong’s the real deal people person. He doesn’t rely on a PA to schedule in time for our chat, but rather calls up to talk himself. He even tells us to “send his regards” to the competition when we mention we’re interviewing Wesfarmers chief Richard Goyder.
No wonder he’s one of the country’s most in-demand chairmen, up there with the likes of his good friend and fellow arts fanatic David Gonski. And no wonder, having breathed some life into the once-struggling outdoor clothing specialist Kathmandu alongside his role at the 191,000-employee strong Woolworths, he’s got the ear of some of the business community’s key players.
On the board at Qantas, where he served as CEO for 10 years, some sources say it’s hard to believe he was oblivious to Alan Joyce’s decision to ground the Qantas fleet in response to industrial action last year. It’s a matter Strong tells us he can’t comment on.
Strong’s little black book of connections must be a motley mix of contacts. He likes to build relationships with people well away from the boardroom.
He rides motorbikes with logistics tycoon Chris Corrigan, recently making it from Sydney to Phillip Island — and making a pit stop along the way to sign off on some Australia Council documents on the side of the road. He flies planes (he owns a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron that his wife pilots) and drops into Broome for a surf during the dry season with Dymocks chairman John Forsyth.
But his more distinguishable pastime is climbing. He met Rip Curl creator Brian Singer on a mountain in Antarctica in 1991, after striking up a friendship with Sir Edmund Hillary’s son, Peter, at a fund-raising event.
“He [Peter] came and did a talk on his first climb of Everest, and I said, ‘Is there anything a village idiot can do?’ He rang me two weeks later and said, ‘How would you like to climb the highest mountain in Antarctica?'”
Sir Edmund himself was also a great mate and “one of the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet”, who emulated Strong’s most admired qualities: modesty and humility.
Back in the office, Strong gets on with what he considers his core responsibilities: setting the tone of the board, and selecting a CEO.
The stakes are high when you’re picking a chief for Woolworths, one of the country’s largest portfolio businesses that’s difficult for Australians to avoid on a daily basis. After all, Woolies is not just a supermarket chain — it also covers general merchandise, fuel, hotels, liquor and finance. Last year, Strong and the Woolies’ board appointed Grant O’Brien as the massive conglomerate’s new CEO, replacing the long-serving Michael Luscombe.
Promoting an individual internally came in dramatic contrast to Ian McLeod, the guy Wesfarmers plucked from the UK to lead a turnaround of rival Coles. At the time, the Woolworths board was accused of playing it too safe.
“There’s always a great risk in bringing somebody from another market. You usually have to entice them by paying them a lot of money,” Strong says. “We stuck our head up and had a look around before we said ‘No, we’re satisfied that we have good enough people here’. Nothing’s changed my mind about that.”
And with the disclaimer that it’s not his style to criticise, Strong reminds us that Wesfarmers paid handsomely for their UK charge. Still, the $15 million McLeod received is starting to look like value for money, given Coles is hot on the heels of Woolies for the first time in years — a fact that Strong’s reminded of regularly.
“There’s a lot of talk about it, but then there’s very little talk about the ground that they lost in the previous 11 or 12 years!” Strong fires back. “I can assure you our management and board are under no illusions. We’ve now got a much more capable opponent than we’ve had in recent years. It’s up to us to make sure that we respond and provide real competition. It’s as simple as that.”