If the newspapers are right, SBS could finally have a new chairman in a little over a week.

The role, which has been left empty since Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to renew the term of former chair and CHAMP Private Equity co-founder Joe Skrzynski six months ago, is expected to go to little-known businessman Nihal Gupta, as revealed in a report in The Australian on Monday.

Gupta’s father founded Palsonic in 1958 to import cheap sewing machines into Australia, and Gupta worked for his family’s business. He has corporate governance experience on the board of listed cloud-software company JCurve Solutions, which he chaired until July this year. He’s managing director of Digital Electronics Corporation Australia, which imports electronics from Asia.

In recent years he’s been a regular appointee of conservative governments to multicultural committees. His first appointment came when Philip Ruddock was immigration minister, when Gupta was one of eight people chosen to be “Ambassadors for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs”.

But Gupta rose to prominence largely though former New South Wales premier Barry O’Farrell. In 2010, Gupta organised a business delegation for O’Farrell to China and India. When O’Farrell was elected premier in 2011, he awarded Gupta, a minor Liberal Party donor, with a slew of appointments, including to the NSW Multicultural Business Advisory Panel, which Gupta currently chairs. In quick succession, Gupta was also appointed to the Judicial Commission, a $27,500 a year part-time position that oversees judicial appointments, and to the board of the Sydney Cricket Ground.

The appointments were controversial, with The Daily Telegraph at the time wondering whether this was the latest example of O’Farrell handing out “jobs for the boys” despite promising to crack down on the practice. “There is no suggestion any of the appointments were made without merit,” the Tele reported.

In recent months, Gupta has occasionally come to the attention of the The Australian Financial Review‘s Rear Window columnist Joe Aston, who’s described him as both a regular at Neil Perry’s Rockpool Bar & Grill and as the chair of the Liberal Friends of India.

A key O’Farrell ally, Gupta sung the short-lived Liberal premier’s praises during an interview with community newspaper the Indian Herald in 2012. Speaking of his appointment to the business advisory panel, Gupta said it was not only an honour “but an exciting opportunity to further develop the visionary views and ideas that the Premier had discussed with me earlier”. Gupta said unlike the premier’s predecessors, O’Farrell was willing to make multiple visits to Shanghai and Mumbai to develop relationships with the region, being aware it couldn’t all be done in one trip. “I was encouraged by his enthusiasm and the commitment he made at that time,” Gupta said.

Asked to expand on who he was by the Indian Herald, Gupta described himself thus:

“I was born in Australia and have lived here my whole life. I am from Indian origin. I feel very lucky. I come from one of the oldest and best cultures of the world. But I am also fortunate to have lived and studied in the best country in the world. So far as I am concerned the matching of India and Australia has just been perfect for me.

“My family business is in consumer electronics and after my studies I went straight into this business. The business involves importing and distributing consumer electronic products and appliances to retailers across Australia. This involved trading with Asia as all the imports came from the region.

“I have been called in the past to represent Australia and help with the development of relationships between Australia and overseas markets.”

There’s not much press coverage of him before 2011. In 2009, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Title Deeds column reported he’d sold his former Vaucluse home for $7 million.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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