Former Australia Post CEO Christine Holgate (Image: AAP/James Ross)

Has there ever been a female CEO in Australia with a career like Christine Holgate?

Gail Kelly led Westpac for many years, Catherine Livingstone grew Cochlear and then chaired Telstra and CBA, and Sue Morphet dramatically shuttered the Pacific Brands Australian manufacturing operations. Arguably none of them will have the name recognition of Holgate after the past two weeks.

There are three notable legs to Holgate’s career. She:

  • Rode the Chinese vitamins boom as Blackmores CEO to personally pocket more than $10 million from her nine-year stint at the top
  • Had a ringside seat as a Ten Network Holdings director for more than five years as various billionaires collectively destroyed more than $2 billion in value, and
  • Lasted three years as Australia Post CEO before being forced out in unprecedented circumstances by a bullying PM and a conniving Labor Party.

Holgate is now famously unemployed while exiting with dignity by eschewing her $700,000 payout entitlement in a manner that has significantly damaged Prime Minister Scott Morrison, his soft-on-accountability government and the Liberal Party friendlies who populate the politically stacked Australia Post board.

Holgate’s career is clearly not over. At 56 she is well placed to move to a full-time career on the board circuit and is no doubt already fielding a variety of CEO-level offers. As a Collingwood Football Club director, she would now have time to succeed Eddie McGuire as president, if he was prepared to make way after a ridiculous 22 years in charge.

The story goes that apparently Holgate did such a great job creating value at Blackmores, that she was head-hunted to succeed Ahmed Fahour as CEO of Australia Post, becoming its first female leader.

Blackmores had enjoyed a similar boom to rival vitamin brand Swisse which, as Crikey wrote at the time, went from teetering on the brink of collapse with a value of barely $30 million in mid-2014, to being sold to a Hong Kong listed company for $1.67 billion in September 2015.

Like Swisse, Blackmores’ boom which had little to do with brilliant executives and everything to do with soaring Chinese demand driven by a confluence of events — including some contamination scandals that hit local Chinese suppliers.

When Holgate departed the Blackmores board in September 2017, her shareholding on exit was 80,438 shares. If retained today, that would be worth $5.67 million. In the previous year, 2015-16, her pay packet peaked at $2 million. In other words she could likely have retired and doesn’t need to work.

Her husband Michael Harding, 71, has been on the board circuit for more than a decade and makes almost $1 million a year from roles such as chairing Downer EDI and Horizon Oil, plus serving on the troubled Cleanaway board. This makes them quite the corporate power couple.

However, if aspiring to join other blue-chip ASX boards, Holgate will probably need to explain her dreadful performance at Ten Network Holdings where she served as an independent non-executive director from April 2010 until shortly before the company collapsed in 2016.

She joined the Ten board just a few months before James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch launched their share raid to acquire an 18% stake in the company, and presumably agreed with the foolish decision to grant both of them board seats and then to later hand over the chairmanship to Lachlan in 2011-12.

She was no table-thumping independent standing up to the billionaires and demanding they bid for the whole company before gaining control. She even agreed that the wholly unsuitable Gina Rinehart should join the Ten board just four days after Rinehart bought a 10% stake.

In December 2015, after more than five years of dysfunctional billionaire debacles, conflicts and incompetence, she finally quit the Ten board, bowing out with a miserable 69,920 shares worth barely $10,000 at the time. So much for skin in the game!

I found her answers to questions at multiple Ten AGMs to be uninspiring. In 2010 she didn’t even choose to answer a question (listen to audio here) about shareholders being ripped off in an unfair capital raising.

Having said all that, it is hard to expect an independent director on a big board to singlehandedly stand up to a gaggle of self-serving billionaires, but she has never publicly spoken about the experience or expressed regret about what happened.

We don’t have enough Australian business figures producing hard hitting memoirs, so perhaps she should set aside the next few months to produce one.

Heavens, she could even choose to take the Maxine McKew path and offer to be Labor’s candidate against ScoMo in his seat of Cook at the 2022 election. If the swing was on, she’d be a chance of knocking the PM off, which would be sweet revenge indeed.

Just imagine the victory speech when she uttered the words: “he can go”.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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