The activist bosses
“When politicians talk about how they wish business would speak up less on social issues and more on tax cuts, there are three guys in Australia who’d be thinking, ‘They mean me’.” That trio, according to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age business editor John McDuling, are Atlassian boss Mike Cannon-Brookes, Qantas head Alan Joyce and retiring BHP CEO Andrew Mackenzie.
Take Cannon-Brookes, with his peaked caps and hoodies. “Australia has not really seen anything like him before,” says McDuling. The tech billionaire is investing heavily in solar companies as well as a self-driving car start-up, while also publicising progressive causes. He’s the insiders’ outsider, someone with enough money to do and say what he likes, without fear of government or big business backlash. “He’s been extremely outspoken on climate change and weighed into some significant political debates. You don’t see many CEOs doing that.”
Joyce, too, has made noise on progressive issues, announcing a 2050 net zero emissions goal for Qantas and – as the airline is a sponsor of Rugby Australia – weighing in on the Israel Folau controversy after the star player declared homosexuals would go to hell. Joyce was vocal in the 2017 same-sex marriage debate, donating $1 million to the Yes cause, and walked the talk this year when he married long-term partner Shane Lloyd, providing a valuable spot of role modelling in the process.
But it’s BHP’s Mackenzie, who recently announced his retirement at the end of the year, who has become the most outspoken Australian CEO on social causes, from gay rights to mental health to Indigenous disadvantage. “That’s incredible for the head of a mining giant,” says McDuling. Mackenzie’s Climate for Change speech in July, in which he committed $570 million to green initiatives, drew bouquets and brickbats. “There’s a lot of virtue signalling in business, but repositioning BHP as pro-climate was a prudent move.”
What’s fascinating to McDuling is that these corporate heavyweights are no longer moving in lockstep with conservative politicians. Rather, they’re taking cues from their customers and shareholders – albeit not all of them, and with perhaps an eye on posterity. “We have three of the most prominent CEOs in Australia – one leading our most iconic company, another the biggest and most historic, the third emblematic of the future – and they’re all clashing with the party that has historically represented business. That’s an interesting shift in the power dynamic of this country.”
This has been a year in which the “little people”, both known and anonymous, have worked with journalists to hold their casino, bank and restaurant employers to account – and change the way they operate. Just ask some of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age’s star investigative reporters, Nick McKenzie, Ben Schneiders and Adele Ferguson. McKenzie, for instance, is indebted to the back office woman at Crown Resorts, who – along with several confidential sources – blew the whistle on its China dealings, including accusations of money laundering and enabling organised crime. The revelations led to five ongoing state and federal investigations and unprecedented scrutiny of Crown’s casino operations. The company may yet face charges, fines or have its gambling licences impacted. “Without the courage of these people, the public would have remained in the dark,” says McKenzie.
Closer to home, Schneiders spoke to dozens of chefs and kitchenhands working in Australia’s top restaurants about chronic underpayment, his reports forcing restaurateurs to revisit how they manage their payroll systems and staff. This fed into a broader conversation about excessive work hours and the right to be paid for the hours you perform. Woolworths’ mea culpa about underpaying nearly 6000 of its staff by up to $300 million, meanwhile, was sparked by a single store manager back in February. Again, the whistleblower caused others in the corporate sector to check their procedures. “These people are at the bottom of the pile rather than the top, so were incredibly brave to speak out,” says Schneiders. “In the case of the restaurant workers, many are migrants taking an enormous risk, given their visas are often tied to their job.”
Meanwhile, Ferguson – whose reports helped spark last year’s banking royal commission – this year saw the cost to individuals for whistleblowing when Richard Boyle was charged for exposing the heavy-handed debt-collection tactics of the Australian Taxation Office. He faces 66 offences, including recording conversations without the consent of all parties and making a record of protected information. Boyle’s case goes to court next year. “His charges are the equivalent of 161 years in jail, which is equivalent to six life sentences, which is more than what some of our worst serial killers get,” says Ferguson.
Boyle’s 2018 disclosures led to multiple inquiries, including a bipartisan federal parliamentary committee that issued a scathing report with 37 recommendations for tax office reform, as well as the ATO changing some of its processes. “When people come forward, that’s when change happens,” says Ferguson. “You cannot underestimate their influence and impact.”
The extraordinary software business known as Canva is built on a simple idea: helping people create better-looking gift cards and textbooks, presentations and invitations. It was conceived in 2007 by Melanie Perkins and her partner Cliff Obrecht, and began on her mother’s lounge room floor in Perth.
“At only 31, Mel has become the face of Australia’s booming tech start-up scene, and she’s on track to become one of the key figures in the next generation of business leaders in this country,” says The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age business editor John McDuling. Unfortunately, in 2019 it’s still unusual to see a woman in charge of an Australian company. But that’s not the case at Canva. “She’s inspiring a lot of people in the start-up world,” McDuling says.
The company has grown to employ more than 800 people worldwide, and boasts more than 18 million users a month. After not one, but two major funding rounds in the space of a few months, the company is now valued on paper at $4.7 billion. As a result, Perkins and Obrecht are rocketing up the rich lists.
Over the past year, Canva has launched in China – a tricky market for any internet company – grown a key product aimed at professional users, opened a bigger and shinier new office in Sydney’s Surry Hills district and pulled off its most important acquisitions to date of two stock photo image providers. The stage is now set for it to follow the lead of software giant Atlassian and, in the next few years, seek to list publicly in the US, where it is also embarking upon an ambitious expansion.
“The investors who have backed Canva are convinced it’s going to be not just Australia’s next great tech company, but our next great company, full stop,” McDuling says. “It will be fascinating to learn in the next few years whether they’re right, and whether Canva can pull that off.”
Konrad Marshall is a senior writer