Sir Bill encounters blunt Aussies at Wesfarmers

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Talk about jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Sir Bill English has moved from the worst job in politics (leader of the opposition) to a directorship on one of Australasia's most challenged companies — ASX-listed Wesfarmers, owner of Bunnings and Coles, and the local K-Mart and OfficeWorks franchises. 

Why did Sir Bill accept a seat on the ASX-listed business's board last month?

"I was keen to get into the commercial world, unambiguously, and this is a large conglomerate that’s got a range of businesses across Australia and New Zealand and they’ve been really under the spotlight recently because some of its investments haven’t gone so well," he says during his Raw and Real interview with NBR publisher Todd Scott.

Wesfarmers has become Australian business journalists' go-to company when they need to write about a retailer slow to meet the challenge from Amazon and other online competitors.

And its progress hasn't been too flash in the bricks-and-mortar world, either, as Sir Bill intimates.

It bought the UK's Homebase for $A705 million in early 2016, then laid off 140 staff at its head office as it, by one account, tried to turn the aspirational, 240-store, home improvement chain into a "cheap and cheerful clone of Bunnings." 

Homebase's £25 million annual profit turned into a £165 million half-year loss. Wesfarmers is now in the process of offloading Homebase, with around £200 to £230m in losses expected to be locked in with the sale, and a lot more red ink expected before a line can be drawn under the debacle. As corporate challenges go, it's right up there with that faced by Sir Bill's ex-colleague Sir John Key at ANZ (which is now facing criminal cartel charges on top of a sweeping Australian government inquiry).

So how is he finding his new life in business, in these early days?"

“I’m really enjoying it," Sir Bill says. "I do have to learn about a whole lot of things that I haven’t really dealt with before."

How does it compare to politics?

“There’s high complexity, as there is in the government. There's a lot of scrutiny but less than in government. And you’re weighing ambiguous decisions on behalf of a large number of people who have a stake in the company. So it’s a great governance experience."

He adds, "I’m enjoying the Australian approach to it, which is pretty direct."

Things are sharper-edged, he says, but with the upside that goals are more clearly defined in the commercial world.

One major difference with politics is that he's now dealing with shareholders who are there by choice "and they are, in that sense, pretty directly demanding," he says. "Often in public life, you’re acting on behalf of everybody."

While some shareholders can be overly-focused on quarterly results, the ex-prime minister says a short-term focus is nothing new. "Some political shareholders wanted it all done by lunchtime," he says. Regardless, Wesfarmers holds assets for the long term. That was was one of the things that attracted him to the Perth-based, $A51b market cap conglomerate, he says.

He says he's gained a fresh appreciation for "the hard edge of commercial risk. In government, there's political risk. But big chunks of the government don't lose their jobs or their organisations if they get it wrong."

Beyond Wesfarmers, Sir Bill is also setting up his own consultancy, which will advise in areas like social investment and infrastructure investment, two themes from his time in power.

Word to farmers
Sir Bill, who was in farming before politics, also has advice for those struggling with the M Bovis outbreak, and facing the mass slaughter of stock.

"Consider all your options," he says.

"You can get so emotionally attached to the product of your work [and] lifestyle that you have to pull back a little bit to make sure you weigh the options properly. And if you can’t do it yourself, you need someone to pull you back a bit."

He adds, "There’s a particular kind of pain that goes with the loss of stock or crops, and I’ve experienced that. It does pass. It’s hard to see it at the time but it does pass. Especially if you feel as though you’ve got options to work with."

Going out in public
Although he looks back on his stints as finance minister and prime minister with satisfaction, a notably relaxed Sir Bill says he's also enjoying having more control over his time. 

He doesn't miss the Diplomatic Protection Squad being on his heels for every hour of the day, either.

Sir Bill thanks his wife Mary for supporting him during his years in politics. Now that he has a few hours spare each day, he says he's looking forward to returning the compliment and supporting her as she runs her medical business.

He's also spending more time with his six children (but don't look for any photo-ops of Sir Bill walking a dog; as someone who grew up on a farm, he says animals belong outdoors, he holds no truck with treating them as pets).

He's very much leaving politics behind. Unlike some ex-PMs, he doesn't want to stick his oar in and politely brushes away questions on topics like advice for his successor (and, elsewhere, the meth testing scandal).

He says he's a bit surprised that people still approach him so much in public. 

"I thought that would stop after I stopped being a public figure," he says.

"But I notice they don't complain — even the ones who don't support you. I guess they're glad to see you out of politics."

After, Sir Bill's interview, the chatter among the NBR View production crew is that he seemed genuinely happy and relaxed, making him "relatable" in the terrible language of political comms-speak.

Why couldn't he have been more like that on the campaign trail?

Perhaps because his content stems from the fact he now has a life, and he had to leave politics to get it.

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