Sir Bill encounters blunt Aussies at Wesfarmers

Sir Bill: Enjoying the directness and sharper edges of life in business

Scroll down for video.

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.


19 · Got a question about this story? Leave it in Comments & Questions below.


This article is tagged with the following keywords. Find out more about MyNBR Tags

Post Comment

19 Comments & Questions

Commenter icon key: Subscriber Verified

Well done, Bill. Thoroughly deserved. And nice to hear how well things are going for you.

Reply
Share
  • 2
  • 0

What a shame this disaster has hit Westfarmers in the UK. Having recently seen and heard first hand in the UK, the English did not like the way Westfarmers came in to shake up Homebase, sacked top end, employed Australians, and rode rough shod over all the local advice given about how the English like a mess and no pressure. And now have sold Homebase for $1.00 with up to a A$2 billion loss, what a shambles. Perhaps the new Knight can bring in some common sense and new direction to Westfarmers Board, and realise that the UK market is so so different to how Bunnings works in Australia and NZ.

Reply
Share
  • 0
  • 0

A more realistic assessment of Bill English's time In politics as deputy PM to John Key would appraise him as someone who never stood up to Key while the country while Communist Chinese interests have gained more and more control of New Zealand in so many ways. That there is now even a Blue Dragon wing within the National party, and that a Communist spymaster was even given a high list placing tells us what has happened to National. And good old Bill was here throughout this.

Reply
Share
  • 2
  • 1

You might as well have just used your actual name. They know who you are.

Reply
Share
  • 0
  • 0

This is perfectly logical conclusion if you spend a considerable amount of time on conspiracy websites. The question then is, how did you end up on the NBR?

Reply
Share
  • 0
  • 0

This has nothing to do with conspiracy theories. It's actual fact. The National Party, under good old Bill, Ignored the very well-informed and internationally acclaimed Dr Anne-Marie Brady's warning about what communist Chinese interests are up to in this country.

Moreove,r Bill's wonderful balancing of the books has been very much at the expense of more than our social services, our mental health and youth services, our hospitals - constantly having to downgrade more and more of what the public should be receiving. (Anyone for a mouldy Middlemore hospital?)

And under good old Bill, too, the housing market has been a disaster. Never before have so many New Zealanders been shut out of basic housing - and allowing immigration levels to become so unsustainable can all be laid equally at his feet. What about our increasing overseas debt levels?

It's amazing how much touching of the forelock so many do when politicians so routinely get the knighthoods most probably think they don't deserve.

Reply
Share
  • 0
  • 0

Bollocks! if it wasn't for the firm hand of Messrs English, Brownlee along with their caucus support, it is my belief that Sir John Key would have pulled NZ back towards Muldooncomics. Thanks Sir Bill, enjoy your "more time with family" you have earned it.

Reply
Share
  • 0
  • 0

I think Bill English was a moderating influence on Key, but it is concerning that he wouldn't front up re Jian Yang when questioned. And it's concerning the coverage NZ is now getting as being basically now under China's thumb. What was Key doing???

Reply
Share
  • 0
  • 0

The same as Bill.

Reply
Share
  • 0
  • 0

Bill's is one of the few deserved gongs so congrats to him. He will find activist Ozzie shareholders a lot tougher than in NZ. They go for the throat and shove a blow torch down the Y fronts all at the same time. We need to do more of that in NZ. Too much pussy footing around not upsetting Directors poor dears and excusing poor performance and bad governance. And the instos are the worst. Just turn a blind eye to less than satisfactory results.

Reply
Share
  • 2
  • 0

Does this mean that CEO Fonterra is off the table??

Reply
Share
  • 0
  • 0

John and Bill deserve a State honour from China but not from NZ.
They both sold NZ down the (environmentally polluted) river both literally and figuratively.

NZ residency sold off cheaply via low level and phoney education (backdoor residency) courses, and through the provision of cheap low skilled labour to big business.

Lauded by money launderers, the p-meth testing businesses, and local international "trust" tax avoidance practitioners.

9 years of windrow dressing and totally ineffectual policy on housing.
Loved by the bankers and the property institute particularly for ramping up immigration levels in their last four years totally exacerbating the housing problem.

Reply
Share
  • 2
  • 2

Bill, dogs have lived with humans for at least 40,000 years.

Reply
Share
  • 0
  • 0

Hear! Hear!

Reply
Share
  • 0
  • 0

After Robbie Deans appointment to coach the.Wallabies, Bill English selection by Wesyfarmers.is proof that even R D Muldoon was sometimes correct. Our exports across the ditch sometimes raises the collective IQ..Probably equivalent to allowing.Lenin to travel in sealed train to St Petersburg.Che Guvera leaving the Argentina or even.the Greek trojan horse.
Who on earth selected this years honours or knights I thought H1 abolished this sort of thing. XI, Putin,H2,
Wayne, Bevin,.Wallace..
I.must say Catherine Healy deserved a better award..A chair (Professor)/at Oxford University , England. Exeter, Jesus or Trinity College would.have been appropriate.

Reply
Share
  • 0
  • 0

lol.. not sure how moving to Aussie would raise the collective IQ..... did you mean to say it raises the average IQ of each country?

Reply
Share
  • 0
  • 0

You are correct. I used the term' collective IQ' as an expression of contempt for the dumb, universal culture of both Rugby and Farming and the false New Zealand/ Utopian Marxist idea that were all are, basically equal and all those ' disadvantaged poor southland and South Canterbury farmers sons never had a chance, and people like me a son of a TBHS and Timaru College teachers who had themselves had their secondary education at Wellington College and Wellington Girls college and grew up on Upland Road and Mezzines Road, Karori, were somehow massively privileged and must be massively dumb if they were only in the third stream at TBHS in 1970. Of course the actual truth is that both the 3A2 and 3A3 in both 1969 and 1970 probably had an IQ range from about 126 to 111. First in the 1969 A3, 'Dinger Bell' actually got a full National Scholarship in the top 100 in the country in 5 subjects and 3 special, scholarship exams . First in the 1970 A3 Kevin Owen, i think actually got a law degree eventually. My father was the form master for the third stream third form in 1974-77 and there were usually half a dozen in that stream in the 130-135 Otis first shot range. I never received any assistance from my parents for my academic work during my five years at TBHS the only assistance they gave me was my fathers gave me some catch up advice in the first few months of third form maths and my mother polished my gym sandshoes. They gave zero assistance with any essay work or anything. After I had been at TBHS a week , My father asked what stream I was in , and the following day after studying the result files and consulting Greenall the Deputy head he said, two years before in 1968 I would have done enough to be in A2 but I had blow the essay and got a D, in 1970 generally an IQ of 120 was needed to get into A2, on the major IQ tests I was in the top ten in verbal IQ, in the middle in the non verbal, well into the A1 stream in the verbal comprehension test ( the most important other than the Verbal IQ), just in the top 100 in spelling. however to succeed I would have had to be in foreign language stream to get the sort of job I would be of any use in. My mother told me her social life had been destroyed by my failure to make A1 and I didn't really talk to her until I had completed an MA in 1981. A crucial point in looking at the TBHS class lists is that in the 1960-69 period the 4th stream T1 or 4 is a class for those of only average intelligence while from 1970-1980 they are all of high 1Q and therefore the 1969 T1 class is of extemely limited ability while the 1970 3T1 is of high or very high IQ and in most cases the (1970 fourth stream is those of high or very high, non verbal and only average verbal).
there is overwhelming evidence that Bill English and, the educational ministers he selected, took the utopian marxist position and dismissed IQ tests as nonsense while the evidence is they are conclusive, you are or aren't.. Its binary , human intelligence and probably that of the higher animals is distributed mathematically , 25% H, 75 % L. Ignoring that and the basic inheritence of intelligence is the cause of every problem in this society ,its law, military and educational system.

Reply
Share
  • 0
  • 0

Legend.

Reply
Share
  • 1
  • 0

Our special NZ . Gone too soon shafted, by a meglamaniac. Go well Sir William . History is now showing you dodged a bullet. Sleep well at night. Bet is beats the hell out of some would be could be also rans.

Reply
Share
  • 0
  • 0

Post New comment or question

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.