Down Under to the rescue

My mentor – who knows a thing or two about running successful insurance companies, explained why Antipodeans are over here and in charge of UK financial services businesses, especially those that are distressed. John McFarlane (ex-executive Chairman of Aviva) took over after the once mighty insurer following the defenestration of Andrew Moss before handing over to Kiwi CEO Mark Wilson.

Ross McEwan, another Kiwi, stepped into the RBS hot seat after Stephen Hester’s departure earlier this year. Outside financial services businesses, David Stokes, an Aussie, was named CEO of IBM in the UK in January 2013.    

His argument is this: Australia and New Zealand are under-populated and – certainly in the case of Australia - rugged and unforgiving in their geography. Australia’s 22 million citizens live in a country that’s nearly 60 times the size of the UK. New Zealand is roughly the same size as the UK, but has a population of just 4.5 million.

Inculcated in the Antipodean culture is a strong sense of ‘self help.’ For sure in the 21st Century much of the population is city-based, but the original settlers headed to the countryside to farm the land and build tiny family-based communities. Self-reliance was needed in order to survive and thrive, and the learned life skills still feature strongly in the national DNA.

If the boiler broke, a spare part could take months to arrive. The only solution to bring back the hot water was to fix it themselves, often using ubiquitous 9-gauge wire.

Fast forward to the here and now; Aussies and Kiwis have inherent skills in fixing things which are kaput. Fixing boilers, and fixing broken businesses, requires similar skills and attributes; the ability to make something work again using the tools at their disposal, and not waiting to be rescued by the supplier, by which time they’ve frozen to death (or gone bust).

My mentor argued that this ability explains why Aviva and RBS, both broken businesses, have called on Mr Fixits from down under. He also believed that their skills would eventually pay dividends. Neither Mr Wilson nor Mr McEwan will rest until the problems in their companies have been resolved.

And what happens after they’ve done the job? “They xxxx off to the beach,” he said: “The hardest thing to do is keep them focused on the job once the business is back to performing as it should.”