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Fear & Greed, Fear and Greed

Late advertising and media veteran Harold Mitchell was – by all accounts – a larger than life personality. He built and sold a business for hundreds of millions of dollars – and was never short of an opinion or a headline.

Damon Kitney, columnist at the Weekend Australian and author of The Fortune Tellers, talks to Sean Aylmer about the death of Harold Mitchell, the extraordinary businesses built around leaders like him, and what it means for a company and investors when success relies on a charismatic boss.

Find out more: https://fearandgreed.com.au

See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.

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Sean Aylmer: Welcome to the Fear and Greed Business Interview. I’m Sean Aylmer.

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Sean Aylmer: Over the weekend, the business world lost one of its

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Sean Aylmer: larger than life characters, Harold Mitchell. Mitchell dominated the ad

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Sean Aylmer: buying space after founding Mitchell and Partners in 1976. By

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Sean Aylmer: the time his sold to Aegis Group for hundreds of

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Sean Aylmer: millions of dollars more than a decade ago, his company

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Sean Aylmer: was booking 10% of all media advertising in Australia. After

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Sean Aylmer: selling, he remained a constant presence in the industry, as

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Sean Aylmer: well as continuing his passion for philanthropy and the arts.

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Sean Aylmer: He also knew how to generate a headline. One man

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Sean Aylmer: who saw that firsthand, his Damon Kitney, columnist for The

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Sean Aylmer: Weekend Australian and the author of The Fortune Tellers, the

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Sean Aylmer: stories of some of Australia’s greatest business leaders. Damon, welcome back

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Sean Aylmer: to Fear and Greed.

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Damon Kitney: Thanks, Sean.

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Sean Aylmer: Harold Mitchell, you interviewed him a number of times over

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Sean Aylmer: the years. What was he like in person? Because certainly

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Sean Aylmer: we heard lots about him. For those of us who

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Sean Aylmer: didn’t know him, what was he really like?

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Damon Kitney: Yeah, I would say, Sean, a very enigmatic character and

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Damon Kitney: also larger than life. And unfortunately in Harold’s early years,

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Damon Kitney: and you can look up the photos, he was literally

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Damon Kitney: larger than life. He had a major weight issue during

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Damon Kitney: his media buying supreme days, you would say. And he

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Damon Kitney: went very publicly on the record to say that he

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Damon Kitney: had gas band surgery or however you describe that. And

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Damon Kitney: yeah, he just looked a completely different person. Also, Harold

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Damon Kitney: was very public in talking about his battles with alcohol

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Damon Kitney: and basically giving it up for good. And he founded

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Damon Kitney: a charity which now deals with particularly young people with

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Damon Kitney: alcohol issues. So Harold was always very open about his

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Damon Kitney: health. As a business person, as they say, he’s an

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Damon Kitney: advertising legend, probably one of the most gifted people in

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Damon Kitney: terms of the gift of the gab that I’ve ever

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Damon Kitney: dealt with.
Harold always had an answer for everything and

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Damon Kitney: often would talk verbatim about all that he was doing

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Damon Kitney: and just a consummate deal maker, I guess you would

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Damon Kitney: say. If you look at what Harold did over the

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Damon Kitney: years and the relationships that he forged, that gift of

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Damon Kitney: the gab got him some amazing transactions for his media

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Damon Kitney: buying firm. And then that extended into other parts of

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Damon Kitney: his life later where he was on the Crown Board

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Damon Kitney: for a number of years. He did major transactions around

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Damon Kitney: sport and with Kerry Stokes at Channel Seven, who was

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Damon Kitney: one of the first out on Sunday afternoon to Lord

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Damon Kitney: Harold. They were very close.
So look, he was just

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Damon Kitney: one of a kind. And in terms of me personally, he would always take your phone

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Damon Kitney: call, always call you back, even through the most difficult

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Damon Kitney: days of Crown when you were desperate for Harold to

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Damon Kitney: call you back, he would always do that. Unfortunately, at

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Damon Kitney: those moments, he would not tell you anything, which was

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Damon Kitney: also a testament to him. He didn’t leak, unlike some

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Damon Kitney: others. So he was always very proper, I guess is

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Damon Kitney: the word. I know he’s been criticized in some circles

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Damon Kitney: on that and had some tangles of regulators, but certainly

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Damon Kitney: in my experience, a very proper businessman too.

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Sean Aylmer: He was kind of one of the last of a

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Sean Aylmer: generation of the cult of the CEO. So there were

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Sean Aylmer: people like Lindsay Fox, there was Harold Mitchell, there was

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Sean Aylmer: John Singleton, is probably another one you can throw into

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Sean Aylmer: that category. Older gentlemen now, but really built their businesses

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Sean Aylmer: around themselves. All those three people were owner builders, so

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Sean Aylmer: to speak in terms of the business world. Is that

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Sean Aylmer: still around? Are we seeing that cult of the CEO

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Sean Aylmer: like we did in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s? John Elliot, of course,

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Sean Aylmer: was the great one, the great Melbourne identity on that,

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Sean Aylmer: but we just don’t seem to have that as much anymore.

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Damon Kitney: No, and I think to be honest, investors have lost

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Damon Kitney: patience with the cult of the CEO. And when you

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Damon Kitney: do see it now, and a couple of those names

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Damon Kitney: you mentioned, they’re usually in private business, they’re not in

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Damon Kitney: public company markets, and I think obviously there’s been some

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Damon Kitney: wonderful cult figures as CEOs of public companies over time.

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Damon Kitney: You mentioned a few, but I think investors now see

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Damon Kitney: through hubris a lot quicker than they did in the

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Damon Kitney: past because there’s just so much scrutiny now from every

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Damon Kitney: edge through social media and media everywhere of public company

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Damon Kitney: CEOs. And I actually find that there’s been an increase

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Damon Kitney: too in the public relations industry that surrounds the public

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Damon Kitney: markets, which has really sanitized, I think leadership and that

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Damon Kitney: sort of cult of personality probably wouldn’t survive the public

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Damon Kitney: relations scrutiny and regime that’s now in place with a

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Damon Kitney: lot of these businesses.
It’s all about focusing on obviously

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Damon Kitney: the shareholders, but also stakeholders is the bigger question. So

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Damon Kitney: that’s about bringing in the community and particularly around the

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Damon Kitney: environmental, social and governance issues, famous ESG. So that’s really

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Damon Kitney: taken away from, I guess, the concentration on the personality

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Damon Kitney: that we saw previously. And that’s at the end of

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Damon Kitney: the day, I think if you ask some of the

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Damon Kitney: big investors, that’s not a bad thing. We all have

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Damon Kitney: super in these companies, and I think the focus on

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Damon Kitney: performance, the focus on stakeholders has been to the benefit

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Damon Kitney: of us as investors through our super compared to the

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Damon Kitney: past. I mean, the last great cult of personality, CEO

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Damon Kitney: that I dealt with was Wal King, who ran a

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Damon Kitney: company called Leighton Holdings, and that was the ultimate cult

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Damon Kitney: of personality. Like, Wal-

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Sean Aylmer: For good and bad, Damon. For good and bad.

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Damon Kitney: True. True. And unfortunately, Leighton is no longer with us.

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Damon Kitney: It’s now morphed into a company called CIMIC. It’s owned by the

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Damon Kitney: Spanish, it’s still a public company, but it’s majority owned

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Damon Kitney: offshore. And unfortunately, and Wal will acknowledge, I think the

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Damon Kitney: cult of personality in that company, the key man risk

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Damon Kitney: basically in the end was the dismantling of Leighton. And

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Damon Kitney: that can be the negative part of the cult of

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Damon Kitney: personality story for a CEO.

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Sean Aylmer: Stay with me, Damon. We’ll be back in a minute.

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Sean Aylmer: My guest this morning is Damon Kitney, columnist for The

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Sean Aylmer: Weekend Australian and the author of The Fortune Tellers. What

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Sean Aylmer: about Alan Joyce at Qantas? Because he’s not far off

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Sean Aylmer: a sort of cultish… Until the end there. Obviously it

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Sean Aylmer: went bad for him, but he’s predecessor, a guy called

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Sean Aylmer: Geoff Dixon, very similar. He certainly worked media very well.

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Sean Aylmer: So in airlines it seemed to attract people like that,

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Sean Aylmer: or maybe that’s just how they run their business. Now,

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Sean Aylmer: I’m guessing Vanessa Hudson’s not going to be like that,

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Sean Aylmer: but where does Alan Joyce fit into this?

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Damon Kitney: Yeah, I mean, Alan was a bit like Harold Mitchell

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Damon Kitney: an enigma really, because famously a gay Irish guy comes

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Damon Kitney: to you and takes probably the biggest brand in the

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Damon Kitney: country and builds it up into a bulletproof machine, essentially.

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Damon Kitney: But then they encounter the COVID pandemic, and obviously all

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Damon Kitney: airlines went through a disastrous period there. At the end

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Damon Kitney: of the day, if COVID hadn’t have happened, Alan probably

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Damon Kitney: would’ve stepped down earlier. He’s always claimed publicly that he

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Damon Kitney: stayed on to see the airline through that period. And

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Damon Kitney: unfortunately, like in politics and in sport, you can outlive

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Damon Kitney: your days. And unfortunately, I think for Alan, the last

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Damon Kitney: period of his reign really turned into one of a

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Damon Kitney: bit of hubris.
I still am amazed to this day

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Damon Kitney: about the share sales transactions that happened, the fact that

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Damon Kitney: they were approved, and that was really the beginning of

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Damon Kitney: the end for Alan. But look, Sean, I know Alan

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Damon Kitney: Joyce pretty well, and I admired amazingly what he built,

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Damon Kitney: the resilience he showed, a very charming character, intellectually gifted,

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Damon Kitney: built amazing relationships, but unfortunately, there was a streak of

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Damon Kitney: Alan, nothing against him being Irish, but he did have

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Damon Kitney: a bit of a temper sometimes and-

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Sean Aylmer: The crack or something like that.

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Damon Kitney: Yeah. And unfortunately, look, the thing you admire about Alan

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Damon Kitney: is he’s an emotional guy. That’s what helped him build

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Damon Kitney: the business. But unfortunately, when things go bad and emotion

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Damon Kitney: takes over, you see what happens. So yeah, he could

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Damon Kitney: well be the last great cult of personality CEO that

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Damon Kitney: we see in this country in public markets. The private

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Damon Kitney: markets are different. They’re still there.

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Sean Aylmer: So I’m going to alter that a little bit in

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Sean Aylmer: public because we still do have some CEOs, so Greg

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Sean Aylmer: Goodman running Goodman Group, Richard White running WiseTech Global, but

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Sean Aylmer: they certainly don’t try and find the limelights like some

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Sean Aylmer: of these other guys. But I’m assuming investors and employees

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Sean Aylmer: are very keen on Greg Goodman running Goodman Group and

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Sean Aylmer: Richard White running WiseTech Global.

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Damon Kitney: And you can say the same for Kerry Stokes of

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Damon Kitney: Seven West. And the same for Gerry Harvey at Harvey

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Damon Kitney: Norman. I mean, yeah, you’re right, there are still a

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Damon Kitney: few in the public markets. Those, certainly, Jerry Harvey’s not

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Damon Kitney: shy of publicity, but I think, look, there’s research that’s

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Damon Kitney: been done, Sean, over the years where studies have been

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Damon Kitney: done on a owner, founder led companies, and at the

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Damon Kitney: end of the day, they tend to outperform over the

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Damon Kitney: longer term, and that’s a difference from the Alan Joyce,

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Damon Kitney: Wal King scenario because they’re executives, not owners and founders.

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Damon Kitney: So there’s a key difference, I guess, between that sort

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Damon Kitney: of owner (inaudible) onset that you see in players

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Damon Kitney: now like Richard White and Greg Goodman, as you said,

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Damon Kitney: versus us to use the term celebrity CEO. I think

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Damon Kitney: that’s the key distinction that should be made. But as

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Damon Kitney: the Crown experience has shown with James Packer and the

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Damon Kitney: difficulties of that firm, it doesn’t always work out for

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Damon Kitney: the best, although Packer would very clearly say that he

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Damon Kitney: created a lot of shareholder value over his time as

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Damon Kitney: the major shareholder of Crown, and that is correct.

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Sean Aylmer: As a biographer of Packer, Damon, this segues nicely into

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Sean Aylmer: your new book, The Fortune Tellers. So the stories of

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Sean Aylmer: sum of Australia’s greatest business leaders. In 30 seconds, give

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Sean Aylmer: us a rundown of what it’s about.

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Damon Kitney: 30 seconds. Gee. Well, look, it’s really just a collection,

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Damon Kitney: I guess, of the work that I’ve done in The

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Damon Kitney: Weekend Australian and a couple of other outlets over recent

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Damon Kitney: years. There are a couple of stories from my further

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Damon Kitney: past when I worked with you at the AFR, Sean.

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Damon Kitney: But really it’s a story of celebrating stories of success,

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Damon Kitney: and that’s what the title is. And all these stories

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Damon Kitney: are very human stories, many that haven’t been told before

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Damon Kitney: of people who have gone through amazing challenges in their

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Damon Kitney: life and have succeeded in business. And I hope people that buy it

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Damon Kitney: will really learn from the stories that are told in

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Damon Kitney: the book. And as I said, some of them have

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Damon Kitney: only told their story for the only time in the

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Damon Kitney: book. So yeah, hopefully people will learn from it.

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Sean Aylmer: I look forward to reading it. Damon, thank you for

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Sean Aylmer: talking to Fear and Greed.

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Damon Kitney: Pleasure, Sean. Thanks.

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Sean Aylmer: That was Damon Kitney, columnist for The Weekend Australian and

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Sean Aylmer: the author of The Fortune Tellers. This is The Fear

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Sean Aylmer: and Greed Business Interview. Join us every morning for the

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Sean Aylmer: full episode of Fear and Greed, Australia’s best business podcast.

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Sean Aylmer: I’m Sean Aylmer. Enjoy your day.