There are many reasons why outspoken fund manager Geoff Wilson – the face of the retiree investor crusade against Labor’s indigestible franking credits policy – would choose a casual CBD diner such as Kitchen by Mike for our lunch.
Yes, the veteran value investor knows how to pick a bargain after more than three decades in the business.
There might also be some sympathy for the recent financial plight of the eponymous Mike – the former Rockpool head chef Mike McEnearney.
He was forced to undergo his own corporate restructure on this very spot earlier this year when his fine diner No. 1 Bent Street failed to keep its head in the financially treacherous world of fine dining.
McEnearney used the same site to recreate his much-loved servery concept from Rosebery with food he describes as nourishing, judiciously sourced and healthy. And it seems to be the latter which has made Mike’s “kitchen” Wilson’s local canteen.
“At the moment I’m gluten free and grain free,” says Wilson. “At various points in time, I’m gluten, dairy and sugar free, and I do like coming here because the food is very healthy,” he says, noting that the previous day’s wood-roasted pumpkin salad included a dairy-free coconut yoghurt.
Wilson is clearly at home, striding through the crowd to our booked table and immediately commandeering a shelf above our heads to nestle his corporate trinkets alongside the funky display of glasses, books and wine bottles before greeting Mike. He chats with everyone within his orbit with an infectious enthusiasm and curiosity.
“I’m thinking about my manners – I mean, where should my knife and fork be?” he jokes with Spectrum‘s photographer Edwina Pickles.
Her unusual surname piques his interest. A quick chat elicits the morsel that she is indeed the daughter of former entrepreneur Geoffrey Pickles, who worked for the legendary corporate raider Sir Ron Brierley in his heyday.
“He was a legend,” he says of her late father.
We line up with our plates and make eyes at the rapidly changing counter laden with food from the wood-fried oven, second-guessing what might still be available when we front Mike.
Wilson tips me and a fellow diner lining up on how good the pork belly was the day before. He is clearly a regular.
He snaffles the last of the pork shoulder, accompanied by the roast pumpkin and a lentil and baby spinach salad for the going rate of $22. I decide against waiting for the steak and opt for the roast chicken with peri peri sauce, charred fioretto (cauliflower blossom) with indian spices and chickpeas as well as the green beans, snow peas and persian fetta.
We return to our table, having paid the modest bill, with the pride of hunter-gatherers.
Given our various diet and health conditions, we make the abstemious choice of water to accompany our meals. It isn’t hard to find the link between Wilson’s dietary regime and the drive with which he took up the franking credit cause on behalf of his 80,000 investors, and countless others, who were rattled by the proposed changes that would have left many out of pocket.
It all starts with his wife Karen Wilson, a trained naturopath.
“I’m good at numbers, and with a bit of luck, she will keep me going until I’m 100,” says Wilson.
Karen is in charge of the fund manager’s charitable foundation and has given it a growing focus on the links between diet, gut health and mental wellbeing.
“There can be a paradigm shift in terms of the biggest issue that the world has, which is mental health,” he says.
“The work she is doing on that cutting edge of how to treat mental health through the diet and through the microbiome to me is extremely exciting.”
Microbiome in this case refers to the trillions of microbes that reside in the gut and how they affect mental and brain health as well as chronic disease. Thankfully, we do not get into details such as efficacy of faecal microbial transplants as we tuck into lunch.
Wilson’s wellness regimen, and his bruising days as a rugby second rower, would came in handy as he endured the most vicious battle of his career – taking on Labor’s plan to disallow cash refunds on franking credits.
The basic principle of Paul Keating’s 1987 franking credit policy was to ensure that investors do not pay tax on dividends which have already been taxed as earnings from the company which paid them.
Labor’s election policy was designed to stop investors, who do not pay tax on their retirement earnings, from cashing in their excess franking credits.
The logic is sound. If they are paying tax twice on the same dollar of income, they should not get the extra refund.
But Wilson and investors rightly complained about the arbitrary aspects of the policy and the significant hit on income for retirees who had no options to recover from this financial setback.
“It was such an appallingly conceived and illogical proposition that Labor were putting on the table,” says Wilson.
He does not resile from the role he played in Labor’s election failure, with franking credits playing a significant role, but the cut and thrust of the corporate world was no preparation for the bear pit of politics.
“I just didn’t realise how brutal that is,” he says of the political struggle for survival and status.
“It’s Queensberry rules,” he says of the corporate world. “There is no hitting below the belt, whereas politics is like cage-fighting.”
His first taste of the challenge to come was in September last year. His team was given a taste of the “discrediting process”.
Late one evening, his team noticed someone signing up to Wilson Asset Management’s petition against the policy which requires an email address so a confirmation email can be sent to the signatory.
In 20 minutes, the person at this computer signed up 10 Labor politicians including Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen.
Sure enough, it was soon leaked to the media to discredit the petition. He was closely linked to the controversial senate inquiry by Liberal MP Tim Wilson. The fact that the two were distantly related was highlighted in the press.
“Just as the bank royal commission disappointed me in terms of understanding how people can operate; my experience with how political parties operate these days is disappointing. I think the public deserve a lot more from them than that.”
Labor’s election failure has not stopped Wilson beating a path to Canberra to ensure the removal of the franking credits policy from Labor’s post-election agenda.
A different path
But the worlds of finance and politics seem a world away from the career path set out for Wilson from an early age. His dad was a doctor, as was his father before him. Wilson’s mum was a nurse.
These professional roles were emulated by his elder brother and sister, but Geoff wanted something a little different.
“I actually wanted to be a vet,” says the animal lover.
His marks added an extra hurdle to this career path so Wilson studied science at university. By the time a delayed option surfaced to study vet science in New Zealand, he was looking at options for work.
“I was qualified to be an industrial chemist but had no idea what I wanted to do,” he says.
This was during the tough economic climate of the late 70s and early 80s, which found Wilson working part time at St Kilda’s The George Hotel.
“It was pretty seedy in those days.”
The hotel owners sensed the potential and offered their 22 year old barman the opportunity of a lifetime: “They offered me a job to run a pub,” says Wilson with unconcealed delight all these years later.
His pay would increase from $14,000 to $20,000, alongside a profit share to run a pub they had bought in Richmond.
“It’s funny you have these sliding door moments – why didn’t I take the opportunity?”
While he can’t recall the details of why he did turn it down, Wilson assumes his father had an influence on the decision.
He opted instead for a trainee analyst position in the investment department at insurer Scottish Amicable. It was not as big a leap as it seems for Wilson.
“My father had always invested in the stock market,” he says.
As a teenager, he remembers his dad coming home from work and spending an enormous amount of time looking at the stock pages.
He recalls looking down the list of names and share prices. He found one that was trading at 0.5c. It was a Melbourne retailer called Cox Bros.
A couple of weeks later he looked again and it was a cent. He would have doubled his money. A few months later, the company disappeared from the sharemarket listings.
“I said, oh, where’s it gone, and dad said it’s gone under. He took me into his office at home and he had this old metal box, and he opened it up and there were all these pieces of paper which were share certificates. And he said ‘see all these share certificates – they’re worthless’,” says Wilson with a big laugh.
It was the first of many investing lessons for the stock-picking guru.
We wind up our meal with a suspiciously delicious gluten-free coconut tart, which goes off the balance sheet as we ordered from the table and Wilson picks up the tab before I can protest.
He muses on the benefits of good food, exercise and meditation. The latter is starting to develop as a real interest, and not just at home.
“For years, I’ve been fascinated by the science behind it, and how it’s so powerful in terms of how it increases your ability to function.”
Wilson now has a meditation teacher come into the office every day for the benefit of staff.
“All the science shows you that it significantly improves your performance,” he says. And speaking of performance, Wilson looks at the time and is swiftly on his feet with a hearty goodbye before striding off for his next appointment.