From ushering in a leaner, greener BHP to effectively lobbying foreign governments, the heavyweights at the top in Australian business set the agenda and see it through.
1. Andrew Mackenzie
Mackenzie’s willingness to insert BHP into some of the biggest debates in Australian society – including climate change, trade policy, gender diversity and Indigenous rights – is born of his determination to defend the resources giant’s social licence to operate.
But the chief executive’s announcement that BHP will consider so-called scope 3 emissions – that is, the emissions his customers generate – part of its carbon footprint represents a bold and potentially risky step.
It might be industry-leading, but it could erode the company’s support in mining and political circles. Still, any criticism of Mackenzie’s stance will be muted, given how he’s filling the coffers of federal and state governments, and the hip pockets of investors.
The simplified structure Mackenzie has masterminded has allowed BHP to extract full value from a surprise boom in iron-ore prices and deliver its biggest profit in five years.
2. Mike Cannon-Brookes
The co-founder of US-listed tech giant Atlassian has a profile that seems to grow in sync with his company’s share price.
Whether through his regular public speaking engagements or his near-daily stream of posts to 46,000 Twitter followers, Sydney-based Cannon-Brookes has become a powerful voice on issues such as technology policy, skills, corporate governance and, especially, climate change.
His “fair dinkum power” campaign to promote clean energy might have failed to do much damage at the election, but his plain-speaking approach – not to mention a fortune of about $13.5 billion – ensures his views are always heard.
Cannon-Brookes’ economic influence is magnified by his investments in a broad set of companies seeking to disrupt various sectors, including payments group Tyro, superannuation fund Spaceship, autonomous vehicles start-up Zoox and solar finance group Brighte.
3. Ian Silk
As the chief executive of $171 billion superannuation powerhouse AustralianSuper, Silk stands central to several themes of the Australian business community, including the distrust of the traditional banking and wealth sector, the rise of private equity and the ever-growing focus on environmental, social and governance issues. Silk is never short of a strong view on everything from bank bonuses to the importance of compulsory super, and rarely misses an opportunity to defend and promote the cause of union-based industry super funds. But he has also shown an ability to remain admirably above the fray and sharply focused on the interests of his 2.3 million members.
4. Lindsay Maxsted
It’s been a tough year to be the chairman of an Australian bank.
But with NAB in disarray, and ANZ and Commonwealth Bank chairmen David Gonski and Catherine Livingstone keeping lower profiles, Westpac chairman Maxsted has emerged as one of the sector’s prominent defenders, walking the delicate line between taking responsibility for the mistakes of his bank and sector and promoting the roles they play in the community.
Maxsted also chairs sprawling toll road giant Transurban, which fought off competition concerns and rival bids to grab control of Sydney’s WestConnex project. Drivers already take more than 2 million trips on the group’s roads in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane each day.
5. Geoff Wilson
When you’re playing politics, it helps to have as little shame as the politicians you’re up against.
So it proved for Wilson, who might be the only fund manager ever to organise a protest march on a parliamentary inquiry.
Wilson’s long campaign against Labor’s proposed changes to tax refunds from franking credits veered from the sublime into the ridiculous at times, but his ability to mobilise a big chunk of Wilson Asset Management’s 80,000 investors helped the Coalition keep the issue on the agenda throughout the election campaign and contributed to the shock defeat of Labor leader Bill Shorten.
6. Peter Coleman
It was exactly the sort of crisis that Woodside Petroleum didn’t need.
With key decisions in the development of the company’s Browse and Scarborough LNG projects edging closer, chief executive Coleman has been forced to lead the energy sector’s protests against radical new emissions reductions proposals from the independent West Australian Environmental Protection Agency.
There was no consultation with industry on the draft guidelines released in March and Coleman railed against the “holding of secret meetings with selected authorities”.
WA Premier Mark McGowan eventually reassured the resources sector the EPA’s recommendations were not government policy and it would consult widely on whatever changes would be made.
But Coleman’s battle might not be over.
7. Andy Penn
When the Telstra chief executive took the stage at Canberra’s National Press Club on July 31, he was the first chief executive of a major listed company to do so in more than 18 months.
That says much about how hard Penn has worked to change the narrative around Telstra in the past few years.
With his dramatic plan to slash costs and simplify operations resonating with Telstra investors – who have pushed the stock up 28.5 per cent this year – Penn has gone on the attack on a range of policy issues, led by the NBN rollout that has radically reshaped the profitability of his business.
If a government eventually writes off part of the value of the NBN (which would pave the way for fees charged to telcos to fall, finally) then Penn will be entitled to take a bow.
8. Hamish Douglass
Market volatility and falling bond yields have made life tough for most of Australia’s active fund managers.
But not for Douglass, who has emerged as one of the most powerful voices in the investment community.
His flagship Magellan Global Fund had a stellar year, returning 22.4 per cent after fees in the year to July 31, beating its benchmark by 10.6 per cent.
As his funds under management rapidly approach $100 billion, Douglass is shaking things up again, launching a new listed investment fund that will be sold directly to retail clients, bypassing the traditional broker channel.
Later in the year, Magellan is tipped to launch a post-retirement product – just as the government’s retirement income inquiry is likely to get underway.
9. Andrew Forrest
It’s been a watershed year for Forrest. An extraordinary rise in the iron-ore price has boosted his fortune, his philanthropic power and his broader influence.
The $1.2 billion in dividends that flowed to Forrest from iron-ore giant Fortescue Metals Group allowed him to pump $655 million into his Minderoo Foundation, which tackles issues from slavery to cancer research and marine pollution.
Forrest, who regularly visits the Coalition’s top brass in Canberra, has also emerged as a kingmaker in Australia’s energy wars with his plans for a floating LNG import terminal.
10. Amanda Lacaze
It’s one thing to wield power in Australia, but it’s another thing entirely to sway the policy of a foreign government. That’s exactly what the chief executive of rare earths miner Lynas appears to have done in Malaysia. The future of Lynas’ processing plant in Kuantan was uncertain when a group of long-time critics of the facility swept to power in May last year as part of the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
But Lacaze’s lobbying, which included an extended audience with Mahathir early on in a review of the plant, proved successful in August when the PM confirmed Lynas wouldn’t have to export radioactive waste stored near the plant. To top it all off, Lacaze also fought off a takeover offer from Wesfarmers in August.
The 2019 corporate power list was compiled by AFR editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury, editor Paul Bailey, Chanticleer columnists Tony Boyd and James Thomson, companies editor Ben Potter and national affairs columnist Jennifer Hewett.