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

Andrew Mackenzie’s new course for BHP has steered him to the top of the corporate power list. Tash Sorensen

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

Mike Cannon-Brookes now backs up his advocacy with a net worth valued at about $13.5 billion. Steven Siewert

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

Ian Silk heads up AustralianSuper with its 2.3 million members.  Wayne Taylor

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

Lindsey Maxsted has become a leading defender of the banking sector as it endures fallout from the Hayne royal commission. Tash Sorensen

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

Geoff Wilson led protests against Labor’s proposed changes to the tax rules of dividend imputation last year.  Dominic Lorrimer

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.

Wilson still winces at his experience during the battle. “When we got dragged into the politics, that was painful. It was brutal,” he said on the morning after the election.

Read more in the Australian Financial Review.


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