Foods for thought DICK SMITH tackles Mission Impossible 3

Thursday, 01 February 2001


    Dick Smith is a one-off. Some may call him a maverick. He’s an adventurer, explorer, pilot and businessman.

    But there’s a little more to the man than is obvious, as ROBERT MAYNE discovered when Dick Smith paid a flying visit to Adelaide recently to talk about his two current passions: aviation safety and Aussie foods.

    Sydney businessman Dick Smith is now undertaking his third recycling as an entrepreneur and, considering the big corporate guns he is lined up against, you could almost consider it Mission Impossible 3. If he chooses to accept this mission, can he make it through, like Tom Cruise? He made his first fortune with Dick Smith Electronics, then sold out to Woolworths, using that money to start Australian Geographic, then sold that to John Fairfax. Now he's doing it all over again, with Dick Smith Aussie Foods, and he's throwing all of the Dick Smith enthusiasm and exuberance into the task, not to mention a lot of dollars. As with the other business challenges, Smith is putting his money where his mouth is, and using his face and name as the brand. But why? To try to find some of the answers, I interviewed him in his favourite office - the command seat in his Cessna Citation Bravo executive jet, call sign Mike Golf Charlie. Air Traffic Control has just cleared him to descend from his cruising altitude, flight level 390 (39,000 feet) down to 10,000 feet as he speeds into Adelaide in late June to drop a few bombs on the people he despises, the politicians and bureaucrats who won't do what Smith wants, to clean up Australian skies and makes them safe for regional passenger travellers. Or at least, that's his perspective.

    I'm sitting next to him as we leave Sydney. There's no doubt he's a good pilot - and a careful one. He winds up the engines of his $5 million jet and listens to the American accented robot voice that gives his pre-flight check list ("Parking brakes, pressurisation, fuel flow, passenger security, exhaust gas temperature ..."). Smith responds to the disembodied voice, answering all of its challenges. His then secretary, Marilyn Anderson, is also a pilot. "Are you Marilyn as in Monroe", I ask her on the phone when I'm setting all this up, and she ripostes: "No, Anderson as in Pamela" - this has got to be the sort of PA that Smith needs, I think. He's a kind of Down Under Indiana Jones, complete with bifocal glasses and a mop of greying hair. Anderson has filed his flight plan which he now feeds into the two-year-old Citation's on-board computer. He calls up the air traffic controller at Sydney's Bankstown airport, where he has a hangar for his planes, and is cleared to taxi. But there's a problem. His Bell JetRanger, which he has just flown in from his Terrey Hills property (Smith doesn't catch cabs), is so close that, if he taxis forward, he'll hit the chopper.

    Not a good move for a man going to Adelaide to talk about aviation safety. So he shuts down the jet's twin engines, gets out, and moves the helicopter, which he'll use that evening to commute back to Terrey Hills. Then he winds the jets up again and we taxi out, with Smith chatting away as we go, rocketing off down Runway 29 Centre at Bankstown. "Accelerates fast, eh?" says Smith. It sure does. Now he's focusing on the task ahead, an instrument approach to runway 23 at Adelaide. We're in cloud and rain as we cross the Adelaide Hills and he's watching the Flight Director System monitoring his progress. The cockpit layout resembles an elaborate electronic game, with everything digitised. Smith is one of a fairly rare breed of pilot, as he's endorsed to fly his jet under what are known as "Single Pilot Instrument Flight Rules". He can fly just about anywhere in the world with no co-pilot. Just like Whyalla Airlines. We emerge from the clouds over the Adelaide suburb of Modbury with the runway 10 nautical miles in front of us, just as the robot voice emerges from somewhere behind the instrument panel: "Check flaps," "Check undercarriage, Check passenger safety ..."

    We touch down perfectly and as we taxi off the runway he turns to me and nudges me on the arm (a Dick Smith characteristic) and says: "Beautiful aeroplane to fly this, just lovely". Smith is a passionate man. He's passionate about flying, has been since he started to learn to fly in Sydney in 1972 at a cost of $25 a week. Now he owns the Cessna jet, the Bell JetRanger chopper and a Cessna Caravan, a large single-engine turbo-prop amphibian in which he trundles around the world taking photographs for his books. He's just been through Africa and next he's traversing the two North American continents, from Alaska to the Antarctic for a forthcoming book on the Americas. He has logged up 7000 flying hours. "Not bad," he notes, "for a private pilot". He spends most of the two-and-a-quarter hours between Sydney and Adelaide bemoaning the state of aviation in Australia. People can't afford to fly planes any more because we are over-regulated. John Anderson (Federal Minister for Aviation and his minister when Smith was in charge of the Civil Aviation Safety Authority) isn't interested. There's too much paperwork and too many bureaucrats, says Smith.

    Most pilots would probably agree with him. Then he notices there hasn't been any radio activity for a while. "Wouldn't be like this in America or New Zealand," he grumbles. "There are people talking all the time. How can I tell my radio hasn't failed?" So he switches on his microphone and calls up the Melbourne Centre radar controller who is monitoring our flight and requests: "Mike Golf Charlie, radio check." Back comes the slightly sardonic voice immediately: "Still here." They know Dick's tricks. There's something about Smith that both endears and bothers people. He gets up their nostrils, particularly with politicians and bureaucrats. They don't want dramatic change ("John Anderson told me he wants to keep CASA out of the papers and not get asked any questions in Parliament"), and they want to maintain the status quo. But somehow, when you hear the passionate Smith, you think he's probably right, the bellwether of necessary change and practical reform. On the ground in Adelaide he heads for the South Australian Press Club, where he meets Chris and Kym Brougham, the owners of Whyalla Airlines, whose twin-engined commuter aircraft crashed in May last year, killing eight. They've booked up for the SA Press Club lunch at which Smith is speaking, for obvious reasons. But after it's all over they express some relief that he wasn't tougher than he was on them. Grounded, they were awaiting an unknown fate.

    But Smith certainly lets fly in his speech, which attracts a lot of media attention that evening and in the next day's papers. Smith likes that because, when you think about it, his name and face are his brand, and that's what he's selling. But there's a little more to the man than that, and he believes in what he's saying. He does have some serious things to say, claiming that Australian aviation is way over-regulated, and that it will take a major crash costing hundreds of lives to give the politicians and bureaucrats a wake up call. Listening to him, you can see why Smith would never make a politician. He wants instant action, cutting the red tape and getting things done NOW. He couldn't do that, so he got out. "I failed in aviation safety," he admits. But he still cares enough to fly himself to Adelaide to put his views and castigate those he sees as the guilty, and the procrastinators and bureaucrats who want to conduct a paper war rather than a crusade for realistic Australian airline safety. Not to mention the politicians, Aviation Minister Anderson especially. "Never heard a paragraph from him about his vision for air safety in this country," Smith tells the luncheon.

    Then it's off to Adelaide airport where the jet awaits, and then the helicopter ride home, high above Sydney traffic. Helicopters are his favourite flying machines. His first chopper, call sign Mike India Sierra, still flies around South Australia wearing the colours of National Nine News. He calls helicopters "my magic carpet". You have to have a lot of money to lead a lifestyle like this, but of course Smith, now 56, does have lots of money. It's easy to work out where it came from. In 1968 he started Dick Smith Electronics with just $610. It grew like topsy and in 1982 he sold out to Woolworths. In 1984 he started the successful Australian Geographic magazine, and in turn sold that to publishers John Fairfax in 1990. Smith is not only passionate about causes, but he enjoys a challenge. These days he's working up to 80 hours a week on Dick Smith Foods Pty Ltd. He amused the crowd at the SA Press Club by showing them his peanut butter and then his about-to-be-released safety matches. They are packaged in the same bright red as Redhead matches and, naturally, they're labelled "Dickheads".

    For all his stubbornness (determination, more likely), he does have a sense of humour. Tell him a good joke and he guffaws loudly, thumping his knees forcefully as he does so. He's wiry of frame with a mop of greying hair. And he bites his fingernails. There is stress there, which is probably what makes Smith run. What started Smith on this latest crusade ("It may be my last, but I said that about Australian Geographic") was the realisation that most of Australia's big food brands are in foreign hands. For example Kraft and Eta are owned by the American tobacco company Philip Morris. So he's now taking on the really big end of town. And it seems to be working. In 10 months he sold $61 million worth (at retail) of Dick Smith Aussie Foods. There's the peanut butter, cordial, canola oil, cheese, Helicopter Jelly (Aeroplane Jelly, get it?), biscuits, tomato and barbecue sauce, jam, ice cream, ice cream topping, gravy, Nutra Bites cereal, asparagus, a range of canned soups, cheese spread and soon OzEmite. And the daring OzeCola is now in the supermarkets, along with other soft drinks. Look out Coke and Pepsi.

    "My products are as Aussie as you can get. But I have had problems sourcing some of them," he admits. "But we're getting there." He works out of home at Terrey Hills, with the chopper in the backyard, and has four employees in a $120-a-week office in Terrey Hills shopping centre. So why is he doing this if he doesn't need the money? "I'm a typical Aussie. I live on the coast but I love the outback. And I believe we grow the best foods on earth. If I can get just 5 per cent of Australians to buy locally-made and locally-owned foods, we will make a real difference to Australia, and we'll employ tens of thousands of Australians. We're fighting back against the global food companies that send their profits out of Australia.

    "I believe in supporting Australian farmers and giving jobs to Australians. And I know we can do it. But we have to do it with quality foods. Yeah, I don't need the money. If I wanted to make more money I'd be back into electronics - look what's happening on the Internet.

    "I've been a very fortunate person and I want to put something back in, and I'm going to work as hard as I can to do that. I failed in aviation. Now I'm into something where I won't fail."

    When piloting his Citation back into Bankstown Airport one recent evening, the ground controller asked him to call the control tower. Smith winced, thinking he had done something wrong. He called the tower, to be told: "Hey, Dick, your strawberry jam is fantastic." Now that's bliss for a millionaire pilot turned food icon.


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