The family’s jewel

Saturday, 01 April 2006

Giles Parkinson photo
Giles Parkinson

    As one of the pioneers of the modern Western Australian fishing and pearling industries and with accolades as a leading neurogeneticist, Dr Patricia Kailis knows a thing or two about balancing the professional with the personal to make a family business thrive. Giles Parkinson writes. 

    If the marriage of a career in medicine with that of the fishing industry appears a little incongruous today, imagine how the idea must have struck the father of Dr Patricia Hurse in 1960. It was then that he was told his daughter – a medical graduate with a middle class upbringing and a Melbourne private school education – was to wed Michael Kailis, the dashing young Greek from Perth, determined to make a name for himself in the lobster industry.

    As Dr Patricia Kailis now recalls: “When Michael told my parents that we were going to get married, my father said ‘This doesn’t happen in real life, it only happens in the movies. Doctors don’t marry fishermen!’”

    But in this case, the doctor did. It may well have seemed an unlikely union at the time, but to Kailis, the co-founder and now governing director of Fremantle-based marine group, MG Kailis Group, not to mention noted medical researcher and genetic counsellor, it all made perfect sense – even when her life and dual-career followed the improbable script of a TV mini-series.

    It made sense to her, for instance, when she gave Michael money from the sale of her FJ Holden to buy his first crayfish from the fishermen on the beach at Dongara. It made sense when she began her first medical practice from the front room of the local hotel, and later juggled a practice that summered with the lobster season in Dongara, and wintered with the prawning season in Learmonth. And it made perfect sense to hold those informal board meetings with her husband at the kitchen table as she juggled the pressures of a growing business, the medical practice and the demands of four young children.
    Indeed, the combination of careers made perfect sense to Kailis in meeting the many challenges she faced.

    “Whether you’re dealing with problems that arise in business or the medical practice, it falls into the same discipline – define and analyse the problem, look at the history, make sure you have all the information, make a diagnosis and then a plan of action,” she says.
    “Business and medicine both involve people – fishermen and families, patients and families. Business largely comes down to people and relationships. It sounds a bit smug and it is often said, but the more you think about it, it is so.

    “If we didn’t have good relationships with the fishermen, our employees, our suppliers and our buyers, our business wouldn’t be where it is.”

    The burdens of administration

    The MG Kailis business was founded on four key values – honesty, loyalty, trust and compassion. “It’s been ingrained in the family that that is how business is done,” says Kailis. “I remember when my husband was ill and we were discussing some problems, he insisted, ‘you must do what is right’.”

    Of course, Kailis and her husband drew on several other qualities as they grew their business from a Dongara lobster processing plant to prawn farming in the Exmouth Gulf and its later pearling operations, as well as its trawler construction business and, finally, a pearl retail operation.

    These qualities included a steely determination to succeed and overcome problems, an ability to adapt, improvise and innovate and, of course, a love of hard work. “My family has definitely received a double dose of the workaholic gene,” Kailis says, referring to her two daughters and two sons – the latter of whom are currently directors of the family business. “They’re doomed to work.”

    By the late 1960s, after the company’s seafood operations had been well established, the Kailis family returned to Perth, where Dr Patricia Kailis pursued a career in research and genetic counselling on a part-time and volunteer basis.

    It was here that she made her mark in the medical world. With Professor Byron Kakulas, she established the genetic counselling program for muscular dystrophy and neuro-muscular diseases, which led to a marked decrease in X-linked muscular dystrophy in the state. She was later involved in the establishment of the Huntington Disease predictive testing program.

    “I always worked in an unpaid capacity,” says Kailis. This was partly to conform to Greek custom, she says, which frowned upon wives seeking paid employment, and partly because it gave her the freedom to pursue her interest and her responsibility in supporting her husband in the business.

    The medical practice came to an end in 1995, when Kailis found that her activities were becoming bogged down by bureaucratic and administrative detail. Indeed, the obsession with compliance has influenced her resignation from the boards of several not-for-profit organisations since that time.

    “One of the problems of doing business in this day and age is the burden of all these procedural and compliance issues,” she says. “Our attention is being deflected from the very reason for having a board…it’s very difficult to keep your mind focused on what is the essence of the business at hand.”

    Indeed, Kailis wonders now how the family business could possibly have prospered in its early days had it been subject to the weight of regulation that currently bedevils businesses in Australia.

    “Absolutely no way,” she says. “Look at occupational health and safety (OH&S) and the environment, for example. We always have had a very good record, but we wouldn’t have been able to comply with the minutiae of the detail that is required now, and develop new industries in remote areas.”
    Kailis is hopeful, however, that the pendulum will swing the other way.

    Letting outsiders in

    Interestingly, for such a close-knit family business, the MG Kailis Group has always had an independent chairman – from lawyer, Ken Hatfield, at the time of the company’s first, somewhat impromptu formal meeting in his Perth offices in 1963, to the current chairman Ken Palmer.

    Kailis says independent directors have been crucial to the success of the business. “They’ve always asked the right questions at the right time,” she explains. “They’ve brought depth, and breadth and the advantage of a lifetime of experience, and expertise that you don’t necessarily have in-house. They’ve played a part-mentoring and part-critical role, and added objectivity to our decisions.”

    Kailis admits her current role as governing director is an unusual one, but perfectly suited to the structure of the business and the shareholding, particularly after the death, in 1999, of Michael Kailis – the ‘innovator, go-getter, leader and benevolent dictator’ of the family business.

    “I don’t use my authority to obstruct decisions, but part of my role is that I’m informed by the managing director (son Alex) of items under discussion, before they get to board level. And I act as a communications conduit to shareholders who are not on the board – that is, my daughters.”

    Unexpected moments of satisfaction

    Kailis finds it difficult to nominate a particular highlight in her career, but gains most satisfaction from the moments of recognition that can emerge quite unexpectedly.

    One example is the man who got up at a public meeting to declare how proud he had been to walk his daughter down the aisle at her wedding; having been able to reassure her that she did not carry the muscular dystrophy gene (her two brothers had both suffered from the disease).

    Another was the naming of ‘Kailis Drive’ – the road that leads into Dongara – recognising both Patricia and Michael’s contribution to the region. “Those sort of things mean a lot,” says Kailis.

    Finally, she recalls recently leafing through a journal and seeing mention of a motor neurone disease, for which she had been heavily involved in tracking, monitoring and identifying the gene. “You see things like that, and you think ‘my name’s not there, but isn’t it nice to know that I did something really worthwhile’.”

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