Gene Tilbrook reveals some of the challenges Company Directors’ board is examining and its plans for directors in Western Australia.
Company Director (CD): What is your background?
Gene Tilbrook (GT): After studying mathematics and computer science, I practised IT for some years at a time when it was quite specialised, when computers took up whole floors and there were very few of them. I then completed an MBA before beginning a long career with Wesfarmers, where I specialised in mergers and acquisitions, capital investment and corporate strategy. I became executive director of business development, then CFO before retiring to pursue non-executive directorship roles. The timing was fortuitous for me. Wesfarmers listed a year before I joined and was moving in directions which were very much about focused growth and shareholder returns. Successful investments and acquisitions helped take it from rural services in WA to a leading national diversified group.
CD: What positions do you currently hold?
GT: My ASX-boards include Orica, Aurizon Holdings, GPT Group and Fletcher Building. I’m a director of Bell Shakespeare Company and a councillor of Curtin University.
CD: As president of the WA Division you also sit on Company Directors’ national board. What are some of the challenges this board is discussing?
GT: We know that Australia’s economy needs big productivity improvements and much more innovation, and that achieving this will be challenging. While complex and overlapping regulation is constraining many organisations, we cannot expect to “just reduce it”. We need to work constructively with governments and regulators to establish clearly defined outcomes and standards, and more effective ways of achieving them. Company Directors has a strong capacity to lead in this process and I appreciate the opportunity to participate at both divisional and national levels. It is particularly pleasing to be part of Company Directors’ drive to enhance diversity, but the statistics remind us of how much more needs to be done and I hope we can build further on our mentoring and networking programs.
CD: What do you consider the most valuable thing about your Company Directors membership?
GT: One of the highlights for me was the Mastering the Boardroom course, which I completed in 2009. It was brilliant. It is very practical and it brought together a lot of the thinking around how one should behave as a director, which is quite different to what one needs to know to be a director. The timing was excellent. Shortly after, I retired from Wesfarmers and by the end of 2009, I was on three quite different boards, the first being the National Broadband Network. I enjoy supporting Company Directors’ many roles: education for emerging directors; promoting debate on issues; and being a voice for better governance and reporting.
CD: What are some of the issues for WA directors in 2014?
GT: While my ASX listed boards are all national, I am very conscious of the specific challenges for many companies in WA. I would note two sets of issues in particular. First is the impact of a considerably lower rate of capital investment in minerals, which I expect to prevail for some years. Second is the large number – and proportion – of listed companies based in WA that are small and emerging. Many of these have not yet been able to embed good outcomes for shareholders, even in very buoyant times. This is in part due to cost pressures, competition for resources and regulatory complexity. In the new environment, some directors are refocusing their organisations on areas like effectiveness, new sources of funding or, in some cases, mergers. The WA Division aims to renew our programs to make them relevant to what will be new issues for some directors and I want to encourage this.
Company Directors has strong international recognition and it is timely to turn that into even more active engagement, particularly through our education programs. Many resource companies based in Perth operate in Asia or Africa. I hope that through increased involvement, we can support more transparent governance and reporting in these regions while gaining insights into investing for long-term stakeholder benefits.
CD: What drives you?
GT: I enjoy the intellectual challenge of coming to grips with new investment opportunities and turning them into successful businesses. I get great satisfaction from looking at how various businesses operate and applying the learnings to others so that things can be done more effectively.
A particular interest for me on boards is improving information systems. Many directors see only the “tip of the iceberg”, but an iceberg can variously be a source of crystal clarity or a looming disaster.
CD: What is the most important lesson you’ve learnt as a director?
GT: I joined my first boards immediately after the global financial crisis (GFC) when several had done major fundraisings and were repositioning themselves. This reminded me that a crucial role as a director is to bring financial discipline to investments and acquisitions.
CD: Do you think the roles, or perceived roles, of boards have changed since the GFC?
GT: Absolutely. Pre-GFC most Australian companies regarded their funding as something which just happened as a matter of course.
Post-GFC we have all learned a great deal about how many different markets you have to tap into and the complexities of doing that. We’ve also been reminded that strong financial ratios are not an abstract concept and that strong financial relationships are essential.
CD: How do you keep on top of relevant issues for your directorships?
GT: I read widely to follow what is going on in broader markets rather than just those directly affecting a particular organisation.
It is also critical for directors to ask questions about the broader environment of each business of the boards on which they sit.
CD: How do you keep on top of director professional development?
GT: That is where Company Directors plays a terrific role, particularly in terms of seminars and guest speakers.
I have participated in a few seminars.
A couple of recent highlights have been around risk management and the effects of social media.
CD: What are your passions outside of work?
GT: They relate to the arts. Before Bell Shakespeare, I was involved with the Perth International Arts Festival. This has been a great way for someone with no artistic skills to bring something to organisations that do so much with limited resources and, at the same time, to enhance their appreciation of the arts.
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