WHEN Wesfarmers revealed this week that David Baxby had been appointed managing director of its Industrials division from August 2017, the announcement came as something of a surprise.
With no management experience in chemicals, energy, fertiliser, industrial supplies or resources, Baxby was appointed by Rob Scott to take his old job, as Scott himself prepares to take over from Richard Goyder as CEO in November.
Baxby's Wesfarmers appointment may have come out of left field, but the serial-senior-executive is regarded as the perfect fit to help Wesfarmers develop its non-retail business with his wide-ranging experience which he's gained from working in senior positions around the world.
The 43-year-old has a CV which littered with current and former senior roles and is punctuated by his tenure as former Co-chief executive officer of the Virgin Group, where he was Richard Branson's right hand man for 10 years.
He began as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs in Sydney before transferring to London in 2003 where he found himself on the client team for Virgin. Baxby advised the Virgin Group on the IPO and sale of a 50 per cent stake in Virgin Blue, and from there a friendship developed
between himself and Virgin founder Branson.
The following year, Branson asked Baxby to work for the Virgin Group directly and was appointed CEO of the Asia Pacific region and was responsible to the group's investments in Virgin Mobile, Virgin Active, Virgin Money and Virgin Australia.
In 2006, he moved to Shanghai to establish a number of start-up businesses in the Asia Pacific region and then in 2008 Baxby moved again to Geneva to assume responsibilities for the Virgin Group's investments in aviation.
By 2011 he was named co-CEO of Virgin Group and he returned to Australia last year and remains as a director of Virgin Australia and Velocity Frequent Flyer, and he's also CEO and founder of RF Capital Private Equity, chairman of Frontier Digital Ventures, and is a councillor with Bond University.
Business News Australia spoke with David Baxby about the lessons he learned from Richard Branson and why 'survivorship' is so important in business.
A bit about yourself, why the decision last year to come back to Australia?
Look, it was quite a personal decision. I've got three daughters including 16-year-old twins, who have never been to school in Australia so there's quite a personal driver there. I suppose also I'd had the fortunate experience to spend a lot of time with some pretty talented people, and to come back to Oz, and there are very similar like-minded people around that I can work with, but also Australia is known as one of the best consumer and technology test markets in the world.
And I think therefore, if I can bring some of that international experience, team up with some great local talent and help build some great businesses here, well then I think I can have a lot of fun and hopefully make a little bit of money along the way.
I bet you get asked a lot about what it was like to work with Richard Branson?
I have had that question before and you know, Richard Branson is exactly as he is on the tin. I haven't met too many more authentic people in my life. Clearly, he's a showman and clearly he uses his brand to promote a portfolio of companies that I used to be associated with, but his heart, his brand is built off his own fundamentally-held values and I think that's why it's enduring.
"Richard Branson is exactly as he is on the tin. I haven't met too many more authentic people in my life."
And so really, to cut a long story short, I don't think I can really think of a time where I ever had a disagreement with Richard about anything. Maybe his desire for speed and innovation was probably greater than mine, I'm a naturally fairly conservative person, but apart from that he taught me to invest and he taught me to care about people and that's something that I'll never forget.
I suppose working with him you would have made a lot of great contacts out there as well?
Yeah I did, and look you take it for granted when you're sitting inside an organisation like that, you forget that sometimes you're talking to the doyens of certain industries. But as I said I was very fortunate to learn from the best and that's an experience I'll never forget.
But it was also an experience and I think I've got the ability to influence some of our local opportunities down here and a lot of the opportunity that I see is you've got some great thought leaders in Europe and in the US.
And Australia is a long way away and if I can do my bit by bringing some of those thought leaders down to Australia and showing that we are a relevant market and an attractive market.
Elon Musk was recently down here, I think that's just the beginning of where I think we could play a role in bringing those entrepreneurs down to this part of the world and then hopefully building great businesses off the back of some of their ideas.
Your progression through the Virgin Group was pretty impressive, what was the key to being successful there, what do you think you did right?
I think a lot of investors in any situation underestimate 'survivorship'. It's really about being in the right place at the right time, timing is probably 50 per cent of most investments that I've been associated with.
So, call it good positioning, call it strategic forethought, really what it comes down to is just being at the right place at the right time and I happened to work with Richard in the group at a time where we had a couple of fairly successful investments.
"I think a lot of investors in any situation underestimate 'survivorship'. It's really about being in the right place at the right time."
It was also right at the point where there were a number of positions going on at senior management level so it was 'right place right time'. I didn't sit down and actually plan it out. It just simply happened, but it's the sort of place that you've got to ask for what you get. You've got to put yourself in the right position and I don't regret a minute that I spent with the group.
Finally, you're still involved in multiple ventures, if you had to choose one of them which would it be, what's your passion project?
Wow, well apart from Bond University's Transformer program for young entrepreneurs, because that is a true passion project and working with entrepreneurs who are starting right at the very beginning, look that's a really, really hard question. I'd probably say right now the business that probably impresses me the most overall is called Frontier Digital Ventures.
I'm the chairman of the business, I'm working with a very talented CEO and founder of the business, and what he's done is actually replicate the success of RealEstate.com.au and what Domain have done here in Australian and we've gone out and helped back local entrepreneurs in emerging markets around the world to build similar businesses.
So it's a bit of a supersized example of what I talked about before, you take great western markets experience in building classifieds and transactional platforms and you go to some of these markets and we've got businesses in, from countries like Pakistan all the way through to
Philippines, to Vietnam, Morocco, Egypt, but we've found market leading entrepreneurs there that need capital and need access to expertise. So, we've created a portfolio of 20 websites that we now own anywhere between 30 and 60 per cent, but what I love about it is the power is in the hands of the local market entrepreneurs.
We're giving them capital and access to expertise, and some of these businesses are growing at 30, 40, 50 per cent a year, and that's been really exciting. It's sort of harking back to the original roots that I experienced when I was at Virgin Group, so if I had to pick one and it's a hard pick, it's probably that one.
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