Michael Bleby Reporter

Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

View more articles from Michael Bleby

Letting off steam, jumping hurdles and wrangling kids

Published 12 December 2012 09:34, Updated 13 December 2012 05:03

+font -font print
Letting off steam, jumping hurdles and wrangling kids

Old boiler: Dick Smith likes to stoke up his steam train down on the farm at Christmas Photo: Pip Smith

Dick Smith intends to let off steam – literally – by driving his own locomotive. Barclays ANZ chief executive Cynthia Whelan will face a new set of hurdles as she practises her dressage skills. Single parent nib insurance chief executive Mark Fitzgibbon wants to read a non-work book, while Millennium Minerals chief executive Brian Rear intends to write one.

As they shut down their PCs and farewell staff until next year, the country’s chief executives are relishing the chance to indulge in activities and traditions that the working year never gives them the opportunity to do. Bosses, after all, look forward to this seasonal change of pace as much as their staff do.

Some of their anticipation comes down to one simple pleasure - a slowing down of the barrage of emails that are part of corporate life. “The honest answer is that I’m looking forward to not getting as many emails,” Whelan says.

But beyond the obvious, the quirks of individual C-suiters emerge. Entrepreneur and adventurer Dick Smith flies his helicopter 200 kilometres from home in Sydney to his farm in Gundaroo, just north of Canberra, where he gets into another vehicle – the two-foot-gauge steam train he runs on a line between the airstrip and his farmhouse.

Smith doesn’t get many chances to drive his steam engine, which was originally used at the Golden Ridge goldmine in Kalgoorlie. But at Christmas, when the family gathers, it comes into its own as the 68-year-old spends as much time as he can “roaring around” the two-kilometre line with his grandchildren.

“It takes 2½ hours to get the boiler up to pressure,” he says. “We drive around for a couple of hours then put it away. It gets a run three to four times a year. But mainly at Christmas times.”

Sydney-based Ross Benson, the executive director of investment firm Investorlink China, heads to Thailand for a month each January with his part-Thai, part-Chinese wife.

“We stay in a resort in Huahin, on the Gulf of Thailand,” he says. “It’s about 2½ hours south-west of Bangkok. That month is very good for me, as I’m also close to my Chinese friends. I often invite Chinese friends to join us in Thailand for a break during this time. Beijing is very, very cold in January.”

Of course, true businessmen never really stop working, especially if colleagues come to visit. Does this mean Benson can claim his holiday as a tax deduction?

“Unfortunately not,” he laughs. “Well, sometimes.”

Nib chief executive Fitzgibbon heads to Sawtell on the NSW north coast each summer. This is the only chance he gets to read material that is not related to his work. The book he’s taking this year, which has been on his list for the past 12 months, is philosopher Alain de Botton’s The Consolations of Philosophy.

“The author tries to connect all the rich perspectives of philosophy with modern-day pressures in our lives,” Fitzgibbon says. “I regard stress as good but you can’t have too much help in these matters.”

The single dad also takes his children, who are aged between 17 and 24, and their friends to the beach. There will be “probably nine or 10”, around this year, he says. Such a cohort sounds just like one of the stresses de Botton’s book could be useful for but Fitzgibbon says he keeps things under control.

“It’s very regimented,” he says. “I pay the rent and the bills and they have to keep the place clean and leave me to read my books.”

Millennium Minerals’ Rear has given himself from Boxing Day until January 9 to pull together a book he plans to self-publish. It will document a road trip he made “in a big Chevy” in July last year with his Texan cousin along the famous Route 66 in the United States. A fan of John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac, he maintained a blog during his 16 days on the road but wants to make a more detailed book for his family.

“I want to go back in my mind and write about the places and people, which I didn’t have time to chronicle properly,” he says.

Sydney-based Whelan will be using her time off to improve her dressage skills at her farm in the NSW southern highlands. She and her family frequently visit the property, she says, but they never get enough time there.

“We go almost every weekend,” she says. “The difference is you don’t get a block of time to go riding. If I go at the weekend I might get one ride, whereas over Christmas, the kids, husband and I get to spend blocks of time riding.”

Of course, escapism takes many forms and managing directors look forward to different things. The head of fund manager Allan Gray, Simon Marais, is not going away but sounds quite content with that state of affairs.

“I have my family-in-law coming over to stay,” he says. “So I’ll be at work.”

Comments