An Interview with Rob Coombe

CEO, Quick Service Restaurants, Winner of 2011 Chancellor's Award for Excellence

In September 2012, Rob Coombe, one of Australia's most respected financial gurus, suffered a catastrophic motorcycle accident on his Ducati in broad daylight in Balmain. "I was heading home for lunch and a car pulled out straight in front of me," he recalls at his waterfront home in Birchgrove. "I went into the side of it and over the bonnet. My left leg was squashed between the bike and the car.

"It was line-ball whether or not I'd lose the leg. The tibia was broken in three places: just below the knee, above the ankle, and in the middle. And the fibia was broken as well. They were all cleanly snapped. Bones were sticking out of the leg."

We're talking six months later on his balcony overlooking Snails Bay and Coombe - 50 this year - is still limping. Is he in pain? "Only when I walk," he says, matter-of-factly. He's on a rigid physiotherapy regimen and works out on an exercise bicycle or swims every day. Yet it will still be another six months before he knows whether he'll ever make a full recovery. The problem, he explains, wasn't the bones ("They can be repaired with pins or plates") but his calf muscles which had started to die and had to be unwrapped from the leg, rejuvenated, and then repaired in a complex series of operations.

But the signs are hopeful that one day he'll be able to get back surfing again. "I've just started being able to go out paddling on the bay on my stand-up board," he says. "I wondered whether I'd be able to balance again." He can't face paddling every day because "the aftermath is pretty unpleasant, but that I can do it at all augers well..."

Our interview is interrupted by the sudden appearance of his two year old son Caelen, just returned home with his nanny and immediately toddling over for a cuddle with his father. Coombe confesses he missed this intimacy with his first two children, Orlando (now eight) and Lily (now six). "I pretty much didn't see them for the first three years of their lives," he volunteers. "I'd leave for work at 7am and not be home until 8pm. And I was travelling a lot; away four days a week."

Back then, before he resigned in 2011, Coombe had one of the best jobs in the Australian finance industry - running Westpac's retail and business bank in Australia which put him in the front rank to replace Gail Kelly, Westpac's high-profile boss whenever she decided to move on. When he left Westpac before she did, the financial press had a field day. Though Coombe would prefer not to talk about his relationship with Kelly, it has been well reported that he found it difficult to work for her despite the huge salary he was on.

"I'd been working since I was 18 and just decided to take some time out to develop things which coincided with my own interests," he says, with Caelen on his knee. "I wanted to be around to participate in this part of his life. "So many people are caught doing things they really don't like, but they don't act to change it. I have never been happier in my life than I am now."

Since he left Westpac, finance journalists routinely link his name with just about every top finance job that pops up. Most of the gossip has been nonsense, he says. Even before the motorbike accident, he was happy with the half a dozen private clients he now advises: "private equity funds looking to buy assets, an offshore bank looking to establish a presence in the Australian mortgage market, a couple of superannuation funds".

Since the accident, having that life-work balance has become even more vital. His beloved Ducati (Not a sign of a midlife crisis, he insists: "I've been riding motorbikes since I was four") is now a write-off. Did the accident force Coombe to reassess his life? "Completely. I've had many close shaves, but now I've decided I'm not going to ride a bike again, given the potential repercussions of this. Mind you, I've told my wife there might be a caveat. I'll never ride in the city again, but I might ride in the country.

"The other thing this has taught me is patience. This recovery is just taking a very long time. I don't do slow well. But with this, you just have to let time take its course." The near-fatal accident wasn't the only brush with death the Coombe family has had in the past four years. Before Caelen was born, they were on holiday in Italy. Rob was in one car with Orlando. Wife Natalie was following with Lily in a second car driven by their nanny when it was involved in a head-on collision. The nanny's own daughter died. Natalie broke her back, Lily broke her legs. Rob and Orlando were first on the crash scene.

"For Orlando, seeing me involved in a second crash so soon threw him out of whack," Coombe explains. "He became withdrawn for a couple of months, but he's fine now." Though born in Sydney in 1963, the middle of three children, Coombe's formative teenage years were spent in working class Wollongong where he attended Figtree High, a public school, and developed a lifelong passion for surfing.

After school he won a spot to study law at the University of Sydney, but chose instead to work for a year at the Commercial Bank of Australia. During that year, CBA merged with the Bank of NSW to form Westpac: "It's funny how my first job was with the same company as my last job," he points out.

Another thing which happened during that first year with Westpac was that Coombe decided not to study full time at Sydney University but keep working while studying law part time at the University of Technology, Sydney. It was a six year course. "It was pretty tough and I'm not sure I could do it now," he admits. "I'd work from 8am-6pm, then bolt to the lectures three nights a week which went from 6pm to 9pm. Plus there would be assignments and study at weekends.

"It was like having two full time jobs. Somehow I managed to squash in a social life, but it certainly wasn't the kind of social life many of the people studying full time were enjoying." Does he regret missing out on the extra-curricula aspects of university? "No. By the time I finished my law degree I was six or seven years ahead (of his peers who had studied full time but had no experience of working full time). Because of that head start, I've been able to accomplish far more at a younger age."

By the time he graduated in 1989, Coombe had also realised he didn't want to pursue a traditional legal career, but use his law degree in the commercial world. Why? "The law deals a lot in the past. The essence of the law is based on precedent. I like to be involved in the future: what hasn't happened and what is possible."

On the other hand, the UTS degree has proved invaluable. "My law degree helped me develop commercial acumen," he says. "Putting together logical, coherent argument is the nature of the law and a large part of business as well."

Joining Bankers Trust

In 1991, Coombe joined BT (Bankers Trust), then the pre-eminent investment bank and fund management company in Australia. "It was a precursor to what Macquarie Bank is today," he explains. "It was a great place to work, phenomenal. It attracted all the smartest people in town. And it had a culture I really liked. Merit-based, innovative, non-hierarchical, an environment where the best ideas could flourish wherever they came from in the organisation."

Coombe "felt I had come home" - a feeling confirmed in 1992 when he met Natalie who was also working at BT (she is now a leading figure in Sydney's investment community herself, working at the National Australia Bank). Rising rapidly through the BT ranks, Coombe took Natalie with him to Kuala Lumpur from 1995 to 1998 when he was charged with establishing new BT enterprises and partnerships in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand. "I was right there in the middle of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997," Coombe points out. "July 4, 1997 when the Thai baht coped a caning and the whole thing started to fall apart."

That must have been unsettling? "No," he laughs. "I enjoyed it even more after the AFC. There's nothing like a bit of turmoil to make life interesting." BT had begun to unravel as the parent company in the United States became the subject of takeovers. In Australia, Macquarie Bank took over the banking division of BT while Coombe stayed with the funds management side which endured years of destablisation before it was bought by Westpac in 2002.

"In 2004, Coombe became chief executive of Westpac's BT division, a position he retained until he left in 2010 the merged wealth business of Westpac and St George. "We spent three or four years re-engineering the culture of BT when I became CEO. It's one of the things I am proudest of in my career," Coombe says. "It had been a fantastic culture when we were smaller, anti-establishment, growing our market share. But once an organisation gets bigger it needs to reassess whether that same culture is going to bring continued success."

In recent years, Coombe has been involved in causes outside business that are close to his heart. He's on the board of Surfing Australia and has been a director of the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation since its foundation in 2008 ("It's a fantastic body, not just for what it is trying to do, but what it is actually achieving").

He's also become heavily committed to the future of UTS, despite having little contact with the university for the two decades immediately after his graduation. From 2008 until his crash, Coombe sat on the UTS Faculty of Law Advisory Board. "I found it too hard to get to the meetings after the accident," he says. "Full credit to UTS for putting the advisory board together. Academics who run universities aren't usually commercially focused. But at UTS, that is its key strength. It offers great courses which are not disconnected from what is actually happening in business."

In 2011, his contributions to UTS saw him named as Alumnus of the Year. As for the future, he's not ruling anything out - even returning to a major corporate job if it would allow him to keep some of the equilibrium in his life he has so recently acquired. But his immediate goal is more simple - to make a full recovery and be able to surf again by the end of 2013.

Words: Steve Meacham March 2013