Interview with Russell Balding AO

Chairman, NSW Visitor Economy Taskforce; Deputy Chairman, Destination NSW

Russell Balding is not a man to blow his own trumpet or give much away. Indeed, his preference is to be reticent to a fault and simply quietly get on with business, even when that business is as controversial and in the news as, for instance, the ABC, Sydney Airport Corporation or the RTA.

Consequently, when he was appointed to the Board of Racing NSW late in 2011 a fan website lit up with a disgruntled (anonymous) post: "Ken Callander in the Tele today, laments small crowd at Rosehill … tries to complain to new Racing NSW board members but none at the track. Balding (ex-ABC arty farty type) is on the board but no one I know has ever seen him at the races. Anyone ever seen him at the track? Or has a non-racegoer been appointed to run racing in NSW?"

Another racing blogger grumbled, "Russell Balding we know nothing about except from his CV ... we'll give him the benefit of the doubt."

If only they knew how wrong they were. In answer to questions about his enthusiasm for costly horseflesh, Balding confesses, "The love of thoroughbreds and the passion for racing is in my genes, from my mother's side. My grandfather and uncles were horse trainers with stables at Randwick, just nearby Inglis's Newmarket where I used to visit the stables quite often as a very young lad. My mother, who is still alive, used to tell me many stories about the races and the racing fraternity."

Balding's interest in thoroughbred racing goes much further than that, however. "My first city winner was Aquabelle, who is now enjoying life as a broodmare at Scone. Her first foal is now a two-year-old gelding, Perfect Knowledge, by Not A Single Doubt. There are a number of other horses including Definite Choice, Taxmeifyoucan and Naked Gun. I recently bought Definite Choice's half-sister, she's a yearling and will be ready to race at the end of the year."

Fast horses are the twinkle in Balding's eye, but he also lights up when he talks of his early career and its genesis at UTS.

"I was attracted to the Diploma (and subsequent Business Studies Degree) course because I could do it part time - and work and study. I wanted to get into the workforce sooner rather than later."

"I was attracted to the Diploma (and subsequent Business Studies Degree) course because I could do it part time - and work and study. I wanted to get into the workforce sooner rather than later. I knew that commerce and industry held, what was then the NSW Institute of Technology in high regard."

The student was working at the Department of Main Roads and then for Total Oil - both companies very supportive of employees' study and part-time attendance at the office. Subsequently when Balding returned to the DMR (later to be RTA) in the late 80s, it led to a pioneering scheme, promoted by UTS, being taken up by the then RTA.

"Arie Sietsma was driving it, he approached me for the RTA to sponsor and support an undergraduate "Cooperative Education" program. For participating in the program, the sponsoring entity would have access to high level undergraduate Business Degrees students where during the semester break - six weeks or whatever - the student would come and work for you. But importantly, it gave you direct access to the current thinking from some very bright young people; it exposed middle management to the process too. You use the students' skills; set them tasks and it meant that they gained valuable on the job experience and that they could present to management with confidence."

Balding was born in Merrylands (within five kilometres of Rosehill racecourse in Sydney's west) and attended Granville Boys' High.

"I enjoyed sport and the outdoors," says Balding. "Choosing what to do at uni was a distraction. I fell into it (accounting and commerce) because I thought it would be useful. I didn't have a burning passion for it at that time."

Nevertheless, it wasn't long before he realised the potential gravity of what he was doing.

"Professionalism in management is very important - business studies as well as accountancy. The bulk of my time in the public sector has been integral to the decision-making process and strategic planning. CPAs - accountants - are not merely bean counters. The CFO is a critical part of a business. As CEO I kept them very close."

Balding is sage about recent catastrophes in business and finance around the world and in Australia, "We need to ensure that proper governance structures are in place without over-burdening business. Australia has it better worked out than many other countries."

He's not an admirer of the cowboy approach, but neither is he risk averse. "It's easier to say no - riskier to say yes. We need to encourage entrepreneurial flair and investment as well as the proper approach to risk and risk management."

In a steadily rising trajectory in a variety of enterprises it was the ABC that was one of the most scorching experiences, with more wicked obstacles than the Grand National.

"The steepest learning curve was moving from the RTA to the ABC," says Balding. "The public broadcaster operates in a very competitive commercial world and I went in as CFO - that's where you learn how the business works. At the time there was a significant cut in funding - 12%. As CFO, I was very much involved as Brian Johns (MD) drove the necessary change. More than financial management, for me it was about people management and the broader skills required to assist in delivering that change."

Much the same thing happened when he was approached to take on the sprawling world of Australia's gateway airport of Sydney.

"When asked, I said, 'I don't know how to run an airport' but that wasn't the point," Balding grins. "It wasn't about controlling aircraft movements or landing planes, of course, it's about management. The airport is actually a group of discrete businesses: Transport? Yes. Aviation? Yes. Retail? Yes. Property development? Yes. Infrastructure? Yes. The economic responsibility of a major airport such as Sydney is that it is singularly the most important piece of infrastructure in the State. It has to work."

It's been a logical move, therefore, to his current handful of responsibilities. Since retiring as CEO of Sydney Airport, he has been appointed Deputy Chairman of the Board of Destination NSW, a Non-Executive Director of Cabcharge Australia Limited, a Board Member of Racing NSW and the Chairman of the Visitor Economy Taskforce, with some rarified goals.

"The aim is to double overnight visitor expenditure to NSW by 2020," says Balding. "We want to ensure a whole of Government and Industry approach is adopted to achieve the target and generate compelling reasons for visitors to our wonderful City and State to stay at least another night - or to return." This means not only promoting the City's attractions and amenities but also managing their wellbeing and infrastructure. The grumpy racing blogger who wondered why there were so few people at Rosehill didn't know what Balding knew and is working tirelessly to fix.

"A couple of years back, there was track work scheduled for the Rosehill line on the day of the Golden Slipper. You will recall that rail track maintenance was scheduled on the Illawarra line the same day the St George Illawarra Dragons were playing in the NRL Grand Final, preventing thousands of fans travelling by rail to Sydney that day; it's always happening," says Balding, a long sigh being the only evidence of what must be intense frustration. "Getting the different bodies to co-ordinate what they're doing and to think beyond their own sphere is a major objective."

Suddenly, all his past experience jumps into focus as leading to this point. Tourism and business in Sydney and NSW is dependent on the smooth running of its airport. The ABC is a prime focal point of the cultural life of the society it serves; as is UTS.

"UTS has created its own precinct and its own world identity. People will know it and will come from all over the world to see the Gehry building."

"UTS has created its own precinct and its own world identity," says Balding of the new development. "People will know it and will come from all over the world to see the Gehry building, for instance. It's a constant theme: relevance. Wherever you are, if you stand still you will be passed by."

That doesn't mean leading a crazy, unsustainable working life, however, as he is quick to point out.

"You have to impress upon them the importance of time management and life balance," says Balding of the new generation of graduates and business people. "You have to get a life. The pressure, work-wise, is immense but you mustn't stuff up your life. I'm really pleased that more younger people are now turning off the BlackBerry at night! It's a cliché but the work-life balance is very important."

In from all that comes one further insight about horses and the racing game: something Balding does because he loves it, not because it's good business or likely to make him rich.

"You're right, you're not in this game for the money! It is the love of racing and the admiration of these great animals. I believe the thoroughbred horse is not only a beautiful and very intelligent animal, but also a supreme athlete."

Words: Diana Simmonds