Gift of the gab and love of music always help
WILD GEESE: Dr Norman Gillespie, Chief Executive of Unicef AustraliaFrom a PhD in English theatre music to the British civil service, BP, the Sydney Opera House and now Unicef, it’s always good to talk
A CAREER which has seen Norman Gillespie achieve great success began with his educational choices.
“I did music, English lit and law at Queen’s. It was 1979 when I left Queen’s and Ireland,” says the Lurgan-raised Gillespie.
After Queen’s he got a scholarship to study for a doctorate at the University of London. “It was a passport away from ‘The Troubles’ at that time. I came from a fairly modest background, lived in a council house estate. So to have this scholarship for three years to go and study abroad was just awesome.”
His PhD was in 17th and 18th century English theatre music. “At the end of that, of course, I was totally unemployable!” Even the logical progression to academia was closed. “At that time Mrs Thatcher was closing down all the arts departments, there were really no jobs.”
Instead Gillespie got fast tracked into the British civil service. “I got the most wonderful training in international tax law and finance. You’re so well trained that what happens is companies come and pick you off. BP (British Petroleum) picked me off and I went to work for them,” he says.
“One day the head of BP declared he wanted a new head of his private office. He looked down the list of names that he got and came to mine. He said, ‘Gillespie, he studied music. I like music. We’ll have something to talk about’. That’s how I got the job. So don’t tell me anything in life is wasted.”
After further study at Harvard and a period as BP’s director of planning and control in Texas, Gillespie moved again.
“I skipped from oil to telecoms. That company, Cable Wireless ... had a small interest in an Australian company called Optus. They sent me for three weeks to have a look if they should take a controlling position. I took one look and said ‘you bet’. It was going nowhere, it had missed its public listing etc. I said ‘we definitely should [take over]’. They said ‘right, you stay there and get it done’,” he says.
Cable Wireless took 51 per cent of Optus. “I was supposed to go back [to Britain], but I took one look at this place and fell in love with it. There’s something about Australia. I think it’s because a third of the population are of Celtic origin. It’s got that lovely familiarity, yet it’s exotic,” says Gillespie.
He became chief financial officer of Optus in 1997. Another Irishman making a name for himself in Optus at the time was its now CEO Paul O’Sullivan. “I actually had a hand in hiring Paul, which I’m very proud of because he’s turned out to be a star,” says Gillespie. “He was in sales and we saw his great potential and promoted him up and up and up.”
After Optus was sold to Singapore Telecom, Gillespie decided it was a good time to leave. “I left very amicably. Somebody said to me as I was going out, ‘what are you going to do?’ I could see the Opera House from my window and I said ‘you know, I’d love to run that place’. Everybody laughed. But a month later, the [Opera House] guy resigned. I used all my contacts from the business world and really battered down the door to be given a chance . . . and I got the gig.”
Gillespie brought a business discipline, along with his music PhD, to running the Opera House. “We started up simple things like Opera House tours in several languages. In a couple of years we were getting an income of several million dollars from that.”
But how does all this square with now working for the not-for-profit Unicef Australia?
“I think it squares very well. I think the word not-for-profit is a misnomer. I think it’s really not-for-distribution-to-shareholders,” he says. Always underlying all these jobs I do is trying to bring what I’ve learnt in the business world to work for different enterprises, whatever their role.
“You need good governance, structures, targets [and] measurements. All the things that are a business’s bread and butter – that needs to be applied just as much to a charity organisation. Enthusiasm is not enough.”
Gillespie has travelled to places such as Pakistan, Cambodia, Kenya and Zimbabwe with Unicef. “I see an awful lot of progress,” he says. “You go there and see there is nothing, but then you see the seeds of a nation rebuilding. People like Unicef just get in and get on with things.”
He says the Irish have been successful around the world at least partly because of our ability to talk. “I remember my aunts coming round two or three nights a week, all sitting around just telling stories in a most fabulous, entertaining and articulate way.
“I think we learn to express ourselves. Quite often in a boardroom situation, there’s a natural leadership that comes out of that ability to articulate and express and I think that’s something to do with our culture of talk,” says Gillespie.
“I think we’ve shown over the generations what Irish people have contributed to Australia.”