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.”