Each year, INTHEBLACK goes in search of the best and brightest. 2015's young business leaders are making bold moves in a variety of industries, and challenging public perception of youth in the corporate world.
Updated 29 August 2016
“CPA Australia is in a unique position across the Asia-Pacific to identify, guide and nurture young business professionals who have a talent for leadership and a record in creating and executing a strategic vision which is taking their company on a journey to excellence.
“This year’s young business leaders are making their mark in Hong Kong, Australia and India. They have the skills to stand out in the real world, and in a world desperate for outstanding leaders, that’s a good thing.
“They have challenged the status quo, transformed ailing companies and turned creative ideas into action. What sets them apart is their willingness to give it a go, even if failing is a risk.” Alex Malley chief executive, CPA Australia
Polly Doak FCPA
Chief strategy officer and director of products
Max Bupa – based in New Delhi
… because she never says no to a challenge, in Sydney, London or New Delhi.
If a job isn’t “challenging and crazy and difficult” Polly Doak probably won’t be interested. The 39-year-old now heads up strategy and products for Max Bupa in India – a venture between health giant Bupa and Max India. Her journey there has been marked by career choices that have had others raising their eyebrows. Like when she joined Australian engineering company Coffey in 2004.
“It had just made a loss,” says Doak. “People thought I was crazy.”
It was a career-defining decision. “We completely changed the company and delivered extraordinary outcomes. We grew massively, from 300 people to 4500,” she says.
Doak credits Coffey’s then chief financial officer, Simon Curtis, with imparting some durable lessons.
“He said to me, ‘You need to create an environment where it’s OK to take calculated risks, it is OK to make some mistakes. Unless you are trying to do something different and new, and think in a different way, you are going to create the same outcome.’
“At the end of the day, if you want to achieve something extraordinary you have got to think and try different things,” Doak adds.
In 2008, not long after the birth of her first child, Doak was drawn to a finance manager role with health insurer Bupa in Sydney.
“Your career is only run by one person – yourself.” Polly Doak
“Bupa had just completed a massive acquisition [buying MBF]. I thought that sounded like fun.”
In less than a year Bupa offered her a role in London. “I did turn around to my boss and say ‘you do realise there is a small problem – I’m currently six months pregnant’,” she says.
As soon as her baby could get a passport and a visa, Doak became the London-based financial controller for Bupa’s international markets division with businesses in Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand, China, India, the Middle East and Latin America.
Three years on and she was promoted to finance director for its £2 billion health funding business in the UK. A year later, she was lured to Hong Kong to work on a joint venture for Bupa and Hang Seng.
“I went from being a finance director – which was everything I knew – to being a program director – which was nothing I knew – and had an amazing year,” she says.
Doak’s family remained in London and she split her time between the two cities – putting in long hours for two weeks in Hong Kong before returning to London for a week with her family – albeit while still working from early morning until 3pm each day.
After 12 months, Bupa asked Doak to go to India. At first she rejected the idea.
“But [they] convinced me what an exciting challenge it would be,” she says.
“It’s a very young business from an insurance perspective – it’s only six years old. It’s getting it from being a baby to being self-sufficient, in hopefully two years.”
This latest move fits with her unquenchable passion for challenges.
“Your career is only run by one person – yourself,” she says.
“If you speak to the high achievers they rarely say it was due to a talent program. It’s normally due to … making something of what you have got.”
By Carolyn Boyd
CEO and Global Strategist
Emergent Solutions – based in Melbourne
... because at 26 she’s already convinced G20 leaders to take more action on youth employment.
At age 26, entrepreneur Holly Ransom already strides the world stage. The G20 Youth Ambassador has rubbed shoulders with top business and political leaders, twice been named as one of Australia’s most influential women, and been tipped as a future prime minister.
She has a burning social mission – to help fix crippling youth unemployment.
“The problem is enormous,” she says. “One in three young people in the world are not in education, training or employment.”
She extends that advocacy for youth employment into her own consultancy, Emergent Solutions, where she advises organisations on how to better recruit, develop and keep younger workers. That change is critical: in 10 years, three-quarters of the world’s workers will be “millennials” (also known as Generation Y). Her clients include ConocoPhillips, KPMG, Japanese oil firm INPEX, grain-grower CBH Group and governments.
She is also a member of the G20 business council employment taskforce, and her schedule rivals that of many senior CEOs. For example in 2014 she notched up 197 flights, and spoke at two G20 meetings. Last year she presented in Monaco at the EY World Entrepreneur of the Year forum.
Ransom has been on the public radar for a decade. Her talents were first spotted at age 15, when she took part in a young leaders program.
“That was really a game-changer, because I’d never have put myself and the word ‘leader’ in the same sentence before,” she admits. Five years later she began her consultancy while also carving out a corporate career.
"One in three young people in the world are not in education, training or employment." Holly Ransom
In 2012, aged 22 and working as a change manager for Rio Tinto boss Sam Walsh – “an unbelievable learning curve” – she was included in a list of Australia’s 100 Most Influential Women. The same year she became the world’s youngest ever president of a Rotary Club.
Then in 2013, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott asked her to co-chair the G20 Youth Summit.
“It was a ridiculous challenge and I had zero government relations experience,” says Ransom. But G20 members in 2014 agreed on a new youth employment agenda.
“The dream came true,” Ransom says, “[and] it gave me an appreciation for the business case for Emergent Solutions.”
In 2014, Ransom was again on Australia’s most influential women list. She says advice from mentors such as Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz and Boost Juice founder Janine Allis spurred her on, along with encouragement “to be individual” from the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde.
Just for one second, Ransom sounds like any other 25-year-old.
“I have a total girl crush on Lagarde, so that was unreal. I’m in awe of what she’s done.”
By Shelley Dempsey
Partner, Recovery and Transformation Service
McKinsey & Company – based in Melbourne
… because as McKinsey’s turnaround man he’s added US$2 billion value to six companies in three years.
If an Indiana Jones of the corporate world does exist, it might just be Cameron Leitch. Still under 40, he has worked in the jungles of Papua New Guinea and the streets of Amsterdam. He’s
McKinsey’s turnaround man
, revitalising troubled companies in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
Leitch describes himself as “adventurous” but “dauntless” is possibly a better word. Three and a half years ago he and Jon Garcia co-founded McKinsey’s Recovery and Transformation Service, and the turnaround man has never been afraid to turn himself around, either.
At age 24 Leitch was asked by the team at an ailing engineering firm to be their acting CFO – yet only three years earlier he had been slaving away as a chef in a professional kitchen, where a knife accident cost him part of his finger.
Leitch’s colleague Garcia once overheard him tell a manager challenging a target: “I cut off part of my finger and my boss said ‘glove up and keep working’. So my question to you is: are you going to complain or do what you promised to do?”
Leaving the kitchen at 21, he moved into resort management and software sales. When he was offered the CFO role to help a poorly performing engineering firm recover from potential bankruptcy, he simply jumped in. He readily admits he was flying by the seat of his pants.
“I had plenty of sleepless nights but it was pretty exhilarating,” Leitch recalls.
By his McKinsey clients’ own reported measurements, Leitch has added in excess of US$2 billion in value to the companies he has worked with so far. His prior experience with engineering supplies firm Hare & Forbes has given him insight into the materials and construction industries which currently make up the bulk of his clients.
“We set companies top-down targets, but they are more like incentive plans,” Leitch says.
“We try to ensure that these incentives cascade through the business and drive a new commitment. It’s about creating an ownership mindset – everybody needs to think along the lines of if they owned the business, what would they do to fix it?”
His job now is not so removed from what he was asked to do as a rookie CFO all those years ago. Back then he brought more enthusiasm than abundant knowledge to the task – and yet even after completing an MBA he still rates passion as the most important tool to bring to bear on any task he confronts.
“If you don’t wholeheartedly believe in the transformation, how on earth are you going to inspire the employees to do the same?” he asks.
Garcia says Leitch combines “real-world experience with state-of-the-art knowledge of how to make change happen”.
In turn, Leitch says many clients believe consultants are strong on theory but weak on real-world skills. He enjoys dispelling that prejudice.
“If my clients ever ask for my credentials, I tell them what I did at 24. That’s when they start to see me less as a consultant and more as a colleague.”
By Adam Courtenay
LUZ Group – based in Melbourne
… because he’s built up his business group from almost nothing and still answers customer emails himself.
As a canny 11-year-old at primary school in Melbourne, Adam Schwab bought lollies at the local milk bar and sold them at a profit to his mates on the bus home.
At high school at Caulfield Grammar, he collated final-year projects and sold them on disks to younger students. He did the same at Monash University’s Law School, selling law notes at A$89 a disk and raking in more than A$20,000.
Schwab is now managing director of Lux Group (the rebadged AussieCommerce Group) an online umbrella e-commerce group of travel, lifestyle and homewares companies, including Luxury Escapes, deals.com.au and Living Social websites. In the 2014-2015, the group turned over more than A$210 million, and it is aiming for 20 per cent annual growth.
Without venture capitalist funds or a mentor, the 36-year-old and business partner Jeremy Same have a 400-strong team spread across Australia, New Zealand, Ukraine, United States, the UK and the Philippines and claims an audience of more than 10 million people.
Schwab says it’s about leading by example.
“We are a company of doers. I’ve done almost every job in the business, from answering emails to marketing, sales and copywriting, and I still pick up the phone and talk to customers regularly."
His turning point came 18 months into a position as a lawyer with Freehills (now Herbert Smith Freehills) in mergers and acquisitions. It was then he took unpaid leave to tinker with a start-up idea.
“I never thought I’d be a lawyer forever,” he says.
In league with Same – who’d just left a job as an ANZ trader – Schwab tried an experiment. Some British friends were renting a shoddy apartment in St Kilda, and he and Same believed they could do better. With A$70,000 in savings, the pair rented apartments, furnished them and then re-leased them to backpackers.
The experiment worked so well that Schwab resigned from Freehills, and pivoted the business into leasing apartments to corporate clients, with an annual turnover of A$2 million. They later bought and sold six properties, generating a A$1 million profit, and used the windfall to set up what would become AussieCommerce.
A combination of acquisition and organic growth has seen the business grow rapidly. Schwab says he’s been able to take advantage of opportunities because he “moves close to the ground” and has built a culture of frugality from the top down.
“All the executive shareholders work in the business and most of us live in rented accommodation, drive second-hand cars, and wear old clothes,” he says.
“We don’t fly first class or live glamorous lifestyles.” The difference in wages between the management and staff isn’t much either, he adds.
Lior Harel, a friend of Schwab’s since pre-school and a former chief operating officer at AussieCommerce, corroborates this.
“Adam wants to create an accessible, fun workplace but without the corporate excesses that many start-ups display,” Harel says.
“He is very passionate about the business and across all the details, and this is reflected in his awareness of what is going on with his employees at every level.”
By Melinda Ham
Charlotte Ho FCPA
Vice-President (Corporate Audit)
Bank of America Merrill Lynch – based in Hong Kong
… because at 34 she’s monitoring the implementation of Audit’s regulatory framework in 12 Asia-Pacific markets for one of the world’s biggest name banks.
Charlotte Ho has found a sweet spot. It may well be in the eye of a gathering regulatory storm, but it’s a rare moment of tranquility in the 34-year-old’s determined pursuit of achievement.
Based in Hong Kong, she helps ensure Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s (BofAML) Asia-Pacific audit practices meet regulatory requirements.
“If I can protect the bank, then I feel good,” she says.
She is carving her niche in an expanding area of global banking. The aftermath of the financial crisis, scandals such as Libor fixing, and a determination to stamp out tax evasion and money laundering, all point to a more demanding regulatory environment. With so much at stake, back-office roles like Ho’s are becoming core concerns for global banks.
Ho joined BofAML in 2014 for a role combining compliance activities and audit – skill sets that she honed at UBS, JPMorgan, HSBC and Citigroup. Her assignment was to oversee Audit’s regulatory reporting across 12 Asia-Pacific markets, each with its own evolving system.
“The thing about Charlotte is that she not only sets about executing and fulfilling the requests, but she is able to step back … to help us develop a more consistent approach,” says Jennifer Krinke, who oversees Ho’s work as the regional head of Global Financial Crimes Audit for BofAML.
Ho’s drive to achieve began early. She began snaring merit awards in her schooldays, even before moving to Sydney at age 13. There she sat an aptitude test. Her new school let her skip a year.
Ho speaks three Chinese dialects, English, Japanese and Italian, and picked up armfuls of merit awards at school – especially in math.
“It’s very important to aim for the highest and achieve the best you can. Once you’re in that track, you set standards for yourself – and others.”
She graduated with merit from the University of New South Wales, double majoring in Accounting and Information Systems. On a visit to Hong Kong in her final year, she was hired by Ernst & Young (EY). A difference in the end of the Hong Kong and Australian academic years meant she arrived at the busiest time for corporate reporting.
“I arrived after everyone else had done their initial training,” she says.
“I didn’t have much time to pick things up.”
Still, she found time to pass her CPA exams in the first year, garnering a High Distinction.
“It’s very important to aim for the highest ... you set standards for yourself – and others.” Charlotte Ho
During her three-and-a-half years at EY, Ho focused on finance clients – including Lehman Brothers, Nomura and State Street. Her next step was to Citigroup as a manager in finance. She had exposure right across the bank’s businesses, but gravitated towards compliance and risk.
“It’s important to make key decisions quickly and achieve fast,” she says. At the early stage of her career in the financial world, Ho completed an MBA at Manchester Business School’s Hong Kong campus, while advancing her career HSBC and JPMorgan.
For the ten years at the global financial institutions – including two as a director in compliance at UBS – Ho developed her communications skills, highlighting issues to managers and getting them to accept her remedies.
“Accounting isn’t all about number crunching. Soft skills are important, too.”
Those soft skills are now Ho’s biggest asset, Krinke says. “She’s a strong, able, powerful woman.”