February 2018

Leigh Clifford’s spectacular journey

  • By Leo D’Angelo Fisher

Leigh Clifford spent nearly 40 years working for Rio Tinto, and the lessons he learned in mining have carried across into the boardroom at one of the world’s most iconic airlines

The name Leigh Clifford is inextricably linked with Australia’s mining industry and leviathan miner Rio Tinto, even though it’s been ten years since Clifford hung up his pick and shovel and retired as Rio’s chief executive. Clifford spent 37 years with Rio Tinto Group, the last seven as CEO. But it’s what he did next that caught observers by surprise.

Clifford was appointed chairman of Qantas at the airline’s 2007 annual general meeting. A decade on, he is as much a part of Qantas as the flying kangaroo itself, but at the time his appointment was jarring in some quarters. One media outlet underlined the unusual move with the headline: ‘Ex-Broken Hill engineer new Qantas chairman.’

The headline was accurate, as far as it went, but it short-changed one of Australia’s most accomplished corporate leaders.

Corporate Australia, like Hollywood, can tend to typecast executives. Not a few board chiefs and headhunters would have scratched their heads at the appointment of a mining company CEO as chairman of Qantas.

But if Clifford’s ten years in the job don’t dispel any lingering reservations, a rare insight into the workings of his boardroom should. Qantas director Todd Sampson, lauding his chairman as ‘amazing’ and ‘decisive’, told The Australian:

‘He knows when we need to have the conversation and debate and when we don’t. Leigh ran a big company. He knows very well the lines that boards should cross and should not cross when it comes to executives. He knows when the board should be involved and not involved and he manages that brilliantly.’

Prior to landing his first job in Broken Hill in 1970 as an ‘assistant to the assistant surveyor’ with Conzinc Riotinto of Australia (CRA), Clifford completed a Bachelor of Engineering (Mining) and a Master of Engineering Science degree at the University of Melbourne.

From his humble start in Broken Hill unfolded a remarkable career with Rio Tinto companies.

‘I got great experience working for Rio Tinto. I worked in myriad different roles and each role was challenging,’ Clifford says.

‘Mining is cyclical and times can be tough or they can be booming. One of the early lessons for me was that you’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt.’

Leadership roles included London-based Mining Director of RTZ Corporation, in which he had responsibility for investments in southern Africa, the US, Canada and Latin America, and Chief Executive of the Rio Tinto Energy group, the position he held when he succeeded Leon Davis as CEO in 2000.

As for where it all began in Broken Hill as the ‘assistant’s assistant’, Clifford went on to become Managing Director of CRA in 1996. And the assistant surveyor also went on to bigger and better things: Peter Coates is the chairman of Santos.

So what is the secret of advancing one’s career in an organisation?

‘Don’t spend all your time working out how you’re going to weave your way to the top,’ Clifford says.

‘The important thing is to focus on the task you’ve got and try to do it to the best of your ability. You’ll shine through if you’ve got the ability.’

Clifford also recalls that in his first job as a mining engineer, he took every opportunity to work underground.

‘Working underground enabled me to understand the challenges facing underground employees who are going to spend their whole life working underground,’ he says.

‘It also gave me credibility in later years when I was talking to people about safety issues.’

For the first-time leader, Clifford has a simple warning: you’re going to make mistakes.

‘Hopefully you’ve observed good people in leadership roles and you’ve thought about it. Once you’re in the role, all you can do is give it your best shot and the reality is you’re going to make mistakes,’ he says.

‘No one is successful unless they’ve made mistakes. Leadership isn’t about gambling – it’s about calculated risk-taking and occasionally some of the actions won’t succeed.’

Mining companies are often global businesses, so those who rise to leadership positions tend to have a global perspective. Clifford says there is only one way to achieve this.

‘Everybody can talk about having a global perspective, but it’s only when you’ve had to work and sell in those countries as I did – Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Pakistan, India, Latin America – that you get a totally different perspective,’ he says.

‘It brings home to you the challenges that people face in different environments and the fact that you can do things differently.’

Clifford says one of the most rewarding aspects of working at Rio Tinto over 37 years was the people.

‘I’ve been lucky to work with some fabulous people,’ he says.

Among them he names his predecessor Leon Davis, former CRA chairman Sir Roderick Carnegie, former CRA CEO John Ralph, former Rio Tinto chairman Sir Robert Wilson, and Rio Tinto executive Tom Barlow, ‘the person who really built Hamersley’.

At a celebration in Perth last year to mark the 50th anniversary of Rio Tinto’s first shipment of iron ore from Western Australia to Japan, Clifford paid tribute to Barlow for his involvement in the early construction of Hamersley and later as head of Rio Tinto’s iron ore business. Barlow played an instrumental role in attracting Chinese investment into the Channar iron ore project in the Pilbara region with joint venture partner Sinosteel.

‘Perth was built on the Pilbara,’ Clifford told Fairfax Media.

With evident pride in the mining industry that was his calling for almost 40 years, Clifford laments that the industry may be losing the battle for young hearts and minds – the miners, engineers and executives of tomorrow.

‘We are a very urbanised society; most Australians haven’t seen a mine and are somewhat oblivious to career opportunities in the mining industry,’ he says.

‘I think we’ve got to be speaking out more, explaining more and putting it in a fashion that the people understand. It may be that at times we are too coy. We ought to be more outspoken about the impact of the resources sector.

‘We’ve got to recognise shifts in the media. Social media is the way people get their information now. How good are we at using social media? We’ve got to be social media savvy.’

It may sound unusual for a distinguished corporate leader of Clifford’s vintage discussing the merits of social media, but his career at Rio Tinto was marked by a determination to modernise – whether in the use of technology, work practices or microeconomic reform.

In 1988, as Managing Director of Kembla Coal and Coke, he warned that the Australian coal industry was in danger of becoming globally uncompetitive because of restrictive work practices.

‘The losers will be the companies and the workforces that are reluctant or unable to change. The winners will be those who do change,’ he told a business audience.

Global competitiveness is an issue that still concerns him.

‘The Australian resources industry is very well regarded internationally, but that doesn’t mean we don’t stub our toe from time to time,’ Clifford tells the AusIMM Bulletin.

‘We’re in a competitive world and we’ve got to make sure that every opportunity for sensible capital investment is taken because investors have alternatives. Occasionally we forget we are in competition.’

Clifford is often remembered as an advocate for workplace reform, but his desire for greater productivity was tempered with concern for workers’ health and safety.

It was a point he made at a 2002 address to the Melbourne Mining Club. By this time he was chief executive of Rio Tinto.

‘[A]ny company in any industry that is not conscious of workplace health and safety is going to find difficulties,’ he said. ‘The community expects that any employee who goes to work in a company like ours will return home uninjured for every day of their working lives and I think that’s not unique to the mining industry.’

When Clifford accepted the job at Qantas, it meant returning to Australia from London.

‘When I thought about what I wanted to do post-Rio, I wanted a non-executive career and it had to be something interesting and hopefully a role in which I could make a difference,’ he recalls.

‘I also made up my mind that I wanted to live in Australia and visit London as opposed to the other way around.’

That has the makings of an excellent commercial for Qantas.

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