Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Former Reserve Bank Deputy Governor shares insights with Warrane residents

John Philips giving his speech after formal dinner

John Phillips AO KGCSG, one of Australia’s most accomplished bankers who has also had a profound influence on many aspects of Australian public life, gave residents of Warrane an intimate insight into his career when he was special guest on Wednesday 6 March 2013.

Mr Phillips is a former Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank and board member of AGL, Woolworths, QBE Insurance Group, Alcoa of Australia and WMC Ltd. His other appointments have included Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney from 2001-2010, Chairman of the Foreign Investment Review Board from 1997-2012 and more recently Chairman of Council of St John’s College within the University of Sydney.

Speaking in the College’s main common room after formal dinner, Mr Phillips explained that when he started work with the Commonwealth Bank people in the bank were not really interested in people with degrees.

“In general,” he said, “the attitude was: ‘I have done alright and I haven’t got a degree. You will learn everything you need to know, son, just by working in the bank. You will get the practical experience. That’s what you need.’”

But when his mother rang his boss at the bank he was eventually allowed time off work to attend evening lectures at the University of Sydney and he completed his degree in economics as an evening student.

In 1960 when the Commonwealth Bank was split in two and the Reserve Bank of Australia came into being he became part of the new bank.

“In a sense I stumbled into central banking which was in those days regarded as quite a mysterious profession and I think that was because of one of the very early practitioners of central banking, a fellow called Montague Norman, the Governor of the Bank of England for 24 years up until 1944 who was quite famous and also quite eccentric.

“He used to dress with a kind of opera cape, a broad brimmed black hat and he had a Van Dyke beard and when he travelled he used to always go under an assumed name – Professor Skinner. I don’t know where he got the name from but that’s how he travelled. But he was always quite enigmatic. He would indicate agreement or non-agreement by raising one eyebrow or the other.

“Now I was stuck from the start. I had a fault that I managed to keep hidden for my entire central banking career – I was totally incapable of raising one eyebrow independently from the other. So I had to find a different way of communicating with the market. I had to find a way that was more open, more friendly, more ‘transparent’, to use the common word. Now I was complimented on this and I even received an award for being open to the market and transparent. But it was a bit of a con really because I didn’t have any option – you can’t be enigmatic if you have got dyslexic eyebrows.

“Anyway, what’s the moral of that story? If you think you have got a disadvantage that is going to stop you advancing in the professional career you have chosen, my experience is that if you are persistent and you work hard you can rise above any disadvantage if you really want to do the thing you have chosen and you are happy in doing it.”

Mr Phillips said the other important thing, he had found, was prayer.

“Prayer is very important,” he said. “I would say that the one thing I have learnt in all of my career is the value of faith. I have a great belief in guardian angels and I rather hope that heaven has some kind of special incentive reward for guardian angels because the one that has been looking after me for the past eighty odd years deserves a really decent options scheme.”

Mr Phillips shared many anecdotes of experiences he had with colourful people he was in contact with while he was at the Reserve Bank, including the then Australian Treasurer Paul Keating, Treasury Secretary John Stone, and economist and public servant Herbert Cole “Nugget” Coombs. He also spoke of his involvement in the “Khemlani loans affair” that rocked the Whitlam Labor Government in the 1970s, his role in establishing Australia’s plastic currency notes, the part he played in establishing Australia’s Catholic University and many roles in the Catholic Church.

Mr Phillips advised students in the audience not to plan too far ahead in their professional careers because he said things would change so much and many unforeseen opportunities would open up to them. “The world will change,” he said, “ and you will change with it.” Everything he had done in his own professional career had been the result of happenstance and coincidence.

Other suggestions he made to students in the audience included:

  • Emulate the character in Pilgrim’s Progress, “Mr Valiant-for-truth”. “Keep honesty, objectivity and fairness to others as your watchwords.”
  • Strive to be “both clever and good because the ethical situation in our world has been going downhill for quite a long time and the only way to change that is for all the good people to stand up and shout out: ‘This has got to change’.”
  • Think beyond professional careers and become involved in the church, the community and charitable activities. This was important not only because everyone has talents to share, but also because it is “enjoyable and rewarding”: “All the great men and women I have met – and I have met quite a few – have been contributors well outside of their professional careers.”
  • Learn how to listen to others: “You never know where good advice will come from. It is not the preserve of the intellectual, nor is it limited to those who like you or agree with you.”
  • Try to encourage talents in others: “More people have been lifted to the top by the efforts of people who encouraged them, than have reached the top by climbing over the dead bodies of people they have pushed aside… great leaders encourage talent, bad leaders discourage it. They see it as competition and they undermine it.”

Finally, Mr Phillips urged residents to be sure to spend time with their families, particularly when their children are growing up. He said that when he looked back he felt that his own children did not receive “their fair share of my time”. “The saying used to be ‘take time to smell the roses’,” he said. “I agree with that, but take time to smell them with your family.”

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]