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

KPMG CEO speaks on corporate responsibility

Geoff Wilson, former CEO of KPMG in Australia

When he spoke at Warrane on 3 October, 2012, Mr Geoff Wilson, the Chief Executive Officer in Australia of KPMG outlined his firm’s commitment to “giving back to the community”.

Mr Wilson, who was appointed as CEO of KPMG in January 2008, said there were three areas that he was particularly passionate about – working with the Australian Business in the Community Network (ABCN), helping to promote equal opportunity for women in the workforce and in particular leadership and helping Australia’s indigenous communities.

Outlining his own background, he said he came from the south-western suburbs of Sydney, went to a public school and studied Commerce/Law at UNSW in first year but had decided to focus solely on Commerce after that, finishing his degree in 1979.

He joined KPMG “pretty much straight out of university”, went into the audit side of the business and had an opportunity to work across a variety of industries, including energy and natural resources, financial services, manufacturing and telecommunications.

He became a partner in 1990, and after eight years was asked to move to California where he worked in Silicon Valley which was at the height of the tech boom – a life changing period for him and for his wife and three boys. When he returned to Australia three years later, he took over as head of audit at KPMG, before becoming CEO.

He said he had been fortunate that KPMG promoted a “nurturing culture” which had given him a chance to learn from people higher up in the firm. “When I look back over my career, I can recall five or six people who have really stood out and have gone out of their way to help me at key points of my career,” he said. “That creates an obligation to seek out ways in which you can help others progress.”

Mr Wilson said KPMG’s commitment to the wider community was something that helped the firm to attract graduates. “It’s one of the endearing and attractive characteristics of the organisation,” he said. “It really does define who we are as an organisation. An organisation of our size does have a responsibility. We clearly have a voice and we are able to exert influence and so we have an obligation to speak out and to influence things where we can make a difference and impact society’s views on things for good.”

Mr Wilson said that the Australian Business in the Community Network was devoted to helping large firms to work with disadvantaged schools. His own firm was engaged in assisting Auburn Girls High in Sydney. To illustrate the work it does in the school, he told the story of a teenage girl from Afghanistan who came to Australia as a refugee after all of the members of her family had been killed in various acts of violence.

The firm had given her guidance and help, and supplied her with a scholarship to help her through school and then another scholarship to enable her to undertake six months secondment to the United States.

“It was life-changing for her and she is now embarking on a journalistic career with the intention of going back to Afghanistan to report on what is happening there,” he said. “Sometimes you can make a profound impact on one person’s life. You can never be sure when those opportunities are going to present themselves.”

On diversity and inclusion, Mr Wilson said he was absolutely committed to equality in the workplace to achieve a diverse and inclusive workforce. “You might be aware that the ASX has recently put in place guidelines for corporates to ramp up the number of females on boards,” he said. “What we are finding in society is that the number of women leaders is significantly less than men..

“And so there are a number of programs that organisations are running to enhance diversity in the workforce and we certainly have programs to focus on that.”

While KPMG recruited about 400 graduates each year with an equal proportion of men and women, only 18 per cent of our current partners are women.. “So that is not good enough and there are a variety of reasons for that,” he said. “It’s mostly a function of the flexible life choices that women are faced with at different stages, but we need to focus on how we create opportunities for greater flexibility with the objective of increasing the proportion of women in leadership roles and as partners. Our longer term objective is to get closer to 50/50 right across the business,” he said. “It’s an important goal for us. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s the bright thing to do.

“It’s the right thing to do for our business because, at the end of the day talent is equally dispersed between men and women on the planet. If we’re not maintaining a workforce that is in that balance, by definition we are not maintaining the maximum talent that we can possibly retain in our organisation.”

He said he had chaired a diversity leadership board to work on the problem and to overcome ”unconscious bias” in the firm: “Nobody ever goes out of their way to discriminate in any way and yet there are things that happen in all workplaces that result in a different outcome to what you are looking for.”

He had also agreed to a request from Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick to become a male “champion of change”. “I would encourage you as future leaders in your field to keep an eye out for diversity and inclusion because it doesn’t just happen, despite the fact that it’s the right thing to do,” he said.

On the subject of indigenous engagement, Mr Wilson outlined a number of ways in which his firm was trying to help to bridge the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, mainly through its involvement with Jawun: Indigenous Corporate Partnerships.

“Our people go into indigenous communities to help them to build business programs, skill transfers and so on,” he said. “They can be there for four weeks, six months, twelve months. Some have decided to leave their job and commit for an indefinite period – it has such an impact on them.

KPMG had been involved with Jawun for the past four years and 100 of its employees had gone on secondment.

Mr Wilson encouraged Warrane’s residents to think about how they could make contributions to the wider society and to “think big”.

“Never underestimate the difference that you as an individual and working with others can make to other people’s lives,” he said.

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