Written on the 4 February 2016 by Jenna Rathbone


JOHN Witheriff appears to be the boss of everything these days, but the lofty roles he holds are joined by a common thread, and that is to effect change for the better.

Born and bred on the Gold Coast, Witheriff has strong ties to the local community with roles on a range of boards including chair of GoldLinQ, chair of the Gold Coast Suns, chair of the Nexus Consortium and member of the Commonwealth Games board.

"I am blessed to have had a very interesting legal career and a very interesting business career; I have been able to contribute to the development of this region to ensure it is a better place than when I grew up here as a young boy," says Witheriff, one of the forces behind Minter Ellison Gold Coast and the current chair of partners at the firm.

Witheriff sat down with Business News Australia to chat about the highs and lows of his career, including discussing a standout case that always sits in the back of his mind and is the catalyst for his next venture.

Did you always want to be a lawyer?

I always wanted to be a lawyer but I must say that I didn't imagine I would grow up to be the chairman of an AFL football club or the chairman of an operator of the light rail or a toll road. 

I was, and still am, very passionate about individual rights and I enjoyed very much working with Chris Nyst in the activities that we undertook in those early years of practice when we were very effective in supporting the rights of people who are subject to the justice system. 

As my career evolved, I moved away from that type of law and into this area of governance and risk management and then those skills have caused me to move into this area of work delivering major projects. 

Who has been your biggest influence?

In business, as in life generally, you have to live by some values and I suppose the person who has had the greatest influence was my father.  He was one of a small group of survivors on a naval vessel called the Yarra. I think there were about 250 on board and, of those after Japanese cruisers sunk the boat there was a group of about eight or 12 that survived.  My father was one of that World War II group and he had this philosophy that, in all things you do, you should expect to give more than you expect in return.  He used to refer to it as a 60-40 philosophy.  And all through my life I have found that if you roll your sleeves up and do things for others, it is quite amazing how you are rewarded in unexpected ways.  I guess that has been an overarching value of mine which my father shared with me. That is why I would say that he is the dominant influence and the one who has shaped my thinking. 

How do you manage your time?

I have very tolerant partners and a very, very tolerant wife who I have been married to since 1983.  I think that has really been the secret of finding the time to do things that I find really fascinating and interesting.  I guess it is like anything, if you find it interesting and enjoyable then you find time.  You just work later or you skip weekends or you do it in a way that is better and smarter.  I must add that I am blessed with the people in the organisations that I chair.  Phil Mumford at the light rail is a very talented chief executive officer; there is a very talented chief executive officer at the Gold Coast Suns in Andrew Travis; I have enormous time for Mark Peters at the Commonwealth Games; and John Hagen is the CEO of the Nexus Consortium and is a very talented young man.  I guess the secret is you can do most things if you have an effective team and good leadership, and that is something I have been lucky enough to build.

Can you tell me a little bit about your leadership style?

Firstly, I think the role of a leader is to have a clear vision and, secondly, that vision must be, in large, the product of the team you are going to lead.  Without that, you don't have team buy-in and without team buy-in you can't get implementation. 

Also, headroom for the leadership team to get on with delivering the job is important.  In other words, you have got to encourage people to take calculated risks; they have to feel like it is their responsibility to do it and they don't simply exist to do what you want them to do.  If all that happens is they simply wait for a direction from the leader, then the whole organisation chokes. 

And, finally, accountability for the leadership team is critical; without those hard adult conversations that need to be had from time to time, it is impossible to ensure that people deliver on the commitments they made. 

I think if you can deliver on those four points you can actually do anything and I think that has been my greatest learning. Those four principals are the core to leadership success. 

Can you list some of the biggest achievements of your career?

Others might point to physical things like roads, light rail, football clubs, stadiums and things like that, but for me the greatest achievement is to be part of a group that has developed fine people. 

I've had the opportunity, particularly in this law firm, to work with young people who have developed into fine people and fine lawyers.  Also, I have seen young chief executive officers in other organisations develop and go on to great success; people like Travis Auld for example who is now a senior fellow at the AFL. 

It is good for me to drive around and see things that have happened. When I see a light rail vehicle trundling along the road I think that is good or when I drive past Metricon Stadium I think it will be fantastic when the Commonwealth Games start to roll out.  But I think people development has been the most satisfying part of my career.

What have been some of the biggest challenges of your career?

I think the biggest challenge has been the cyclical nature of the economy on the Gold Coast in the 80s, 90s, 2000s.  The tragedy is that the economy on the Gold Coast was largely one driven by tourism and property demands, so population shifted tourism demand.  I've spent eight years as chairman of the Tourism Development Board encouraging diversification of the economy and I am proud of the fact the Gold Coast has developed a strong educational base and it has a strong health and medical industry as well.  But the reality is I am not confident. When we move into another downturn, as we inevitably will, it might be five or six years away, but I am not confident we still have enough diversification.

My involvement originally with sport and sport infrastructure was that we identified education, health and sporting infrastructure as industries that would complement tourism and population shift as drivers of demand.  We identified there was a need for sporting infrastructure and it was as a result of that that drove my involvement in establishing the AFL team on the Gold Coast.  Up until then I had nothing to do with AFL; in fact, I had never been to an AFL game.  I am very pleased that we will have, before the next cyclical downturn, established the sporting infrastructure that will support a sports industry in the city.  Over a 10-year period, the Suns by themselves will inject over $1 billion of economic activity into the city.

But I am still concerned that when we reach the same cyclical downturn we will have families split apart, like we saw at the beginning of this decade when people were doing fly-in-fly-out jobs.  To me that remains the greatest challenge and one of our risks is the Gold Coast is going to feel really good for the next four or five years. There will be lots of jobs, lots of development, the dollar is low, the tourism industry is strong, there is lots of employment but people lose sight of the fact that we will inevitably move into a downturn and, if we have not prepared for it, we are going to do it tough like we did five or six years ago.  And of course that reflects across everything; it reflects across all business.

Do you have a case that you have worked on that is always in the back of your mind?

It's funny, I have been involved in many different and varied cases over my career.  But there's one that I always remember. I was representing a fellow who was driving a car with his nephew in the passenger seat. They had a car accident and the nephew was killed.  He was charged with dangerous driving causing death and the family was there.  The boy's mother, who was this fellow's sister, was there right throughout the trial.  The sister pleaded with the judge when he was ultimately found guilty, saying 'what possible good could it be I've lost my son, what possible good could be served by sending my brother to prison'.

The judge felt constrained to send him to prison and to walk with him down to the cells after that trial was probably a moment I will never forget.  The intensity of that impact of someone losing their liberty is an experience that I will never forget.  That caused me to have a view that it is critical that everyone fights for the preservation and maintenance of the integrity of our institutions.  I guess I am troubled at times by the fallibility of some institutions and that is something, when I get more time, I will become more passionate about to ensure we never lose sight of the impact on these institutions on people's liberties and therefore the absolute essential requirement that these institutions function independently and not become the play-things of the wealthy and powerful.  But that isn't quite me yet. I need a bit more time and I need some of the passion of Chris Nyst to ignite that.

What makes the Gold Coast such a great place to live, work and play?

There are two things for me - firstly of course, the natural environment.  But the other thing that I have always loved about the Gold Coast is the attitude of people who come here.  A lot of the people on the Gold Coast have come from somewhere else; they have come here aspiring to have a better life than where they were before and that aspirational attitude drives everything here.  There is a real can-do attitude and it is funny to tap into.  I remember at one stage with the AFL, when we were trying to secure the Suns license, we needed 20,000 committed supporters and at that stage we had about 4000 and we were subject to some criticism from Melbourne and Brisbane.  That criticism seemed to bide with Gold Coast people and within the space of three weeks we went from 4000 to about 42,000 people.

In other words, Gold Coast people are happy sort of getting on with their own lives until other people decide to poke fun at them and then they act as one with determination that is hard to comprehend. I just love that part of the Gold Coast.

Author: Jenna Rathbone
About: Jenna Rathbone is a Queensland-based journalist who writes on a range of issues including business and property affairs and social issues.
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