Today marks the beginning of “Entrepreneurs Week”, a collaboration between the Adelaide Entrepreneurship Forum, Brand South Australia, Adelaide City Council, the State Government and other stakeholders.
But Marcus Bailey, managing director of corporate advisory firm Fortis Ago and co-founder of entrepreneurial networking group The Engine Room, says SA is yet to embrace a culture of success.
“The worst thing in SA is that a lot of our clients don’t want to talk about their successes, because heaven forbid you’re successful in SA,” he said in a recent interview with Adelaide business podcast Rooster Radio.
“Someone once told me that Adelaide eats its young, and being a [then] 31-year-old business owner I can guarantee that not many people wanted to see me be a 32-year-old business owner… you store that in the back of your mind.”
His comments echo the recent sentiments of SA Investment Attraction Agency chief Rob Chapman, who lamented in an earlier podcast that “tall poppy syndrome is alive and well” in Adelaide.
Bailey said a political culture that railed against wealth was conspiring to stifle business growth.
“Unfortunately, economies only build off stories and if you’re not telling your best stories you’re not going to have people aspiring to that level,” he said.
But Bailey, who said his company had facilitated around $434 million of mergers and acquisitions in the last 18 months, insists “Adelaide is the easiest place” in Australia to turn his trade.
“We feel like the market is so plentiful here… no-one else is going as hard as we are [so] it’s quite easy to make money,” he said.
He nominated healthcare, food production and alternate infrastructure as sectors ripe for investment, but lamented a political mindset that failed to emulate the successes of the world’s “smart economies”.
“Australia loves talking about stuff – we’re building an NBN network that I still think will be redundant the day they open it… we do things like iron ore and then wonder why, when the prices come off, our economy looks the way it does,” he said.
“I don’t think our political cycle allows that longer term horizon… every time we have a surplus these days we just plough it into people’s pockets or infrastructure projects [but] conventional wisdom says when you’re in a gold rush, you save some money for the times that the gold runs out – we don’t do that.”
He said the “great economies around the world have a much longer political cycle which generally allows for longer term investment”, and the “true leaders” of those economies are not politicians, but “the top-tier entrepreneurs”.
“Politicians talk in political tones which I don’t think the common person understands and it’s all just, in my opinion, rubbish,” he said, adding a covert dig at the Weatherill Government’s contentious O-Bahn extension.
“You don’t have to save three minutes on your commute if you don’t have three minutes more of work,” he said.
Bailey argued SA had a prospective competitive edge through fostering innovation, but was failing to do so because of an outdated education system and a culture that hadn’t learned to celebrate failure.
“Through failure you learn a lot,” he said.
“You learn more cross checks, you learn how to approach that next deal, because you never want that feeling of failure again… we need to embrace that for people to learn and go forward.
“Unfortunately, in conservative economies if you fail once, get out – you’re off the map!”
Bailey said in five years of secondary school and three years of university, “in all that time I met maybe one entrepreneur, who was the CEO of the Australian Institute of Management… but if you turbo-charge that to say ‘hey, here’s a slightly different path for all you people that are thinking differently’, it would have allowed me to feel a lot more comfortable with how I viewed the world and allow me to do what I did a little bit earlier, and I wish that had happened.”
He said he had spoken to business course administrators “and said ‘hey, I think you guys need to start getting a different level of experience rather than getting the branch manager of Westpac in every second month’… and I got a pretty muted response”.
“I sat down with universities and said ‘you guys are sitting on a gold mine with your resources… if you teach people to think entrepreneurially you could be creating some of the world’s leading assets here’… and once again got a pretty muted response,” he said.
“My perspective is universities are fat and lazy… I did commerce and I got taught by a lecturer, I didn’t get taught by a business person. It’s like doing medicine and being taught by a guy that’s read a medical book.
“I look back and I’m pretty annoyed at the university education I had – I thought it was just absolutely horseshit.”
He said a theory based education approach reflected Australia’s risk-averse business culture, wherein “not once was I ever taught about business creation and entrepreneurialism”.
That in turn is fuelled by an ingrained tall-poppy syndrome, essentially a “grudge against the rich”, a far cry from the US culture of “aspirational wealth”.
“If people are rich in America, people look up to them and ask for advice… here, you have to hide away and not tell anyone,” said Bailey.
He said that mindset permeated his Engine Room project, for whose participants “it was a place to come and feel normal and get away from it”.
The 36-year-old said he “wouldn’t have that many peers that I can necessarily hang around and feel normal”.
“I think entrepreneurs want to be in a community where they feel normal, I really don’t think entrepreneurs want to have the tall poppy syndrome and be told they’re shit every day because they’re successful,” he said.
“It’s sad seeing great people who can probably add to the community here leave, and unfortunately I’m in an age bracket where of the people I grew up with don’t live here anymore.”
He said the key to owning his own business was to “just be pushy, ruthless, competitive and greedy”.
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