Total Success: Lindsay Fox
TOTAL Success is a six-week Inquirer series – complemented by unique videos – written and directed by Ruth Ostrow, which showcases six of Australia’s most influential and charismatic business leaders talking about deeply personal subjects such as death, love and God. This week, trucking magnate Lindsay Fox talks about how friendship is the driving force of his life.
“WELL, he’s naughty. He’s cheeky. He’s the diamond in the rough,” says Peter Fox, head of the vast Linfox empire about his dad, the larger-than-life Lindsay Fox. “Some people would get to the position he’s got to and their head would go up their arse like they are above anyone else. My father, to the day he leaves this earth, will always remain humble.”
Lindsay Fox founded Linfox in 1956. The private transport juggernaut now has a turnover of $3 billion and a staff of more than 20,000 in the Asia-Pacific region under the reins of eldest son Peter. Lindsay remains grateful for his success and, despite extraordinary time pressures, he has always put friendship and family at the heart of everything.
One of his best friends, retailing kingpin Solomon Lew, with whom he tried to buy the ailing Ansett Airlines in 2001, last year threw a massive 75th birthday for Fox. The joke around town was that if a bomb went off, half the world would be without business leaders or politicians. The walls of his St Kilda road headquarters in Melbourne are filled with photographs of dignitaries including Princess Diana, the Pope, world presidents and business royalty, including one of his dearest friends, Richard Pratt.
“I’m a great believer in friendship. Friendship you have to earn, networking you can buy.”
His desk is also littered with photos. As well as formal shots, there are intimate ones of his large family – he’s had six children and 14 grandchildren with his wife of more than 50 years, Paula. Then there are his regular knockabout mates, snorkelling, skiing, having fun. He is famed for having a good time. In the middle of doing his rounds at Linfox’s Essendon office, the ex-Aussie rules football player stops in front of an employee’s AFL poster for a chorus of footy songs. “Good old Collingwood forever, we know how to play the game,” he sings, egging his office on. It’s hard to focus the camera because suddenly voices are coming from behind partitioned desks. A far cry from most sterile corporate offices. Such is the folksy feeling around him.
So what is it about this rather physically intimidating man that attracts friends? Is it his playful irreverence?
“I’m so good-looking. That’s what it is.” He grins, thinks for a moment, then adds: “It’s the way I part my hair,” and strokes his bald pate. He jokes that many people think he is Jewish because of his love of Yiddish and his sense of humour. Then adds that he’s not because he would never sacrifice “that little bit”. A moment later he quips, “Well, actually it wasn’t always that little.”
Suddenly serious, he says: “What they see is what they get. You can’t pretend you are not what you are. I’ve never moved away from the kid who grew up on the streets of Prahran. Even my wife gets upset that I come out with my shirt undone to my belly button. She begs me to buy new shirts,” he says, pointing to his belly to show just how tight the old one is. “But I’m comfortable in my old ones.”
He is adamant about the value of friendship. “To get respect you’ve got to give respect. I know I look after people. The time to be a friend is when someone needs a friend. If someone is down and out you need to be there for them, not when they are on top of the world.” I know this firsthand. He gave me a break as a budding finance journalist many years ago when I was struggling to build a name and get a few big interviews under my belt.
“The compassion started years ago, watching how Mum and Dad looked after people who were down and out. In those days if your neighbour didn’t have a leg of lamb you’d give him a leg of lamb.”
There’s plenty of research that says friendship is an important business tool. Indeed friendship is the new corporate buzzword, with some companies such as Google and renowned online retailer Zappos famous for cultivating bonds between staff. And Gallup poll has recently found that when people have close mates at work, their satisfaction with their job increases a whopping 50 per cent and they are seven times likelier to engage fully in their work.
Fox doesn’t need the scientific evidence to prove the value of “bromance”. He has always cultivated friendships. In his early days, he was lent money to buy his first truck: “People helped me without regard to the bottom line. They know that I’m a great believer that a promise made is a debt unpaid.”
Success hasn’t made him immune from personal blows like the suicide of his son Michael in 1991. Does he have a spiritual practice that helps him come to terms with such sadness?
“I often go to church by myself and pray. I don’t think of God riding a horse or riding on a cloud, no, no that’s a bit like Disneyland. I believe in faith, faith and the spirit. They’re the two things that nine out of 10 people are going to revert to when the chips are down.”
He maintains he loves people, but then gets reflective and visibly upset when asked the million-dollar question: How can you love our human species when there is such cruelty in the world?
“You can’t reconcile man’s inhumanity to man.” He is alarmed by the atrocities he has seen. “I don’t know what you can do to stop it. But what you can do throughout your life is to try and make the community that you live in the best you can, so that the impact extends to the state and the state to the nation.”
Fox was awarded an AO for his philanthropy and work with youth suicide.
Not that he isn’t tough. “Caveat emptor, buyer beware,” he jokes of himself. When I ask him what makes him not like someone, his face hardens to steely ruthlessness: “Betrayal.” Offenders “never get a second chance”.
So he’s a “do not cross me” kind of guy?
“I don’t know about that” – still the steely look. I admit to him that sometimes I find him a bit scary.
“It’s my bite.”
Didn’t they used to call him “snake eyes” because he narrows his eyes and looks through you?
“I do that.”
And while he will do anything for a friend, he isn’t necessarily a peaceful neighbour. He has had ongoing problems with residents surrounding his home in Portsea, including the right to land his helicopter. He has angered many Victorians with his recent boon – being awarded title to a $5 million slice of prime beachfront land in front of his Portsea mansion after a lengthy battle for it, which opponents argued was crown land and should be open to the public and could set a beach-grabbing precedent.
But he isn’t fazed. “I never shy away from a fight if I think I’m right.”
So, what does he fear? He stares long and hard, and replies: “Nothing.” Does he fear death? “No. God, no. I can face death tomorrow. I enjoy life. Life has been marvellous to me. If I could start my story with ‘Once upon a time’, mine is the typical fairytale that probably every kid in the world wished could happen to him.” Yes, a fairytale, but one in which many would say he “made his own luck”.
So what does he want on his epitaph? He chuckles: “Another Fox has passed.”