JUST one day with the new chairman of AMP, Simon McKeon, and you quickly realise that philanthropy is not a “feelgood” add-on. He lives and breathes altruism. But curiously that doesn’t make him feel great at all.
“I am not that good,” he says, looking crestfallen at my flattery.
“Compared to many people that I’ve seen, I’m a person who actually doesn’t do much and hasn’t made much sacrifice. I know people who get no credit but who’ve given up all sorts of opportunities to work hidden away with refugees, heroinaddicts.”
Then he confides to me almost tearfully that he is overwhelmed by the amount of suffering he sees but cannot fix. He remains self-deprecating despite being voted Australian of the Year in 2011 for his humanitarianism.
In stark contrast to his surprising displays of tenderness, McKeon, 58, is the much-lauded chairman of Macquarie Group’s Melbourne office based in the temple of capitalism: 101 Collins Street. He is chairman of the CSIRO and on many boards, jobs that require a certain toughness of soul. Playing ball with the cut-throat and well-heeled could be at odds with his compassion and spirituality but for the fact he has many top-end-of-town supporters. Macquarie Group pulls out all stops to help the less fortunate.
Adding to his corporate responsibilities, he is his taking up the reins at AMP this week. An article by respected business commentator John Durie welcomed him to the role under the headline “Heavenly timing as Saint Simon takes chair”.
McKeon has been involved with World Vision for 15 years; he is chairman of Global Poverty Project Australia and of Business for Millennium Development, which was formed in 2000 by the largest coming together of world leaders in history, where they committed their countries to a partnership to cut poverty. Today he plans to ring his contact Bono to help with a project.
But Durie’s soubriquet “Saint Simon” is not a label he is prepared to wear. “There are very few saints around who only do everything selflessly and I’m not one of them … I could never be the full-time carer of a person with a profound disability. I don’t have the patience.” Touching his hand to his heart, he says: “All I know is, with all the things I do, I try to ensure there’s something that gets right into the middle of me and answers my need to be fulfilled.”
Despite his protestations against saintliness, following him around filming is intimidating. It’s hard not to feel that one has wasted one’s life on frivolous, selfish pursuits when watching him reach out with kindness to disabled children at the Summer Foundation fundraising luncheon, kids who’ve been put in old-age nursing homes because of a lack of funding for proper facilities; or rallying funds for Africa; or attending an intense meeting at Macquarie headquarters with people who need money to fight brain disease.
He does not do “detached” philanthropy from his hip pocket. He confronts heartbreak head on, and survives the pain by using practicality. “My job is often connecting people from different sectors,” he says. “I really enjoy spreading myself around between government, business and not-for-profit.”
Working 12 hours a day to fulfil his various roles, McKeon appears to be driven in his humanitarian efforts by the love of his sister Diane. She is intellectually disabled. I meet her at his home on the beautiful Mornington Peninsula as she helps prepare lunch.
“My earliest memories are of an older sister who I could sort of figure out was going to lead a very different life to me,” he says, nodding kindly towards her.
He has spent a lifetime helping her, including taking on her son and daughter when she couldn’t cope, increasing his family from four sons to six children.
He has also endured tragic events like finding out he has multiple sclerosis at a time when his nephew, who he was raising at the time, died in a train accident. He walked along the beach railing at God.
“Indeed, I shouted out to a god (he raises a fist towards the sky) and said, ‘Why have you allowed these tragic things to occur?’ The important thing is not to stay angry, not to stay bitter, not to stay defeated but to roll up the sleeves and do something about it. It’s good to self-pity for a little while, to let it all out, to cry, to complain. But we’re not going to achieve a whole lot if that’s all we do.”
He remains an optimist, full of energy.
“MS has actually given me a taste of what, say, a near-death experience might have been like and I’ve come out the other side never wanting to waste a day.”
I ask if his own suffering accounts for him wanting to help other people who are in pain. He looks aghast at the comparison.
“My suffering is a fraction of what so many other people have suffered. I wouldn’t do much if it was based on my suffering. No … I’m interested in engaging with a hurting world because, ultimately, that’s what turns me on.”
He describes giving to others as a selfish pleasure.
“I wish others would be motivated by that pleasure too.”
He has also gone through a painful separation from his wife. There was controversy at the time, but in an extremely rare act of respect (for McKeon), the media left the story alone. His torment is evident. Speaking for the first time about it, his new partner Heather by his side, McKeon admits it’s been tough: “One spends a lot of time examining whether one behaved appropriately. It’s been a time of great personal angst and sorrow in many respects.”
Given the fact that post-global financial crisis corporate philanthropy is inching its way back up — $US18.15 billion in the US last year — and with some of our own leaders like Andrew Forrest and his wife Nicola pledging half their wealth to humanitarian projects, does he think there is spirituality and altruism in business?
“Business is just a subset of humanity. Some of us are spiritual, some of us are not; some of us are generous, some less so. People see success as just crushing the other side. That may be necessary once or twice in a blue moon, but most of the time it’s the classic seeking out a win-win situation that’s the best for everyone.
McKeon, an avid yachtsman, says: “If you just go around thinking that every negotiation is like a yacht race, to get first over the line and crush the opposition, that’s a very short-sighted way of trying to achieve business success. Altruism is fabulous for the bottom line; it just means that the bottom line grows how it should.”
What about the view that for the very rich, altruism equates to a tax dodge?
“No, not at all. Anyone who does anything — particularly philanthropy — just focused on the tax benefits ends up making a sub-optimal decision.”
He many not feel he does enough, but he is sated by his efforts.
“So often we are conditioned to believe that the meaning of life is the trite, the fancy car, the fancy place and the best holidays …
“Now, I like that sort of stuff,” he admits with a slight grin, “but at the end of the day that’s got to be the subject of limitation. My own experience is, if that’s the whole of it, then there’s something lacking.”
And despite obvious self-doubt he maintains he is comfortable in his own skin.
“The only person we spend our entire lives with is ourselves,” he says, “and if we don’t get on well with ourselves we are on a road destined to unhappiness.”
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