$750m man Greg Poche sells the joy of giving
SUE WILLIAMS | THE AUSTRALIAN | DECEMBER 30, 2011 12:00AM
Greg Poche, the nation’s most generous philanthropist, says it is ‘enormously satisfying to give and see amazing things happen’.
Picture: Dan Himbrechts | Source: The Australian
HANGING in the foyer of the Melanoma Institute of Australia is a photograph of businessman Greg Poche, looking relaxed and happy.
But today, he glances over at it and looks far from either. It wasn’t his idea to have the picture put up there, or anywhere really, but he was persuaded against his better judgment.
Underneath is the reason why. The inscription describes Poche as having given “the greatest gift by an Australian to a single cause in our nation’s history” — a cool $40 million donation to pay for the setting up of the skin cancer centre that’s quickly become a world leader in its field.
“But it shouldn’t be about me,” he mutters. “The heroes are the modest geniuses of the institute itself, the dedicated people working so hard to beat this disease and save lives. They’re so dedicated to the cause, even though they could make much more money elsewhere.”
Others, however, don’t agree. His closest mate Reg Richardson, the man with whom he was fired from TNT 40 years ago and has been tight with ever since, was the one who persuaded him to go public over the donation. Famously shy and wary of any publicity, even nicknamed “the mystery man of Australian business” by journalists to whom, over the years, he’s given but a handful of interviews, he would never have done so otherwise.
“There was a lot of pressure put on Greg to go public about his donations to charitable causes,” Richardson says.
“I thought if he stood up and talked about it, he would inspire others to make significant donations, too. That has happened, which is bloody good.”
Australia’s record in corporate philanthropy still lags far behind many other countries in the world and Poche, who worked himself up from the bottom as a 14-year-old school leaver and builder’s labourer to become one of the country’s richest people — and its most generous charity donor — would dearly love to change that, especially in the run-up to Christmas. “And he hasn’t got a history of failure,” Richardson says.
It’s a huge challenge, but Poche, 69, who also donated more than $10m to help establish the landmark Centre for Indigenous Health, is determined. It’s the same resolve that saw him studying in the evenings after work for his HSC, then a degree in business and diplomas in business management before working for TNT, seeing the transport cartel that operated and then smashing it by setting up his own rival freight and distribution company, Star Track Express, which he sold in 2003 to Qantas and Australia Post for $750m.
“I’m very keen to see good people able to make a difference,” he says, sitting in a conference room at the institute.
“Many of them just need some more resources to make that happen. Philanthropy is always a good thing.”
“The problem is that Australia doesn’t have a culture of wealthy people and wealthy corporations giving money. We’re new to the business.”
“We didn’t come into Australia with wealthy people, whereas in Europe and America there’s old money and generations have passed through with the ethos gaining momentum all the time.“
But more Australians need to discover the joy of giving. At the moment, we donate less than half a per cent of our taxable income to charity, so there’s plenty of room for improvement. “It can be enormously satisfying to give and see amazing things happen,” Poche says. “We need to have the consciousness of not just running a business and making money or having money, but of also thinking about philanthropy.”
“Entrepreneurs are usually pretty fixated on what they’re doing but they need to know they can have an entrepreneurial approach to philanthropy as well, and look at the opportunities they have to make a difference.”
“If you are an Australian, this country has treated you well and you owe something back. That’s the culture we need. I would feel very guilty if I wasn’t making donations to help these causes because I live a good lifestyle and it would be selfish not to contribute. It’s your duty as an Australian to do this.”
At Philanthropy Australia, chief executive Deborah Seifert couldn’t agree more. “What does it mean to be Australian?” Seifert asks. “In many ways, the Australian culture is one of mateship and putting a hand out to help others and give people some sort of support. That’s the way of mateship; it’s Australian to give. It’s so important for us to talk about philanthropy and the leadership of people such as Greg Poche.”
Meanwhile, Poche is still much keener to talk about the people at the institute battling melanoma — “the Aussie disease” with 10,000 new cases a year — or those working to improve indigenous health, with 3000 people unnecessarily blind and 14,000 with preventable poor vision. “They are the heroes,” Poche says firmly.
“They’re the ones able to make a difference. I just happened to run a successful company and was able to help. So why not?“