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Business profile: Tabcorp chief David Attenborough

Tabcorp chief David Attenborough speaks at the QUT business leaders forum with moderator, ABC's Kerry O'Brien.
Tabcorp chief David Attenborough speaks at the QUT business leaders forum with moderator, ABC's Kerry O'Brien. Rae Wilson

WHEN Tabcorp chief David Attenborough first moved to Australia, he was astounded that people would leave their mobile phones on their desks while they went to get coffee and find them still there upon returning.

He had just come from a place where their opening hours were restricted to ensure staff, who worked behind bullet-proof screens, got home safely and where thieves kept stealing the aluminium running rails from racing tracks until they eventually replaced them with less valuable plastic rails.

But it was Mr Attenborough's 15 years in South Africa that gave him the experience to help Tabcorp snare 43% of the $26 billion Australian wagering market.

He said, speaking in Brisbane at the QUT business leaders forum, South Africa was a difficult environment to work in with so many people only speaking one of the 11 national languages, poor education and literacy levels among black Africans in post-apartheid Africa, as well as safety and health issues - especially HIV.

Mr Attenborough, who first moved with UK bookmaking company Ladbrokes to develop its African casino division, said he soon moved to South Africa's largest betting company, Phumelela.

He said he was given an urgent mandate to restructure and integrate the business which had just been listed.
Mr Attenborough said, unlike Tabcorp, Phumelela owned race club assets which were reversed into the company upon listing in return for a 30% equity share of a racing trust.

He said this move, a bid to save a failing racing industry model, effectively privatised the racing industry.

"Back in 2003, the newly listed Phumelela faced a number of fundamental challenges with a rundown TAB business coupled with a relatively poor racing infrastructure," he said.

Mr Attenborough said there was much crime affecting staff and customer security, erratic electricity supply, equipment malfunction and poor air management systems which meant staff had to operate in sweltering conditions at times.

He said he worked hard to expand fixed odds locally and export South African racing internationally.

Mr Attenborough said the successful transition meant the listing price rose from 50c in 2002 to 18 rand now.

But he also learnt some personal lessons along the way about work-life balance.

Mr Attenborough said he was setting up new offices and tackling heavy workloads when he first moved to South Africa with his Zimbabwean wife and newborn boy and this resulted in him neglecting the emotional needs of his family which fell apart after a year.

He said, after learning a valuable lesson, that he left his new wife and children behind for four months when he first moved to Australia so he could concentrate on the new job until he could help his family adjust to a new way of life.

First focusing on taking Tabcorp forward technologically, Mr Attenborough said 11% of all digital transactions were now conducted over mobile in the last financial year but jumped to 50% during the recent spring racing carnival.

He said he was now concentrating on lobbying governments to stamp out customer credit offerings in some parts of Australia and ensuring a viable funding model to support the nation's racing industry.

Mr Attenborough said there needed to be an equal national regulatory system across all states and territories to ensure racing's future.

His interesting back story includes graduating from university in chemistry, hitchhiking across the US working as a waiter, working in plastics and then sales.

LEADERSHIP APPROACH

  • Know your strengths
  •  Get the right people on board
  •  Set clear goals
  •  Always tell it how it is
  •  Don't baulk at the hard decisions

Topics:  business david attenborough leadership south africa



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