Features
Andy McLean 8 Jan 2018 03:28pm

Swimming with sharks

Simon Mordant’s career in Australia has taken him from grubby backpacker to wealthy philanthropist. He tells Andy McLean how his work advising executives on mergers and acquisitions means he can now give back

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Caption: Photography: Daniel Boud

On a sweltering summer night in 1978, a young English hitchhiker reached the end of his 2,500-mile journey across Australia and waved as his ride pulled away. Beneath the arch of Sydney Harbour Bridge, Simon Mordant set down his backpack, stripped off, and jumped into the water to cool down. The police boat reached him within minutes.

“Mate, there are sharks in there,” said a typically laconic Aussie cop, before advising Mordant to get out. Back on dry land, the backpacker recovered his clothes and what little dignity he had left, headed off in the direction of the suburb of Darlinghurst. He would spend his early days living in a shabby dosshouse near the city’s seediest nightclubs, bars and brothels – places frequented by an altogether different breed of shark.

Back then, Mordant could never have dreamed that Sydney would become his home for the next 40 years; where he would carve out a career in investment banking and corporate advisory and later become a respected philanthropist with an Order of Australia medal.

“I quickly found that Sydney was a meritocracy,” says Mordant. “I didn’t know anyone in Australia’s corporate world but I made calls and introduced myself. I was surprised how many senior business leaders were happy to meet me and tell me about the local market.”

Mordant’s Sydney career took him from Peat Marwick (now KPMG), where he worked on the high-profile privatisation of Kerry Packer’s Consolidated Press, to AGC, where he focused on leveraged leases and preference shares. Having decided corporate advisory was his calling, Mordant then joined stockbroker Ord Minnett and his eyes still sparkle as he recalls the deals, mergers and acquisitions he played a part in.

“I learned a huge amount, and because of the homework I’d been doing I was pretty quickly able to generate my own ideas and wasn’t shy about contacting companies and chief executives. I remember doing a transaction in the mid-1980s, which I think was the first million-dollar advisory fee that Ord Minnett had earned, which was a lot of money then. I cold-called the chief executive of a British company, persuaded them to look at an opportunity in Australia and they retained us and made the acquisition.”

In the decades that followed, Mordant would become a go-to adviser for major Australian corporations during multi-billion dollar deals. These included advising Oil Search on its unsolicited proposal from Woodside Petroleum (A$11.7bn); Origin Energy in its NZ$1.8bn selldown of Contact Energy; GrainCorp on the unsolicited takeover by Archer Daniels Midland Company (A$3bn); and Coal & Allied on the takeover defence proposal by Rio Tinto (A$10.6bn).

Mordant’s professional success made him a multi-millionaire and he has put some of his fortune back into the community. In 2012 he and his wife donated A$15m to help fund the redevelopment of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (only yards from the spot where that police boat picked him up).

“My wife and I don’t believe in inheritance and we both recognise that you can’t take it with you when you die,” Mordant reflects. “We’re not flashy people. We live well but we don’t need a big boat or a private plane or anything like that. We want to make a difference while we are alive, both intellectually and financially.”

Mordant is understated about this, but his contribution to the arts is staggering. Besides substantial financial donations to numerous institutions, he has devoted time to governance positions at, for example, the Venice Biennale and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. His corporate advisory firm, Luminis Partners, also gives a portion of profits to a foundation that funds business and drama scholarships, as well as an enterprise to fund entrepreneurs from the refugee and migrant communities.

Does he find time to rest? “I sleep four hours every night and start my day at 4am,” he smiles. “My wife calls me ‘the octopus’ because whenever she’s not looking, I take on another arm or commitment”.

While Mordant’s reputation and commitments grew substantially over the years, so did his waistline. “The business travel and the corporate events added up. I ballooned to 19 stone and was too big to fit in to clothes from regular shops. Instead of walking, I would take taxis for even the shortest journeys. I was uncomfortable in myself but wasn’t dealing with it.”

That all changed in 2014 when he decided to leave Caliburn, the independent advisory house he had sold four years earlier. “Contractually I couldn’t work for a year and I decided I needed another challenge. So I set myself a target to lose three stone in weight."

A combination of single-mindedness, diet and exercise saw Mordant achieve his target. But he didn’t stop there. Today his body weight is almost half what it was four years ago. “As my size kept dropping, I had to throw out all my clothes several times. I dropped three shoe sizes and had to get my wedding band cut down.”

Other corporate high fliers have since asked Mordant for weight loss advice. “It’s easy to pile on the pounds when you’re sitting down working for 50-plus hours per week, and eating and drinking at corporate functions. Changing your habits can be so daunting. It takes willpower to start, and even more to keep going.”

Mordant has applied that same determination to billion-dollar takeovers and community projects, which has taken him a long way since his arrival in Sydney 40 years ago. It makes you wonder how any harbour sharks would have fared against “the octopus” if that police boat hadn’t turned up.

THE ACCOUNT

I love being an FCA because… The training has been the foundation of my business success. It may also be in my DNA: my father and grandfather were FCAs.

I’m happiest when… I’m advising clients.

My favourite book is… Good to Great by Jim Collins.

The hardest lesson to learn has been… The client makes the final decision. All I can do is give the best possible advice.

I’d like to be remembered as… Always being available to listen and help.

My worst habit is… Smoking cigars.

The love of my life is… My wife Catriona. It’s our 30th wedding anniversary this year.

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