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Making a difference

University of New England chancellor John Cassidy has achieved a lot in the business and professional world, and now he’s giving back to his community.

Story by Jane Milburn

John Cassidy is a down-to-earth person whose common sense and great community spirit have seen him become a huge influence in the New England district of New South Wales. When John sold his major shareholding in the Sydney-based construction company Abigroup three years ago, he had plenty of money in the bank and an enviable reputation as an elite businessman which saw him recently honoured by his peers with a prestigious industry award.

Since returning home to “Merilba” at Kingstown, west of Armidale, with wife Annette in 1996, John has redirected his problem-solving talents to help create and build capacity on an individual, community, educational and business level. At its simplest, it is the Cassidys making their 18m indoor heated pool available for swimming lessons for Kingstown Public School children to save them the 90-minute round trip into Armidale.

At the next level, it sees him help establish the New England Conservatorium of Music with a recurrent funding stream from the New South Wales Government and underwriting a $4 million debt enabling the New England Girls School (NEGS) to have a new lease on life. Both institutions are perfectly suited to the regional city of Armidale with its old buildings and traditions in the heart of the New England district.

In the bigger picture, the Cassidys have achieved spin-offs from consolidating a large and successful agribusiness running Merino sheep and South Devon cattle. And John, as Chancellor of the University of New England (UNE), continues to create a sound educational and economic future for this institution. On a family level, John and Annette educated their two children, Emma and Johnny locally, and have backed his nephew Shaun’s family in setting up a cold-climate vineyard and winery on adjoining land. They are also surrogate parenting another teenage nephew and two teenage nieces who are the children of John’s deceased brother.

A civil engineer and Fellow of the Institute of Engineers, John uses networks and contacts across industry and political groups to provide effective leadership in the local community. His diverse activities in the New England represent an emerging trend in Australia which has seen successful businessmen transferring their considerable influence in financial, positional, ceremonial and personal roles from the city to the country. This trend is well-established in business literature in the United Kingdom and Australia, where rural and regional leadership has shifted from historic rural landholder families to a new breed of business elite.

Managing director of Armidale’s Agricultural Business Research Institute (ABRI) Dr Arthur Rickards says John is highly influential in the New England community. ABRI is a business associated with the UNE, and Arthur says John, as Chancellor, is actively involved in progressing the university at a time when regional universities are challenged to maintain student numbers and funding. “John is very innovative, and very determined in everything he does,” he says. “He has made a fantastic contribution to the cattle industry, running the largest South Devon herd in the world that is performance recorded, and greatly influenced the overall development of the breed at an international level. John is also an innovator in the sheep industry and runs high performance Merino sheep.”

Looking back on John’s multi-faceted career in construction, agribusiness and governance, it is the ability to use logic to solve problems that is his key to success. John’s interest in agriculture had its roots in his first business venture, going rabbiting as a young boy with his father then selling rabbits for “five bob a pair” and rabbit skins for 100 pence a pound. The rabbit fur is used to make famous Australian Akubra hats, although these days the fur is sourced from other countries as well. “We love the realness of the work we do in the country and the realness of the people who live here,” John says.

John and Annette searched for a large area of land that was relatively inexpensive and in need of developing, and purchased “Merilba” in 1982 after being inspired by its beauty and history, which includes having been a Cobb and Co staging post in 1854. When they moved to the district, the neighbours said it takes 25 years to become a local but John laughes at the fact that there are now few locals because he’s steadily acquired much of the land in the valley from neighbours who have moved on.

“Merilba” is a magnificent property that has been expanded from 8000 to 30,000 acres, and is complemented by 5500 acres at Ebor, further east in high rainfall country. Annette manages the administration and accounting side of the business. The property is well-watered, pasture improved land running 8000 merino ewes with 17-18 micron wool. It runs a further 28,000 sheep, 2000 cows, 5000 boer goats and produces 3000 tonne of hay and silage annually to be self-sufficient in fodder. John has Old Flaggy Mountain fenced out for conservation of native fauna and flora including timber species such as cypress pine, ironbark and stringy bark.

In typical John Cassidy style, he identified South Devon as a productive but less-established breed, and proceeded to import fresh genetic stock from New Zealand which he then backed up by personally funding the development of cross-bred genetic analysis conducted by ABRI. “South Devons are very feed efficient, they have the highest growth rate of the British breeds of cattle, high butter fat content in their milk, are ranked number three in marbling cattle of the world, and have a 10 percent higher bone-out ratio of meat to bone than most other breeds,” John says.

Five years ago he used embryo transfer technology to bring the bare-bottomed Finnish Landrace sheep genetics into his Merino flock to reduce the costs of production and remove the need for mulesing. This innovative breeding program has not only created sheep with clean heads and tails, the bonus is in having naturally polled rams, large-framed sheep with brighter wool and longer staples (now back to 17 micron wool), as well as improved fertility with lambing at 150 percent under commercial conditions.

John says engineering, which he studied at the University of New South Wales and Newcastle University, taught him a sense of logic and planning that he applies to all aspects of his life. When he and Annette moved home to “Merilba” for John’s first retirement, it lasted only three months before he was lured back to city business and eventually oversaw a management buyout that remains the most successful in Australian corporate history. He was asked to help sort out the Abigroup and went on to take over a major shareholding in the business in 1988 when it was a publicly listed company with a turnover of $120 million and 126 employees. When he left in 2004, it had grown almost 10-fold into a business with $1.1 billion turnover and 3200 employees and was sold to German multinational group Bilfinger Berger.

It is the stuff of fairytales that when he took over Abigroup, the shares were trading at 3c/share and when he sold it they were worth $4/share. Using the existing social capital, John restructured Abigroup, promoted people who he thought had the necessary skills or could quickly acquire them and put them into senior positions. “Abigroup had people with a lot of skills, they just needed redirection and motivation,” he says. Based on this and other successes, John was awarded the 2005 Services to Construction Award by the Australian Construction Association for contribution to engineering projects, as a worthy employer, for business success and expertise and experience in projects (gained overseas and in Australia). He is also a life governor of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute and, with chairman Neville Wran, raised $3.6 million at a dinner in the Sydney Superdome (now Acer Arena) in 2000 when Abigroup owned it.

Perhaps John’s greatest leadership assets are a sense of humour, can-do approach, and high standards in taking responsibility and instilling confidence in others. He takes a helicopter view to see the big picture and visualise the future, then uses insight, contacts and problem-solving ability to enable changes to happen. “In Australian business, people can become complacent and mediocre in their outlook and expectation, but I like to get in and do things. Working in Indonesia taught me many things, foremost of them being that anything is possible and there is always a solution.”

John is currently applying these techniques to New England’s leading educational institutions, first as a UNE Councillor before being elected to the office of Chancellor in late 2003, and more recently as chairman at NEGS. He is working to position UNE as a $150 million/year business selling education, and steering the university to focus more on its key strengths as a regional tertiary teaching and research institution and a soon-to-be-introduced rural medical school. “The world is competitive, and universities have to become competitive,” he says. “The whole university sector is now becoming more business focused as it strives to comply with new Federal Government protocols.”

John became involved with NEGS indirectly through his nieces who attend the school and have flourished in its supportive culture. But the future of NEGS was under a cloud last year until John initiated a plan to take over the church-schools’ debts and restructure and reinvigorate this historic educational institution. The school faced near-certain takeover by PLC (Presbyterian Ladies College) until John stepped in as its white knight, underwriting its debt to enable the creation of an unlisted public company NEGS Limited.

Under the arrangement reached with the Diocesan Council of Armidale, all land and assets belonging to the school have been transferred to NEGS Limited, which now runs the school as an independent business. John’s vision is for the school to have up to 600 students in three to five years’ time (currently there are just under 300).

Armidale veterinarian Dr Hugh White led the fight to save NEGS as P&F president at the time and is now working closely with John as deputy chairman of NEGS Limited. Hugh describes John as a lateral thinker who has a habit of coming from left field, catching everybody by surprise. “John considers all viewpoints, weighs things up, makes a decision and then goes with it,” he says. “He is widely involved in the community and has brought a breath of fresh air into the university, restructuring it on to a sound financial footing, while he and Annette are also involved in rural community.” Annette laughingly says that John’s supposedly retired but in reality he’s probably as busy as ever spending time on NEGS or UNE and other interests.


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