"An idyllic tropical life" is how David Atkin describes his childhood in Papua New Guinea. While his parents taught in a local school, he spent his days "wandering around the forest, being looked after by the locals, exploring every day, having a lot of fun."
Atkin returned to Melbourne when he was seven and has remained there ever since. As an undergraduate at Melbourne University he specialised in history and politics, before moving on to do a masters at La Trobe.
"I focused on the 1950s as a period, and I looked at gender and the way unions used masculinity to organise around." He says the unions used masculinity to create hierarchies - hence the title of his thesis: 'The aristocracy of muscle.'
This academic interest in unionism soon led to a job as a researcher at the Air Traffic Controllers' Union, and then a job at Trades Hall, in a workers' compensation policy role. A couple of other union roles led him to head up the national office of the Finance Sector Union.
"My interest in industrial relations was from a strategy point of view rather than a technician's point of view. I was interested in how organisations work, and the strategies you need to put in place to represent your members."
After ten years working for trade unions, Atkin followed the well-trodden path from union to industry fund, landing a job as communications officer at AustralianSuper's predecessor, Superannuation Trust of Australia (STA). While the industry fund movement was largely born out of the union movement, Atkin had not had any serious involvement in super before moving to STA.
However, he found some common threads. "In the union it's all about the members, it's not about shareholders or anyone else, and in an industry fund it's exactly the same." The investment side, though, was a "completely different proposition", he says.
Atkin shot up the industry fund ladder, becoming chief executive of Just Super (now Media Super) in 2005, and chief executive of ESSSuper the following year. But when in 2007 he was headhunted to become chief executive of Cbus, it was an offer he couldn't refuse.
For the full story, download the April 22 issue of the Financial Standard iPad app here.
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