Featured Profile: Greg Combet
Worth the fight
IFM Investors and Industry Super Australia chair Greg Combet has lived most of his life in the public eye. Kanika Sood writes how each iteration of his career has shaped the next.

For a man who has commanded top jobs in Australia's public sphere for more than 30 years, Greg Combet's Sydney office is
unassuming.

There is no large polished desk, stuffy arm chairs or pricey collectibles. Combet works from a white utilitarian slab, above which hang photos of him marching in Melbourne, and addressing union workers in the Hunter Valley.

I had a sense of social inequality from a young age.
For our interview, we sit at a square cafeteria-like table.

Combet started as chair of IFM Investors last year. The job, overseeing the governance of the $120 billion funds management business, comes after a long career in the public eye - first as a leader in the union movement, then in Parliament and now in superannuation investing.

But life started in the working class suburbs of Western Sydney, on a winery.

His father was a tradesman but relapsed to the family profession of winemaking on a Penfolds-owned estate that his father had managed before him. He passed away when Combet was 13.

"We had to re-establish ourselves and I guess it helped me become quite independent and I was keen to get to university," Combet says.

He studied a degree in mining engineering at University of New South Wales. He finished with  first class honours.

At the time, engineers had to put in two years of labouring before they could apply for a practicing certificate. As a result, Combet found himself working as a coal mine labourer in Lithgow.

"Of course I joined the union when I started, and I got involved in the union movement because that was a part of the natural disposition for me with my background," he says.

"I had a sense of social inequality from a young age. In addition, my father had values that I guess we describe as Labor values meaning a sense of the importance of social justice, fair treatment and improving services for people across the community."

After also spending some time in North Queensland he returned to Sydney with his mind made up. It was time for his first career change.

Combet started at the Waterside Workers Federation of Australia (now a part of Maritime Union of Australia) and later joined the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) where he rose to the top job.

In 1998, he was integral to negotiations with Patricks Stevedores which wanted to sack 1400 union wharfies to bring in non-unionised workers citing productivity improvements. He was also at the forefront when Ansett Airlines collapsed, leaving 15,000 workers out in the cold.

But it's getting compensation for workers affected by asbestos exposure from James Hardie's mines that he counts as his greatest career achievement.

"It's paid out well in excess of a $1 billion as I understand in compensation. I am pretty proud of that because unfortunately, I have seen people dying of asbestos disease and it's not good...It is important they have access to some justice through their compensation."

Despite the complete career switch, his degree wasn't a waste of time.

He says project management skills came handy while constructing arguments as an industry advocate in court, while the technical knowledge was helpful in understanding work processes when he was handling health and safety work.

And these were skills that were in short supply in the movement.

"Not a lot of people in those days, in the 1980s had tertiary education at the unions. The first union I was at, I was only the second person in its history to have a degree in the whole history of the union of almost a hundred years."

In parliament, he was tasked with the climate change portfolio for a significant proportion of the time. He led the short-lived carbon pricing scheme to reduce emissions.

Over six years, he rotated key portfolios including climate change and energy efficiency, industry and innovation, and defence personnel, materiel and science.

During his time in Parliament, he and ABC journalist Juanita Phillips entered a relationship.

When Kevin Rudd raged a leadership spill inside Labor, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard approached Combet, offering to step aside for him, Combet said in media interviews later.

He declined, citing health concerns and exited politics in 2013.

"It [his and Phillips' relationship] is not a big reason why I left politics at all but it was one of the smaller reasons. That mortified me that I might impact her career. And so we did think about it and discussed it for sure."

Bidding farewell to Canberra, he took up a year-long advisory role at Industry Super Australia. Soon after, IFM announced he would also join its board. He is now chair of both.

Combet has been involved with industry super for decades now, starting with his role as the ACTU secretary. He was one of 13 directors involved in the merger of the Australian Retirement Fund and Superannuation Trust of Australia that formed AustralianSuper in 2006.

For IFM, he envisions it being a large global funds manager - global in deploying industry super's money abroad as their assets swell beyond the capacity of the markets at home, but also global in attracting overseas clients.

"The retail sector model has been discredited and with some changes to the taxation treatment and leverage in self-managed super funds, that sector might taper off in market share as well. So there's every reason to be optimistic that the industry super sector will be a large part of the retirement savings pool in Australia," he says.

IFM has infrastructure assets dotted around the globe and has been leading the charge in investing in the US as governments there open up public assets to investors. Meanwhile, its equities business is Australia's third largest.

It has over 350 global clients, including pension funds, mutual-style insurers, sovereign wealth funds, endowments and foundations.

Combet spends three days a week in Melbourne, where many industry funds are headquartered and where his daughter studies bookkeeping. One day of the workweek is spent in the Sydney office. Home is with Phillips and her two teenage sons in the Northern beaches. He also has a son and a step-daughter from a previous marriage.

"I was saying to my partner the other day, I am as happy as I have ever been and the work that I am doing and my personal life is really good," he says.

He also chairs a committee working on emission reduction targets for the Victorian government, which is also a strong personal interest, he says.

And then there are the gouldian finches he is known for.

He once had up to 40 of the rare birds but is now down to just two pairs.

"I am right in the middle of building a new aviary at the moment. It will be a good sized one; I will be able to increase my population," he says.

He pulls up a Google image search on his phone. The birds are small and brightly coloured.

"They are pretty, aren't they?" fs

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