Andrew Liveris has a strong opinion on pretty much everything. Just ask him. “Pick your favourite topic,” he parleys with BOSS at one point. From small scale nuclear reactors to heralding direct air capture as the Holy Grail to solving climate change, manufacturing and immigration policy, the failure of Australian boards, running the Olympics and the Voice.
His big persona sometimes makes Liveris the subject of derision, including by former Rear Window editor Joe Aston over US$3 million in “authorised but undisclosed” perks such as his extensive use of the Dow Chemicals’ private jet. More on that later.
Even the long-time, former CEO, who went from a childhood in Darwin to the boardrooms of New York and corridors of power in Washington, acknowledges he has a strong personality and that he has been guilty of overpowering people by using sheer force of will to push change through.
But you don’t rise from being the grandson of a Greek immigrant who arrived in Darwin and found work in a slaughterhouse, to top of the globe’s corporate food chain without a forceful personality and plenty of drive.
The University of Queensland-schooled chemical engineer says it was clear to him Australia’s banks and big businesses were run by private school elites. But the US recruiter for Dow promised him that if he joined the $US60 billion chemical giant he would see the world. It led to 21 years working in Asia and a 40-year career at Dow, 14 years as CEO. Liveris’ world view still carries enormous weight and important people listen.
Tony Blair, Larry Fink, Richard Branson, Jamie Dimon and Satya Nadella are among the high-profile leaders to spruik his new book. Branson calls it a “master class”. Blair says he has had an “illustrious career”. Dimon says the man has shown “resilience and depth of experience”.
The 69-year-old has advised prime ministers and presidents of all political persuasion. From Trump. “Everything you read about Trump is true, the personality is a really difficult personality and really centred on himself”, Liveris tells BOSS.
To Obama: “As charming, articulate and cerebral as he was he also had his downsides because many times he wouldn’t take advice because he thought he had the better answer”, Liveris says.
To his latest role steering the Brisbane 2032 Olympic committee with former Deloitte CEO Cindy Hook as CEO, which has led to Liveris and his wife, Paula to return from New York to call Sydney home and purchase of a $25 million home in Bellevue Hill.
His new book centres on his advice to other CEOs, executives and leaders. He sits down with BOSS in his first Australian interview about the book to spell out what he’s learnt, including “three crises that I’ve written about for the first time”, he says from his office in Sydney’s Chifley Tower.
The first was a board coup not long into his 14-year tenure as CEO when two board directors were secretly working with an Omani sovereign wealth fund to launch a hostile takeover. It taught him about making sure that people are on your team (see our published extract).
The second was the $US18.8 billion acquisition of chemical company Rohm and Haas shortly before the onset of the global financial crisis when Liveris says he was “an inch or two away from bankrupting Dow before managing to save it at (literally) the last second”.
The third was a campaign against Liveris by activist hedge fund Third Point and its billionaire founder, Dan Loeb, which led to the $US130 billion, megamerger between Dow and DuPont in 2017, later split into three companies.
Liveris describes it as personally bruising, claiming they were tracking the Dow company plane and investigators were hired to watch his family. He says he was painted as “spoiled, indolent, and out of touch”, and he, his wife and children faced a “torrent of personal attacks” by Aston and others.
Not that there was nothing to see. Liveris was widely mocked for flying the Dow Gulfstream to the 2010 Super Bowl in Miami where he asked to avoid any contact with Dow’s VIP guests. ”Please tell no one I am going … like always,” he wrote in an email. His explanation detailed in the book offers a different version.
“Dow had strict policies around CEO travel. For security purposes, I used the company plane any time I flew anywhere, for business or pleasure. (If say, I went on a vacation with my family, I reimbursed Dow),” he says.
In 2011 for example, Dow disclosed that Liveris reimbursed the company for $US719,923 for expenses described as “not primarily business related.” While in 2010, his assistant bought $US90,000 worth of Grange on a Dow credit card and three cases were flown to Dow’s HQ in Midland, Michigan on the corporate jet, a report prepared by a Dow internal investigator found.
On Aston and the like, Liveris simply says that in life, you will always face critics. When BOSS asks what roles he holds aside from the Olympics these days, it leads to a long list, spanning the US, Saudi Arabia and his native Australia.
Australian boards are ‘unsophisticated’
Liveris is notably a director of IBM but also of EV maker Lucid Motors, Saudi Aramco, Worley, Novonix and the Minderoo Foundation.
He sits on advisory boards for Salesforce, the Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation, advisor M Klein, consultants Teneo and Saudi Arabia’s NEOM and is a special adviser to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the country’s Public Investment Fund. The list goes on.
While the Australian engineering company Worley and battery materials maker Novonix are his only ASX-listed board roles, the former US CEO is scathing of Australian boards. Too clubby, BOSS asks?
“Of course, but also it’s actually got another dimension that’s worse than that because an enlightened board, which is what I’m seeing around the world and in the US in particular are putting people on boards that are varied in experiences, have contextual understanding not just content understanding, can understand risk and how to manage it, can look at disruptions, whether it’s geopolitical, digital, environmental, social or governance from different angles and help management ask better questions,” he says.
“Boards in Australia are still full of people who think they’ve got all the answers,” he says. “A board should be spending time on strategy, people succession and risk and risk is the biggest topic of them all which means the executive group should be held to account. I don’t see too many boards in Australia that have reached that level of sophistication yet.”
“Our boards are still stacked with accountants and lawyers. We should be having boards completely centred on contextual risk management to help the executives come up with scenarios around better strategies,” he adds.
Ouch. It’s no wonder that Liveris divides opinion and has been variously described as energetic, charismatic, self-promoting, persistent, boastful, ambitious, worldly, curious and bright.
Direct Air Capture is the ‘Holy Grail’
Liveris, who also advised the former Morrison government on its gas policy and is also advising the US Department of Energy on the energy transition, - equally divides opinion on his views about energy.
He backs Australia opening the door to small modular nuclear reactors, carbon capture and storage and gas – all considered controversial by environmentalists - and has been vocal in pushing for a price on carbon.
“We can hit the emissions targets in 2030 and 2050, we can do that, if we approach it by becoming technology-agnostic,” he says. “You have to let the best technology win.”
“You’re not going to get to affordable hydrogen without carbon capture and storage, that’s just plain fact.
”Getting to green hydrogen is achievable, but it’s going to take massive advances in electrolyser technology, those are being developed and in a decade it should be commercial.“
“But to not use gas as a transition fuel in this country is a travesty, it’s chocking us off one of the most affordable transitions available.”
He also heralds Direct Air Capture technology as the “Holy Grail” which could shortcut the entire climate crisis.
“That’s the Holy Grail,” he says. “If we can actually invent devices and absorbents to take CO₂ directly out of the atmosphere actually shortcuts everything and takes care of the topic we are trying to solve. But we are maybe 10 years away from that,” he says, urging governments to pour enormous money into its development.
The landmark US Inflation Reduction Act has already helped spur a wave of investment into direct air capture start-ups with Worley awarded a front-end engineering and design contract as part of a joint venture between Occidental Petroleum and Rusheen Capital.
Occidental also recently made a $US1.1 billion acquisition of a Canadian carbon capture pioneer, Carbon Engineering which BHP helped fund in 2019.
Liveris says much more needs to be done in terms of government incentives as “powerful enablers”.
“Go study how semiconductors and microchips were discovered, You will find they came out of the national labs in the US. It gave us not just the internet but all of the technology which came before the internet. How did they commercialise it? NASA. So, putting man on the moon basically changed the game on the need for these chips.”
“It creates winners and losers,” he says. “But cooperation between countries based on common values systems and common goals can be achieved and of course we do have that with AUKUS and supply chains in critical minerals.”
“So how does an Australian-based player participate in the US incentives is fairly obvious, establish joint ventures with US companies, couple up your capabilities and then import it back to Australia.”
Olympics on time and budget? ‘Absolutely’
Despite his responsibilities, Liveris is focused on the Brisbane 2032 Olympics, and he says it is a very different value proposition to Victoria’s cancelled 2026 Commonwealth Games.
The Olympics is forecast to cost taxpayers $7.1 billion over the next decade, split between the federal and Queensland governments.
But the Brisbane Olympics president says their share of the broadcast rights, sponsorship opportunities, attendance (in person and virtual) and the better utilisation of existing venues provides a different model. “Eighty-four per cent of our venues are already in place,” he says.
He says the major new projects – $2.7 billion to redevelop the Gabba as the main Olympic stadium and the building of the Brisbane Arena at a cost of $2.5 billion – will create an “urban spine for Brisbane which will bring it into the 21st century in terms of entertainment, restaurants, museums and art galleries to make the city vibrant with the two big sports arenas.”
“It’s not unlike the MCG and Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, it will create a centre of gravity for the city. That legacy will have minimal cost impact but maximum economic impact which is a very different business model to the Commonwealth Games,” he says.
Pushed on potential cost blow outs, Liveris exudes his typically supreme confidence.
“Can I sit here and say to you that nothing will go over time or over budget? Of course not, but do we have contingencies to cover that? Absolutely.”
“If we do see cost escalations, here’s what we will do, we’ll find more revenue streams.”
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