When it comes to scaling a foreign corporate bureaucracy, few Australians have been as phenomenally successful as Andrew Liveris.
Unlike Rupert Murdoch, Frank Lowy, Mike Cannon-Brookes or other Australians made good in America, Liveris never had his name on the building.
He’s an executive who joined a century-old behemoth in Dow Chemical and while there got to live like a billionaire. If Anthony Pratt reckons being rich is his superpower, well, Liveris isn’t poor, but nowhere near loaded enough to count it as his.
But if you can’t buy extraordinary influence – at least, not with your own money – you certainly can accrue it through a lifetime of sheer, assiduous brown-nosing.
Liveris’ adeptness at this is demonstrated in a recent book of leadership advice he’s written, extracted in this newspaper last weekend.
We could write a whole column on the weight of accolades he corralled to sell it.
Virgin’s Richard Branson calls Liveris’ template for success a “masterclass”. Salesforce’s Marc Benioff calls it, well, exactly the same thing (the tributes were impressive, not original). JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon, Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio and KKR’s Henry Kravis are fans, as are Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and ex-UK prime minister Tony Blair.
It’s extraordinary Liveris hasn’t managed a blurb from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Though, we suppose, not all associations are worth brandishing.
On Amazon, Liveris’ masterpiece has been reviewed only 27 times, but every single person who bothered reckons it is a five-star read.
“WorldTraveler” describes the “honour” of having served alongside Liveris at Dow Chemical, while Liveris’ Brisbane-based ex-brother-in-law Anthony Bellas describes it as an “easy read”. Tim Kastelle, director of the Andrew N. Liveris Academy for Innovation and Leadership at the University of Queensland, says Liveris transformed Dow in ways “many people haven’t yet realised”. Well, with a whole university department dedicated to making the point, they will soon.
The book makes no secret of how Liveris has built and kept his network.
When a CEO is in trouble, Liveris writes in the opening chapters, he’s the first to call (it’s a lonely job, after all). When other business chiefs quit Donald Trump’s CEO advisory board in protest at the then-president’s inflammatory rhetoric, Liveris suggested a low-key resolution to Trump adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
And when protesters picketed a climate conference he was attending, Liveris, by his account, respected their commitment to a better world, but lamented all the good they could do if they stopped protesting and, say, joined a major industrial company. Liveris was, apparently, something of an activist in his youth. But, “instead of protesting outside, I chose to go inside.”
Liveris was paid $US262.2 million in his 12 years heading Dow before it merged with DuPont. In his telling though, he did it for the trees, and the birds, and the oceans. Never mind the private jet fumes.
This compulsion of Liveris’ to be in the room is insatiable. He sees no power in principled ostracisation, in refusing to associate with those doing the precise opposite of what he says he values. What other self-styled “environmentalist” sits on the board of Saudi Aramco? And anyway, if he kicked up a stink, who’s to say he would keep being invited?
Alas, Liveris is coy on whether any of his friendships with the world’s ruling class were built or strengthened on Dow’s dime.
As has been widely reported, though initially by Reuters, Liveris was for years a major beneficiary of Dow’s Customer Events Department. When an internal investigator queried the huge expenses accrued ferrying Liveris and friends to the Super Bowl, or on safari, a standoff ensued. After several weeks, Liveris paid up.
Later, the US Securities and Exchange Commission sued, with Dow eventually settling for a fine of $US1.6 million (without admitting fault) after the corporate cop accused it of significantly undercooking its CEO remuneration. Personal expenses, the SEC argued, should have always counted as part of Liveris’ pay, and been added to the firm’s proxy disclosures.
Liveris writes that he knew many factory workers’ names, drove his own car and did his own grocery shopping, so can’t have been that out of touch. Anyway, he had to use the corporate jet because Dow had “strong policies” around CEO travel for security reasons. To be clear: Liveris was the executive chairman. Nobody imposed anything on him. If a policy barred him from flying commercial, he or his subordinates signed off on it!
Coup ruthlessly quashed
And then, there’s his claim that, “if, say, I went on a vacation with my family, I reimbursed Dow”. By Reuters’ reporting, that’s what happened, but only after internal investigators made it an issue.
One of these investigators, incidentally, ended up suing the company. Dow settled, again. Testimony and emails associated with this case formed the core of Reuters’ investigation, which Liveris’ book derides as “bogus” and driven by shareholder activists. And anyway, he was only taking orders.
His minimisation of just how powerful he was at Dow is mirrored in his somewhat sheepish depiction of how he had two executives fired for plotting against him, “with the board’s permission”, and only after giving them a chance to defend themselves.
This is, of course, the tale of how Liveris ruthlessly quashed a 2006 coup, in which two executives plotted with an Omani sovereign wealth fund on a mammoth hostile bid for Dow Chemical.
Liveris’ reheating of the saga details how he called Kravis, who told him KKR had declined to work on the bid but had the impression the Omanis had insider information. Dimon was even more helpful, flying immediately to Dow’s headquarters in Midland, Michigan.
After an “extremely amicable” dinner where Dimon appeared flabbergasted by his firm’s involvement in the coup (Dow was a longstanding JPMorgan client), Dimon called the next day and gave Liveris two names. The executives were gone in 24 hours. Both sued and later settled.
Does Dimon resent Liveris dredging up the embarrassing circumstances in which JPMorgan appears to have unwittingly helped one client against another (court filings suggested its operatives didn’t initially know the bid was hostile) before dropping the hostile client and helping the other clean house? Surely not.
As we said, and as Liveris’ website attests, he adores the book.
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