Dean Wills and “The Farm”; Both Australian legends!

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Located at Peats Ridge, about 45 mins from Sydney, is the magical dream of Dean Wills. Simply known as “The Farm”, this 5km section of private road is possibly one of the most talked about “racetracks” in Australia.

Few have had the pleasure of hurling a 430 into any one of a number of flowing corners or hauling a Lamborghini down to a virtual standstill from over 250 km/h at the end of the fast straights.

Set on private land this highly desirable stretch of road has become a legend; Almost as legendary as the man who’s dream it was to have his own private racetrack.

Private racetrack - the farm in Australia

Dean Wills’ business accomplishments are well documented, but his achievements aren’t confined to the boardroom; he also served as Deputy Chairman of the Australian Grand Prix and was a Fellow of the Australian Marketing Institute as well as the Australian Institute of Company Directors. With all these accomplishments it’s no surprise that Dean was awarded the Sir Charles McGrath Award for his contribution to marketing in Australia as well as receiving Businessman of the Year in 1990 by Australian Business Magazine.

I first met Dean at his beautiful Northern Beaches house when he asked if he could see my Ariel Atom. Being a big guy, he wanted to see whether his frame would fit, as he wanted to order two for his private road. What private road I asked? Whilst he tried (and failed) to get into the Atom, he told me about his race track in the Hunter and invited me and a mate, Ross Mitchell, to join him. After a valiant attempt, Dean eventually gave up the fight and we went inside for tea and biscuits, hosted by his lovely wife Margaret, whose tea and cake are legendary. Over tea Dean recounted that when he couldn’t get in the McLaren F1, like the Atom, he regretfully had to let it go; shortly before the $3M machines infamous demise into a wall.

While paging through an album of photo’s taken during the roads construction, he recounted the times in the 1990’s when he and his mates used to thrash their exotica up and down the northern beaches in the early hours, until the volume of cyclists made this pastime just too dangerous…so, he decided to build his own road.

Having explained the origins of The Farm, he showed me his car collection and told me how he acquired them so cheaply: “Dealers license he said, tapping his nose; keep them for two years, sell them on and never need to pay the luxury car tax. Been audited you know, but I am doing the right thing. The collection, capital aside, doesn’t cost me a cent.” In the garage in 2006, there was a SL65, a LP640, a 997 Turbo, a Rolls and a 430. His 599 was on the way. I have really fond memories talking to Dean about acquiring the next great car. We bought many of the same type and had very broad-ranging differences about some of the legends-430’s and 599’s.

Cars at Dean Wills farm

At one of the Supercar Club gatherings at The Farm, I was privileged to hear Dean and the great Nick Rowe discussing the Coke and Amital $Billion merger, and how Nick had helped. In a way this was part of my vision for the Club… a platform for great people to talk about business, do deals and generally network whilst being fully immersed in the passion that great cars bring. And I guess that was part of Dean’s vision for The Farm as well.

Dean chatted at length about how he built the place, as well as of the challenges and the fights with locals. He actually told them that he was wealthy enough to win the fight, however long it took. God knows how, but he eventually did… in the world’s biggest nanny state. And WOW. What a road. It is a road, not a track. Costing $1.5Million plus the land, the more than 5Km stretch is lined, has road signs and even pedestrian crossings. There are no barriers and no other traffic and with its brilliant corners it’s very fast and free flowing. Simply fantastic…!

You get to the farm through a long private drive near the Hunter Valley. The drive leads to a wooden farm house. At the back of the farmhouse is a small paved area, some pits and a very clean garage that doubles as a great hospitality area.

We held several events there, and I would have loved to have made this a regular club venue. However Dean was handing the place over to his son, Mark, and knew that he needed to commercialize it in order for it to “wipe its nose”, as Dean said. Commercialization quickly broke the magic and squashed the exclusivity. The Farm now became one of the events venues for many corporates.

For the first, and best Club event, I had the bad old Ford GT, the Superleggera, the magical CLK black and the brilliant GT3 lined up. Going around the track with Dean, he told me of Australian racing legends who had driven the course. He recounted how whilst pondering changing one of the difficult corners, Frank Gardener had commented that a corner was just a corner and needed to be navigated – regardless. Dean left the corner untouched.

I hope that the Farm stays the same. I hope that the Wills’ don’t get over regulated and I admire Dean tremendously for doing this. Ascari and Monticello it should never be. A great family’s legacy to a brilliant man and his passion for supercars it should always be.

Dean Wills: The man

A passion for high-performance cars seems a little incongruous for one of Australia’s leading businessmen. But Dean Wills, is anything but conventional; with his eclectic car collection ranging from a Mclaren F1 (one of only 64 in the world) through to the latest Mini Cooper S. What he admires about high-performance cars is the engineering and design which turns an everyday object into something quite extraordinary. To perform properly, every element in the car’s complex system must be finely tuned and in balance.

Dean WillsAs Wills reflects on his 46-year business career, it’s clear that the elements he admires in a thoroughbred car have a lot in common with what he admires in an outstanding company. Wills isn’t overly comfortable with the analogy, arguing that his passion for cars is highly emotive, verging on the illogical. But he does concede that his desire for top performance and proper form and substance are common factors.

His perspective has been shaped by having worked his way up through the ranks. A career path that he now admits makes him “a bit of a dinosaur”. He describes it as “a hell of a university”, and acknowledges that today there is very little prospect of advancement to the top level from such modest beginnings. He claims the key lessons learned are resilience, persistence and determination.

Not surprisingly, he considers his greatest business achievement the restructure of Coca-Coca Amatil to create a high performance vehicle and set it on a new and successful path. Wills and his management team transformed what was then Amatil, a large domestic conglomerate covering five different industries, into a focused international player in the beverage business. As chairman and managing director of Coca-Cola Amatil, he presided over a remarkable period of prosperity for the company. Wills’ focus on shareholder value resulted in outstanding wealth creation for all investors, while he derived great satisfaction from having created a powerful and focused vehicle with the fundamentals in place to succeed.

Another notable achievement is that of Transfield Services, a company which was spun out of the Belgiorno-Nettis Transfield Holdings empire. As chairman, Wills is widely accredited with resolving the bitter family dispute which paved the way for Transfield Services share market listing. Wills’ focus on the fundamentals and “balance” may have been unfashionable in the blue sky dot-com frenzy of the late 90s; but in this era of high-profile corporate collapses, his commonsense logic and focus on shareholder value are back in vogue. “The primary objective of each company is to improve the value of each individual shareholder’s investment in that company”, says Wills. “If that is not their overriding principle, they’ve got it wrong.”

A high performing company has the fundamentals in balance. Fundamentals which include company management, systems and procedures; observable prowess in supplying goods and services and its board. But for Wills the most critical part is achieving the balance between short-term performance and achieving the long-term potential of the business. He is concerned that the current round of corporate failures came about partly due to a focus on rewarding short-term performance at the expense of creating a sustainable enterprise over the long term. Wills argues that while it is essential to reward senior management for performance, it’s up to the board to ensure that appropriate criteria are used to evaluate performance. If the criteria are ill-chosen, or poorly policed, hype can take over from reality and increase the temptation for management to paint a better picture than really exists. “I am amazed that in this day and age a criterion for a large cash bonus could be based on the degree to which you could increase market cap,” he says. “Increasing market cap must be real and sustainable and the only way it should be rewarded is through the same instrument that rewards other shareholders – shares. A very large cash bonus had to be inappropriate because the temptation had to be there to inflate the share price quickly and artificially.”

While public attention is focused on corporate failures, this doesn’t provide an accurate reflection of Australian business. The sky is not falling in,” he says. “Both management and boards need to step back and take a good look at their corporate governance. They need to ensure that they are not doing anything – even inadvertently – that could give rise to a breakdown.” Wills doesn’t believe there has been a general drop in the level of trust between board and management. But he does stress the need for a strong working relationship. “If board and management, particularly chairman and CEO, see each other only at board meetings, you don’t have a working relationship,” says Wills. “Each individual director must gain knowledge of the company and its intricacies at first hand and cannot depend on board meetings alone for his education,” he said.

“A new member takes some time to become effective and develop a sound understanding of the fundamentals of the business and a solid relationship with senior management,” he said. He points to the trend to invite directors to serve for only two terms – and believes this is long enough for their colleagues, and shareholders, to make judgments about their ability and decide whether or not to re-elect them.

Sports grounding for the serious hard yards

Compared to today’s business school-trained executives, Dean Wills has an unconventional background for a CEO. Understanding his classic rags-to-riches story goes a long way to explaining his tremendous drive, charisma and commitment to success through putting in the hard yards.

Born in Adelaide in 1933, he attended Marist Brothers school on a scholarship but left just prior to matriculation as he needed to earn a living. His first job was with the SA Gas Company on the princely salary of 37 shillings and sixpence a week. Being a keen tennis player and footballer, he threw it in to take up a professional football career in the grape growing township of Barmera, where he earned a hefty 150 pounds to play for the season. He also had the opportunity to supplement his income with seasonal work as a fruit picker. National Service prevented Wills from ever playing a professional game for Barmera.

Ferrari's on Dean Wills farm

Returning to Adelaide he “lived by his wits” for a number of years. He was buying cars and fixing them up to sell when he noticed an arbitrage opportunity. Cars were cheaper in Melbourne than Adelaide, so he would travel to Melbourne to buy cars, and drive them back to Adelaide to sell. Becoming a father helped Wills realise this was no long-term profession.

His wife Margaret, a former model, encouraged him to give up reading “penny dreadfuls” and go to night school to make something of himself. Wills studied accounting at the SA School of Mines, and in 1957 joined WD&HO Wills as a clerk, assembling orders in the packing room. Within a fortnight Wills realised his career lay in administration, and moved to marketing. He became a sales rep and even took up smoking so he could understand the product better.

In 1964 he moved to Sydney and worked through the ranks until he was appointed director of marketing in 1974. A year later he joined the Amatil board and became MD of WD&HO Wills in 1977. Managing Amatil’s tobacco operations for the next six years until he was appointed chairman and MD of Amatil in 1984.

Nowadays Dean gets to spend time with his wife Margaret, a talented artist, who was once commissioned by the Duke of Edinburgh, to paint a series of the outback. They have three children, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Wills says his ambition has always been to make whatever he is employed in better, rather than focusing on putting himself forward. His definition of personal success is waking up in the morning and realising you don’t want to be anybody other than who you are.

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