The Godfather of business

Behind the man who makes investment happen

One of South Australia’s most prominent – and powerful – entrepreneurs is kicking goals for his state, creating 6000 jobs in just two years and attracting global interest. And, when it comes to footy, he is more than happy to point businesses in the right direction

Getting an interview with the chairman of Investment Attraction South Australia around the end of the AFL season is a bit of a hard task.

While he’s passionate about business and has long been a crusader for attracting top talent to South Australia, Rob Chapman is probably better known as chairman of the Adelaide Crows – a position he’s held since 2006.

He slots New Adelaide in between interviews with eastern states media the day of the preliminary final against Geelong, where he’s unlikely to face a welcoming crowd.

But, around Adelaide, Chapman is known as an affable businessman who knows everyone and knows how to get things done.

The advisory board he helped assemble for the investment attraction agency speaks to the sort of global connections accrued over a long career in banking, eight as managing director of BankSA and following that a stint as chief executive of fellow Westpac brand St George Bank.

The board includes Jennifer Nason, an Adelaide expat who is managing director and global chairman of investment banking at JP Morgan.

Dr Geoff Raby, Australia’s former ambassador to China, is also there, providing insight into the Asian market informed by a 27-year career in the public service.

With a busy dance card as chairman of Adelaide Airport and boutique investment bank Fortis Ago, as well as other positions, Chapman aimed initially to take on the position of chair for just a year, to help the agency get set up. 

Fast forward two years and he’s still there, testament to his passion for the role and the clear rapport he has working with chief executive Michael Hnyda, who was recruited for the key role from Wales.

Investment Attraction South Australia is effectively meant to be – and now is – the portal for anyone and everyone wanting to invest in SA.

SA Investment and Trade Minister Martin Hamilton-Smith was behind the concept of a targeted, nimble and effective agency. He recruited the world-class advisory board and maintains daily oversight of the agency’s efforts.

Chapman says before it was set up, government efforts, while well-meaning, were a bit of a dog’s breakfast.

Staff tasked with investment attraction were spread across eight agencies – it just wasn’t the best model.

Chapman and Hnyda, with the imprimatur of Premier Jay Weatherill, set about selecting their dream team for investment attraction and getting on with their target of creating 6000 jobs within two years.

Key to that was having an independent advisory board and “running it like a business”, with Chapman reporting directly to the Premier himself rather than through the usual bureaucratic channels.

Compared to other state investment agencies it’s a small team – 39 people with a fraction of the budget of other states – but Chapman says that, with 20 announced projects under their belt and the jobs target in sight, he’s proud of what the team has accomplished.

“In those early days I was virtually meeting every person who knocks on the door, and I think that’s what allows us to get quick wins,’’ Chapman says. “But today, anyone around the world who wants to talk and look at setting up a business or growing a business in the southern hemisphere or southeast Asia, they have got one spot to come to.’’

Projects facilitated to date include a $275 million expansion by chicken meat producer Ingham’s, which is expected to create 850 new jobs across 15 sites.

That project was aided by a $3.7 million investment from the State Government ($2.8 million from the Regional Development Fund and $900,000 from Investment Attraction South Australia). On the tech front, home loan platform Tic:Toc, the world’s first instant home loan, was granted $900,000 in July this year to help grow its 14 staff to hopefully about 200 over the next five years.

Chapman says that, of the 20 projects so far, he believes that 80 per cent would not have come to SA without the agency’s involvement. Hnyda says the agency started by setting up five teams, focused on advanced manufacturing, food and agriculture, technology and creative industries, renewable energy and mining, and financial services.

“We’ve started becoming very proactive, getting into companies early and beginning to target companies,” he says.

“We held a meeting with a company in London last week, they’re looking at setting up an Asia-Pacific headquarters … What we pitched them was very specific based on their needs. They are actually now going to visit South Australia.

Hnyda concedes that the target of 6000 jobs within two years was ambitious. “When we were established two years ago, the KPI for the agency was to create 6000 jobs by the end of 2017, to maximise the amount of capital investment in the state and also to maximise the economic impact for the state. The timeline on these projects is usually about 15 months on average, so to create a new agency, to create a whole pipeline, to start selling ourselves globally, I thought this was beyond the task. It was a tall target to establish for the agency.”

That target is now within reach – keeping in mind that many of the job figures are projections for growth by the companies involved. Chapman says that businesses also get connected to the city through his networks and those of the other people involved, which is crucial. “They get pointed in the right direction and they get engaged and introduced to the city. And they all get to know there’s only one football team in town,’’ he says with a chuckle.

WORDS – Cameron England