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Business and social lessons learnt from 'jumping ship'

Introduction from Cuffelinks founder, Chris Cuffe

I left a full-time business career not quite knowing ‘what was next’ and met Michael Traill at the front of that journey. He changed my life. He has just released a book about that journey called 'Jumping Ship – from the world of corporate Australia to the heart of social investment'. His inspiring personal and professional story connects his work at Social Ventures Australia and his energy, vision and tenacity to make Goodstart Early Learning the reality and powerhouse it is today. As well as the intriguing Goodstart story, the book is a practical primer for anyone who is serious about ‘jumping ship’ and those who care about how we can improve social outcomes in the Australia of today.

We asked Michael to share key themes from the book and his personal motives in writing it. In particular, as someone who is widely regarded as a driver of the impact investing market in Australia, what potential does he feel this early stage market has to become more mainstream?

I wrote Jumping Ship for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a shortcut. I am frequently asked, “Why did you jump ship after 15 years at Macquarie Bank to work in the social sector?”.

Secondly, I wanted to share what I learnt in the 15 years since I ‘jumped ship’ to highlight that practical partnership solutions which use business disciplines for social purposes are making a real difference.

Avoiding the cycle of poor education and opportunity

My motive for Jumping Ship was driven by growing up in a country town community which would now be regarded as a 'postcode of disadvantage'. Courtesy of the strong values placed on education by my parents and especially my school teacher father, my brother and I were both motivated to take advantage of the educational opportunities we had. But we know talented and capable school peers who didn’t, mostly because the school or the families and community around them didn’t expect them to do well.

The data highlights Australia still has a big divide between those who are trapped in a cycle of poor education and opportunity and those who are not. Despite many genuine attempts by government and non-profits, not enough has changed to shift that data. It outrages me morally that students in those bottom 20% of postcodes are on average two to two-and-a-half years behind their peers in the top 20% by the age of 15 on standard education performance measures. That’s obviously a major economic and productivity issue for Australia.

I reached a point where I felt a strong urge to see if I could use whatever business and professional skills I had acquired in a 20-year career to do something constructive about that issue. The greatly respected social commentator Hugh Mackay, who kindly wrote a foreword for my book, explains better than anyone the reason for wanting that itch to be scratched. He talks about a group of 'affluent purpose seekers' – people who have done well professionally and financially but are looking for ways to engage more meaningfully around family and community. My experience is that there are many who want to have a serious conversation about how they can use their business and professional skills to make a tangible community contribution.

Using business principles for social purpose

At the heart of the work of Social Ventures Australia (SVA), where I spent 12 years as founding Chief Executive, and the $900 million Goodstart Early Learning social enterprise which I chair, is the belief that we can make a significant practical difference by applying business disciplines for social purpose. What I found in that journey is that there are many outstanding people who want to be part of that. Chris Cuffe was an exemplar of this and he made a transformational difference in a three-year period as Executive Director at SVA.

In the work at SVA, Goodstart has received significant profile because of the scale of the enterprise. As Australia’s largest early learning chain, with 644 centres nationally and over 69,600 children attending, it is one of the largest social enterprises in the world. When the deal was put together six years ago, there were many cynics who thought the idea that it could be run in a financially disciplined way and achieve social purpose objectives was nonsense. The cynics have been proved wrong. The investors who committed subordinated debt, so the Goodstart syndicate of four non-profit partners could fund the purchase of the bankrupted ABC Childcare centres, were paid a 12% annual coupon and had their debt fully repaid two years ahead of schedule in 2015.

That six-year journey has also seen substantial investment in critical areas of quality and social purpose, furnished by the solid financial performance of the business. The number of degree-qualified early learning teachers has increased more than fourfold to over 850. There has also been significant investment in improved professional development and specialist support resources to assist the particular needs of over 130 centres located in the bottom 30% of postcodes.

Support needed from superannuation trustees

There has been a lot of conversation about how deals like Goodstart – so-called impact investing transactions with a combination of reasonable financial returns and social purpose outcomes – can become more mainstream. I believe there is enormous potential for this to happen but we have a long way to go. Superannuation fund investors and trustees in particular need convincing that such transactions satisfy the twin test of being of sufficient scale and offering returns that would pass reasonable risk/return hurdles expected by their investment committees.

The current market is quite fragmented. SVA has been a market leader, and was behind the country’s first social benefit bonds, as well as running a $10 million social impact fund and a $30 million commitment from industry fund HESTA. Most of these investments are relatively small scale, as yet. For the opportunity to accelerate, there is a real need for large-scale investments that can deploy capital in amounts which are meaningful for the multibillion-dollar industry and super funds. My belief is that these will happen and will offer the infrastructure type returns (8–12%) that are already being demonstrated in the examples above.

 

Jumping Ship by Michael Traill is published by Hardie Grant and available online and at bookstores. See www.jumpingship.com.au.

 


 

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