Now then, back to Mick.
“This [FIFO] all started because George had a health issue and the best way to deal with it was to have him up on the farm. You do whatever you have to for your kids. I got some wife counsel from my wife [Lyndall]. We were both going to head back up there and then look for a job. But she said, ‘Look, I have two toddlers so there is not much use you knocking about in Brisbane. You are on the cusp of something, so stay and see it through.’
“That started the whole commute thing. And four or five years later I took over at APA and since then it has been 24-7 and I have always been going somewhere or other.
“There is no point in whinging about it. People say, and they are right, ‘you earn so much bloody money, just get on with it’. But those people don’t understand what being a CEO is. You don’t get much sympathy. But the reality is, you have a family and I have a family, I have the same issues that you have got. Money and status might help that a little bit. But not much. Lives are getting built around where Lyndall and my family are. And I am not always part of those lives or that build.”
Knowing when your time’s up
McCormack says he knew the gig was up about two years ago. For the first time he found himself wanting to sleep in rather than head to work.
“Here’s how I thought about it. I have ridden a horse since I could walk. Where I am from, if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. I never thought I would get to the point where I woke up and didn’t want to go to work. But just over the last few years, there have been moments when I just wanted to sleep in or just not wake up thinking, ‘where the hell do I have to go now?’ That is when you know your time is up.
“The last few years has been particularly tough, not really seeing that much of my family. Lyndall has been a single mother. We have taken big breaks each year – the whole of January, we love skiing and we muck about on the farm for a few weeks.”
For the record, the farm is near Killarney, a Southern Downs township some 190 kilometres to the south-west of Brisbane, and the skiing is done mostly around Whistler, which explains how McCormack became such a passionate fan of North American ice hockey and subsequently a promoter of the game in Australia.
“But the last year or two it has played on my mind, have you done the right thing? Lyndall just says, ‘Mick, mate, we played the hand of cards we were dealt with, you have done well, the two boys are now established, heading for careers of their own and we have done great things for ourselves’
“I have been very fortunate. It is going to be 14 years. I am still a relatively young man (he is 57). I want to take a break for a bit, to spend some more time with Lyndall. I will have to be careful about that though, you know, dropping in on her full time. I have been a fly-in, fly-out worker for all of that time. I have got to be careful. She might see that I really am a dickhead.”
Incidentally, in reflecting on family, McCormack asked us to thank his mum, Dell. Now a resident of the distant Whitsunday township of Proserpine, Dell has travelled to every APA annual general meeting convened under Mick’s crusty watch. McCormack says everything of importance at APA has to “pass the mum test”.
APA now a strategic asset
If McCormack has been fortunate to have APA then so too have its shareholders been lucky to have him. APA’s total shareholder return since he took over sits currently at 543 per cent. Over 13 years he has successfully deployed $14 billion in growth capital. The result is a business that the government believes is too strategic to be foreign owned and that alarms critics because of its unrepeatable collection of monopoly gas pipelines.
Public confirmation of the McCormacks’ retirement plan arrives just more than a month after Treasurer Josh Frydenberg scotched a rather more seamless and immediately enriching exit.
In early November, Frydenberg exercised the Treasurer’s prerogative and rejected a $13 billion takeover bid for APA by Hong King’s infrastructure pac-men, CK Infrastructure. As you might expect, the decision still agitates McCormack.
“When the CKI bid came I wasn’t surprised, though I was surprised where it came from. It would have been nice, in a sense, had the CKI bid been successful. Mate, I don’t mind losing a footy game 100-nil or 19-18 and you know you have done your best. But I hate losing a footy game on a dud referee call.”
So, what’s the plan, Mick, what will retirement look like?
“I have got the cattle property but I don’t want to do that full time. I am too bloody old, that is one reason. I have a young fella running it for me and I don’t want to get in his way too much. It is good physical activity though.
“I have had a marvellous career, met a lot of people who have helped me along the way. I like to think I have a bit of knowledge and I think I owe it to those people that helped me to put something back. If a director job comes up, well, people have my number, I am happy to talk. You think a bit about how to put something back. Lyndall is the chairman of a local aged-care facility at Killarney. I have thought a bit about the charity thing.”
Meanwhile, there is a year to go and things to get done.
“I am not a carcass yet, there is still a detectable pulse. You know, I keep saying around here that I only end up making about half a dozen decisions a year these days. The business is just so big and so well run. In the end, we have got through without any scandals, any of those sorts of issues. There will be one last tour with the drums,” he finished. “We will have to make sure we are very, very careful on the last rock ‘n’ roll tour.”
McCormack is, either famously or infamously, the drummer in the APA All-Stars, a company band that manages a pre-Christmas tour of the APA world annually and does the occasional corporate gig. In the internal message he sent to the APA troops on Thursday, he rated “playing the drums” for them as “up there in my favourite moments at APA”.
“Boy oh boy, we’ve come a long way from six people 18 years ago to now,” he noted.
“Whilst I’ll look to continuing with some involvement in the business world, I’m also looking forward to mucking about on the farm and doing a bit more on the drums, hopefully including some touring. So if you see someone on stage that looks a bit like me in the future – well it might just be me!”