Goodmanson: a UQ alumnus still reaching for the sky

31 Jan 2014

It was the game of rugby that brought Richard Goodmanson to the University of Queensland in the early 1970s and it is rugby that has kept him coming back – that and a desire to pass on a wealth of experience from a career history steeped in ambition, leadership, drive and innovation.

One of Australia’s most prominent and successful business exports, Goodmanson has spent decades in the USA as a senior executive with multinational corporations, including E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company and the enormously competitive PepsiCo subsidiary Frito-Lay.

He says he’s retired but business interests, study for a Master’s Degree and positions on the boards of Rio Tinto, Qantas and the UQ Rugby Football Club Trust means it’s a moniker that has little relationship with reality.

Goodmanson and his wife Janet now live in Hawai’i but he was in Brisbane to deliver a lecture to UQ’s business students during which he gave them a feel for the global economy (he’s optimistic) and tips to help them along the road to a successful career.

Key among them is that while there are advantages to smart networking – and top business people in the US are relentless networkers – there is no substitute for driving ambition and hard work.

For Goodmanson that meant an unwavering focus on a desire to be CEO of a large company from the moment he immersed himself in studying micro-economics at UQ, graduating with first class honours in 1975 and a Bachelor of Commerce in 1983.

However it was something far more prosaic that brought this former Ascot State School student to UQ in the first place:  a desire to play rugby for the university.

Goodmanson, had been a civil engineer project manager with the Australian Army, where his postings included Singapore, South Vietnam, Papua New Guinea and the Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane.

 “A fellow I got very friendly with in Vietnam was at the university and he said you’d better go and play rugby for the University of Queensland,” he says.

“At that time you couldn’t play rugby unless you were an undergraduate or an alumni so I started studying economics for no other reason than I wanted to play rugby.”

Later, while working on civil engineering projects in PNG, Goodmanson was recruited to help build Hong Kong’s subway in the 1970s and, showing his usual prowess on the paddock, was playing for the Hong Kong rugby team.

“We had played a game against Wales and I was in the showers afterwards and I did some salary swap information with an American who had been with Citibank for a long time and I said ‘Wow, you earn that much?’ – he was earning 20 times what I was earning,” Goodmanson says.

“I said, well how do I get into project finance, and he said go to the States and do an MBA so that’s what I did.”

Armed with more than a shovelful of Australian tenacity and an MBA from Columbia University in New York, Goodmanson began to make his mark on the US business scene, starting with the consulting firm McKinsey and Co.

One tip he offers young Australians in taking up their first overseas posting is to be mindful of subtle, business behavioural and communication differences that can have an impact on first impressions.

“I’ve operated in the United States now for more than 30 years and the Australian culture surprises them – we are way more blunt and direct and we tend to say what we think is right without incorporating internal sensitivities,” he says.

He admits that in the early days of doing consultancy work with McKinsey he did moderate his style to foster effective working relationships.

His US appointments included Frito-Lay senior vice-president and Chief Operating Officer, American West Airlines president and CEO and, finally, DuPont executive vice-president and COO from 1999 until his retirement in 2009.

Underpinning each role is an enviable record of sustained delivery.

For example, at Frito-Lay – the world’s biggest snack food company – Goodmanson instituted a redesign of the company’s much-vaunted distribution system and put in place a major cost-reduction program based on a plant-floor led improvement program still in place today – 20 years on.

At America West, he led the fastest growing hub-and-spoke airline in the country, delivered the highest earnings per share in the company’s history and twice earned the J.D. Power award for top customer service.

As executive vice-president and COO of DuPont he was heavily involved in reshaping the company’s portfolio, was instrumental in creating a massive productivity program and accelerated of growth in overseas markets.

What does “retirement’’ mean for him? It looks like anything but.

As well as his multiple board responsibilities, high on the list is completion of his Master’s Degree in civil engineering from Norwich University – a degree course he spotted after going online to help his son with calculus homework.

Then there’s the regular international business-associated travel, rounds of the golf course and – possibly – regaining his pilot’s licence.

Goodmanson is one UQ alumni still reaching for the sky.