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Brexit spurs record investment boom for Australian firms in UK by Rob Harris

by Rob Harris

London: Britain’s exit from the European Union has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Australian businesses to grow in the Northern Hemisphere, the new leader of the body aimed at fostering and furthering trade and investment between the two countries says.

Joanne Holland, appointed chief executive of the Australia-United Kingdom Chamber of Commerce in May, says while the question of Brexit continues to divide the UK, it has opened the door for Australian-based firms to capitalise on an investment boom, including in renewable energy and infrastructure projects.

Several Australian companies have committed to injecting £28.5 billion ($50 billion) into the UK economy off the back of a historic trade deal, with a stable regulatory environment making the market particularly attractive for business leaders, coupled with the UK’s progressive approach to energy transition.

Financial giant Macquarie Group was among the group, committing £12 billion capital by 2030 to infrastructure projects across the UK, including in offshore wind in Lincolnshire and north Scotland, gigabit broadband in rural England and hydrogen hubs in Southampton and Orkney.

Real estate and investment group Lendlease and its partners plan to deliver £5.5 billion of investment across its major regeneration projects in London and Birmingham over the next five years. IFM Investors will invest £3 billion over five years to maintain and upgrade the M6 toll road and Manchester, Stansted and East Midlands airports.

Holland, who left her native Adelaide for London three decades ago, says Australia’s business and investment credentials had never been more sought-after, with British start-ups and councils knocking down the door at the chamber to help woo investors.

“We stand very tall and very proud nowadays,” she said. “When I first came here 23 years ago, Australia didn’t have that sort of reputation. Obviously, there were Australians working in pubs and so on, but the reputation Australians now have is one I couldn’t have dreamed of, even though I’d been the CEO of financial institutions in Australia.”

“We’re on an equal playing field with the UK when it comes to trade now… so I think there’s a new relationship that really needs to be forged.”

Holland said she wants to use her appointment as head of the chamber to help connect more businesses in both countries with opportunities and markets, including Australian wine growers, medical technology companies as well as British gaming and film projects to make the most of state government incentives.

A trailblazing figure for women in the Australian financial services sector, Holland joined ANZ Bank as treasurer for domestic markets after working in derivative markets, and in 1990 took up executive and restructuring positions at the Cooperative Group and the Hindmarsh Adelaide Group.

Holland was named South Australian Executive Woman of the Year in 1992, before becoming general manager of IOOF Australia Trustees, with a charter to incorporate the trustee arm more fully into IOOF’s group operations and to launch the company’s new master super fund.

She studied at the International Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland, before joining Arthur Andersen in Britain, then one of the world’s big four accounting firms, as head of turnaround consulting.

Holland went out on her own three years later, working with private equity houses in the UK, to turn around their underperforming companies. Her roles have ranged from advisory through to CEO and chairman in more than 17 countries and more than 20 sectors, including Irvin Aerospace Canada, Bowater Building Products and, at one point, Everest Home Improvements.

“I think part of my success has been that I am a woman, and I’m Australian,” she says.

“Australians are very forthright. And when people are in times of concern about their roles and jobs and somebody is telling it straight… they will go the extra mile.

“I think that the trick is to win the hearts and minds of people. And I think being an Australian helped me do that – I couldn’t be pigeonholed in terms of British class or education – and I was a woman.”

Holland says Australia in many ways is Britain’s “new best friend”, with the historic trade deal – although still to be ratified – providing a significant shift in the way the UK had traditionally done business.

John McClusky, chief of National Australia Bank’s UK arm, said recently that the UK was ripe for investment from Australian funds looking to fuel the transition to net zero.

“The UK remains very appealing for investment across infrastructure, renewables and property at the moment, and there are plenty of opportunities for Aussie investors in private markets to deploy capital,” he said.

Australia’s largest super fund continues to increase its presence in London as it scours the market for investment opportunities.

The $230 billion fund AustralianSuper, whose 2.3 million members account for more than 1 in 10 of the Australian workforce, plans to increase the number of staff in its London office from 38 to 90 by the end of 2023, as it hunts for deals in infrastructure and private debt.

“We have some very big members, but we have smaller ones. And we have start-ups, we cover the whole range.

“Britain very much relies on the fabulous and prolific SME market. And the SMEs we’re seeing coming from Australia to the UK are very keen to expand here. And the chamber’s sole raison d’etre is to connect companies and help them succeed.”

Photo by: Hollie Adams 


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