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Bombers boss will keep on trucking

The AFL would do well not to underestimate Essendon chairman Paul Little, write Mark Hawthorne and Ruth Williams.

The AFL would do well not to underestimate Essendon chairman Paul Little, write Mark Hawthorne and Ruth Williams.

Listen to his mates, and they'll tell you Paul Little, one of Australia's most successful businessmen, is the right man for a fight. Especially one that has become as bitter and public as Essendon's all-out war with the AFL.

In his 26-year career running logistics giant Toll Group, Little stared down everyone, from America's powerful Teamsters union to his great corporate rival Chris Corrigan, the man whose clash with Australia's waterfront workers inspired the mini-series Bastard Boys.

In doing so he turned Toll from an 18-truck operation worth $1.5 million into an international behemoth with 45,000 employees, operations in 50 countries and a market capitalisation of almost $4 billion.

Described by friends and associates as calculated, tough and very smart, Little, 65, is famed for his ability to stay calm in the face of great pressure. In corporate circles, he is best remembered for his steely leadership of Toll during its hostile takeover of Corrigan's Patrick Corp - a bare-knuckled fight which dominated the business press during 2005 and 2006.

Physically fit, Little is a self-made man who grew up in Burwood in Melbourne's east. He loves racing cars and owned a V8 Supercars team; Anthony Tratt, Little's former racing car driver, says Little was "smooth and balanced" on the racetrack - "just like everything else he's done in his life".

He is a long-time and passionate Essendon supporter. Unwilling to court the spotlight like other business leaders, Little maintained a low profile outside the corporate world. But now that he has stepped up to the chairmanship during his beloved Bombers' darkest hour, his low-profile days are over.

"Paul is a proven strategist, he's a dealmaker, he's tough," says Ray Horsburgh, Toll chairman and former Essendon chairman who, along with recently departed Bombers chair David Evans, convinced Little to join the club's board in 2011.

"He's got all the attributes that you need to see through such a crisis."

"He's just a down-to-earth Aussie guy who worked extremely hard," Tratt says. "I've never met anybody who puts in the hours that Paul does."

Much like AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou, Little is a boy from the suburbs made good.

Little attended night school at RMIT and joined the transport industry as a 17-year-old at the then trucking giant Mayne Nickless.

After 18 years climbing the corporate ladder at Mayne, he left for a change of pace - running a guesthouse with his first wife Shirley then making a tidy profit with a hospital development in Geelong.

But he wanted to return to the trucking world, and in 1985 he landed at Toll. Within six months, with Peter Rowsthorn and Rowsthorn's son Mark, he was leading a management buy-out of the operation, securing it for just $1.5 million.

By the time Toll floated on the stock exchange in 1993, it was valued at $63 million, and when Little announced his retirement in late 2010 Toll's worth was almost $5 billion. Asciano, the company spun out of Toll to assuage competition concerns and then helmed by Mark Rowsthorn, another $4.8 billion.

The boy from the suburbs is now a rusted-on BRW Rich Lister; this year he was ranked 41 with an estimated worth of $880 million. Despite his down-to-earth reputation, Little enjoys the trappings of wealth, such as custom-made Porsches and prestige properties.

In 2002, with his second wife, Jane Hansen, Little bought the Toorak mansion Coonac for close to $15 million, then a record price for a Melbourne home. He made almost 100 acquisitions during his time at Toll, but it was his decision in 2005 to move on stevedore group Patrick Corp - then Toll's joint-venture partner in the rail company Pacific National - that enshrined his place in Australian corporate folklore.

Toll's ambitions were grimly opposed by Corrigan and the Patrick board. They waged a vocal and, at times, personal public campaign that declared Toll had "precious little" to offer Patrick shareholders. Internally, Patrick executives were said to refer to Little as "Gollum", the wretched creature from Lord of the Rings.

In early 2006, the competition regulator blocked the deal, and Toll's takeover seemed dead in the water. But Little would not admit defeat.

At the Patrick annual meeting soon after, Corrigan screened a famous scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which the Black Knight refuses to surrender despite King Arthur progressively lopping off all of his limbs. The Black Knight bore a "striking resemblance" to Little, Corrigan noted, to the guffaws of the assembled Patrick shareholders.

But Corrigan had underestimated Little's resolve. Toll finally got competition clearance for the deal in exchange for selling off major assets, including half of Pacific National. As a knock-out blow, Little increased his scrip and cash bid, worth about $4.6 billion, by roughly $2 billion. By mid-April the takeover was done.

Who won? Little got what he wanted in the end, but paid an extraordinary price for it.

But by all accounts - even when goaded by the Patrick PR machine - Little did not lose his temper once during the saga. "The Patrick takeover was tough," Horsburgh says. "He never lost sight of the target, he was determined, he was convinced it was the right thing to do ... [it was] grit-the-teeth determination."

Little's last months at Toll were spent in a stoush with the American Teamsters union, known for its strong-arm tactics, over conditions at the company's operations in Los Angeles. It confirmed his reputation as a hardened corporate fighter.

But outside the corporate world, friends speak of a generous man.

Little, a father of three, helped nurse his first wife, Shirley, after she was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 1991. With Hansen, who he married in 1994, Little is an active philanthropist, particularly in drug rehabilitation. "He doesn't seek the attention. He goes about his business very quietly and his wife Jane is exactly the same," Tratt says.

Since leaving Toll at the end of 2011, Little has kept busy. His property business, Little Projects, has become a significant inner-city apartment developer in Melbourne.

A seat on Essendon's board was mean to be a "bit of a retirement gig" for Little, Horsburgh quips. But his stint as chairman, which began last month, may prove every bit as intense as the Patrick takeover. It is likely to test the limits of his legendary calm exterior. "Paul just wants to make sure Essendon doesn't go down in history as cheats," Horsburgh says. "I think ... he knows there's been some governance issues and some management issues. But no one set out to cheat."

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