Chiefs take a walk down darker streets

Many executives are happy to help others for whom life hasn't been so kind, writes Stephen Lacey.

Many executives are happy to help others for whom life hasn't been so kind, writes Stephen Lacey.

CEOs are often maligned in the media for their big pay packets and even bigger bonuses. But few realise that every day and night in Australia, many of our top executives are rolling up their sleeves and helping out those most in need.

One of the most popular soup kitchens in Australia, Loaves and Fishes, owes its name and existence to the advertising guru and entrepreneur John Singleton.

The larrikin multi-millionaire was friends with the Reverend Bill Crews, the ordained minister of the Ashfield Uniting Church Parish Mission, in Sydney.

Crews had thrown open the doors of his church in 1986 and invited the destitute in for a hot meal. It was often a struggle to feed them, with more than 80 turning up each evening.

"One Saturday morning Singo turned up," Crews says. "He said, 'I've just won all this money on a horse, what would you do with it if I gave it to you?' I told him I'd open a free restaurant. He said, 'Here's the money, call it Loaves and Fishes'."

Nowadays Loaves and Fishes provides up to 1000 meals a day. Singleton is still a regular visitor, breaking bread with the homeless and sharing a yarn about horse racing. He also accompanies Crews in the Loaves and Fishes food van to feed the homeless who wander about Sydney's CBD.

"Singo is now part of the milieu, he doesn't so much help in the kitchen, but he talks to the people and that's really important to me," Crews says. "We often see the executives from Westpac and McKenzie Group in here.

"Marcus Blackmore of Blackmores vitamins is a regular, and so is former Ernst and Young CEO James Millar. In fact James was cutting up the carrots last time I saw him.

"What we do is try and scar people, to let them see the other side of the ledger. These CEOs live a good life and don't often witness such poverty. And so they respond very well. They see the injustice and they want to do something to change it."

Some are even moved to tears. such as the well-known property developer who celebrated his 50th birthday at Loaves and Fishes. "He was very moved. You cannot work with people who have got nothing and not be touched by it," Crews says.

Major Brendan Nottle of the Salvation Army in Melbourne says CEOs, board members and executives often drop in to the Hamodava cafe at 69 Bourke Street to lend a hand. "The British consul-general even helped out here a few weeks ago," Nottle says. "And Margaret Jackson, the former chairman of Qantas, has turned up to do her bit."

The cafe serves about 150 meals a day to Melbourne's homeless. A further 100 meals are plated up on the streets, via the Salvos' food vans, and a similar number are provided by the AMP Youth Bus.

"Last year AMP's chief executive Craig Dunn came along on the bus to hand out meals. It was terrific the way he engaged with the young people," Nottle says. "We've got a rock band comprised of homeless youth who frequent the bus and Craig was so inspired he got them to perform at an AMP event; he was very encouraging."

Nottle says the funding for the bus was actually organised by Andy Penn at the time when he was CEO of AXA (it was taken over by AMP). Penn is now the CFO of Telstra and he's still actively involved. "Andy is fantastic, he's always happy to help out on the bus and he's assisting us with some programs we're currently developing," Nottle says.

Penn, who is also on the advisory board for The Big Issue magazine, says he gets a lot of personal satisfaction from contributing to a cause that has such a positive impact. "I've found when it comes to people in a less fortunate position than we are, it only takes a relatively small amount of help to create a very big difference in their lives," Penn says.

Along with Nottle, Penn spent a lot of time with the late Neill Martin, the famous Melbourne shoeshine man and former drug addict, taking him off the streets and helping him set up a business on the footpath outside Harrolds in Collins Street (Harrolds' owners, John and Theo Poulakis, were instrumental in this). Martin would polish the leather of the city's movers and shakers.

"He once told me that it took him about a month to learn how to shine a shoe, and six months to learn how to look people in the eye again," Penn says. "His story was very much about disadvantage, but the hardest thing for him was actually reconnecting with society."

Crown CEO Rowen Craigie is another executive who likes to roll up his sleeves. Nottle says Craigie is in the process of organising staff from Crown to come along as bus volunteers.

Nottle says none of the executives offer their services for personal glory. "Put it this way, they never bring the media with them," he says.

"I think they understand the impact of their presence, not only on our staff, but also on the homeless.

"It sends a message to the people on the streets; you are not forgotten, even the most powerful and influential people in society want to hear your story and be involved in a solution."

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