Surfing winds of change suits Fletcher's new CEO

By Anne Gibson

Leaving two teenagers behind in Melbourne to head New Zealand's third-largest listed company does not faze Jonathan Ling.

Daughter Victoria, 17, will board at Camberwell Girls Grammar and son, Chris, 15, will board at Scotch College, Ling's old alma mater.

It will only be during the holidays that the teenagers will visit Auckland - so the Ling household will be cut in half, divided by the waters of the Tasman.

Ling's wife, Dianne - formerly a geophysicist at BHP Petroleum who left paid work for the unpaid work of raising a family - will shift here later this year.

But the shrinking family does not concern Ling greatly because the teens have been brought up to look after themselves.

"They're good, strong, independent kids and, anyway, most 18-year-olds can look after themselves," says Ling, a fifth-generation Australian about to take over from the tough-talking, highly successful Ralph Waters as head of the $4.4 billion Fletcher Building.

"The kids live at home but you never see them, so this is no different."

When they move to Auckland, the Lings will buy a house, preferably near the water so he can indulge a passion for windsurfing.

He'll be leaving behind his favourite windsurfing spot just over two hours' drive southeast of Melbourne. Sandy Point is near the Wilson's Promontory National Park in south Gippsland and strong southwesterly winds sweep in off Bass Strait across the narrow sandy spit that separates Shallow Inlet from Waratah Bay to give Melbourne windsurfers an adrenaline rush worth the long trip.

Ling must be a something of a daredevil to venture down there. Sandy Point wind surfers set speed records as the strong air flows up from Tasmania allowing them to sail right to the shore's edge, only metres from the sand over relatively flat water.

"It's just one of those quite beautiful places in the world on the Bass Strait," Ling said.

So on arrival in Auckland, he'll be keeping a keen eye out for the best wind-surfing spots.

And, in turn, the business community will be keeping a keen eye on Ling, wondering if he can live up to the reputation of his predecessor.

Last week, Waters showed an unforeseen soft side with a few tears when resigning after heading the building material manufacturer and distributor for five years.

The bluff Australian had taken over soon after the then loss-making Fletcher Building listed. In 2001, the company posted a full-year loss of $272 million but after the Waters treatment, it is expected to earn $630 million to $650 million this financial year.

During his term, Waters shelled out $1.6 billion, buying wallboard manufacturer Laminex, Australian building products firm Amatek and insulation, roofing, sinkware and flooring conglomerate Tasman Building Products.

Now, Ling is about to fill Waters' boots, quietly confident that more of the same is on the way.

"My vision is pretty much the same as Ralph's so it will be more of the same. If we can repeat the last five years, it will be marvellous.

"The business will continue to grow and we have lots of opportunities.

"As for the acquisitions, if you look at the products in a house and the ones that Fletcher Building makes - the ones that we don't make are the opportunities."

An acquisition in the paint-manufacturing sector is one possibility, but not one Ling wants to discuss.

As he settles in, uppermost in his mind will be a lesson taught to him by Visy Recycling's boss and billionaire Dick Pratt, whose secret was to cut business back to its essence.

"His focus was on four things: selling a product, making a product, delivering it on time and getting paid for it. Everything else that's not that is a separate activity and less important. So that's the core of understanding what makes money," Ling said.

"He's a remarkable man because he started off with a small business in 1970 and he now owns and runs a multi-billion-dollar empire and he's done a remarkable job. He's one of the best entrepreneurs of his time.

"I learned how to make money in a corporate sense from him."

Ling, a descendant of migrants who left southern China in 1830, had a privileged upbringing. He was sent to Melbourne's elite Scotch College, which his son now attends. The school's tuition fees are A$15,000 to A$20,000 for day boys and A$35,000-plus for boarders. The school is considered Australia's richest, with an annual budget of more than A$50 million, not including government funding.

But the mechanical engineer, who has worked in Malaysia and Singapore, was not seen as the first choice to head Fletcher. The longer-serving Andrew Reding, who heads up the building products division, which earned $222 million last year, or the popular Mark Binns, who runs infrastructure earning $196 million, were thought to be more likely candidates.

Ling has been at Fletcher for only three years, having been appointed chief executive of Laminex in 2003 after Waters bought it.

Fletcher chairman Rod Deane paid tribute to the other Fletcher executives who missed out on the top job last week, saying the board's chief executive hunt had included "an enviable choice of strong internal candidates".

Ling hopes none of the division heads will resign in protest at his appointment or in disappointment at missing out. As he prepares to take up the job at the old Fletcher Challenge House on Great South Rd, management is searching for his replacement in Melbourne.

And when he finally gets here, he'll be searching for that top windsurfing spot off the Auckland isthmus, hoping to find an isolated place where a stiff wind will carry him over deep flat water - as fast as he can go.

Jonathan Peter Ling

Position: Chief executive, Fletcher Building, from September 1.

Age: 52.

Nationality: Australian; lives in Camberwell, Melbourne.

Family: Wife Dianne, daughter Victoria, 17, son Chris, 15.

Interests: Wind surfing, skiing, sailing.

Secondary education: Scotch College, Hawthorn, Melbourne.

1975: University of Melbourne, graduated with bachelor of engineering (mechanical).

1985: Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, MBA.

1980-85: Kenworth Trucks, senior management roles.

1985-1989: Engineering Innovation, general manager.

1989-1998: Pacific Group, senior management roles.

1998-2001: Visy Recycling, chief executive officer.

2001-2003: Austrim Nylex, executive general manager, plastics.

2003: Fletcher Building, chief executive officer, Laminex Group.

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a4 at 02 Aug 2014 02:29:00 Processing Time: 966ms