Inside the boardroom with Francis Wong

Interview
Francis Wong FAICD

Francis Wong OAM FAICD moved to Adelaide from Brunei in 1988 and founded Encounter Australia, which he built into one of Australia’s leading inbound tourism companies. He is a prominent business and community figure in South Australia, sitting on several boards including Tourism Australia, Football Federation SA, the Women's and Children's Hospital Foundation SA and the Adelaide Festival Centre Foundation. He is also national president of the Australia Brunei Darussalam Business Council and patron of charity Sight for All.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Boardroom Report, Francis shared his experiences of doing business in Asia and South Australia, what boards from different sectors can learn from each other, and why you should quit when you're winning.

BR: You have been active in advancing Australian business links with Asia, particularly with Brunei, Vietnam and China. What advice would you give to boards of companies looking to do business in Asia?

Francis Wong (FW): The strongest advice I have is to understand Asia is not one trading bloc. Often companies will say "I'm going to Asia!" and Asia for them will be one single entity, or they will actually just mean China.

Asia is made up of many different economies and each has a different approach to doing business. The three countries you mentioned are totally different in terms of economic growth, consumer demand as well as the partnerships you can form there.

BR: You are a proud South Australian and have done a lot to promote business in South Australia. What is attractive about doing business in the state?

In Brunei you really have to work smart because you have a small population. Same in South Australia. People from SA work harder because they know they can't be complacent.

FW: There is beauty in being small. When you have a big economy, it makes things easy. Small is challenging. I came from Brunei, which is also a small country. In Brunei you really have to work smart because you have a small population. Same in South Australia. People from SA work harder because they know they can't be complacent. Here we have to go out and network, we have to sell ourselves better and be very astute in our strategy.

BR: You have been on boards of a range of organisations: private businesses, not-for-profits, government bodies. What are the differences between sitting on boards in different sectors?

FW: Directors at not-for-profits tend to be focused mainly on fundraising, they can learn strategy and marketing by sitting on a more corporate business-oriented board.

Going the other way, business boards can learn better community engagement from boards in other sectors. Business boards tend to just look at financial figures without going deeper. At charities and not-for-profits, directors are often much more directly involved in the activities of the organisation and so understand the grassroots better.

And then government bodies have a strong focus on probity because they are concerned about audit, which means they are often better at compliance.

BR: You have been on the board of Adelaide United and recently joined Football Australia SA’s board, can you tell us about how the board of a sporting organisation is responsive to its stakeholders?

FW: Sporting clubs invest a lot in their fans. Without their fans, there is no club. They make their star players go out to hospitals and schools. They act as very good community ambassadors.

The downside is sporting clubs often get caught up in the emotions of their fans. Their board directors can be so passionate about winning, they lose sight of the bigger picture. Many sporting clubs run into financial problems because passion has gone to their head.

I stepped down from Adelaide United the day they won the A-League. Everyone was shocked, they said when you win, you stay on. I said, no, a good board director should move on.

BR: As a board director, how do you make sure your advice and insights stay fresh?

FW: I stepped down from Adelaide United the day they won the A-League. Everyone was shocked, they said when you win, you stay on. I said, no, a good board director should move on.

I could take the A-League connections I'd built to move to another football body. If you're serious about whatever you're doing in business, in sport, or in charity, you have to refresh. You don't have to move away. You can move to a different organisation within that space.

BR: You have said before that the diversity of a board is a significant factor in the success of an organisation. How do you think Australia is faring improving the diversity of boards?

FW: It is changing organically but not quickly enough. How many big boards have people from Asian backgrounds when we now do lots of business with Asia? We still need more people from different nationalities, cultures, background, more women and more young people. We shouldn't forget that consumers are getting younger and younger and boards need to reflect that.

BR: You founded Encounter Australia nearly thirty years ago now and have brought thousands of people to visit Australia. What changes have you seen in the Australian tourism industry in that time?

FW: Back when I started people thought it was a crazy thing to set up a tourism company in South Australia, but I've been vindicated. People are now looking for authentic experiences: nature, green space, blue sky, blue water. Tourists don't want to go to theme parks anymore. South Australia has that natural environment. And of course when we first started Asian countries weren't in the top ten for tourists coming to Australia. Now China is number one.