- Bill Moss AO was with Macquarie Group for 22 years before leaving in 2007 due to the effects of muscle-wasting condition FSHD.
- His family business Boston Global is involved in health research and energy to provide a social benefit.
- Moss says leaders who want to get a jump-start on post-pandemic recovery need to focus on new technologies.
By John Burfitt
Photo Graham Jepson
It’s a bright Sydney afternoon when Acuity is invited into the harbourside home of former Macquarie Bank executive Bill Moss AO. A financial statesman who rode out recessions in the 1980s and ’90s at Macquarie, Moss spent 22 years as a senior executive with the bank, but the increasingly crippling effects of the muscle-wasting disease facioscapulohumeral dystrophy (FSHD) forced him out prematurely at age 53 in early 2007.
A genetic disorder, FSHD weakens the muscles in the face, the upper arms and around the shoulder blades. Although the muscular dystrophy progresses slowly, the facial weakness makes it hard to smile or use a straw.
“One day I went to a board meeting and at the end, I could not get out of my chair and could barely move,” Moss recalls. “That was the day I knew it was time to let someone else take over and move on.” He walked away from the Macquarie ‘millionaire’s factory’ having made an estimated A$65 million.
Today he is mobile in a high-tech Permobil wheelchair, which he describes as “essential to continue to work and carry on a normal life”.
“I can’t understand why it costs more to import a wheelchair into Australia than it does to import a new small BMW,” he adds. “Either the BMW is too cheap or the wheelchair is too expensive.”
Moss refutes any suggestions he was ever a workaholic – “I always believed if you’re really passionate about anything, you don’t take days off and you find a way of planning your leisure time around your focus,” he says. “Anyway, it never feels like work if you really enjoy it.”
Yet only 18 months after leaving Macquarie, Moss traded the 18-hour days he kept during the Macquarie era for a far more manageable 40-hour working week with Boston Global, a company he’d founded in 2002 for strategic investment purposes. Boston Global specialises in property, structured finance, innovation, health and science. Moss is its chair, his daughter, Natalie Cooney, is the health and science director and son-in-law Corey Cooney is group managing director. “It’s a true family business,” he says.
“I also found I needed work for my wellbeing as I discovered if I switched off my mind, my body deteriorated,” he recalls. “I had to find more ways to stimulate my brain.”
While Moss, 67, requires around-the-clock care, he spends his days keeping a sharp eye on the economy and business landscape – he has been called on many times over the past year for his predictions on the post-pandemic economy.
Picture: Bill Moss AO.
Maintaining his influence
After all, for much of his career, Moss was one of the most influential people in Australian business.
As the founder of Macquarie’s property business, Moss later headed its banking and property group, overseeing an estimated A$30 billion portfolio of global investments. When Moss spoke, prime ministers, premiers, treasurers and financial chiefs hung on his every word.
He had an ability to see the bigger picture, often identifying emerging trends and growing markets – such as the booms in the Australian residential property market and the extent of development in China – long before others noticed.
After he found himself (embarrassingly) ripped off by a close friend in a property deal, rather than hide it Moss initiated the Macquarie Fraud Lecture series to warn the community about how fraud can happen. It led to countless phone calls from other individuals who’d been swindled. Aussie Fraud Busters, the 2005 book based on the lectures, outed conmen and addressed victims of financial fraud.
When he publicly criticised Macquarie Bank’s board in early 2013 as needing new blood and a different strategy (Macquarie’s earnings had dipped from A$1.9 billion in 2008, before the global financial crisis, to A$762 million in 2012), his actions helped bring new directors to the board, including experienced female executives Patricia Cross and Nicola Wakefield Evans, and Professor Gary Banks from the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG).
Preparing for a post-pandemic world
Moss has kept his keenness for business strategy and says leaders who want to get a jump-start on the post-pandemic recovery need to focus on new technologies and explore the ways those new technologies will affect the way we work and live.
“A lesson from the past is that after every crisis, technology takes off and booms,” he says.
“A lesson from the past is that after every crisis, technology takes off and booms.”
“It happened after World War I, then after World War II and, more recently, after the GFC. We find new ways of doing things much smarter, and that’s what’s about to happen now.”
Moss believes the application of artificial intelligence (AI) across all areas of life – from finance through to health and agriculture – will soon dominate in a way unimaginable a decade ago.
He says the key to success will be to understand the ways these new technologies can be improved and, as each innovation evolves, to be fast to embrace it, rather than make it a secondary priority.
“The way that will play out is people will need new education and different structures, and that will take a commitment and investment, but it will be worth it,” he says.
“When you have the right technology along with the right management systems, it’s then a matter of making sure your teams are productive and making the most of all the options available to them. It is just a common-sense approach to work.”
He believes another recession is imminent. What’s ahead will not be a quick and sustained V-shaped recovery from the pandemic’s economic effects. But he’s just as adamant Australia will ultimately emerge as a new “global star”, that there will be innovation in many industries and the continued return home of well-trained expats will help lead the country in new directions.
“There has also been a giant shift in the way we view what goes on within our borders. We realised we couldn’t rely on old supply chains, so we had to rethink what needs to be made here.
“Just as they did during the war, we had to retool and look at all our systems in new ways, and that approach will continue to have a major impact on the way we do business. It’s going to be a major time for innovation for all of us.”
"Just as they did during the war, we had to retool and look at all our systems in new ways... It’s going to be a major time for innovation for all of us."
The accounting wake-up call
Moss offers a clear message to the accounting profession to pay immediate attention to the changes that AI will bring. To ignore it, he says, is to run the risk of the profession being made redundant in the rush.
“I see an old-style profession but there are so many software platforms now available, consumers have more choice that are easy to use and much cheaper,” he says.
“So, in accounting, you need to clearly understand what’s going on with that and find a way to deal with it. Now is the time to go back to basics, consider the prognosis, look at technology, what people really want and what your business options are.”
He says bold action is needed by the leaders within accounting to secure new and evolving plans to avoid tough times ahead.
“I’m not saying they’re all going to collapse but the smart ones will adapt, embrace new technologies or continue in their business, but also expand into adjacent areas related to accounting.
“We’re going to need a new business strategy every 12 months and if you don’t, then you’ll be so far off the pace in terms of what’s going on, where the money should go, and the most effective ways to suit the changes.
“You have to adapt and the quicker you can, the better,” he says. “It matters to keep yourself relevant in times that are changing as fast as these are.”
"You have to adapt and the quicker you can, the better. It matters to keep yourself relevant in times that are changing as fast as these are."
Improving corporate culture and much more
Moss remains a steadfast advocate for improvements in corporate culture, calling for a more committed approach to corporate social responsibility, especially in areas of diversity pertaining to women, the LGBTQ community, Indigenous Australians and people with disabilities.
In his 2011 memoir, Still Walking, Moss wrote that “discrimination often stems from middle management”, and recounts how a highly competent candidate applied for a job at Macquarie only to be rejected by HR because he had multiple sclerosis.
“I was the boss, but they weren’t looking at me as having a disability, even though I did,” Moss tells Acuity. “It gets down to the individuals within a company as they ultimately make the decisions, and the board is only as good as the information they get. The culture delay in character often can’t adapt as quickly as change is happening.”
At Boston Global, with its various pillars of investment and development, the aspect at the top of his agenda these days is its philanthropic side with the FSHD Global Research Foundation.
“When we set up Boston Global, a big part of it was a focus on health, and we wanted a business that would provide social benefits,” Moss explains.
“We want to be involved in health and energy in particular, areas we feel we can have some influence on educating governments. But what I really want is to create a strategy to find a cure for FSHD.” The FSHD Foundation has led the way with research into the muscle-wasting disorder, raising more than A$11 million and funding 54 medical research grants across 10 countries. It was named 2017’s Australian Charity of the Year and in the 2020 Australian Charity Awards gained the Outstanding Achievement Award for how it pivoted its fundraising during COVID-19.
In early May 2021, Moss took on a new fight when he wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison regarding Australia’s National Disability Insurance Scheme, about the issue of people who do not register before the age of 65 being banned from receiving funding.
Picture: Bill Moss AO and his daughter, Natalie, met with Prime Minister Scott Morrison in May 2021 to raise awareness among politicians of facioscapulohumeral dystrophy (FSHD).
“This is age discrimination,” Moss says. “I can pay for my care, but what about all the other people who can’t? It’s just not right.”
That same month, Moss and his daughter, Natalie, launched the Parliamentary Friends of FSHD at Canberra’s Parliament House, seeking fairness and equality for the estimated 3500 Australians affected by FSHD, and paving a path towards clinical trial readiness programs for those living with the disease.
The purpose was to meet with parliamentary representatives, scientific researchers, pharmaceutical industry and the FSHD community to discuss how they can work with government. It drew strong support from members of parliament and the prime minister.
“We just have to wait and see the challenges of navigating the goodwill and intent through the bureaucracy,” says Moss. “For the past seven years, we’ve been at the epicentre of what’s happening globally in research. We started out with an idea to find a cure for diseases where there was no research in Australia and no government funding. We do a lot of the government’s work, carrying on the role of educating people in the community about the disease.”
10 different ways to attack a problem
In his memoir, Moss writes of becoming disillusioned in his career post-Macquarie, when he was approaching corporate leaders for support for his charities. Moss had helped some of them make their fortunes in investments – and yet they quickly dismissed him.
“With some corporates, if they can’t tick a box and get a tax deduction, they have little interest,” he says sadly.
“That way of thinking will take time to change, but what has been encouraging is I sometimes see staff showing their social conscience by being willing to get involved in volunteer projects or workplace giving schemes. It’s slow, but there are encouraging signs.”
He is equally encouraged by daughter Natalie, who took over from him as chair of the FSHD Foundation in 2020.
Picture: Bill Moss at home in Sydney with his daughter, Natalie Cooney. She took over from him as chair of the FSHD Foundation last year.
“From seeing Bill in action across all those years, I learned the impact your life can have, no matter the role you have,” she says.
“Whatever he touched, be it personal or professional or for charity, it was always about having a bigger voice than what he was dealing with and to always keep a forward way of thinking.
“He showed that nothing is one-dimensional and very often you need to pick up an idea, spin it, twist it and turn it so you come out with 10 different ways to attack it. That’s what we strive for in working to find a cure and treatment.”
While Moss speaks enthusiastically about a cure, he is less optimistic about his own health.
“I am scared,” he states matter of factly. “The reality of my condition is I lose some function every day and I’m well aware of what my future is. But if you dwell on that, then you won’t be able to enjoy the present.”
He’s always had the attitude of “just keep going”, he says.
“I’ve got a very enquiring mind and I still want to look at a problem and turn it into an opportunity by really understanding what is really going on in a scenario.
“But the reality for me is a very fine line between sitting in a boardroom and sitting in a nursing home. Half the battle is how you set your brain, and in some cases it’s far better to believe you’re going to beat it. That at least gives you half a chance.”