Date posted: 07/10/2020 5 min read

Difference makers of 2020: Nicholas Moore FCA

Former Macquarie Group CEO Nicholas Moore FCA is changing outcomes for disadvantaged children as chair of The Smith Family.

In Brief

  • Nicholas Moore FCA was chief executive of Macquarie Group for a decade until November 2018.
  • He says rather than trying to predict the future, it’s prudent to look at worst-case outcomes.
  • As chair of The Smith Family, he is concerned that disadvantaged students will be left behind as schools shut during the pandemic.

Story Stephen Corby
Photo Nic Walker

Being able to see into the future seems like the optimal requirement for someone who was chief executive officer of Macquarie Group – or at the very least a skill you’d pick up if you did the job for a decade, as Nicholas Moore FCA did.

But Moore, who finished at Macquarie Group in November 2018 and continues to work tirelessly as a philanthropist, laughs at the very idea of prescience, particularly in the midst of this remarkable year.

You can never see the future

If you didn’t know Moore’s past as a corporate heavy-hitter, you might pick him as a Zen master, or a gardener, albeit a highly intelligent one.

“You can never see the future,” he says. “You can imagine that you can, but you’ve got to be honest and realise the limitations of everyone’s vision.

Nicholas Moore FCAPicture: Nicholas Moore FCA.

“You can never see the future… you’ve got to be honest and realise the limitations of everyone’s vision.”
Nicholas Moore FCA

“We had a little cartoon in my office left by my predecessor at Macquarie of a fortune teller with a crystal ball, with everyone looking at it. And the fortune teller looks up and says ‘Nope, nothing’.”

But the current crisis was one thing his company almost did see coming.

“When we did our worst-case planning, the macro worst case we always came up with was a pandemic: a pandemic in China and the US.

“Before we sound wise, what we didn’t quite see, or what I didn’t have in my mind, was the response to the pandemic playing out the way it has ... We didn’t know how the world would respond. We’ve had a number of pandemics since the Second World War, but we’ve never seen this level of economic dislocation,” he says.

How to survive a pandemic crisis

Given what he knows, how would Moore lead Macquarie Group if he were still in the chair?

As someone who started as CEO in 2008, just in time for a global financial crisis, he treats the question with the equanimity of hard-earned experience. His approach has always been to accept that you don’t know what’s going to happen so you should focus on the worst-case outcome.

“How did we deal with uncertainty? Firstly, we recognised it would hurt, but we ensured we could survive a ‘worst case outcome’.

“Secondly, we would have a general view that the world grows consistently. If you put global growth on a chart – five years, 10 years, 100 years – it only goes one way: a nice upward curve. There are ups and downs within that curve but, broadly speaking, the world has been growing at 3 or 3.5% every year.

“Now, occasionally, years like the one we’re in come along. Therefore when you think about decisions, you cover off the downside because that can take you out, but you leave yourself exposed for what will probably be 3.5% growth.”

The COVID-19 danger for children

Moore has been impressed with the way governments and corporations have responded to the crisis. Personally, though, as the chair of charity The Smith Family, he’s worried about the children.

“The big issue globally is closing schools. That’s particularly challenging for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds because they may not have the space at home, or the technology or the parental support. Some kids just aren’t doing remote learning,” he says.

“And kids forget, like we all do. Research shows we all forget a large amount of what we have learned if we don’t use it or build on it. And when you’re a kid, you’re building on what was laid down last year. So suddenly, if there’s a gap, not only do they not learn, they’re forgetting what they have learnt.”

The Smith Family is focusing on education – what Moore calls “a very rational, evidence-based approach” to lifting people out of medium- to long-term disadvantage – by providing 57,000 Learning for Life scholarships for students in need, as well as teaching programs for another 170,000 children and young people.

The benefit of data-based decisions

As Smith Family chair, Moore is supporting the kind of careful, data-based decisions that have stood him in good stead throughout his career, and for which he credits his CA background (he received his qualification in 1986 while working for Peat Marwick, which later became KPMG).

“The benefit of the training is that it provides a discipline and a way of being able to see the world in a precise way that allows for, hopefully, good decision-making,” says Moore, who also gives his time to the Sydney Opera House Trust, The Centre for Independent Studies and the UNSW Business School Advisory Council, among others.

“I think being able to represent the world in numbers ... provides a depth of understanding that has been very, very important in my career.”

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