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The Anabranch Man

Philanthropist Rob McLean is the former head of McKinsey Australia and NZ, a private equity investor and has been a member of AEGN since 2008. In this article he talks with Lou O’Halloran, AEGN NSW Manager, about the things that inspire, delight and challenge him.

“I’m a kid from Broken Hill. Some people looked at that arid country and didn’t see beauty, but I felt that beauty. Many years ago, I convinced my wife, Paula, who was living in New York, to come back to Australia – and I experienced the excitement of her seeing the Great Anabranch of the Darling River, for the first time.

“Thinking about the Darling Anabranch makes me sad now. We used to catch – literally – sugar bags of yabbies. And it wasn’t like we were eating too many! They were truly abundant. And now the Anabranch no longer gets water because of the over allocations on the Murray Darling system – it’s no longer a vibrant, natural part of the system.” Read full interview.

The migratory bird project – tell me why you are so passionate about it?

These birds fly all the way from South Australia to Siberia every year and back again. It’s about 10,000 kilometres over two weeks, with just one or two stopovers in China, Japan or Korea. The wetland that they return to each year in South Australia is their home – it’s where they breed, recuperate and start the cycle again. But now that wetland is earmarked for development of 2,500 homes. So we pooled our resources with other funders to purchase the land so that we can protect this incredible phenomenon. I knew nothing about all of this until last year when I visited a nature reserve on the Yangtze River. The guide said, “These birds have just come from Australia and they’re on their way to Siberia”. And that’s where it all began. Just imagine – we could lose these exceptional birds in our lifetime. By the way, we are still fundraising – may I ask the members if they’d like to contribute?!

What are the things in life that bring you the most satisfaction these days?

I love innovation with financial instruments, which is why I’m so interested in and involved with venture capital and social enterprise and impact investing. And the delight of six beautiful grandchildren.

Do you think there are similarities between private equity and philanthropy?

Yes, I do. Philanthropy is the risk capital for the social sector. Just like private equity is risk capital for new ventures. It feeds innovation. People say it’s only an average of 8% of total funding for non-profit projects, but it’s such an important 8% because it’s frequently the catalyst for change and innovation.

What is the future for your own Private Ancillary Fund?

We plan to spend the PAF down, probably in 10 or 15 years. We’ve been influenced a lot by Chuck Feeney’s notion of Giving While Living. David Thomas has had a similar epiphany. A lot of us talk about it now – it’s a very different model than it was ten years ago.

Describe an impact investment you’ve been involved with?

The Murray Darling Balanced Water Fund which had its initial close last December at AUS$27 million. This investment model is the first of its kind (anywhere) and it’s been enabled by the fact that Australia has the largest traded water markets in the world. But what is unique about this water fund is that it has a goal to deliver a balance of environmental, financial AND agricultural returns. The fund invests in permanent water rights. When water is scarce and agricultural demand is high, most water goes to agriculture. When water is abundant, and agricultural demand is low, more water is allocated to wetlands. It’s a bit of an irony that the best time to water wetlands is when it’s wet.  The fund has just completed its first release of water – 1,300 megalitres – to a wetland in Wentworth, NSW that has not received water since 1985!  That water helps to restore critical migratory bird, fish and frog habitats as well as important Indigenous cultural lands. It really is a win-win situation.

How would you explain the importance of biodiversity to someone at a BBQ?

I would talk about Jack Ma from China, founder of Alibaba (the world’s largest online retailer), becoming a conservationist.  He is now the biggest philanthropist in China and Chairman of The Nature Conservancy there. He says he is going to do all he can to get clean water in China because our health and lives rely on these things not being jeopardized.  And we know when it comes down to it that life on earth depends on clean air and clean water. Biodiversity plays such a crucial role in doing that. When they cut the forests in Kalimantan for palm oil, it led to such haze and hazardous conditions that our grandchildren had to leave Singapore. That’s an example of loss of biodiversity impacting human health.

What is one project that you have funded that made a big impact?

The savanna burning rollout across Northern Australia where we’re looking to reduce CO2 by six to seven million tonnes in a few years’ time.  That’s the kind of thing that is just dramatic. We also see it as being a significant creator of jobs for Indigenous people as rangers.

What do you wish other people could understand about that issue – from a practical or a philosophical perspective?

When you live in Southern Australia, we have fires, but we think of them as being unnatural. In Northern Australia, fires are a very natural part of the landscape with lightning strikes and managed burns. Over time, we have learned that Indigenous people use fire to manage the landscape. They use it for hunting. But they do it in a way where they burn small areas in a mosaic pattern and as a result they have avoided these catastrophic wildfires that now happen at the end of the dry season that cause so much damage to property and to flora and fauna. The other thing that hit me was that a few years ago, CO2 from fires amounted to 20% of all CO2 generated in Western Australia. So it’s that kind of thing I wish people might understand better – knowing the landscape, knowing the history of Indigenous people.

What is your favourite plant?

The Saw-tooth Banksia and watching the honeyeaters and wattlebirds feeding, it’s wonderful.

What is your favourite animal?

The kangaroo, how can you go past a kangaroo?  I love the way they move.

What book have you read lately that you really loved?

I’m not a great novel reader but I was just so moved by The Eye of the Sheep that won the Miles Franklin Award last year about a difficult subject – domestic violence and a child with learning disabilities. But you saw love and compassion just resonate throughout that wonderfully written book.

What was your favourite recent holiday destination?

The Maldives. It has these white sands and turquoise waters that are indescribably beautiful. But they have also had these devastations of their coral reefs from tsunami. What I was so taken by was that the children are now actually rebuilding the reef structures and when people come to stay at the resort, they invite them to make a contribution and you get a little video each year to see how the new reef is growing. And five years on you see a reef that’s filled with coral and with 50 or more species of fish!

If could write a book, what would it be about?

Problem solving!