A half-century of hard work has been a gift, not a demand

It was 4.45 on an August morning 54 years ago that I stood on the railway station platform in the western Victorian town of Stawell that was famous then, and still is now, for Australia’s richest sprint foot race – the Stawell Gift.

And while I was leaving town, never to return as a resident, I didn’t quite realise that I had already won a different sort of Stawell gift – the intense motivation to make something of myself. It was born of a poor family, a strong father and a classic Australian country town that knows the value of a decent day’s work.

That trip to ”the big smoke” began a great journey but I have no regrets in announcing this week that I will retire from my job in advertising on August 10, 54 years to the day.

I was barely 17 when I climbed aboard the Overlander. My brave and thrifty father had allowed me to get on the train with two pounds of the family’s scarce cash in my pocket and one set of clothes.

I also had something else far more important – the offer of a job as an office boy at Briggs and James advertising agency.

Home became the YMCA until I found a room to share with a snoring kid at a boarding house in Hawthorn. But there wasn’t that much sleep to interrupt. Most evenings I spent at what we used to call ”night school” and every morning I was first up and off to work.

Bit by bit, day by day, I built a career and then a company that spanned the most incredible period of human communications – an extraordinary half-century of mass media and personal global networking, that none of our species had seen before – from Bakelite radios and crystal sets, to digital TV and global roaming on free phones.

And for all the unforgettable things that broadcast media brought into our lounge rooms such as men landing on the moon, the assassination of an American president and Australia II bringing home the America’s Cup, we all know the birth of the digital age at the start of this century will bring business opportunity and community benefits that have been barely thought of today.

We can be proud to have the highest advertising spend per capita in the world and an industry as big as that of France, a country with three times our population. I am delighted to have played a part and been able to learn from the strongest and toughest in the business. Without the rigour and acumen of the Murdoch, Packer, Fairfax and Stokes families, I could never have built the dominance of our company, which could regularly beat any international competition.

The giants of the media business shared the ethos of the small country town of my birth and values of my father who, at 92, still splits wood. Hard work is a gift, not a demand and a job is an opportunity, not a burden. In our family you would never go home and say you hated your work or your boss. As the boss, there are special responsibilities. In my world, they are simply that opportunity must be open to all, and that everyone deserves a second chance. We have promoted women, young people and those from many different cultural backgrounds. And, when any of them made the inevitable first mistake, it was always regarded as a lesson, not failure.

At the age of 71, and fitter than I’ve been for nearly 40 years, retirement seems an unbelievable word. I’ve often said in this column that Australia throws its experienced people out far too early. We should learn from the wisdom of Asia that will soon have 50 per cent of the world’s economy. As Confucius says, ”ability will never catch up with the demand for it”.

And, for all my competitors who were relieved by the announcement of my retirement, I simply quote Mark Twain: ”The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Harold Mitchell is an executive director of Aegis.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.