Sensitive Subjects: Entrepreneur Dick Smith

Name one thing you consider better than sex. Fly a helicopter over the Antarctic wilderness.

POLITICS

In 1983 you helped former Greens leader Bob Brown with the blockade of Franklin River in Tasmania. In 2016, you declared your support for the policies of One Nation and expressed your willingness to advise Pauline Hanson. How do you reconcile these two things? Well, that’s too broad. I agreed with Pauline Hanson’s policy that our immigration should be at the long-term average of about 80,000 a year. I still do. I’m very pro-immigration, but at rates that keep the economy stable. Before the coronavirus, we were growing at such a rate that, if we continued, we would have 100 million people in Australia by the end of this century. I’m sure that’s not a reasonable number for Australia.

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Yet Hanson is a political figure who has been explicitly racist. Many have seen your suggestions for reducing immigration levels as xenophobic. How do you respond? Part of my policy, even before talking to Pauline Hanson, was that we should double our humanitarian contribution from around 10,000 a year to 20,000. That has always been part of my policy. And people know that I supported the Asylum Seekers Center and a lot of our philanthropy goes to Afghanistan, Bangladesh and places like that.

You said you’re not interested in throwing your hat in the political ring, but you’re obviously passionate about these issues. Have you really weighed the pros and cons of running for office? I never, ever thought I would get into politics. Too frustrating.

The Australian flag was such a big part of Dick Smith Food’s branding. Are you a republican or a monarchist? Peter FitzSimons is trying to get me to become a Republican, but I’m not really one. What scares me is this: if we become a republic similar to the United States, we might end up with someone like Donald Trump in charge. For me, there are so many other important things: being a republican or a monarchist is at the bottom of the list.

SILVER

Your father was a salesman who worked as a bookstore manager and then started a failed business when you were a teenager. How has this affected you? It had a big effect on me. I had told all my friends at school about how my dad had started his own printing business and how wonderful it was. For some reason he couldn’t find a job, had a nervous breakdown and ended up in debt. It was a terrible shock for me too. My mom had to find a full time job and I was heartbroken like him.

How has such an experience affected your perception of money and business? It made me very careful with money.

At 24, you founded Dick Smith Car Radios, which became Dick Smith Electronics, with about $600. In the early 1980s, you sold the company for $25 million. How did you do that?By asking for advice and copying the success of others. I bought the cheapest plane ticket in the world and watched how they sold electronics in the US and England, then came back to Australia and copied. Everyone is good at something. I happened to discover that I was good at making money.

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But by 2016, Dick Smith Electronics had collapsed. In 2018, you had to close Dick Smith Foods after it was revealed that the company would go bankrupt within two years. How do you reflect on the end of these chapters? Dick Smith Electronics – the business that I sold, which Woolworths ran and turned into a billion-dollar-a-year business – did very well. But they made a fundamental mistake: they wanted eternal growth. And with Dick Smith Foods, we simply couldn’t compete with companies like Aldi. We were making our peanut butter here, working with Australian farmers, when Aldi started importing peanut butter from Argentina.

Define success for me outside of financial terms. Freedom to do whatever you want.

diceytopics@goodweekend.com.au