In conversation with…Colonel John Platt, CSC (retired)

About This Conversation

Adam Drinkwater (Treysta’s Senior Adviser) spoke to Colonel John Platt, CSC (retired) about the importance of Anzac Day and inspiring younger generations to remember it too.

John shares stories and his own experience around this day, as well as the upcoming 80th anniversary of the first Japanese submarines entering Sydney harbour.

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About Our Expert

John was commissioned as an Officer in the Australian Army in 1973 and served overseas in the United Kingdom, Germany, United States, the Philippines and East Timor. For outstanding leadership, he was awarded a Conspicuous Service Cross in the 2000 Australia Day Honours List.

Upon transfer to the Army Reserve, John continued to do part time work as the Chief Safety Officer for large combined and joint training activities and exercises.

John has been an industry General Manager and CEO; and has consulted to business including ING Australia and ANZ Wealth. He has been a Chairman and Director on Boards of Financial Services Companies since 2011 and is a member of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.

Currently he is also Chairman of Australia Remembers – Northern Beaches and North Shore, and a Director of the Manly Life Saving Club. Listen to the podcast wherever you get your podcast.

Transcript of Conversation

00:00:16 Adam Drinkwater

Welcome everybody. Today we are in conversation with John Platt.

John welcome. Thank you for taking time out of your always busy schedule to spend a bit of time with us today.

00:00:27 John Platt

It’s a pleasure, Adam.

00:00:29 Adam

Thanks John. Over the years I’ve known you, you have worn many hats and still do wear many hats in many organizations. I could probably talk to you about a number of topics, but given we are in the month of April and soon we will be observing Anzac Day, I thought I’d spend a bit time today talking to you about your experiences, what that means to you. You spent an awful lot of time in the defense, and on that area, so I thought great way to kick off would be to understand how your journey began in that space and how you got into it and how you ended up all the way through to today, I suppose.

00:01:01 John

Yeah, thanks Adam, you’re right, I do keep myself busy and I’ve got two commercial committees that I’m involved with regard today. One’s remuneration and the others governance and compliance and I do 5 not for profits of various things as well, which I think my entire career has prepared me well for all of those.

When I was finishing school, I was actually going to do agricultural science, ’cause I was brought up in the country, but decided that I’d head off into the Defense Force.

00:01:30 John

To me, it actually offered sort of opportunities and lifestyle. And I did my officers training and was commissioned back in 1973 which is a little while ago.

In the Defense Force I was very fortunate to have had command on 3 occasions, once as a left-handed Colonel and twice as a Colonel. And some of the highlights I guess in that period of time were, I was aid to comm to the Governor of NSW, who was Rodin Cutler.

Who was, everybody knows, was a great Australian. The longest serving governor of New South Wales, and it was a great privilege to have been his aid.

I was fortunate enough to work in Prime Minister and cabinet as a defense adviser, and my postings in my full time military career have included England, West Germany as it was at the time, the United States, Philippines and then operational service in East Timor.

00:02:25 John

I left the Defense Force in 2000 or 2001, and was in business and then they asked me to come back and command again, which I did, and then as a part time Officer I stayed on as the Chief Safety Officer for the complex exercise.

So, I guess there’s a sort of a long lineage of that which has served me well in a number of the things that I actually do. With regard to Anzac Day in particular, which is obviously coming up at the end of this month, after 45 years of full time and part time service for me, ANZAC Day in particular, but also Remembrance Day and the 11th of November is a time of both commemoration and celebration.

00:03:05 John

Now I say that because the commemoration is that we need to recognize the contribution and the measurable sacrifice made, and that includes those people who died in time of war or wartime conflicts.

And I had a very personal friend who was killed unfortunately in the latter, so it’s close to the heart.

And I suppose the celebration aspect for me is that in Australia, we would like to have, and we do have a lifestyle and freedom which have resulted from the sacrifice of our service members, men and women over the past years and also presently as well.

I guess with Anzac Day I reflect on a number of things. I reflect in many ways in what’s contained in the Australian War Memorial as well, and that’s quite an iconic institute is where everybody is aware in Australia. I’m often reminded when I actually walk into the War Memorial. There is the Wall of Memory as they call it and they have I guess displayed in the lead glass windows quintessential qualities displayed by Australians both in war and operation, and also manifested in the Australian character.

00:04:18 John

Their personal qualities, social qualities and also sort of the fighting qualities as well. And I guess in particular as an army officer, you know, I see the core values that the army has, which are reflected in the other services as well, you know. Service courage, respect, integrity and excellent.

So, all of those things to me sort of encapsulate both Anzac Day with regard to a commemoration, both Anzac Day as a celebration of the qualities of our service people, and the qualities that have been engendered, sort of in the Australian character as a result.

00:04:52 Adam Drinkwater

That War Memorial is at Canberra is one of the most powerful things I’ve ever visited and if anyone listening to this hasn’t been I would always encourage them to make the time, it’s just a phenomenal, I think it probably more than a day to go around the museum, part of it as well. It’s incredible.

John, what are you at the moment working on relevant to all of that then? So, as we approach Anzac Day and given its absolute importance to you, what role do you play around that in terms of either your work on ANZAC Day or what a typical Anzac Day looks like for you I suppose.

00:05:24 John

Yeah, look there are a number of things that I guess I become involved in personally, is that going back to sort of the five not-for-profits which I’m associated with.

The first one that comes up is actually on Anzac Day because I’m one of the directors of the Manly Lifesaving Club. We have an Anzac Day service, the Manly Lifesaving Club and the Manly Surf Club were one organization years ago, they’re now two organizations, but we come together and commemorate and celebrate Anzac Day on the beach on the 25th of April at 9:00 o’clock and between the both clubs they lost 37 of the members in conflict.

I guess it also shows if you go back to World War Two, the sporting clubs in Australia had an enormous commitment to the First World War.

00:06:07 John

There were just over 300 members of Manly Lifesaving Club, for example, and something like 290 actually signed up. So, we shouldn’t forget those members of that particular club. That’s the first thing that I’m involved.

Then the other aspect that I get involved in is, I’m Vice President of the Harboard RSL subbranch and I get involved with some Anzac Day things, plus other aspects with regard to the RSL organization, which helps former servicemen and current servicemen. And I guess the other one is I Chair what they call Australia Members Northern Beaches and North Shore and on the 27th of May, which is a little bit after Anzac Day, there is a service which is conducted at North Head each year and what commemorates is, the time, as it’s called, when war came to Sydney and it commemorates basically the time when the Japanese submarines in 1942 at the end of May or the night of the 31st of May 1st of June entered Sydney Harbour. So, this year happens to be the 80th commemoration of that, and when the Japanese submarines entered Sydney Harbor, they sunk the cuttable which was used as sleeping accommodation, and a number of sailors are actually killed as a result.

00:07:27 John

So, the other thing that the Australian Members Northern Beaches and North Shore do is, that we actually put plagues around the place to remember historically a number of our Distinguished Service personnel. One of them is on Many Lifesaving Club which commemorates Squadron Leader John ‘Woodie’ Williams, who was actually the Carpenter in the Great escape, the real story of the Great Escape, not the Hollywood version.

00:07:51 John

The other one which ww put up is Cecil Healy. Cecil Healy is the only Australian Olympic gold medalist to be killed in battle. His story is actually very, very interesting ’cause he was quite an accomplished swimmer, and he went to the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. The Americans, because of an administrative error, hadn’t qualified for the final, they missed the semifinal and he was instrumental in making sure that they had the time to swim so they swam off in the final and Duke Kahanamoku from Hawaii beat him and Cecil, well he came second, but Cecil won gold in another event at that those Olympics.

But importantly enough is that the Duke and Cecil Healy became good friends and Cecil Healy invited Duke Kahanamoku to Australia then the first exhibition of surfboard riding occurred on Freshwater Beach as a result.

00:08:42 Adam

Wow, what an incredible story.

00:08:44 John

So, Cecil Healy went to the First World War, and unfortunately on the 28th of August 1918 he was actually killed in battle. And as I said, he’s the only Australian Olympic gold medalist to be to be killed in battle.

So, that’s the other thing I guess related to Anzac Day or Military Heritage. The one we’ve actually done this year is Charles Ulm and everybody will remember Ulm, because Ulm and Kingsford-Smith had a distinguished career in early aviation.

Well, Charles Ulm decided he would go to the First World War, but he was underage. So, he changed his name to Charles Jackson and the age of 15 headed off to Gallipoli, was injured and came back, probably scolded by his parents and then they said, well, if you want to go back you actually go back under the right real name, by which time it reached the sort of the required age.

00:09:34 John

Which he went back onto the Western Front, he was wounded again. When repatriation begun repatriated in the United Kingdom, he had an ambition to fly, and he and Charles Kingsford-Smith obviously had a number of epic flights together, including the first flight of course, from the United States to Australia.

There are a number of other plagues which we’ve actually done as well as part of Australia Members Northern Beaches and North Shore, so it’s all I suppose tied in, when we go back to Anzac Day, is not forgetting our history, not forgetting our heritage and making sure that all generations actually sort of have an appreciation of what’s occurred, which has made Australia today.

00:10:14 Adam

Yeah, some incredible stories there of the comrade. Some people from all walks of life being involved. You know, especially back then.

Do you notice at the moment there’s a challenge for you to make sure that modern Australians or the next generation are able to be well informed about the history of that and the relevance of it?

00:10:34 John

I think in particular Anzac Day, I think Young Australians actually embrace Anzac Day and we’ve seen that, not so much in the last couple of years because of the COVID restrictions, but I think young Australians actually embrace Anzac Day.

To me, it’s actually important that what we do is to ensure that the correct history is actually put forward. We understand that war is not a good place, and they need to have appreciation of the qualities and sacrifices that were made by former servicemen and also current servicemen as well, which has shaped the character of Australia and the lifestyle that we’ve currently got today.

00:11:09 Adam

You mentioned the last couple of years and the challenges of course. I sometimes forget which parts we have been locked down in and haven’t been locked down in over the past couple of years, but I suppose this Anzac Day coming up would be probably one of the first for the last couple of years where we’ve been relatively free to go out and do all the usual things that we would do on the day. Have the last couple of years made it quite difficult to commemorate and that day in the involvement that you have.

00:11:34 John

It has because we’ve obviously always complied with the COVID restrictions, but what we’ve actually done, the one that sort of involved in particularly on ANZAC Day, is that we’ve restricted the numbers, we’ve actually put down by the Manly Lifesaving Club 37 candles to commemorate those that actually lost their lives. And when people were walking past, actually, they were very moved by the 37 candles, because when you actually lined them up, you actually sort of realize how many people from one organization were actually killed in battle.

And it’s very, very moving.

00:12:07 John

The normal service that we have on the beach, of course did not occur over the last two years, and we’re hoping this year, subject to weather of course, it will stop raining at some stage, so it’ll be back onto the beach. Otherwise, we actually move it into Manly Lifesaving Club and each year we get a guest speaker and supported by current servicemen. Last year was from Gunners at Mosman provide the service men and this year there’s one from Victoria Barracks at Paddington – he’ll be the guest speaker on those days.

00:12:36 John

There’s a number of members, for example of that club that actually are serving, so they get involved in the Anzac Day and assist the old Colonel on the day.

00:12:46 Adam

Well, pray to the weather gods for you, I hope it’s little bit dryer by then. I know through the things we’ve talked about so far and a lot of involvement that you have it comes from a place of wanting to help and wanting to be involved in things.

It’s obviously quite rewarding and you devote a lot of your time towards it, over the course of your journey and experiences what are some of the more rewarding experiences you’ve had? Right around, particularly, the space of Anzac Day there in your career.

00:13:16 John

Well, I think what’s important with Anzac Day, as I said, this is the history, the message, getting younger people to understand the significance not only of Anzac Day, but of actually all of our service men who have actually served and to realize that the thread there is through the character.

00:13:34 John

When you know Australians actually have been in hardship and what that has actually brought to the Australian community, I guess there’s satisfaction in that.

And I guess there’s satisfaction as I said before, with the other things that I do, such as ensuring that the plagues actually go down in various places where people can walk past them and say well who was this person, who was this, Cecil Healy? What did he actually do? Wow, he was the only Gold medalist who was sort of killed in battle, he was instrumental in bringing Duke Kahanamoku to Australia for surfboard riding.

Well, I ride down on Manly Beach regularly on my surfboard, I didn’t, I didn’t know that. And then what we do with the plague is we have a little QR code at the bottom of the plague so they put the phone on and they can actually go back to further reference material and read more which they wish to.

00:14:21 John

So, I think the history side of those aspects is important and I think also that through the Harbour Trust organization, which I’m only a recent member of, by the way, is that looking after our former and current service personnel as well.

00:14:34 Adam

Obviously, that consumes a lot of your life and time now and you touched earlier on your career and how you moved through the defense and now do the work that you do, when you did transition out of work, what was the driving point around that? You mentioned there you’ve got some involvement in business and often we see that, you know military people take their vast skill sets into business.

Was there a trigger point or a certain moment that can carry you through to that? Or was there just a generally want to start to branch out.

00:15:06 John

Yeah yeah, look we came back to Sydney in 2000 and my wife Sally, as you know Adam, is medical and she wanted to sort of continue her career. The next opportunity for me was probably to, after Sydney, was to go to Canberra, which I can’t say it was my preference over Sydney, so it was time to actually make a change. And I did that and fortunately, I guess that there were a number of lessons that were engendered within me that actually sort of helped me do the transition and also going to into business.

00:15:36 John

And there are a couple of sort of medium sized companies that I was the CEO for and eventually you’re aware actually, went onto the board and committees of other organisations.

I had a bit of a philosophy that to me business was about the 3M’s as I call it, the three M’s, and to me 3 Ms are men, money and machines. Now that may not be the most politically correct statement we can actually make in this day, but what it actually means is that 3M’s first of all the M which stands for men is actually about human resources, is you got to look after your people. You’ve got to ensure they feel value, you’ve got to be sure that they have a clear understanding of what the business is about and what their job is about.

00:16:21 John

The money aspect is about ensuring financials are good and planning for the future, and also associated with that is what the businesses appetite for risk is, so that’s the money equation. That’s M and M, and the third M is machines, which is basically making sure that the infrastructure of the business is suitable for the task, both current and our future.

To me, actually, if you’ve got those three things right, then you’ve got a lot of things right in the business.

So, if you take the three M’s in many ways, sort of, I guess in terms it’s sort of a balanced scorecard.

To use the term, it’s a balance scorecard.

The bottom line is important, but sometimes other and less intangible factors are just as critical, such as good governance, morale of your staff and customer satisfaction, and if you don’t have that balance scorecard in the equation, then you find that the business may not prosper as well as it actually should.

00:17:14 John

So those are the things that I’ve sort of found that I had which help me do the transition.

Doing the transition, you should always listen to other people because CEO’s don’t have a mortgage on good ideas. Often your staff can provide you with the best ideas.

00:17:30 Adam

Given that, and you have probably applied that framework across a number of areas.

What is some of the best advice or the best people or characters you’ve come across and you’ve learned from along your journey?

00:17:44 John

Yeah, I think with regard to setting values, there are a number of people that are respected, valued along the way.

On I mentioned before, I was fortunate enough to be the aid to Rodin Cutler, so that’s a person, a great Australian that’s actually sort of set values as well.

I guess we always respect sort of people in sort of the business sector, whether it’s you know listening to Warren Buffett for example and so forth.

00:18:08 John

I guess the values that I respect, the ones which actually make sure that that balance, as I said before, is actually in there not only sort of running the business, the MMM, but also the balance scorecard is to make sure that your staff are well looked after, the governance is there, and the customer satisfaction is actually there.

00:18:26 Adam

And along your journey, are there any standout decisions we made based on that advice you’ve received, or things you’ve learned along the way that you look at and either think about a little bit or pivotal moment in your life?

00:18:37 John

I think the critical thing has always been to listen to people. To me, that’s critical in anything that you actually do, so that’s sort of related to, you know, the financial services sector. Say as a client you know, I think it’s really, really important that you obviously listen to the advisor that’s providing with advice.

I think it’s important to develop the relationship, so say for example with the person that’s actually providing you with the advice, trust is imperative actually in there, communication is imperative actually in there as well, and receiving regular communication on weekly and monthly basis to me is actually important.

00:19:12 John

Presenting information to say a client that’s clinical that’s been well analyzed is also important.

Understanding from both sides, the risk appetite is also important in the financial sector and getting financial advice and the other thing is that you have to look at the long term, not the short term as a client don’t watch a portfolio every day.

00:19:32 John

Think about the long term, not the short term, and you’re better off actually doing that plan for the long term, not the short term.

00:19:38 Adam

One of the things you just mentioned there is a relationship that you often have in the things you learn and when we work together, you probably just discuss some of the things you may experience, but myself I experienced things from you and around a lot of the things you’ve talked about so far in this podcast, which I think is a beautiful part of relationships that we get to develop overtime.

What are some of the key things you’ve learned over the last year or two? I know you mentioned a few interesting things there, but not you know more interesting around what we talked about earlier.

We’ve had a really, really tumultuous couple of years and it’s affected everyone in different ways. Are there things you’ve come across either within your family life, what we’ve talked about in terms of Anzac Day, any kind of key things you’ve learned across the last couple years that you would take moving forward.

00:20:27 John

Yeah, it’s very interesting, because whether it’s actually related to our service men, actually going to War like situations you know, peacekeeping operations and so forth.

Or whether it’s actually related to a number of other factors. The thing that always sort of is placed in my mind, and it’s probably emphasized in the last two years, is that the world is still unpredictable. It is still unpredictable. The COVID-19 pandemic, or as I call it, the COVID-19 apocalypse, has got implications for both community and commerce, so we know that, so that’s something that’s occurred that was unpredictable.

00:21:06 John

We have a look recently at why the world is unpredictable and just say look, the world is unpredictable, is the invasion of the Ukraine by Russia. Whilst closer to the event it was looked upon, it was reasonably unpredictable, say six months ago.

Our weather conditions are unpredicted. Recent flooding in Eastern Australia is an example of that. Typhoons, cyclones, hurricanes in Asia, which regularly through an example of that and natural disasters are an example. Our whole world is unpredictable and we take recently in January, Tonga had obviously volcanic eruption as well, which was, you know absolutely, sort of enormous.

00:21:45 John

It always occurs, those things in many ways are unpredictable. So, whilst the world is unpredictable and there are some things we can prepare for, to me there are others we’ve just got to accept and then have a contingency in place to fix the result of what’s actually occurred.

00:22:02 Adam

Yeah, and I suppose if you look back over time like you mentioned, whether it’s reading books or however you consume history, these things have always been around, and challenges have always been there to overcome.

On that point, I think it’s a nice way to perhaps end or kind of draw to a close. I personally value reading books around history, and you know a lot of the things you’ve just talked about earlier in the podcast.

Whether people choose to do that via listening to podcasts, reading books, watching documentaries and with a view to Anzac Day coming up, is there any kind of recommendations you have particular material you consume that you would like to recommend or pass on to our listeners as ways to better understand this area?

00:22:43 John

Yeah, the book that I’m just about to mention because you sort of gave me a Q on what sort of movie book or album has impacted me the most.

And it’s really interesting as it will probably sort of see behind me, there’s a few books there which is I have to say, is it probably about 25% of the books which I actually own much to my darling wife disgust, as to when you’re going to actually sort of remove some of those books that you’ve actually got that kept forever. But the book that actually I thought about, it’s actually not a military book.

00:23:14 John

The book that I thought about that actually impacted me most is a book called The Story of English. Now the story of English was written, I think in about the 80s, if my memory serves me correctly, Seventies 80s by William Cran, Robert McCrum and McNeil. To me the whole human race is about communication and all languages are important, but this book actually lays out a language which happens to be English, and where it came from, and essentially how it conquered the world. Basically 2000 years ago, English was confined to a couple of settlements on the shores of Northwestern Europe and today English is the most common language in the world.

00:23:55 John

It’s the language of world politics. It is a language of commerce. It’s the language of science, and it’s a language of popular culture. It’s the language of all international flights, so English also is a dynamic language. It’s changing all the time, new words are being added to it, words are going out of English into other language which are being kept, you know the same and we see you know, for example Facebook comes out of it goes into other languages, technical language.4

The dialects in English are also sort of interesting and, we won’t say that you’ve got a particular dialect.

00:24:27 John

So, to me, actually what that book wide impacts me is that communication is the most important skill we all have in life. Verbal, nonverbal, written because it gives us an appreciation of our history, it gives an appreciation of our knowledge, and it gives us an appreciation of the future because we learn from lessons and also it involves innovation.

00:24:51 John

So that might surprise you Adam, that I haven’t selected a military book as the one that impacted me the most, but one that relates to communication, one that relates to language and one that relates to a language which is worldwide, which happens to be English, and the book is the Story of English.

00:25:10 Adam

Well, it was not the answer I expected, but it’s certainly an interesting answer nonetheless, so. I suppose it does still draw back to the values you’ve talked about a lot as well, and which have obviously touched your life a lot in your career. So, it does make a lot of sense in many regards.

Thank you for your time, John. I’ve been fascinated listening to some of the anecdotes and stories and things I’ve learned that I didn’t know before over many conversations.

So, thank you so much for devoting your time, sharing your experiences with us, it’s been an absolute pleasure. And I know people will enjoy listening to them, and I wish you all the very best for upcoming Anzac Day and I will pray to the weather gods for some sunshine.

00:25:50 John

Thanks very much, Adam, it’s been my pleasure.

00:25:53 Adam

I’ll speak to you soon. Thank you, John.

00:25:55 John

Thanks, Adam.