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An Hour of Optimism with Paul Guerra

Paul Guerra is the CEO of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry

The Hour of Optimism

What makes Paul Optimistic?

Victor Perton asked Paul "What makes you Optimistic?"

Paul Guerra:  "I think it's a choice, Victor, ultimately. There's a lot to love about where we are right now in the world. We live, I think, in the best state. All of us on this call can connect like this. My upbringing adds a lot to that. I'm the grandson of four Italian migrants. So all four grandparents came to Australia with nothing, no language, no money, and made a go of it. My wife's parents both came here from Italy with nothing, and they've made a go of it. So I've been lucky the whole way through, but it's a choice in terms of, do I want to say things in the positive, or do I want to say things in the negative? Engineering degree by training, so we're forced to look at things in a process way. And I think all of that put together with a bit of luck along the way makes me optimistic.

"I surround myself with great people. Not only my family but the people that I choose to work with, the people that I choose to have friends, they're all great people, and they provide me with the right counsel at the right time. So I'm very fortunate. I've had a wonderful career so far, a wonderful life, and I have a lot to be thankful for. And therefore, I choose to look forward in a positive sense rather than either look back in a negative or look forward in a negative. I think it's all of us that make a difference, and we are the product of the surroundings that we have."

Read More: Surround Yourself with Optimists

Victorian Business Optimism

Victor Perton:  Let's turn to Victorian business. Your predecessor, Mark Stone, always used to say to me the Victorian business was more optimistic than the rest of the Australian business community. But we've gone through this incredible lockdown, so what makes you optimistic for Victorian business, and what are you seeing about the optimism in Victorian business?

Paul Guerra: "20 months ago, February 2020, without question, Victoria was the engine room of the Australian economy. That's 20 months ago.

Are we that now? Probably not. Have businesses in this state being bruised and battered? More than what we care to think about. So there's a bit of a way to come back, but I'm a believer that if you've been there before, you will be able to get back to where you were and surpass that again. We see that many organisations that go through a difficult period if they make the right decisions can then bounce through.

I've worked not only across managing Australia, I've run Asia-Pacific operations at different times.

Victoria is unique in that we're a relationship state, and Melbourne is a relationship city. It's the people that actually get us through. Now, we haven't lost the great people in this town. We've lost the ability to connect in person, but that comes back pretty quickly. We're probably only a couple of weeks away from that coming back. So once the people start coming back in, and once we start pushing towards where it is that the good people in this state know we need to get to, then we will bounce, and we're going to rebound quickly.

But I don't think we want to get back to where we were in February 2020. It wasn't perfect then.

We've learned a lot through COVID, and I think Melbourne and the rest of Victoria have a beautiful opportunity now to recreate not only the Melbourne that we want it to be but the state that we want it to be.

We get to enjoy all of the state because of COVID. We've learned all about the state because of COVID. And I think there'll be parts of that that will pick up.

We've also learned through this that actually being around your family is pretty good. And I think that work-life piece, and we're doing it a bit now, that work-life piece where a couple of days at home, a couple of days in the office in that collaboration sense, I think is going to serve us well into the future.

The Road-Map out of COVID

Victor asked Paul about the Victorian Chamber's Roadmap and the State Government Roadmap out of COVID lockdown which followed it.

Paul Guerra: "We took a view before the Roadmap was published that businesses can't just operate without knowing what the certainty piece is going to be. So when that was absent, we thought we'd go ahead and produce one that matched the national cabinet guidelines, and they only are guidelines at 70 and 80% vaccination, then took a realistic view. We're not short of experience in reopening; we've done it five times before, which means that there are at least five settings. There's probably about ten settings that have been used along the way.

"So we matched the 70 and 80% to the settings that Victoria had used at different times before knowing that a vaccinated environment is much different to an unvaccinated environment, knowing that this time last year as we started to come out, there were a couple of things going in our favour, including the warmer weather where the virus didn't seem to spread as much. So we thought there was an opportunity to learn from the experience we had from last year, the experience we had from previous re-openings, and publish them in a way that made sense to business and the Department of Health.

As it turned out, we launched our Roadmap on the same day that the New South Wales Government launched theirs. And interestingly, the New South Wales roadmap was very similar, very close to what we'd put in place.

And then, about a week later, the Victorian state government published a roadmap that was more pessimistic than what we'd worked through. But, again, they were relying on data, which they admitted was worse-case data from the Burnet Institute.

What's becoming evident is that our performance is beating even their most optimistic view of where the data could have been. So therein lies the choice between what a government is making in the interest of public health versus what businesses need. Business is good at assessing risk. and then looking at what do we need to do to overcome that risk."

"And that's where we want it. We know we need to come out of the blocks quickly. We know we've only got a limited time before Christmas to recover to set us up well for next year. That's why we published our Roadmap to guide government."


Chair of the Centre for Optimism Robert Masters asked:  "I was intrigued by several comments that you made about leadership and the future direction of the state, but it probably could transpose the future direction of Australia. One was that you said you always seek from your staff to be told the truth. One of the biggest problems that leadership faces in Australia that I've seen in the corporate and government sector is a lack of trust. So much of that is attributed to the fact that people don't trust them to tell the truth. So that becomes an important part of leadership. In your vision, you said we can "recreate Melbourne on the state as to what you want it to be." So how do you see leadership taking the state into this desire to where we want it to be? I'd like to know what you think the state should be, and maybe that could transpose into Australia. But what are the characteristics of the leader that you would desire for Australia to have, or Victoria to have, to take us there?"

Paul Guerra: "We need brave leadership. We need courageous leadership. We need leadership that's prepared to make decisions in the interest of the state for Victoria but in the interests of Australia.

As we come out of COVID, we need bravery, courageousness, decision-making that's in touch with all Australians, not just some Australians, with a view for Australia to reenter the global market.

I'm a product of global companies. I've been very fortunate. Worked for Motorola in their heyday for 17 years, Vodafone for three years, and United Health Group, the seventh-largest company in the world. And I ran Asia-Pacific for them.

So I've had a unique experience in terms of working for great organisations. The hallmark of a great organisation is partly due to leadership, partly due to the values that run them, and partly due to innate quality collaboration. It's something that I think we're missing in Australia right now.

We're certainly missing collaboration to an extent in Victoria, where we're prepared to share our ideas, come together for a common cause, risk giving over some IP, as it's called, to get further ahead. So I think we can be well-served through that collaborative piece, whether it's company to company, whether it's employee to employee, or whether it's governments coming together with the private or business sector and the community to map out a path forward.

"We're doing a little bit of this with the Victoria Summit 2021. You can watch that online,; there's a complete digest there.

We had an idea at the backend of last year around mapping the future for our state. It is going to be different, but that's okay because it can be better different. But we know a river takes the course of least resistance. Where can we be in 10 years, 20 years, and 30 years if we choose to be deliberate?

"I spoke to several people I respect, and they all said, "Great, where can we be a part of it?" Said, "Well, we haven't done anything about it. Not yet." They said, "Well, we want you to do something with it."

So we formed the reference group and then broke it into working groups, which is the future of work, business and the economy, community health and wellbeing.

Two weeks ago, we had four of the five past living premiers address us. We had some of the senior females, leaders in this state come together and talk to us about where they think it could go and the collaboration of about 200 people online on the day. So that's the type of thing that will get us moving.

"It was a collection of just great Victorians, and you'll know some of the names. Eddie McGuire stood up at one point and said, "You know what? It's time for Team Victoria to come back together. It's time for Team Victoria to come together and really lead the state for where we need to be."

"I've not forgotten it, and that's been one of the drivers through this as well."

Rob Masters:  And so, where would you like the state to be? How would you like the state to be? A collaborative state with the other states? Where would you position Victoria to be with this leadership group?

Paul Guerra: "The first thing, we need to come back together as Australia. We're not eight different countries as we're working out at the moment. We are one country, and we're proud to sit under that Australian banner. That needs to be repaired and needs to be fixed pretty quickly. The idea that we can be locked out of different states, it's not where any of us would want to be, it's not where any of us envisaged we would have been two years ago, and that needs to be repaired quickly.

"I think there's some repairing to do even within our community as well. When you think about Metro Melbourne being separated from regional Victoria, when we think about those that have been vaccinated and those that may choose not to be vaccinated, there's some ripping of the tether that's going on here that needs to be repaired.

"Then I think we need to be really clear about what we want for our state. As we become really clear about what we want for our state, we can then work out how we then engage with the other states to help us achieve what we want to be and help them achieve what they want to be well. Because ultimately, the stronger Australia is, the better it is for Victoria anyway."

Rob Masters: "The qualities of a leader, if you're talking with the prime minister, what would you tell him that you would like the qualities of a leader to be?"

Paul Guerra:   For starters, listen and listen, listen, listen. It's the best thing I do every day, and if I've been relevant through this period, it's because I've been able to listen. Apply the experience. He's there because of his experience. Apply the experience that he's got. Surround himself with really good people. Be prepared to make decisions, and they don't have to be poll-based decisions; make them in the best interest of the organisation. And then the last one is to have a plan.

"If I look at one of the reasons behind the summit, the 10, 20, 30 years out, for those of you that have been lucky enough to go to Singapore, Singapore is 54 years old, right? They didn't get there by accident. They've been quite deliberate. What they've done in 54 years is quite remarkable. There is no reason why Australia can't be on that same trajectory if we're deliberate about where we're going.

The Habits of Optimism

Noirin Mosley:  Paul, I loved what you said about Australia becoming more united. As a "new Australian", it's been quite concerning for me to see the fragmentation that's happened due to the last two years of lockdowns. So I love that you say that that it's important.

When we last caught up, I was running a business called Race Party, and I still do have it. It's online, but it's been basically in storage for the last 18 months. So I've been significantly affected, as have many, during the last 20 months.

You talked about your own optimism, and that optimism is a choice. You surround yourself with optimists, and you show a lot of gratitude, which helps you remain optimistic. During COVID, Victor, Jenny and I created a course around becoming optimistic called The Habits of an Optimist on Project Optimism. So that's what I did when I wasn't able to work at Race Party. And it really helped, really, really helped actually. But what would you say, Paul, to the businesses really, really affected very badly during this time and wonder how they're going to get out of this and recover to this new normal, better normal, new Melbourne? What do you say to them to help them become more optimistic?

Paul Guerra: "It's a great question because different people have felt this in different ways.

"So, I'll go back to the basics, and the first thing is to have a plan. Where is it that you want to go? And be really clear in terms of what that light on the hill is going to be. Get help, right? If you can't get up every day, get help. As Australians, we tend to resist that call for help. We know we need it, but we often don't go and get the help needed. And that's either help through friends, that's either help through family, or it's professional help. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter. It's interesting because we come through schools, we come through universities, we come through sporting clubs, and there's help there. It's in the form of a teacher, a lecturer, or a coach, right?

"It's no different as we get older. For some reason, we leave university and think, "That's it, we're going to be by ourselves now. But, on the other hand, people are willing to help, and I'm sure each one of us on the call would be glad to help somebody if they asked. So get clear in asking for help.

"The mindset is really important in terms of if you think you can, you can, if you think you can't, then you can't. So think you can, right? So stay in that positive frame. That doesn't mean that everything's going to be rosy, but if you think it can, then you'll start to make those steps in terms of, "Okay, I've hit a blockage, I can't think it through go and get help because that's the next step."

The last thing I'd say, which is probably the most difficult for people, particularly in a crisis, is making a decision. I liken it to if you can get good at decision-making, you'll get through almost everything. Because even if you make a bad decision, if you can make a decision, you can correct that lousy decision by making another decision.

"Now, that next decision may not still be right, but if you're good at decision-making, you can then make another decision. And eventually, the decision you make will become the right one. So it's gathering the information you have at the time, being prepared to be courageous enough to make the decision, make it, see what happens. Because it can't be any worse than the situation that you find yourself in then, and often that decision-making will lead you to say, "I need to talk to Victor. I need to talk to Chanel. I need to talk to Paul." Right? That's a start, that's a decision, and they can often be small steps.

"There's a saying that Damien Hardwick has, "Nothing's ever as good as it is or as bad as it seems." And I think that's really true in terms of making sure that we have our life in that balance but in that positive type of balance where we can do what it is that we want to do."

Chapel Street

General Manager of the Chapel Street Precinct Association, Chrissie Maus:   The Chapel Street Precinct is 2,200 businesses, from small mum-and-dad businesses to large companies. One of the things that when I was listening to Paul reflected on me was the fact that the people have got us through. Paul said earlier on in his talk that what will get Melbourne or Victoria through is the people. We're lucky enough to have an incredible culture and board in our organisation. Indeed, We have business owners around us that have been keeping not only them going and indeed people around us that have been picking people up.

"There is a gentleman on this call. He's a director for our board for Chapel Street, and his name's Matt Lanigan. Paul, you talked about leaving university and not having that person to go to, and he has been my support, the person to go to. I think another great thing was speaking the truth. We have this kind of robust honesty and immense respect for each other. Chapel Street has gone through such an incredible time, and it's changing and evolving, and there's this perception around, "Oh my God, it's never going to be as good as it used to be. It's past its heyday."

"We've experienced, and when we talk about optimism today, we've actually had more businesses open than close in the last two years.

"In fact, we are in a better-off position now than we were before the pandemic. If I could have wished upon a star, I would have never dreamed that that came true. That is because there are many people, a lot of cheering on our community, and they want Chapel Street to succeed. And exactly like you said, Paul, they're coming together, they're supporting each other.

"For me, the optimism is that I see Chapel Street is becoming this lifestyle precinct, and it is coming back stronger. When we came out of lockdown last time, we recorded a 10-year high of foot traffic in the evening, which again, wish upon a star, was incredible. So there's a lot to be optimistic about."

Paul Guerra: " That's fabulous. And to hear Chrissie talk about that sense of optimism and renewal, I'm not surprised because I think we're all attracted to people who want to look forward, to people that can inspire us to do that bit better. We've had it in all walks of life at every stage of our life to do that.

"Some of us are lucky to have that through our parents and other members of the family. Others are lucky to have it through the leaders of the community.

"Chapel Street's such a valuable part of our great state, so it's great to hear it coming back. But I'm not surprised. When you listen to Chrissie talk about it, there's a sense that they'll get through.

"There's a vibrancy when you walk down Chapel Street; you know there are some beautiful plans, particularly with the jam factory as to where that might go through as well.

"But it's that community, as Chrissie said. It's the people. It's not the buildings. They make up part of it, but it's the people, right? So it's the people coming together to say, "You know what? We're going to come through this, and we will come through."


Secretary of the Kaniva Progress Association, Helen Hobbs:   Victor, As you know, you came through the town roundabout just after about Anzac Day time, and the town was really buzzing. So we were looking very positive.

"There are 803 people in the town. Victor came through and went, "What on earth is going on in this town?" He went to the motel that had just been taken over, "Who buys a motel in the middle of a pandemic?" And then he went across the road to the pub and went, "Who buys a pub in the middle of a pandemic? Seriously, this is a very strange phenomenon."

"Other people have picked up on what Victor picked up, that Kaniva is a very friendly and welcoming community, and there is a certain buzz.

"So we started the Kaniva Optimism Project whereby we asked people what makes you optimistic?

"Let's just hit it at every angle that we could do. We'll do the survey." So we did the virtual coffee drop. It was supposed to be in person, and it was constant lockdown, so they ended up being online. Weren't successful. People didn't come to them. But they finally went to them in the Heartfelt Cafe, which I've just got news of is closing, which is absolutely devastating. They just can't hang on anymore. I've only just found that out this morning, so I'm just devastated at the moment.

"So what did we do? We did the coffee shop thing. We did the pub thing. We did the online videos. Now, several people did say to us, "What are you doing? Why are you saying that Kaniva is the most optimistic town in Australia? We don't feel very optimistic. Our businesses are hemorrhaging, the border is shut, we've got no customers, and here you are saying it."

"But the thing with it is other people are noticing that something different. So when you go to the new website that I've just been working on, it's, and you have a look, and you google that keyword of optimism, you'll see all of those video clips.

Even now, real estate, I mean the Kanivabite, is a building in the middle of the street; it is structurally unsound. I thought, "No one is ever going to buy that building." It's just gone on the market. It was on the market for less than a week, and someone bought it. It is filled with junk. The Club Hotel, slap bang in the middle of the street, has just sold too. The Commonwealth Bank, which had shut, is now getting turned into a bakery. So there is a lot of optimism there despite all of the challenges. I think that a lot of what Paul said, which is not waiting for the government, was only because we felt pretty much that the government had deserted us, but we just started doing many things like the Sheep Trail Project and many other things.

"We just took control of our own destiny, produced our own brochures, the website, the digital marketing, all of that sort of stuff."

Victor Perton: "What's lovely, Paul, is that Kaniva now wants to lead the whole of West Wimmera in being more optimistic. We've got towns in New South Wales interested in following Kaniva's example. So it is  real leadership, Paul.  Can we invite you to come out to an optimism dinner in Kaniva when we're allowed to move?"

Paul Guerra: "You can certainly count me in. One of my childhood heroes comes from there in Kaniva. This is giving a bit of a way of who I follow in football, but Glenn Hawker, absolute star for the mighty Bombers, and he was Kaniva born. We had Alastair Clarkson as our guest for our Grand Final Lunch. Alistair talked up very proudly that his childhood growing up in Kaniva was one of the reasons why he reflects on how he's become so successful. So you certainly got some excellent pedigree there."


Alex Coughlin: "I am studying my Master of Economics, and I'm writing my thesis on entrepreneurialism. I just wanted to touch on your earlier comments about Victorian businesses perhaps being more optimistic than their interstate peers. I just wanted to hear your thoughts on the role of optimism in risk-taking and entrepreneurialism. If there is a causal link, what can we do to encourage entrepreneurialism and optimistic risk-taking?

Paul Guerra: "Good luck with your studies. The outcomes of your study are going to be important. We've been lucky in this state. Saw Justin Howden on the call before: Swisse is one of the great companies, and it got through because the founder knew he'd find a way through.

" was born here,, SEEK was born here. So many companies have done that because they found a way through.

I'm a grandson of migrants. They had no right to get through. When they decided to come out here, they decided that it would be three months to make it and probably not see their family again. So they gave up everything to come to a country where they didn't speak the language. They didn't know anybody, and they didn't have any money. They made it.

"They made it because they were prepared to take the risk, they were ready to back themselves, they were ready to find people within the community that could help. And most importantly, they were prepared to have a go. That still exists. That is still in innate DNA.

"If you look at the Australian spirit, have a go, and the other is the mateship, we look after each other, that is still there. So, hopefully, the work and the research you're going to do will help us uncover that a bit more as we come out of it and become a bit more optimistic.

And particularly your generation, you're coming into a different environment, which is not the nine to five, you must be at your desk so your boss can see what you're doing. So you're going to have greater flexibility, which hopefully gives you opportunities to stimulate that creative thinking.

"That's what I'm encouraging my kids to do rather than perhaps a discipline that I was encouraged into. Of course, my kids will have a different go at it, as you are as well. But we've got to be prepared to "have a go" because that's what will help us play even more effectively on the global stage."

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon

"I think in every immigrant you'll find a deep optimism and a deep resilience too. My dad is an intense hard worker. My dad is warm and he teaches an easy smile."

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