John Hart: the pragmatist

Photography: Adam Taylor

After 18 years, John Hart has stepped down as CEO of Restaurant & Catering Australia. He tells Alex Gilly how the industry has changed during his time in charge, and how he shaped the Association to respond.

John Hart, who stepped down as head of Restaurant & Catering Australia last month, wasn’t actually born in a restaurant, but it’s no stretch to say that restaurants made him. In the 1960s, his father, Graham, opened The Tangier, one of the first restaurants in the Sydney beach suburb of Avalon.

After the Harts had moved to Melbourne while John was still an infant, they held John’s christening party at the legendary steakhouse, Vlado’s. “We used to go to Vlado’s every week,” says Hart. “I went there for my buck’s night, just to complete the circle.”

Hart’s father died when he was five, bringing the family back to Sydney. A few years later, Hart became a boarder at a private boys’ school in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, where he joined the Air Force Cadets. He was a commissioned officer by the age of 17.

When he finished school, the hospitality industry beckoned. “I finished school in 1981, on a Wednesday,” says Hart. “I started as a trainee waiter at the Hilton on the Friday.”

Hart’s work ethic and commitment to the industry saw him promoted to positions of responsibility at a remarkably young age. At 20, South Pacific Hotels made him the licensee of one its hotels in Adelaide. In addition, he was assistant general manager at the Park Royal Hotel, Adelaide.

The young Hart hadn’t lost his yen for flying fast jets, however, and managed to find time around his job to serve in the Air Force Reserves. When, at 22, he was accepted into the RAAF Academy at Point Cook, Victoria, he knew he was at a fork in the road.

He stuck with hospitality. “I don’t know that it was a deliberate strategy,” he muses. “When you’re that age, you’re hopping from opportunity to opportunity. Really, it was just going with the flow.”

Instead of flight school, Hart studied at the prestigious Lausanne Hotel School in Switzerland.

He returned to Australia and spent the next 12 years working in hotels. He opened Eden on the Park in Melbourne, then shifted into hotel training when he was head of school at the Australian College of Travel and Hospitality, a private hotel school in Melbourne. Within two and a half years, they had 600 students.

From there, Hart was recruited to head Tourism Training NSW, which he ran for the next three years. In 1999, he became chief executive officer of the Restaurant & Catering Association of Australia.

The Association was at that point a federated structure; each state association managed its own affairs, and, according to Hart, there was little coordination between states.

“The federated model essentially disempowers the federal body. It means generally that states are strong, and that the amount of coordination and any form of standardisation across the states goes out the window,” says Hart.

Hart knew it would take all his powers of persuasion—his political skill—to convince the states to relinquish their authority to a federal body for the collective good of
the industry.

Around the same time, in Canberra, Prime Minister John Howard was thinking along the same lines.

Howard was keen to push through his industrial-relations reform, known as WorkChoices, that had as one of its goals the introduction of a unified, national system of labour laws.

WorkChoices gave impetus to his own reform efforts, says Hart. He had to get the message through that if the Association was to be able to effectively lobby on behalf of the industry it represented—a sector that is, not incidentally, one of the biggest employers in the country—then it needed to speak with one voice, as well.

“It was obvious before [WorkChoices] that we needed to change,” says Hart. “But when we saw the range of key regulatory powers for the industry moving to the federal government, particularly industrial relations, it provided an imperative for the Association to be stronger nationally than it is at the state level.”

Was it easy to pull off?

“When we saw the range of key regulatory powers for the industry moving to the federal government, particularly industrial relations, it provided an imperative for the Association to be stronger nationally than it is at the state level.”John Hart

Hart gives a wry smile. “It took us 10 years to do it,” he says. “It meant we got rid of six very average industrial-relations people, employed a gun [at the national body], and staff to report to that gun. We get much more firepower when we walk into the [Fair Work] Commission. We can combine all those resources to be able to engage counsel that has some real muscle. We just wouldn’t have been able to do that if we’d remained federated.”

Asked if he considers himself more as a pragmatist or an optimist, Hart says pragmatist, then pauses.

“I guess in this industry you have to be optimistic,” he adds. “You’ve got to be a pragmatist with an optimistic bias, if that makes sense. I think you have to approach individual scenarios pragmatically, but still have an end in sight that is more on the upside than the downside.”

It was hard-headed optimism that helped Hart shape the Association into the highly effective lobbying organisation it is today. It also helped him get a seat on Tony Abbott’s Business Advisory Council in 2013—a tremendous accomplishment, considering that almost every other member of the 12-person BAC was a titan of corporate Australia: BHP’s Jacques Nasser; Telstra chairwoman Catherine Livingstone; NAB chairman Michael Chaney; billionaire Solomon Lew; Linfox chairman Peter Fox; Grocon chief executive Daniel Grollo; Graham Kraehe, the chairman of BlueScope Steel and Brambles; and Maurice Newman, former chair of the ASX and the ABC, among others.

“It meant being at a table with 12 people, all of whom had two things in common,” remembers Hart. “One: every single one of them had an Australian honour—every other name tag around the table had an OAM, an AM or something like it after it. And the second thing is they were all representatives of very large companies. I was there as the sole small-business person.”

Being the sole small-business person gave Hart a different perspective than his peers, he says.

“I was pretty vocal. I was often the lone voice in the room on a number of things because they saw things very differently. Big multinationals operating in Australia see things very differently than businesses that are wholly and solely operating here and have to deal with national problems.”

The BAC met every six weeks in Canberra, around an agenda set out by the Prime Minister.

That the hospitality industry even had a seat at the BAC table is an endorsement of Hart’s leadership; had the Association retained its federated structure, who would the Prime Minister have invited?

In December, 2015, three months after ousting Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull announced he was disbanding the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council. By then, reports John Hart the pragmatic optimist, Australia had become a top food destination—and remains so today.

“I think we do have the best product in the world,” says Hart. “Having looked recently at all the Trip Advisor ratings for the major dining cities around the world, we come right at the top of that list. Particularly among our competitor countries. In the Tourism in Australia research, we came third behind France and Italy as a dining destination overall, but in all our major markets—mostly the Asian markets—we come number one.”

Still, challenges remain, says Hart, if Australia is to remain out in front.

One challenge is competition—but not from France or Italy, he says. The competition now is from China. “It’s Hong Kong and Shanghai. It’s the new, emerging cities that will be the dining cities of the future.”

Another challenge facing the industry remains that of labour supply.

“Nine out of 10 restaurateurs say staffing is their biggest issue,” says Hart. “They can’t get enough people. We’ve caught up to the dining density of Europe and the US, but we’ve done it without the supply of labour [those markets enjoy]. We’re now in a situation where 68 per cent of our businesses say that they can’t get the staff with the skills they need to do the job.”

Asia’s emerging cities, by contrast, have virtually limitless supplies of labour. Hart believes that part of the solution in Australia is to find a way to attract more young people into the industry.

“If I think back to the drive that I had back then, to make a success of my time in the industry, there’s not that many young people out there now, that are that motivated. I think it’s changed dramatically. Their expectations have changed, what they hear about the world of work has changed. It is a big part of the way we need to think about the future of the industry.”

After 18 years at the helm, Hart credits the successes he has enjoyed to the concerted efforts of all the elements of Restaurant & Catering Australia—its boards, executive and members.

“I think the way that the organisation has been able to respond to challenges has been because we’ve used very effective ways to engage with the membership so that we know not only what their needs are, but we’ve been able to get in touch with trends, get ahead of problems and provide the leadership that the industry needs. Credit to the structure, the boards, the governance and all of those things that we’ve built over that 18-year period.”

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