Jim Varghese is new executive director for AII

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Jim Varghese

Australia India Institute appoints a new executive business director development to steer the think tank towards creating more productive business relationships between the two countries. Alys Francis talks to Jim Varghese, the man behind the wheel

With the prime ministers of India and Australia promising to boost economic ties, the Australia India Institute (AII) has created a new executive role focused on fostering bilateral trade and investment.

Jim Varghese was appointed as the think tank’s Executive Business Director Development just weeks after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first official visit down under—which saw him imploring Australians to “make in India” and telling Parliament the country was “a vital partner in India’s quest for progress”.

The visit “transformed the Australia-India relationship, in particular by enhancing the productive and pragmatic business relationships between the two countries”, AII said in a statement explaining the new appointment on 1 December.

Mr Varghese comes to the role after moving to Australia in 1964 and enjoying an illustrious career in the public sector, where he rose to become Director General of the Queensland Government. He is currently a director at Springfield Land Corp and chairman of The Leadership Company, QLD.

Mr Varghese revealed to The Indian Sun how he plans to help Australian business crack India and where he thinks the trade relationship is heading.

“We’re now at a very critical point in the Australia India relationship,” says Mr Varghese. Modi’s pro-business approach to governance and new commitment to strengthening trade with Australia highlighted the need for AII to get, “much closer and sharper in its relationship to the business end of Australia and India,” he explains.

Mr Varghese’s appointment as Executive Director of Business Development will see AII reposition itself as a partner for companies interested in doing business in India, providing expert advice and research on the market.

So where does the Indian Diaspora fit into AII’s new business focus?

“I think the Indian Diaspora is already playing a significant role in both investment attraction, and in enhancing the attractiveness of Australia as a business and investment destination. I see my role as complimenting the Indian Diaspora and the Australia India Business Council (AIBC),” Mr Varghese says.

AII will focus on the top end of business, rather than SMEs, according to Mr Varghese. “The focus is corporations that want to do very serious business, that may want some of the evidence based research that we can offer or facilitate,” he says.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott admitted the India relationship had been overlooked as Australia focused on its biggest trading partner China. Australia’s two-way trade with India topped $15.2 billion last year, but was far surpassed by two-way trade with China, which exceeded $150 billion.

Mr Varghese sees a big job ahead trying to address the imbalance in trade. “There is a fair degree of work to be done on both the relationship side, and on understanding the business environment, both in India and in Australia,” he says.

“I will be intensely focusing on Queensland, where we have of course the very large mining projects, and we also have a number of Indian corporates like Tata, GVK, Jindal Steel,” he says.

Mr Varghese also plans to tweak AII’s programs to reflect its new priorities. “The centre for teaching and research would be enhanced by also marketing our business focus. The centre for public policy, dialogue and outreach, can be made quite attractive to business and the same with fellowships,” he says.

Mr Varghese has vast experience driving change, having steered major government reforms in Queensland that earned him an Order of Australia for service to the public sector in 2009, and a Centenary Medal for the same in 2001.

Reflecting on his time as a public servant, Mr Varghese says he is most proud of bringing the public and private sectors together when he was Queensland’s Director General of Main Roads to complete the Gold Coast Highway and the Georgina River Bridge—which crosses land that has significant cultural important for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander peoples. “That intersected with the traditional peoples and their concerns about the sleeping serpent, and how you built a bridge without awakening it,” he explains. “That’s real innovation, where those agencies are able to work with a remote community, respect their customs, their artefacts and still build a world class bridge.”

At the age of 55, Mr Varghese left the public service sector. At a time when many would have considered retirement, he wanted a new challenge, and so took up his very first role with a private company—partly to prove he could. “People used to say to me ‘Jim, could you ever survive in the private sector? You’ve done very well in govt?’ And it used to always annoy me,” he says, laughing.

“So I said ‘I’m going to have a go,’ so I joined Springfield Land Corporation for nine months, heading up education and health. And within nine months I became the chief executive,” he says. “There’s a population of 28,000 there now; and I helped drive this company through the GFC [global financial crisis]!”

So what does he foresee for the future of Australia-India trade?

“Andrew Robb made the comment that he believed India was where we were with China 14 years ago. And I think that’s a very perceptive comment, in that this is the first time in 30 years that an Indian Prime Minister, Modi had an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, and has a proven track record of being able to drive business outcomes,” he says. “I see a whole new era opening once that free trade agreement is signed.”

And now, AII will be there offering insight and guidance on India’s changing market, which has long held promise but left so many running scared.

We will “provide some serious support and business research—actually looking at how you invest in India, how you manage the risks, how you look at its whole governance arrangements and vice-versa—how you make that symbiotic relationship work between Australia and India,” Mr Varghese says.

“And to put the icing on the cake, Professor Amitabh Mattoo’s establishment of the AII in Delhi [opening in 2015] is going to really make this happen in a really powerful way, because we will now have both ends of the spectrum covered,” he adds.

 

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