Friday, April 8, 2011

Investment banker with MS named 2011 Australian of the Year for his charity work

From Bloomberg:

Simon McKeon (pictured) was paralyzed from the hips down after collapsing at a board meeting in 1999. He feared he’d be confined to a wheelchair for life. A year later, his eyesight almost disappeared crossing a Melbourne street.

The dealmaker at Macquarie Group Ltd. (MQG) and holder of the world sailing speed record was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. More than a decade on, the 55-year-old Melbourne office chairman of Australia’s biggest investment bank is all but free of symptoms. He says the episodes spurred his charity work, from counseling ex-heroin addicts to raising money for research into the disease which afflicted him.

“I had a real taste of what it might have been like to suddenly have much of one’s physical capacity taken away,” McKeon, 2011 Australian of the Year, says in an interview in his office. “I have an extra boost of enthusiasm to not take any day for granted.”

The mergers and acquisitions specialist is using his award to urge businesses and their employees to give away more time, money and resources.

McKeon was raised in Melbourne and graduated in law at the city’s university. He practiced as a Sydney solicitor with Blake Dawson Waldron. By the 1980s, McKeon’s parents were struggling to look after his older intellectually disabled stepsister. He resigned to return to Melbourne and take care of her.

“I saw poverty everywhere and yet I saw a vibrant local community,” says McKeon, an adviser to the Big Issue, an organization working for Australia’s homeless, and chairman of MS Research Australia from 2004 to 2010.

He switched to a part-time role at Macquarie in 1999 because of his growing charity work, including with World Vision Australia, the relief and development group. His service on the World Vision Australia board stretched from 1994 to 2005.

McKeon’s wife, Amanda Jane, thinks he takes on too much, he says. Self-indulgence sits uneasily with him, yet the father of four, who held the world sailing speed record between 1993 and 2004, is unable to define what drives him to help others.

“I’m no saint,” says McKeon, who also sits on the panel of the government’s Human Rights Grants Scheme. “If I have too good a time, then there’s a little voice, I don’t know whether it’s a god or basic humanity, but it is so profound it ends up shouting at me: “Enough’s enough.’”

He’s most disappointed by business people who think only of themselves, and those who are financially comfortable but unwilling to take a chance.

“They are not mean and nasty people,” he says. “They’ve got their life nicely sorted out, but everything’s a bit too comfortable. I feel sorry for them, those who don’t step outside their zone of comfort. For them, life will be the poorer.”

Yet McKeon says deal-making bankers aren’t as uncharitable as some might believe.

“My experience is not one that says they are just egotistical, self-centered, money-grabbing individuals,” he says. “I see a whole lot of other people who are talented, aggressive, and smart, but also get a huge kick out of giving back to the community.”

“Don’t do something just because it’s noble,” he says. “If it doesn’t make sense to you, leave it to others. Then the chances of it being sustainable go up immeasurably.”