Podcast – Lunchtime Conversation Series: Dick Smith
Recorded on Tuesday 11 September in the Hallstrom Theatre as part of the Australian Museum's 2018 Lunchtime Conversation Series.
Sydney born Dick Smith is an adventurer, businessman, entrepreneur, philanthropist, political activist and 1986 Australian of the Year. The founder of Dick Smith Electronics became a household name, launching Australian Geographic magazine in 1984 to sponsor adventure and inspire a love of nature. His own groundbreaking aviation feats include a solo helicopter flight around the world and to the North Pole, as well as a non-stop balloon trip across Australia.
Sue Saxon: I'd like to welcome you and acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we stand here today, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I pay my respects to their elders past, present, and those emerging in the future.
It's terrific to see you here for the fourth lunchtime lecture in our series. We're on the home stretch now, with three to go, including today. As we know, we've been exploring Australians who've shaped our nation, and those who feature in the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition in our award-winning Westpac Long Gallery.
Each session so far has been a delight, I think you'll agree, with Ita Buttrose, Layne Beachley and Dr George Miller sharing remarkable insights into the pivotal forces that have shaped their lives and careers. And I'm absolutely certain that today's guest will inspire and challenge us anew. So please join me in welcoming Kim McKay, our director and CEO—and she's also going to be speaking next week, I should add—to introduce today's special guest, Dick Smith, AC. Thank you, Kim.
Kim McKay: Thanks so much, Sue, and thank you for your great organisation yet again. And welcome again to you all, great to see you. I feel like I've got new friends now, seeing you each week through this. It's great. I also would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we're gathered on today, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.
Wow…so our lecture series, as Sue said, has really revealed some interesting stories, some inspiring messages, certainly, and I think today's speaker is going to do just that, because when I sat down to read more about Dick—and I must say, I've had the great pleasure of knowing Dick for quite a long time. But when you read his background, you think how could one man fit this in to one life? You have just no idea. And I know it's the short biography, but it's about seven pages long. And he is just an extraordinary individual.
Of course to us he's an Australian entrepreneur, businessman, adventurer, record-breaking aviator, an author, a philanthropist of note, and an activist. In fact yesterday, Dick, I saw you had some of those population ads in the papers yesterday. So he's right out there front and centre.
Dick became, of course, a household name in Australia from the 1970s when he founded Dick Smith Electronics, and he eventually sold that many years later to Woolworths. He founded Dick Smith Foods and Australian Geographic, which he launched in 1984 to sponsor adventure and to inspire a love of nature. And certainly Dick has been a huge proponent of Australian wildlife ever since, and our natural environment. He of course went on to sell that to Fairfax many years later.
Dick has received numerous awards and accolades for his extraordinary exploits and achievements. In 1986 our renowned adventurer was named Australian of the Year. He received an Order of Australia in 1999 and in 2015 that was advanced to a Companion of the Order of Australia, an AC, which is our highest civilian honour.
For eminent service to the community, as a benefactor of a range of not-for-profit and conservation organisations, through support for major fundraising initiatives, for humanitarian and social welfare programs, to medical research, the visual arts and to aviation.
Now, when I said when you read Dick's bio trying to squeeze all these things in, here are just some of his achievements. The first helicopter flight around the world in 1983. The first helicopter flight to the North Pole in 1987. The first person to fly around the world via the poles in 1989. The first east to west flight around the world by helicopter in 1992. The first non-stop balloon crossing of the Australian continent in 1993. The first trans-Tasman balloon flight in 2000. And there are so, so many more.
Now, in 2016, here at the Australian Museum, Dick took out the title of Australia's favourite living explorer when we launched the exhibition Trailblazers: Australia's 50 Greatest Explorers. And Dick, I can tell you, too, the record crowds who came to see that exhibition, they were so inspired by all 50 Australian explorers there, but particularly by your wonderful career and determination.
Dick, of course, is a fierce patriot, and a popular advocate of responsible risk-taking and inspiring achievements. We're absolutely delighted to welcome him today to share the motivations, highlights and challenges he's encountered in a brilliant pioneering career, magnified by his multifaceted contribution to the Australian and international community.
So Dick is going to speak first, and then we're going to sit down and do a bit of the Q&A and open it up to questions with all of you. But first, Dick, I wanted to present you with something before we get underway today. Dick of course is in the 200 Treasures exhibition, and hadn't seen it before today. So it's my great pleasure to give you your 200 Treasures certificate, which you can add to I'm sure a multitude of other awards and recognitions, if you have any wall space left. And also a copy of the 200 Treasures catalogue for you. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Dick Smith.
Dick Smith: Thank you, Kim. I won the lottery of life. I was born in Australia in the 1940s. And I was absolutely hopeless at school, so if there's any grandparents here or parents who are worried about their kids, don't give up yet. It appears my mother used to say to my father, 'Whatever will happen to Dick?' And my mum always said I marched to the beat of a different drum. I didn't quite understand that. I had a speech defect until I was 8, so I couldn't say the letter S, so I used to call myself Dick Mith.
Anyway, I was very fortunate. I wanted to be a musician, and so I was given a little soprano saxophone, and I spent six months trying to learn, and my teacher, a man called Brian Bertram, who had a complete career here at this museum, said one of the most sensible things to me. He said, 'Dick, can I give you some advice?' 'Oh, yes.' He said, 'Dick, you will never be able to play this bloody saxophone properly. You don't have a musical bone in your body. Do something else.'
And it was the best advice I've ever had, and I talk to schools and I always say, 'Be very careful when people say you can do anything you want to. You can't.' I said, 'Genetically I think we're good at different things. Every person's good at something, but I just happened not to be able to play a saxophone—which I'd love to—and so I moved on to other things.'
I ended up leaving school and working in a factory, and I loved two things: I loved building radio sets and I loved the out of doors. I was in the Scouts from a cub of 8 right through to 23 and got this wonderful leadership training. And also a training to put something back in. We were brainwashed in a way; do a good turn every day, help other people at all times. And I couldn't get over even to this day how my Scout masters and Scout leaders put all this time in for nothing to teach me leadership.
Fortunately for me I was no good at playing the saxophone but one day I started a little business with $610—$600 from me, $10 from Pip, who's unfortunately not here, she's coming back from Hamilton Island today. But I always mention that she put in $10 and I put in $600 in case we're ever divorced, because that's how it's divided up, isn't it? I think so.
Anyway, and I suddenly found what I was good at, which was making money. And I feel a bit guilty about that because I had all these talented people who worked for me at Dick Smith Electronics and made me lots of money. I shared it as much as I could with bonuses. And then of course I started Australian Geographic, and got the best photographers, the best artists, the best writers and the best cartographers, and we produced that amazing magazine. And I once again thought, gee, I've got these very talented people that I've been able to get in together and push them quite a lot into doing this wonderful quality production.
Anyway that allowed me to do…because I was working in an office running Australian Geographic, it allowed me to go adventuring. And I want to talk and show a little bit of video from two of my adventures. Probably the one that gave me the most satisfaction, which was the first solo helicopter flight around the world; and then the riskiest adventure I've ever been on, which was incredibly risky and when I think of it, I'm lucky to be alive, and in fact I owe my life, when I look, I've been five flights around the world and two risky balloon flights, and I owe my life, in relation to the flights around the world, really, to North American technology. It's just so reliable these days, and I owe my life on the balloon flights to a helluva lot of luck. But I'll tell you about that in a second.
I want to show you a little bit of video here of my flight across the Atlantic, and when I was about to make this film, my editor, Damon Smith, said, 'Dick, you've got to film when things are going wrong, because that's the exciting bit.' But believe it or not I had a little Super 8 camera beside me and I was never game to turn it on when things were really bad. And this particular shot, I'd imagined flying around the world in a helicopter as always flying in good weather. But I made this terrible mistake. I'd written to the Australian prime minister and said, 'Wouldn't it be great if I could land in Scotland, having been the first rotary wing aircraft across the Atlantic, and the first fixed-wing was Charles Lindberg,' I said, 'This would be an Aussie, wouldn't it be great if I could land at Balmoral Castle and say hello to Prince Charles, because he's a helicopter pilot.'
Well, Malcolm Fraser arranged for that to happen. The problem then was it gave me a date that I had to land there. And that meant that I ended up flying in terribly bad weather across the Atlantic. And this little bit of footage, I don't know if you can detect, there's fear in my voice because I'd just come out of a most horrendous weather. The little helicopter's got one engine, no floats, I had a little life raft sitting beside me. The helicopter, if the engine failed, would take about 45 seconds to get to the ocean. They actually auto-rotate but then it would've floated for about 15 seconds. It would immediately turn upside down. I've got to get out, get the life raft inflated and climb into it.
But the water below me, when I zoom up, it looks like white caps. It's bits of ice. The water was at freezing point, and I'd just come out of some terribly bad weather. I'd left Greenland heading to Iceland, got into such bad weather that I really didn't know where I was. And I finally called a high-flying airline and I said, 'Can you tell me what the weather's like ahead?' And they radioed ahead and said, 'No, you won't be able to get into Iceland, the weather is closed. Suggest you go back to Greenland.' I thought, 'Okay, I'll turn round and go back to Greenland.' And then they called up and they said, 'No, the weather in Greenland's closed. We suggest you fly to Shannon.'
I thought, 'Shannon, where's that? That's in Ireland.' And I said, 'Hold on, I'm in a helicopter.' There was no way I could get to Ireland. Fortunately the weather started to improve, and that's when I spoke to the camera, so let's put this bit on.
[Audio from video not transcribed]
Now, I've got to tell you the truth. I was so frightened, so scared, that I decided that if I actually got to Iceland alive I would give up the flight then and come up with some excuse to bring the helicopter in and put it on a ship. But the human psyche being what it is, as I got to Reykjavik there was a ray of sun coming down right onto the terminal. So I landed there and I went in and sat in the coffee shop and after about ten minutes I thought, 'Oh, maybe it wasn't quite as bad as I thought it was.' And I thought, 'I'll just go on to London, so at least I will have got the Atlantic crossing.' But the whole flight was like that, at different times I just got into the most terrible weather.
A quick little segment here, because I did land at Balmoral Castle, and just before this segment starts I got lost. I mean good pilots never get lost, but misplaced. These were the days before GPS, and I had a road map, and I came down and I'm looking at street signs, and finally I worked out where I was and I came around and then I came along the valley, and Balmoral Castle was supposed to be there. I was visualising this huge castle sitting on a hill or something like that. And there was no castle. But eventually I looked down, and you'll see it's quite small. So let's have a look at the bit of landing with Prince Charles.
[Audio from video not transcribed]
Yeah, and it was very exciting to be there, that afternoon I flew down to London, landed in the Thames, a little helipad there—helicopters are wonderful, you can land in the most incredible places. And then I got enough courage to fly on to Australia, and that was absolutely fantastic. Then I had to fly back to the north. And the reason no one had ever flown a helicopter around the world is that helicopters were invented after the second world war and then from that point on we had the Cold War, and all the early flights around the world went through Russia. And of course during the Cold War they wouldn't allow you to land.
So I'd written to the Russian embassy, did everything I could, just wanted to do one landing from Japan in the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula and then I'd go up through Alaska and get back to the Bell factory where I started. That's where I took the helicopter out of the factory.
But I couldn't get any luck. The Russians wouldn't give me approval. So my backup was to land on a ship, and the most risky thing I've done in that type of flying was to put some drums of fuel on board the ship. It left Yokohama in Japan, it was heading to Seattle. Three and a half days out across the Pacific, I took off in darkness from the very northern tip of Japan, flew for seven hours, found the ship after it had run into fog, refuelled, and then flew on to Alaska, and then eventually made my way up and right back through, after nearly 12 months of flying on and off, ended up back at Fort Worth. And this is a segment of going to Fort Worth.
[Audio from video not transcribed]
Yes, and you can probably see my wife there. My poor wife and kids flew to England to see me there with Prince Charles and then of course to Fort Worth where I got back. But it's interesting because I've been very fortunate to be able to combine a business career, which made the money so I could go adventuring. And adventuring is quite selfish, of course. I've done five flights around the world now, and two balloon flights, and I know if I kept doing them—people say, 'When is your next adventure?'—that I would eventually kill myself. A number of times I've been very close to losing my life. And my heroes, people like Bert Hinkler and Charles Kingsford Smith, Ulm, they all lost their lives because they kept pushing the odds too much, and that's why you've got to somehow stop doing that.
To me, adventure is a drug. I call it responsible risk-taking. I don't know how responsible it is but it's very selfish and I just need to do it. And believe it or not sometimes I'm flying up the coast in my helicopter now and I'm tempted to turn right and head towards New Zealand to see how far I'd go. Because flying over big oceans in small aircraft…that little tiny aircraft, the Bell Jet Ranger, is in the Powerhouse Museum, and it was a wonderful machine.
Now, I quickly want to move ahead to the riskiest thing I've ever done, and that is the balloon flights across Australia and also from New Zealand to Australia. The reason the balloon flights are risky is you have basically no control. And the plan is you take off…no one had ever managed to get across Australia by balloon, there'd been about 12 attempts. I think the furthest an Englishman, Julian Nott, got from the west coast of Western Australia to Broken Hill, an incredible effort. So I decided to get into ballooning, learned to fly. I got John Wallington who you'll see is a very experienced balloon flight for doing morning and afternoon flights, and in a typical balloon you'll notice they go early in the morning, late in the afternoon when the wind is low. And the minute if the wind comes up they land, very quickly.
But if you're going to fly across a continent you have no idea what the wind is going to be like at the other end. And that's the risky thing, because landing at more than about 15 or 20 knots you'll be badly injured and very possibly killed. So I'd like to show you this little segment. This is when we're about halfway across. Now I didn't like the idea of being in the gondola, so I built a sundeck on the outside of the balloon. I couldn't get it Civil Aviation Safety Authority approved, so I made it so it's portable. So whenever the inspectors came, I'd unclick it, and there was the gondola, and when they went away I clicked my little sundeck. And I had this little deckchair. And John Wallington couldn't believe it. He's more of balloonist and said, 'Stay in the gondola.' And I said, 'No, I'm going to sit out there when we're flying across Australia and I'll be sitting on my deckchair.' And you'll notice here not only am I sitting on my deckchair at 20,000 feet doing 160 kilometres an hour, but my wife's in the plane flying around, and what it doesn't show there, she's calling me up saying, 'Put on your safety harness.' And I didn't put on my safety harness because I wasn't going to let go, and as you'll see, because of my climbing, I don't really have any fear of heights. So let's have a look at this little segment.
[Audio from video not transcribed]
Now, this is looking down, 21,000 feet. See I'd grab hold of the parachute if I fell. This is near Cobar. Yes and so there's Pip in the…when you make some money you can buy lots of toys, and I've certainly had lots of toys, I'm very lucky. But we kept flying, and I'm just going to show a little bit where we actually landed and I'm really scared because this balloon is doing 170 kilometres an hour, but you somehow have to get it down at less than 10 kilometres an hour. The balloon weighs three and a half tonnes, and we got across the Great Dividing Range, that was the challenge, to get across Australia, across the Dividing Range.
So we started descending and we'd never, ever…this is a Rozière balloon, it's a combination helium and hot air. No one in Australia had ever flown one before. And as we're descending, it started descending far too quickly, so I threw the generator out, threw my beautiful deckchair out, and then you'll notice we threw the sand out and we actually overtook the sand. If you'll see this shot, as the balloon is descending you'll see that we overtook the sand. But luckily, using John's skill we came in and we landed. I looked down and I said, 'John, I can't believe it, there's no wind. There's no wind down there.' And we came down in the Clarence River valley and Pip had been in the jet, then she'd been in the helicopter, they were flying around, and you'll see me when we land, John's girlfriend Christie is there but there's no Pip, and I'm looking for her, and finally there is my amazing wife. So let's have a look at this segment of landing.
[Audio from video not transcribed]
Well, as you can see I've been very lucky. My wife Pip said to me…I mean we got married when she was 19, I was 24. And she said to me—I'm so lucky that she supported my adventures—and she said, 'Well I supported your first adventure, solo around the world in a helicopter, because I thought that would get it out of your system.' She didn't know that it would be an addiction and I would continue taking those risks.
Well, thanks for listening to my adventure. On the more serious side, as many of you would know, I'm working on a program at the moment that I've basically failed at, and that is that one day we have to live in balance. As you know, we've got this immense population growth, the highest in the western world. We're on our way to 100 million people in Australia at the end of this century at the present growth rate. That's possible but I think there'll be a lot of poor people. And one day we have to get our system of capitalism to live in balance. I think we should be planning for that now, especially for our children and grandchildren.
It seems unfair to me, if we put off the day of reckoning. As someone from the Department of Finance said, 'Dick, our present system is a giant Ponzi scheme where you have to keep feeding it but eventually it'll collapse', and surely we should be planning something now. Thanks very much for listening to me.
Kim McKay: You've got the gift of communication I think that has gone with it, but also some luck along the way. And I just want to touch back when you started Dick Smith Electronics in the '70s—well late '60s but it grew in the '70s—was really as computers started to come to the fore. So how much did timing play?
Dick Smith: Oh, I was very lucky with timing. It's interesting. I made my first computer. I loved not only this museum but the Powerhouse Museum—then it was called the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences—and they had a computer that played noughts and crosses. It was highly complex, so I, even though I don't have any qualifications and sort of probably dyslexic, I built a computer at home when I was 14 years of age that could play noughts and crosses using telephone parts. And so that was one of the things I loved doing in those days.
Kim McKay: So has timing played a critical role with other parts of your life?
Dick Smith: Yes, sorry, let's get back to the timing. By complete luck…I started Dick Smith Electronics basically servicing mainly cab radios, and then we started selling components and manufacturing. And one day I woke up to find a headline that said that the Whitlam government had removed the protective duty on all electronics. And I honestly thought, I'm going to go broke, I'll have to close down. Luckily for me, a man called Peter Shelley of Peter Shelley Electronics in York Street said, 'Oh no, Dick, I'll take you overseas and show you how to import.' And so I was able to do that, and then we ran with the CB radio boom and then the computer boom.
Kim McKay: And didn't you produce one of the first international catalogues?
Dick Smith: Yes, definitely. I realised—I saw a catalogue in a company in England, so I thought I'll copy that, so I produced my own catalogue. And so I was very fortunate to be riding all those booms. And I remember when Woolworths bought me out and I was, what, 33 years of age, I think, and they paid $25 million. Imagine. The reason I sold the business is interesting. I didn't want it to grow, and even back then I realised that growing the business could mean hundreds of people working for me, and I loved being with my family. And so I reorganised my life, and it's the best thing I ever did.
But going back to those days that all these booms were happening, and when Woolworths bought the business out Sir Eric McClintock said, 'Well, what's your budget for the future?' And I horrified him by saying, 'Oh, somewhere between making a fortune and going broke.' Because we never knew what was going to be the boom. We then ran the hand TV games boom. And that started off with that Pong machine that you could play. And it was the time when people built things, and so it was in the days of electronic hobbyists. I think it had about 50 shops when I sold the business.
Woolworths…it's interesting, the reason the business went broke after…we wanted it to last 50 years, Pip and I. It lasted 48 years. And it was because of the greed of modern capitalism. They had to keep expanding, and with 100 shops they would still be making a fortune today selling to electronic enthusiasts. They ended up with 350 shops, because of the pressure for growth from the shareholders. And this is what the madness of modern capitalism is, and in the end there were just too many shops for the market, and so the whole thing went broke. Which was really sad.
Kim McKay: So you shifted gears there because, as you said, of your family, and it's really clear when you look at the video clip the important role Pip has played as a partner in crime, really, with you through all those years, hasn't she?
Dick Smith: Yes.
Kim McKay: And she's still there today, solidly beside you.
Dick Smith: Yeah, well she's still around today. I don't know where she is this moment, but…
Kim McKay: Having a good time, probably, not worrying.
Dick Smith: She's coming back from Hamilton Island. She supports the Australian Ballet and they've had a fundraiser there. But yes, the last adventure we did was we drove around the world. And that included, we went to America and bought an F-550 sort of campervan. She said she'd come with me as long as there was a shower and a toilet on board. So we solved that problem and we wanted a left-hand drive vehicle because most of the driving's on the right-hand side of the road. Interesting enough in Kazakhstan we broke down for about three weeks, but then in Mongolia at the start of winter in the Gobi Desert, we broke down completely, and we had to get the vehicle towed across a mountain range in winter, being towed by a truck. And it was a great adventure. The breakdowns actually meant we met the local people and so forth. And so that's been our last adventure, driving right around the world. It was good fun.
Kim McKay: So with that, Dick, I'm going to open it up to questions, because I'm sure our wonderful audience has some great questions they'd like to ask you.
Audience question 1: It's very inspirational to hear you speak, Dick. I'm interested in the population debate because a big Australia, that's fine, but not that big. I agree with your premise that it's ludicrous, it's a Ponzi scheme that's going to fall over. But what is the ideal population in 2050, 20…100?
Dick Smith: Yeah, look we're really being let down by educated people, the universities. I heard a debate on Saturday night on the ABC with a lady demographer from ANU, and she said population is limited by innovation or something, and it's amazing how—I can understand Harry Triguboff wanting endless growth, because he's only worth $11 billion and he obviously wants $20 billion like Rupert. But you'd think our universities would be coming out and giving me support, and saying look we have to have a plan where we live in balance.
The optimum population, Tim Flannery said 8 million. I don't know the figure and I really don't know how you change capitalism. Capitalism, which I benefited from so greatly and most of us have, has had 150 years of growth since the invention of using fossil fuels in the Industrial Revolution. But it's a completely unstable system, and so if you don't have growth…the reason our politicians talk growth the whole time is they're fearful if the growth stops we'll go into depression. Which we will do.
But I'm positive, just using common sense, we have a system at the moment which has to have incredible waste to keep people employed. So you'd think, if you have a system that's successful with incredible waste, you could make it more successful with less waste. And I think the plan will be; it'll be forced on us, where we need to reduce the working hours, probably to about 30 hours a week so most people have jobs—this is because of automation and robotics—and then we'll need to bring more regulation in, and capitalists hate that, but regulations would say you can't sell anything unless it's been produced sustainably. In other words, your new Apple iPhone, you hand your old one back, and they've made it from the parts.
We have a system at the moment where we have to have endless growth of digging more out of the earth and producing more, and more and more population to keep capitalism going. That will have to change to a system where we grow in efficiencies removing waste, we stabilise the population. At the present time we have 7 billion. The demographers predict 11 billion is where we're going to get to, but they're always wrong. This is the world.
The demographers in Australia predicted we'd get to 25 million in 2036. We're now at 25 million. And at 1.6% growth rate, we have in Australia, the highest in the western world, we'll be at 100 million at the end of this century, when our grandkids will be alive. And no-one says that's a sensible number. By the way it's possible. I reckon you could have a billion in Australia. We're so ingenious. We'd have people living like termites in 100-storey high-rise with the food on conveyor belts with laser diodes growing the food, and we'd be like battery chooks, you know, you'd lean out and grab something to eat. We'd say, Woo, 100 million, isn't this fantastic! But it would be completely stupid.
And so that's why…what I find interesting, my pro-growth mates, John Singleton, Gerry Harvey, Gary Johnson, they all have a figure of 100 or 150 million. I think Harry Triguboff has 150 million. So the very fact that they have a figure like that, what they're saying is, 'Oh, one day you have to stop growing,' which is true. So they're going to put off the problem of solving that growth problem to our grandchildren. And that's simply not fair. So it would be really great if we could get everyone to push our politicians. Those ads I've been running, Kim, are…if you notice they very carefully say, 'Get one of our major parties to have a population plan.' And one day one of them will and it'll be voted in, because eight out of ten Australians have the concerns we have.
Kim McKay: It's a challenge though, Dick, because we know that politicians think in election cycles, so they're thinking three and four years only in advance. So in Australia we've never been good at long-term planning, you know that. We've done some great things in our history, but the fragility of our natural environment is…we see it every day now with the impacts of the drought.
Dick Smith: Well, no humans, I don't think, are good at long-term planning. And I'm told by the experts—I'm a car radio installer so I have to ask lots of advice—and the experts tell me that we came from the plains of Africa, where we evolved to react to immediate threats. A lion was about to come an eat us. But we're not very good at reacting to threats that are in the distance and, more importantly, there's a chance they won't happen.
And I happen to believe in human-induced climate change, but those climate scientists say, sensibly, that they're 95% sure of what they've worked out. The problem with that is that we'll go for the 5%. And then of course you have the people who genuinely believe…I have a friend, Maurice Newman, he used to run the ABC, he genuinely believes that it's a hoax, the whole climate change issue.
And Kim, you're absolutely right, politicians are elected for four years, and so we really won't do anything until we have a Hitler-walking-into-Poland moment. Paul Gilding, the ex Greenpeace man, he wrote a book and he said that, and he's absolutely right. What he's comparing it with is that before the Second World War many people, not just Churchill, said if Hitler is not kept to the Treaty of Versailles and the restrictions, he'll become an enormous problem. The business community said, 'Oh no, it'll be okay, he's got the trains running on time.' And they ignored all of the problems and that one error, lack of acting, resulted in between 30 and 60 million people losing their lives. I think the error of not acting now will result in something more horrendous, but I'm not sure if we can do anything about it.
Kim McKay: Another question? Down the front here.
Audience question 2: Hello Dick, I'm in education and I've heard you talking before about responsible risk-taking, and what I'm seeing in education is, even in schools, they're removing playground equipment so kids don't fall and hurt themselves. Parents are starting to raise their children more with 'Don't try that because you could fall out of the tree,' for example. Could you just talk a little bit about your thoughts on that please?
Dick Smith: It's a real problem. I don't know the answer to it. When I was a young cub and a scout, we used to…you won't believe this, we'd climb…and the young person here listening won't believe it…the scout master would come, he was a builder and he'd bring his truck to the scout hall on Friday afternoon to go away to the camp. We 36 scouts would climb on the back of his truck with the great big patrol boxes, and then he'd drive us to the Blue Mountains, and we'd all be screaming and yelling in the back, leaning out the side and everything. Can you imagine that today? It just wouldn't be allowed. But we learned that type of risk-taking.
One of my greatest adventures was to go and climb Ball's Pyramid, and I was a 20-year-old boy scout at East Roseville, and I saw a magazine that showed some people that had attempted to climb it. So I came up with the idea that the Rover crew would climb it. We were all hopeless climbers, and our scout master had some money, so I conned him into coming up with the money to charter a sailing boat.
Now, we'd never sailed in our lives before. Did I ask approval…today you wouldn't be allowed. But I just said to the group scoutmaster, Oh, the Rovers (we were all 19 or 20) we're going to Ball's Pyramid. And so we did. We didn't lose our lives. We attempted to climb it. It was the greatest adventure, and that gave me that responsible risk-taking attitude to start a business. Start three businesses in my life and employ lots of people.
So that now is not allowed and it really is a terrible worry. And it's because people are trying to make life so it's without risk. And all that then happens is if you look at the suicide rate with young people going up…so you'll never win in the end. And I think it would be better if we could somehow allow young people to take risks. But that's going to be very difficult.
I know as a grandparent, I wouldn't allow…I used to come home from school in East Roseville, just above Roseville Bridge, and the only rule was I had to change out of my school uniform and be back by darkness. I'd disappear out into the bush. I had a couple of bits of wood and I'd go paddling across Middle Harbour with the sharks looking at me. And that was just the normal thing in the 1950s. Nowadays, if my grandkids come around, I'm very careful to make sure I know where they are all the time. Because I know if I said, 'Oh look, just shoot down into Ku-ring-gai Chase, come back tonight,' I'd be declared irresponsible, wouldn't I?
Kim McKay: So, Dick, how much has a fear of failure driven you with all these adventures?
Dick Smith: No, fear of failure's never really driven me at all. It's interesting because I never, ever believed I would be successful. I had a terrible inferiority complex. I loved radio and electronics and I loved the out of doors. But I was hopeless at schoolwork. And all my friends went off to university and I thought I was a failure and I got a job in a factory. And it was only when I was about 25, 26 years of age, and I realised, wow, I'm not a failure, I can run a business. I can employ people and make money and enthuse them to perform, and motivate them.
And so I've also taken no business risk. People say, 'Oh, Dick, you're a businessman, you must have taken lots of risk.' Took no risk. I started Dick Smith Electronics with $610. My scoutmaster, Tony Balthazar, loaned me about $4,000 at 6% interest. Never borrowed any money from the bank. Poured all the money back in again. And so never really took a risk in business.
People think because I've had a life of flying—I've now done 10,000 hours—that I always wanted to be a pilot. No, it was not even within my realm of thinking. I used to see the planes fly overhead, the military Vampires and think wow, isn't that fantastic. But I never thought I would ever be able to fly. But one day with Dick Smith Electronics I was making some money and I found out you could go out to Hoxton Park and for $23 learn to fly a little plane. So I would go out early in the morning, pay my $23, and I learned to fly.
It's interesting, I learned to fly fixed-wing, and I didn't really like it very much because I'm not a natural pilot, and with fixed-wing if ever you could see anything interesting, and that wasn't often because there was a wing below you, you couldn't land. And one day I was coming back from Tasmania with my family in my fixed-wing plane, and I never thought I could get an instrument rating because of my dyslexia, and couldn't learn things and that.
So I was stranded at Narrandera Airport in the bad weather and a helicopter came in and landed. And it was a Bell Jet Ranger like the one that I flew around the world. And I walked over to the pilot and I said, 'Wow, is this an instrument rated helicopter, it's flying in the bad weather?' And the pilot said, 'No, Dick, with a helicopter you just fly below the cloud and if ever it gets too low you land and have a cup of tea with somebody.' And I thought, 'Wow! I need one of these.'
So I went and bought a helicopter and that's exactly what I did. That flight around the world, I remember I was coming down the coast of Alaska and the weather was getting worse and worse and worse and I saw a lighthouse, and there was a woman standing there waving. So I came roaring round and landed, and she said, 'Oh, I've just baked a cake.' And so I went in. She thought I was the rescue helicopter or something. So I had a cup of tea with her.
And then, very quickly, coming down on my second attempt on the North Pole I was coming down the coast of Ellesmere Island and I knew there was an abandoned Canadian Mounted Police outpost halfway down and someone said you could get emergency rations there. Well, as I came down the coast there was the three little old buildings and there was smoke coming out of the chimney of one of them. I thought, 'That's incredible.' So I landed and I turned off the helicopter, walked over and knocked on the door, and the door swings open and there is this beautiful girl in red hotpants. And she said, 'You're just in time, I've just put some cookies on.' And I thought, I know I've crashed and gone to heaven. But actually what it was is there was a geological survey team there and she was the cook, and they'd gone out in their Jet Ranger, and when she heard a Jet Ranger land she thought that was the geologists coming back. So that's the type of thing that happens when you fly around the world or to the North Pole in a helicopter.
Kim McKay: Actually I remember doing a similar thing, not with a woman with red hotpants, but I was working on a project in Morocco and we were flying up in the Atlas Mountains. And there was quite a bit of breeze but we looked down and saw this Berber tribe setting up camp, you know, under the tents. And so we landed the chopper and went in and had tea. It was just amazing. Just wonderful experiences. Another question.
Audience question 3: What attributes did you need for your adventures?
Dick Smith: Right. What attributes do you need for your adventures—well, I have a little formula. It's called a success formula, and the mnemonic is CASHED. And I've used it for everything: for starting my businesses, for starting being successful with Australian Geographic magazine, and with Dick Smith Foods. And the letters stand for, C is communicate well. Always try and communicate and not have misunderstandings. A is the most important one—ask advice. Most Aussie's don't ask advice, and every bit of my success, because I don't have any qualifications—which, by the way, I'd love to have and I suggest you try and get, because when I've put people on I've got two equivalent, and I've employed thousands of people over the years, if I've got two equivalent people for a job application, quite often you do get this; I'll put on the person with the qualifications, because I know they'll put hard work in. That's the main reason I put them on. So try and get qualifications if you can, but don't write yourself off if you can't.
So ask advice is incredibly important. Now you'll get a lot of wrong advice, so you then have to use common sense to decide which is correct. CA…S—keep things simple. There's a whole industry in making things complicated. There are people who write marketing books and management books, I've picked up a few in my life, I can't even understand what they're talking about. So you just keep it incredibly simple.
CAS…H is honesty. It's really important in business. Very hard to be successful as one individual. You have to surround yourself with lots of other capable people and they'll detect very quickly if you're dishonest.
CASH…E for enthusiasm. To enthuse people. And I go in cycles like most people. Sometimes I'm really more down than up but you have to be an actor if you're going to be a leader, and you have to motivate people. In the early days of Dick Smith Electronics I remember the days when no one came in to get their car radios serviced and I was quite down and out and a car came in and it appears I must have put on such an act with him, and said, 'Send your friends back…' that the next day a car drove in and he wanted his radio repaired, and I said, 'It's working perfectly.' And he said, 'Oh, you must be able to do something. Must be able to charge me something.' I said, 'What's going on?' He said, 'Oh, my next-door neighbour came in last night and he'd called in and he said, 'Oh, that bloke Dick Smith up on Gore Hill, he's got no business but he's so enthusiastic, you've got to go and give him some business before he goes broke.' So that's what you can do with enthusiasm. And by the way, by enthusiastic you're motivating other people to perform.
And the last one is D, and I don't like to mention it in front of young people, but I will. It's discipline. Hard work. My dad used to say to me when I was 16, 17, 'Oh son, Dick, you lack self-discipline.' And he was absolutely right. But I realised when I was about 26 years of age and I was getting Dick Smith Car Radio going, that if I didn't have that hard self-discipline of putting that hard work in, I was going to fail. So when I get directed on doing something, wow, I work hard. And so that's the thing. CASHED. Communicate, ask advice, surround yourself with capable people, S, keep it simple, H, honest, E, enthusiasm, and D for discipline. I think I got them all. So that's what I could suggest to you. Pretty homespun. You won't learn that at university but it worked for me.
Kim McKay: I think that's pretty good damn advice. Now in those clips we did see you…you said, even though I thought you looked pretty cool most of the time, that there are times when you become afraid. In any adventure there are times when fear can overtake you. How do you keep fear at bay?
Dick Smith: I think it's just trying to live. And so a number of times you don't see when I really had bad times. Coming down the coast of Burma I got into rain that was so heavy it was like flying in a waterfall. I couldn't believe the engine could keep going, and I'm just flying out across the ocean. Finally I came across a beach and so I landed, and after a while the helicopter started to overturn, because there was rain coming out and down the beach it was eroding the beach around the skids. I finally got the helicopter airborne, put it up the beach a bit. Then about half an hour later the rains lifted and there was a headland in front of me that I would have run straight into.
So I've been incredibly lucky, and finding that ship north of Japan, it ran into a fog bank. And so I had a radio ham friend, Don Richards, on board. And he called me up and said, 'Dick, problem, you can't land on the ship, we're in fog.' So I managed to call an over-flying airline and I said, 'Can you tell the authorities I'm flying to Russia.' And I could see the tips of these Russian islands, the Kuril Islands, sticking out, and I thought I'll go and land on the top of the volcano (it was all ice). And fortunately for me, I mean I didn't realise, two months later the Korean jet, the 007 jet was shot down. Everyone was killed by the Russians in the same area. I'd thought they would let me get away with it, but as I'm heading towards Russia the ship calls me back and I've been so lucky, and says, 'You won't believe it, we're coming into a bit of clear area, do you want to give it the risk?'
And this was the days before GPS. So I had a beacon. I'd made up a little radio beacon with Dick Smith Electronic parts, a little box, we had a 12-volt battery, my bloke on the ship threw an aerial across a crane and he turned it on and I'm direction-finding in on the ship. But I had no idea what the distance was. And eventually I was above cloud, I came through the cloud and I saw these magnificent orca whales rolling in front of me with their fins, and I thought, 'Wow, that must be a good luck.' And then ahead I could see a little tiny dot. I'd never landed on a ship in my life. And the dot got bigger and bigger and bigger and it was the ship. I couldn't believe it.
I landed on the ship and the ship's rolling and I'd allowed one hour—seven hours to get to the ship, one hour to refuel, seven hours to get to Alaska to get in just before last light. Because I couldn't land after last light. You couldn't see. And you wouldn't believe it, the ship's rolling so whenever we started to put the fuel in the tank, as the ship would roll back this way the fuel would come out, so we had to put the cap on. So it took two hours to refuel.
Now, how's this for luck—I took off knowing I wasn't going to get to this secret American base at the end of the Aleutian Chain, but I picked up a tail wind, which picked up that one hour. So I got in to this American base just before the Arctic twilight. The sun completely disappeared and it was just totally black out over that ocean. And I'd flown 14 hours in that day. It would be equivalent to taking off from my house at Terrey Hills where I keep my chopper and flying (wait for it) to 200 miles the other side of Auckland, with a ship halfway across the Tasman with a few drums of fuel on the deck. And finding that ship rolling around, refuelling and flying on.
If it had been here I wouldn't have thought of doing it, but because it was in the northern hemisphere and it was a part of trying to finish that flight around the world, I somehow took the risk. I always write down all the things that can go wrong and see how I can reduce the risk. On that particular day there were eight things, if any of them went wrong, I would have ended up either losing my life or being in the water, and not one of those eight things went wrong, so I was lucky in the end.
Kim McKay: So luck plays a role, obviously, but I think you're a classic case of you get out of this world what you put into it, because Dick you have made sure that philanthropy and giving back to the community is as much in your DNA as business success.
Dick Smith: Yeah, I was taught that by my parents. The reason I'm open about it is I'm just fulfilling an obligation. It's not a big deal. And I'm absolutely outraged—we now have 75 billionaires in Australia, and only 15% of them are known as philanthropists. The whole thing, the pitchforks are going to come out. They'll be killed. You just repeat society, and I'm starting a campaign. I tried to get the Australian Financial Review, when they run that disgusting Rich List, 75 billionaires…by the way, the billionaires have doubled their wealth in the last five years while typical Australian workers have gone backwards by 6% in real terms.
And so I rang up the Financial Review and I said, 'Look, will you list on each entry an entry for philanthropy?' Pretty reasonable request, and they can say 'Not known, not known.' And we have some wonderful philanthropists: Andrew Forrest, the Fox family, the lot in Melbourne, the Pratt family are wonderful philanthropists. They refused to do it because they said, 'Oh no, most of our billionaires don't give anything. They don't even pay any tax, Dick. They wouldn't buy our magazine.'
Can you imagine that? So I'm going to out them and I'm going to tell people to call the Australian Financial Review Rich List 'The Shit List', and tell everyone to get it and spew on it. Because I can't believe that you could be a billionaire and not have a conscience that says, 'Gee, I'd better give some money away.' And if you look at the example set by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, they've signed the Bill Gates Giving Pledge, which says by the time they die they will have given at least half their fortune away. And that's fantastic. That's setting a good example. We only have three Australian billionaires out of the 75 of them that have signed the Bill Gates Giving Pledge.
And that, to me—the reason I'm on to this is it's going to destroy capitalism. I have done well out of capitalism, it's been really good. But when you get to that ultimate greed it destroys it, and will…I've got this photograph of the Romanov family and the Tsar and the beautiful children, and the girls were bayonetted and machine-gunned to death because the parents were so bloody stupid. They had all this money and they didn't share it. And so of course what happens is…and that's starting to happen again, and you mentioned of course, Kim, that our electoral cycle is for three or four years, and this destruction of prime ministers over the last ten years is basically because of the problem we've got with climate change. One of the problems is that we've had 150 years of growth because of cheap fossil fuels, and to change from that is going to be incredibly difficult.
And you'll read all the time that renewables are as cheap as fossils fuels. They are when the sun is out or when the wind is blowing. But unfortunately because of the incredible cost of storage, they so far don't yet compete. But whilst people keep saying that myth, it then means that our politicians can't really make a decision. And when I'm elected as dictator…people want me to be prime minister, I said no but when I'm elected as dictator I'll get both sides together and say, 'Look, believe it or not,' I'd say to the public, 'we have a problem with climate change, and believe it or not it's actually not going to be solved by whatever political party you pick, because it's a basic issue of science and the fact that the world is finite and all of those things we know so well.'
And I would say, 'At the moment, right at this second, the only proven system I can see to get that base-load power is nuclear.' But 70% of the population are against nuclear and the current nuclear power plants have to be so massively over-engineered because we require them to be thousands of times safer than any other form of power. Just very quickly, ANU have done this paper, which is a myth paper that shows that we can store solar power using dams—pump storage. But it would require hundreds of dams up along our Great Dividing Range, and each of those dams would be storing the energy of something like a Hiroshima bomb. And what they don't mention is that a major rainstorm and one of those dams has a slip, you'll end up with thousands of people being drowned.
The greatest deaths from power generation in the world today have come from renewables, and that's a dam that collapsed in China with 25,000 people dying. And so the storage situation is incredibly difficult, and whilst people like me who are enthusiastic about renewables, if we keep saying Oh there's not a problem, you just have to move to renewables, unfortunately you'll have politician after politician will be re-elected. Imagine our current prime minister gets up and says, 'We're going to have cheaper power.' Now that's not going to happen. But whilst he says that and people believe that, you then delay another two or three years of making the tough decisions.
Kim McKay: There's no doubt, as the Chinese say, we live in interesting times, Dick Smith. I can say that this museum has benefited greatly from Dick Smith's philanthropy over the years, and his enthusiasm for adventure, with our own expeditions to Ball's Pyramid and Lord Howe Island, one of the places that you love dearly, of course. And many other organisations have too. It's been a pure delight to listen to you today, Dick, and get to know you a little better too. Ladies and gentlemen,, please thank Dick Smith.
Dick Smith: Thank you very much.
Kim McKay: And maybe it's time for that benevolent dictator. We might give benevolent Dick a go—tator. Next week as you see, it's me. Now don't be afraid, and please come along. I'm not one of the Treasures, but I want to explain why we approached it that way, and also talk a little bit about some of the interesting things that are happening at the museum. I'm going to be in conversation with the wonderful Tracey Holmes, who many of you probably listen to on ABC Radio of a weekend on her sporting shows. And the reason, Tracey is an ambassador for the museum but also I was her first ever boss when she started out in her career. So we're dear friends, and hopefully we'll have a lot of fun and reveal some things to you as well. So I look forward to seeing you next week, and again, thank you to Dick.
Dick Smith: And Kim, just very quickly, I have three copies of my Fair Go, my completely eccentric Fair Go document. Grab one of those, or if you put Dick Smith Fair Go into Google, you can have a look at some of the proposals I've got to make Australia a fairer place. Thank you.
Lunctime Lecture Series: Australians Shaping the Nation is a series of talks with six distinguished Australians who are shaping the nation across science, sport and the arts running from 21 August to 25 September 2018.