Phil Ruthven, the business futurist Kerry Packer turned to, dies at 82 – Michmutters

Phil Ruthven, the business futurist Kerry Packer turned to, dies at 82

“Phil Ruthven had a great vision for the future of Australian business based on facts and research,” he said. “We will miss his advice and counsel from him.”

Ruthven was ubiquitous in the 1980s, when for a time he was Australia’s highest-paid professional speaker, in part because he used his grasp of statistics and macroeconomic trends to customize every address.

When Packer had $805 million to play with after selling his television interests to Alan Bond in 1987, it was to Ruthven and IBISWorld that he went for advice.

The forecaster was instrumental in Packer’s decision to expand his pastoral holdings with an emphasis on cotton, cattle and wool, to the extent he became Australia’s second-largest landowner.

“Agriculture is going through a fascinating watershed which is going to see that industry be reborn,” Ruthven told The Australian Financial Review reporter Martin Peers at the time.

“It’s one of the most underrated industries in Australia.”

Asset sales from Packer’s Consolidated Pastoral ended up helping heir James survive the global credit crunch of 2009.

Born and raised in Sydney’s Baulkham Hills, Ruthven moved to Melbourne in the late 1960s.

The first decade of his career was spent in the food industry, but it was while running an Edgells’ factory in 1967 that Ruthven went on a Rotary study exchange to the US which inspired him to change course.

Forecasting demand

He visited a “war room”, a concrete bunker beneath an airport tarmac in Oklahoma, and was amazed by the amount of nonsense information being sourced to aid the American cause in Vietnam.

“It was like something out of Dr Strangelove, it blew my mind,” Ruthven told The Age in 2014.

“I thought, one day, I want to start a company that is going to be the most information-intensive company ever seen.”

Ruthven went back to Edgells and tracked down the company’s entire production records back to 1926. Plotting out historical trends and cycles on graph paper, he was soon forecasting demand for Edgells’ 220 product lines better than the marketing department.

When Ruthven took his soothsaying ability and left Edgells to form IBISWorld, the concept of specialist market research companies was new.

But it grew in step with the professionalisation of corporate life in Australia, and overseas where IBISWorld would eventually have three satellite offices and source most of its revenue, which by 2020-21 was nearly $100 million a year.

Thousands of businesses came to trust Ruthven’s ability to pick trends early.

He often claimed his best call was one made in the mid-1980s, when he predicted that families would increasingly pay outsiders to do their childcare, cooking and lawnmowing for them.

“The business world was laughing at me,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald 20 years later, by which time Australia’s outsourced household services market was well on its way to being the $510 billion-a-year behemoth it is now.

Ruthven acted like the futurist he was. In 1987, the Financial Review reported he had organized one of Australia’s first satellite teleconferences, providing post-budget analysis to business in remote WA mining towns.

rules for success

Ruthven passed executive control of IBISWorld to his children in 2001, and stepped down as chairman in 2015.

In 2014 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia, in recognition of his service to business and the community. He never stopped speaking for free at Rotary events, in gratitude for that life-changing trip in 1967.

Ruthven devoted much of his later life to The Ruthven Institute, which helped clients refine their business strategy based on “12 rules for business success” which he patented.

“Phil had a deep understanding of what Australian businesses could do better. We scrutinized his ‘rules’ from him and found he had distilled down core strategy lessons fantastically well, ”said Andre Sammartino, an associate professor at University of Melbourne who helped established the institute.

“He wanted the next generation of business leaders to get wiser, and we hope we can achieve this legacy.”

Ruthven is survived by three sons from his former wife, Robyn (deceased) – Shane, Justin and Kerryn, their partners and eight grandchildren, as well as his long-term partner, Deborah Light, former editor of the Financial Review.

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