AFTER more than 92 years of a life that has included being a war refugee, an immigrant, an entrepreneur, a manufacturer and the subject of a book (along with his wife of 63 years), Ernest Rodeck has learnt a few things.
He is here to share some of them. He says the most important lesson is empathy, and it was one of his earliest, gleaned during his boyhood summer holidays in Vienna, the city from which he was later purged by Adolf Hitler's tanks and troops.
''I worked in my father's factory and I became very friendly with the workers, and I learned how to adapt to other people and how they think.''
He has relied on this idea throughout his life, and to it he credits much of his business success, which included co-founding a renowned furniture manufacturing outfit, Fler, a partnership that grew out of this nation's war intern camps and into a publicly listed company.
He sees empathy as a requisite of leadership and a key to a fulfilled existence. ''It is the ability to think yourself into the way other people think that gets you to the point where you become a leader.
''Leadership is more than management, leadership is to think ahead and to know that other people are going to follow. And they are only going to follow you if they understand how you think and how you are making decisions and why, and they are agreeing with that.''
Australia is not getting that sort of political leadership, he says with the politeness that is evident throughout our his interview ''I do not think that we are getting good leadership unless we are planning ahead and unless the planning ahead is generally known and people agree with that.''
There have been many recent headlines about the decline of manufacturing in Australia. Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost, partly because the high dollar is making exports less competitive and imports tantalisingly cheap. Rodeck does not believe there is something sacrosanct about manufacturing, but he does fear Australia's policymakers are merely hoping for the best. The economy is said to be in transition, but the destination is undefined.
Rodeck does not advocate some form of Canberra-directed grand plan, but he does feel things are far worse than the federal government is suggesting.
''If we don't manufacture here, we should have a plan as to what else we can do to replace the jobs that are created through manufacturing. My view is that manufacturing in itself is no different from any other way of employing people, but the essential part in any country is really to distribute the income that you have in the country and the income is usually distributed as a result of jobs. So you must have enough jobs to employ people.
''I think that we haven't got, really, a long-term plan … If you don't look after your future, you are going to be in trouble when the future comes.''
The proportion of jobs generated by manufacturing has declined to about 10 per cent from a peak some years ago of almost 30 per cent. Meanwhile, the nation is banking on the continuation of the mining boom, a capital-intensive activity that employs relatively few people and that will inevitably end, as it depends on non-renewable resources.
The big picture, as our political leaders would have it, is that Australia is more robust than most industrialised economies. That we did not plunge into recession after the so-called global financial crisis is cited as immutable evidence of our strength. The alleged proof of our resilience is that our unemployment rate has not reached the double-digit levels common in Europe and the US.
Rodeck is sceptical. ''A good life is, for the whole country, when there is high employment and from that point of view, the best life that we've ever had was when we had practically no unemployment; there was something like 2 per cent unemployment [in real terms].
''Now the Government figures state something like 5.5 per cent unemployment. But when you take into account all sorts of other numbers that are not counted, such as people who have given up looking for jobs, I make the percentage something in excess of 10 per cent. In fact, if you take into account the waste of people that haven't got a job and no longer look, I make it something like 15 per cent or 16 per cent, and that is very high.'' Even worse , youth unemployment stats indicate 25-28%.
It is practically impossible to know how accurate he might be on this, but Rodeck does have extensive experience generating jobs and wealth.
when he and another war intern, Fred Lowen, got together in a workshop at a camp for war immigrants in the town of Tatura.
When they left the camp, they set up in a former two-horse stable. The name Fler combined their initials. It also combined their lives in a journey that taught Rodeck some of the other lessons he says have been fundamental in his life: learning from mistakes and not ''putting all your eggs in the one basket''.
One of his most instructive - and commercially useful - errors was almost comical. He and Lowen suffered a potentially catastrophic bungle when the legs of chairs supplied to Myer fell off in their hundreds. They turned a problem caused by lack of glue into a way to cement a relationship with a core client.
''I had just finished my diploma at RMIT, and one of the things I learned was forced fits. Forced fits means something that is oversized and you force it into the other parts. And I couldn't see why we should need glue to glue up chairs. So I set up at Fler a system of forcing the legs into the seat of the chair, and that was wonderful. The chairs were as rigid as they ever could be.
''There was one thing wrong. I didn't realise that timber shrank if it had too much moisture in it, and this was the case. These chairs were made in the winter and when the summer came, all the chairs came back without their legs. So what we did was, Fred and I used to go back after work and glue up all the chairs that Myer had sent us back during the day. And that gave Myer a 24-hour service, and they were so pleased with that that they gave us another order.''
But this led to another painful lesson: relying on Myer and David Jones to take the bulk of their stock meant they were vulnerable when a downturn hit. This happened when the price of wool plunged, slamming the economy into reverse; he fears a repeat of this should the mining boom falter.
Rodeck came to Australia in 1940, having been interned in London after France fell. He was sent here on a ship called the Dunera, an event honoured by the film The Dunera Boys. ''I was quite happy to be shipped away, because if the Nazis had taken over Great Britain, and there was a danger of that happening, I don't think I would've survived.''
He was extremely poor when he arrived, something that helped shape his attitude to money. ''When you are poor, money is very, very important. But when you have enough money, it just becomes a collector's item … [What is] enough money depends on how much you eat and drink, and how much you really think you need for your life. But I would say that even the basic wage is enough money.''
This situation is worse when you see Australia’s lack of major infrastructure devolopment , this will continue to erode economic growth in commodities and resources[ other than mining].
Australians should be concerned with the continuing growth trend of the Federal Government’s current immigration policy[ or lack of] in terms of quality and skills of those now accepted.
Extract from Economist and writer Martin Feil’s book
[ Compatible Minds and Spirits]