RICHARD Goyder was just 10 years old when he made his first big career decision.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, his sheep and grain farming parents battled drought and low commodity prices. The young Goyder firmly decided he wouldn't make a living working on the family's Tambellup farm 317 kilometres south-east of Perth. "I watched mum and dad struggle," Goyder says.
"I thought, 'I never want to farm'."
But while it may not be his full-time job, farming is now something Goyder, 55, is working at and perhaps one day will retire to. Four years ago, the long-time chief of Perth-based conglomerate Wesfarmers bought a 1200-hectare farm close to Toodyay, an historic town 85 kilometres north-east of Perth in WA's wheatbelt district.
With a lot of help from his farm manager, he raises 2000 dorper sheep, and grows grain.
"One of things we talk about at Wesfarmers is unstoppable trends," Goyder tells Australian Financial Review Weekend. "If you just look at the demographics, the world is going to need more food. The demographics in China for example: another 200 million people moving from the country to the city in the next five years and moving to the middle class. All those things favour (food) investments."
It didn't hurt that while strolling around the property before deciding whether to buy it, Goyder discovered a foundation stone bearing the initials of either his great-grandfather or great-uncle, George Gooch.
Goyder suspects it's his great-uncle who built the homestead he and wife Janine have since renovated.
The fairness test
Farmers face notoriously thin margins, many generating a meagre one per cent return. That wouldn't pass muster within the walls of ASX-listed Wesfarmers. Yet Goyder describes his farm as an investment.
"We can do better than that (one per cent return)," he says. "I think we can make a decent return and hopefully over time get some capital growth. I wouldn't be doing it unless we thought we could."
Getting that decent return puts Goyder in what some might say is an ironic position. Among Wesfarmers' business units, straddling fertilisers, coal mining and industrial products, its biggest money-spinner is Coles.
It was Goyder who, two years after he became chief executive, seized on the mismanaged supermarket chain, a serial underperformer compared with Woolworths. Coles had put itself up for sale and was being stalked by private equity. The stellar turnaround following Goyder's bold $19.3 billion 2007 acquisition has radically reshaped Wesfarmers. And it's reshaped the entire sector: consumers have enjoyed lower prices and Woolworths has been forced to adopt Coles' price-led strategy.
But milk sold at $1 a litre, and its "down-down, prices are down" strategy have provoked roars of protest from food manufacturers and farmers about supermarket bullies.
Parliamentary inquiries have pored over Coles' business, a review of competition laws was unleashed and then, just before last Christmas the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) secured a spectacular victory. Coles admitted, after a two-year investigation, that it had engaged in unconscionable conduct in its treatment of eight suppliers in 2011, when current Coles managing director John Durkan was then merchandise director, reporting to the highly paid Ian McLeod. McLeod would end up earning more than $50 million for his five-year effort turning around the chain.
Federal Court Justice Michelle Gordon said the misconduct was "serious, deliberate and repeated". Coles agreed to pay a $10 million fine.
Initially Goyder thought the probe was "noise" related to its push to simplify its supply chain by cutting the number of businesses it dealt with.
But on closer inspection Goyder realised something more sinister was at play.
"We looked at it and we felt that even if you can fight this in court, it actually didn't stand up to a fairness test," he says, opening up for the first time about his company's historic courtroom loss.
"Even if in a broad context you could actually in some ways defend, and there would be people in Coles that would argue we should have defended it, you look at these specific incidents and you say, 'You know what? That's indefensible. It's morally indefensible.' We just didn't want to be spending a whole bunch of time in court defending things that actually were indefensible."
Some people were sacked, he says. Some were moved to other roles and some were counselled. He won't say how many people were involved and describes the affair as one that highlights rogue behaviour.
"I think we have dealt with it appropriately," Goyder says. "We have ongoing education, we have our own (supermarket) charter now, we have (former Victorian premier and supermarket critic) Jeff Kennett in … as an arbitrator, so if a supplier now has an issue they can't resolve with Coles they can go to Jeff and we have committed to taking Jeff's finding."
So should farmers fear or welcome his move into primary producing? "I wouldn't think either way," he says.
But he does admit he now has a much better understanding about costs and the revenue line for primary producers - the likes of whom founded Wesfarmers 100 years ago.
The company started life as a tiny farmer's co-operative in June 1914. Today it is Australia's seventh-biggest company by market capitalisation.
Every week most Australians are likely to spend a dollar within its vast empire, which includes Coles, Bunnings, Target, Kmart and Officeworks.
It has had very few leaders: just 10 chairmen and seven chief executives in 101 years.
Which is probably why Goyder has little time for people claiming the ideal shelf life for a chief executive is about five years - half the time he's been in the chair.
"I think that's nonsense because you don't get to see what you have put in place and how it actually pans out," he says.
"Firstly, you learn from your bad decisions. You also learn from the things you do well, and I would hope one of the things that has happened with me and my time at Wesfarmers is that I've gotten better every year."
Goyder, who studied commerce at the University of Western Australia, joined Wesfarmers in 1993, initially in its business development team. Within six years he would be in charge of its rural services business Landmark (which Wesfarmers sold to AWB); by 2004 he had become deputy managing director and anointed to replace well-regarded Michael Chaney, who stepped down in 2005 after 13 years at the helm.
"I remember having a conversation with (former Westpac chief) Gail Kelly soon after I took over from Mike. She was running St George Bank at the time. She said: 'How are you going? Big shoes to fill'."
Goyder replied that one of the things that was difficult about being CEO was that on day one people expected him to be as good as Chaney was.
As chief of Wesfarmers his measures for success are total shareholder returns, the company's reputation and its financial strength.
Goyder, who will mark his first decade this July, has delivered total shareholder returns of 7.4pc, versus 7.6pc for the market.
Wesfarmers' shareholder returns took a serious hit just two years after he became chief executive when he put his career on the line with his audacious bid for Coles. It was the biggest corporate deal in Australia's history and left the market sceptical.
But Goyder, who recruited British retail heavy-hitters Ian McLeod and Archie Norman, proved the critics wrong.
Coles has outperformed Woolworths since the 2010 first quarter, or for 22 consecutive quarters.
Return on equity returned to double digits in the first quarter of 2015, although some long-time investors might complain it had been more than 30pc before the Coles deal.
And many analysts are once again bearish about Wesfarmers. Most have a "hold" or "sell" recommendation on the stock.
International rivals Aldi and Costco have upped the ante and margins are coming under pressure.
The next big deal
Goyder is confident about Coles' future. But he is looking keenly for the next big deal.
And even for a massive conglomerate, finding things to buy is getting trickier.
Goyder has instructed his mergers and acquisitions team to factor in a broader range of scenarios as they assess risk. The world is becoming more volatile, and wider commodity and currency price swings can turn good acquisitions into bad.
"I think we are in such a dynamic period but also a period where there is just so much volatility," he says. "It layers risk on risk on risk. Predicting the future is always fraught but is now very, very difficult."
To illustrate the point, he says that he usually asks his team to identify 10 to 20 risks to a business. But even if he asked his resources experts a year ago to identify 50, they would not have predicted that Russian coal would be competing with Wesfarmers' coal markets. Who foresaw the combination of sanctions against Russia and a collapse in oil?
So has the new broader risk metric killed off deals that Wesfarmers may have, under its old assessment, made a play for?
"Oh maybe," Goyder says.
"I mean if the range of outcomes is from pretty good to disastrous then you probably don't do it. If the range of outcomes is good to just OK then you'd probably do it."
He concedes more assets have fallen into the "disastrous" basket.
But he counters that the current market is exciting, especially for a conglomerate. Volatility can shake attractive businesses from the hands of their owners.
Bob Every became Wesfarmers' chairman in 2008 when Goyder was in his third year as chief executive.
He says Goyder's great strengths lie in his ability to remain incredibly calm, nurture talent and sharpen Wesfarmers' commercial focus.
"Richard has grown from a young chief executive focused on the next big transaction to a very mature CEO at the top of his game," Every says.
"There's no secret Richard is looking for growth but it's not growth for growth's sake. It will be for all the right commercial reasons."
Those that know him well point to Goyder's calm nature.
"In many respects his public persona is not that different from his private one," says a long-term friend, who declined to be named.
"Over nearly 30 years I can only ever recall him shouting once, and that was when one of his very young kids was driving him spare."
Perhaps it's his country upbringing, but Goyder is also humble.
"He's the perfect gentleman and can readily, and with ease, hold a conversation with anyone down the street," says his friend.
"He doesn't impart any sense of 'don't you know who you are talking to?'. We all have egos but I would say his is very much in check."
The art of blending
Goyder's wife of 30 years jokes that perhaps the only time Goyder might lose his cool was if Fremantle Football Club was down a point with one minute to go in a grand final.
"If it was down to the wire and there was one point in it I'm sure he'd show signs of stress," Janine says.
While she teases him that they've spent as much time apart during their marriage as they have together, due to his punishing travel schedule (Goyder is out of Perth for about two weeks each month), she says his best attribute is his commitment to family.
At the beginning of the year, Goyder's assistant puts in all the key dates for the children - from school, to university to key social engagements - and he makes every effort to be there.
Easter is usually spent in their holiday house in Augusta, south of Margaret River, where Goyder likes to spend time fishing.
Janine recounts how her husband once flew in from Melbourne specifically to watch their youngest son William, 17, give a speech at his high school that morning. He flew back later that day.
Perth-based Wesfarmers director and Transfield chairman Diane Smith-Gander says rather than striving for work-life balance, Richard has perfected the art of "blending".
"Richard understands that work-life balance is a furphy; that you have a life and work is part of it," Smith-Gander says.
"I see him blend that, and he's better at that than anyone I've ever seen. Work is managed and is part of the mix rather than buckets of time for this and that."
Goyder has four children, all living at home. The eldest, Tim, 26, is working at a local law firm after spending two years as an associate with West Australian chief justice Wayne Martin.
But his eldest son has political ambitions, a desire that triggered an event which saw Kevin Rudd's former chief of staff Alister Jordan make a huge impression on Goyder.
Goyder mentioned to Jordan that his son, who was studying law at the time, had aspirations to go in to politics and "save the world".
"(Jordan) said tell him to practise the law and maybe do this later on," Goyder recalls of the conversation.
"I said 'I don't think he'll listen to me but he may listen to you.'
Alister said he'd be happy to chat to him. So he spent an hour with Tim a few weeks later. I thought that was very impressive for a relatively young person in Alister to take the time out. I thought, 'gee that's the mark of something'."
Goyder also employed former Rudd economics adviser Andrew Charlton.
Former Labor West Australian premier Alan Carpenter is Wesfarmers' head of corporate affairs.
It leaves some wondering if Goyder could buck the chief executive trend and lean towards the left?
"That political comment is complete nonsense," Goyder says and adds that his personal politics are "irrelevant".
But he's clearly comfortable moving in political circles, from both sides of the parliamentary chamber. "I'm very happy to meet with people and express a view if they want to listen to me. I've been lucky enough to have good relationships with John Howard, Peter Costello, Kevin Rudd, Wayne Swann, Julia Gillard, and I worked really closely with the Prime Minister (Tony Abbott) and the Treasurer (Joe Hockey) last year." It was Gillard who invited Goyder to lead the B20 at last year's Group of 20 meeting in Brisbane.
As confident and cool-as-a-cucumber as Goyder appears, he does have moments when his heart beats a little faster. Like when Abbott introduced him to the stage at a G20 meeting.
A seat was placed between Abbott and US President Barack Obama. Trouble was, it was set very low. Goyder was left to look pint-sized as he hunched over the table.
"I was trying to find the lever to get myself up , the PM is introducing me and Obama is trying to shake my hand and I'm trying to get my bloody chair up!" Goyder recalls.
He laughs and reflects on his G20 journey.
"It was an amazing experience. I got to express (the) business perspective, which hopefully had some impact. I had a bit of a conversation on the side with President Obama, which was fun. I saw him later in the day, there was a function afterward and he said you did a great job.
"For a boy from Tambellup that was a pretty cool thing."