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IN AUSTRALIA, the Myer family name is synonymous with the nation's largest department store group, but the family's true legacy is arguably its philanthropic efforts.
The first Myer department store was set up in Victoria by Sidney Myer, a Russian-born immigrant who moved to Australia in 1899. In 1925, Myer Emporium was listed on the Melbourne Stock Exchange. Sixty years later in 1985, it merged with GJ Coles & Coy to form Coles Myer, one of Australia's biggest retailers at the time.
But the man behind Myer department stores was also a well-known philanthropist who sought to give back to the community in which he made his fortune, says Rupert Myer, grandson of Sidney Myer, who was in Singapore recently to conduct a roundtable session on foundation giving, organised by the National Arts Council. The younger Mr Myer is chairman of the Australia Council for the Arts and director of The Myer Foundation.
When Sidney Myer first arrived in Australia, he spoke with a heavy accent and joined a Shakespeare society in Victoria to improve his speech, Mr Myer recounts. A love of music led him to support free, open-air concerts featuring the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 1929, to bring music to the people. These concerts continue today at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl outdoor venue, which was opened in 1959.
Passion for the arts
In addition to his love of music, Sidney Myer also had a passion for the arts and recognised the role that the arts could play in a person's life. In the 1910s and 1920s, Australia saw waves of immigration after the gold rush, which resulted in different ethnicities residing side by side, forging a new community.
"(Sidney Myer) was a part of that diaspora that found it really important to develop new cultural identities as well as represent the identities they had brought with them," Mr Myer says. "That's something as a family I suppose we've always been conscious of."
Up until last year, Mr Myer was deputy chairman of Myer Holdings, in which the family now holds around two per cent. (The retail group was relisted on the Australian Stock Exchange as Myer Holdings in 2009 after the Myer family teamed up with private equity firm Texas Pacific Group in 2006 to buy the business out of the Coles Group for A$1.4 billion.) He has since stepped down from the board as part of succession planning after serving as a director for nine years. The family generally leaves the running of Myer Holdings to the board and management.
Today, the family business is actually a broadbased investment business, Myer Family Investments, which ropes in different branches of the family across the generations. The family business also enables it to fund the Myer family's philanthropic efforts.
A major part of the business is MFCo, which provides financial services to families, including advisory services relating to philanthropy. According to a report by The Australian in December last year, the funds managed by MFCo exceed A$$2.75 billion.
"If you like, one generation's hobby has become the next generation's business," says Mr Myer, who was chairman of MFCo until 2011.
But the affable Australian didn't start out working in the family business from the get-go. His first job was with Citibank - first in London and then Australia - before he joined the business in 1986 in a non-executive role after the Coles/Myer merger; the merger freed up funds to build up a more diversified portfolio. At the same time, Mr Myer was involved in other activities linked to the family - such as serving on the boards of its property companies - while cultivating his interest in the arts. "Througout my professional career, I've pursued a couple of paths in parallel - a family path, an entrepreneurial path and a community service path through a range of different community organisations, the arts, indigeneous activities and immigration," he says.
The opportunity to work in the arts first presented itself when he was invited at a fairly young age to serve at Melbourne's National Gallery Victoria. In his role at the time, Mr Myer supported a foundation which had been set up to purchase works of art to be gifted to the gallery. "I found the environment really intoxicating and exciting. The opportunity to be in a great institution, developing policies and strategies around increasing levels of benefaction was fun. It wasn't solemn duty for a moment."
This eventually led to other roles with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and the board of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. ("If you put your hand up for anything at a young age, suddenly you become the honourable member for youth," he quips, referring to his family.) But his career with Citibank as well as experience from sitting on the boards of some of the family's businesses has helped him better serve the arts organisations that he has been involved with, he feels.
"One way or another, it was a journey that began back in accepting a role with the philanthropic body of the National Gallery Victoria," he says.
In keeping with the example set by Sidney Myer, the Myer family has continued to give back to the broader community, with the second generation of the Myer family setting up the Sidney Myer Fund upon the patriarch's death in 1934, and then the Myer Foundation in 1959 to focus on philanthropic acts.
The Myer Foundation has its own diversified portfolio to fund its initiatives, while the Fund largely has its investment in the family's holding company.
Investments made are typically in dividend-paying equities, and other financial instruments. "It's quite a good environment (in Australia) for foundations to invest in businesses that pay franked dividends and to participate in share buy-backs and other arrangements where there is a large franked dividend component," he says. Franked dividends remove the need for double taxation of dividends.
Both the Fund and Foundation have an individual philanthropic corpus - with the income generated from the corpus distributed as grants - while a full-time executive officer oversees both organisations. Each has different governance structures and a separate office; the Sidney Myer Fund is governed by four trustees while the Myer Foundation is overseen by a board of 10. Collectively, a total of A$10-12 million in grants is distributed annually by both the Fund and Foundation.
Broadly, the four key areas of focus for the Foundation and Fund are the arts and humanities; sustainability and the environment; poverty and disadvantage; education as well as other special projects. Individual committees are set up around each focus area.
"One of the freedoms of philanthropy is that you can actually choose and then vary your terms of interest," he notes. "It's not like government, where the government has a responsibility to do a lot of things within the community."
Some characteristics that the two organisations would look for in projects to support are those which provide leverage from the government or leverage from working with other philanthropic trusts, he adds.
In the context of the arts sector, there should be a "well-funded ecology", for large as well as small and medium-sized companies and individual artist grants. "There are different parts of that ecology you might support at some time or another," Mr Myer explains.
The Myer Foundation, for instance, gives out the Sidney Myer Creative Fellowships, which support individual artists working in different creative disciplines. Two-year grants of A$80,000 (S$80,796) per year are given out.
The practice of giving has also evolved over the years to become more structured while a greater focus is being placed on compliance and governance, he notes. For instance, there are more conventions and guidelines as to how a philanthropic trust must operate, such as a minimum level of distribution annually.
"It's not a knee-jerk emotional response," he points out. "It's something that's considered and planned for." One of the key changes in Australia is the establishment of new private ancillary funds, a legal structure used to establish grant-making foundations, which has encouraged a lot of benefactors to enlarge their own philanthropic corpus. The income generated from the corpus is then used for grants.
"That's important for institutions, museums and others, which in various points in time have tried to raise capital for their own endowments. They're now better off in many instances, talking about multi-year grants rather than dollops of capital."
Meanwhile, Mr Myer reckons that the recently concluded landmark agreement between Singapore and Australia, which builds on the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), will reap benefits for the arts sectors in both countries. The agreements aim to deepen ties between the two countries in a number of areas, ranging from the economy to education to the arts.
"There's a broad realisation that culture first leads to business second," says Mr Myer. "It's a significant way of going just beyond a business transaction by saying that the culture of the other place actually matters to its partner. I'm really excited by that. By animating the relationships through arts and culture, you're actually driving the benefits across multiple disciplines, and great things will flow from it."
Under the agreement, Singapore artists will be able to participate in Australia's Biennale and other festivals; conversely, Australian artists will also have the opportunity to travel here for similar events. In addition, there will be opportunities for artists of both countries to collaborate on different projects, not to mention lessons to be learnt from one another.
For instance, Australia can take a page out of Singapore's book in seeing how the city-state has developed an event focused around the arts, such as the Singapore Biennale and cross-cultural festivals, he suggests.
He acknowledges that Australia's geographical size makes this tougher to pull off but goes on to add: "There is a model of seeing how it works when you combine significant cultural events and find a welcoming, inclusive way of ensuring that everyone is covered by something that happens within the cultural landscape. We've got the potential to do that and, of course, in many instances we are, but there's a model here which recognises the important festivals and calendar events. That's not quite yet institutionalised within an Australian calendar."
When asked what he would have done if he hadn't joined the family business, Mr Myer reckons he might have stayed on in the financial services industry. Perhaps he would have even found himself working in Singapore.
"But I think at some point, I would have found myself drifting - or galloping - towards some form of community role and something to do with the arts. That's been an abiding interest all the way along," he muses.
"What I find humbling and enlivening is the connection that the (Sidney Myer Fund and the Myer Foundation) and the family have had with the community," he says. "The great privilege of philanthropy is creating a continuing conversation between many members of the family with many community organisations. That leads to knowing stuff, (which) is a shorthand way of really being connected to the heartland issues of the moment, the issues affecting different communities."
This culture of being of service to others has been the glue which has maintained the Myer family throughout the generations, he notes.
Director, The Myer Foundation
1958 Born in Melbourne, Australia
1976-1979 University of Melbourne (Trinity College) BComm (with Honours)
1980-1982 Cambridge University, MA
1982-1983 Executive trainee, Citibank, London
1984 -1986 Manager, Citibank, Melbourne
1989 - 2000 Chairman, Country Road Superannuation Fund
2002 - 2010 VP, The Myer Foundation
2004 - 2011 Chairman, The Myer Family Company (1992 - 2004 Director)
2006 - 2015 Director, Myer Holdings (Deputy Chair 2012-2015)
Since 2010 Director, The Myer Foundation
Since 2012 Chair, The Australia Council for the Arts
2005 Member of the Order of Australia
2011 Chevalier de l'Ordre National du Merite, France
2012 Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France
2015 Officer of the Order of Australia