Founder of the Allen Consulting Group and Centre for Corporate Public Affairs
Born in: Hopetoun, Victoria
Home Town: Melbourne
When you've got as much gravitas as Geoff Allen, you don't need to shout to be heard. CEOs and chairmen at Telstra, NAB, AMP, Australia Post and Shell have his number on speed dial. So do manufacturers, miners and pharmaceutical bosses.
To outsiders, the silver-haired septuagenarian's influence may be imperceptible. But believe us: it's profound and pervasive, ranging across business, politics and academia.
PR industry veteran Noel Turnbull describes Allen as "the single most important figure in the Australian corporate affairs field". Respected corporate adviser Gabrielle Trainor says, "His work has touched nearly everyone involved in this area". Coles spinner Robert Hadler calls him "the most trusted and influential adviser to the chairmen and MDs of Australia's biggest companies on reputation management and corporate positioning".
Allen – director of the Allen Consulting Group, chairman of the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs and chairman of the Committee for Economic Development of Australia – is a low-key, intensely modest character. But he does admit: "I get to do fabulously interesting things."
He's just completed a review for a mining giant on its relationship with governments in five countries. And he's currently advising oil companies on how to manage community opposition to coal seam gas exploration.
"Billions of dollars of investment," he notes, "could rise or fall on the politics of that."
A decade ago – when mining companies around the world were struggling to gain access to new assets in the face of environmental and social protests – Allen helped set up the International Council on Mining and Metals. Twenty major companies have now joined the council and signed up to its human rights, sustainability and health and safety principles.
He's also regularly called in by industry groups – including the Australian Bankers' Association, the Minerals Council of Australia and the Business Council of Australia – to improve their operations and increase their sway in Canberra.
Managing the daily news cycle doesn't interest Allen; his focus is on long-term strategy and international trends.
That's why he hates the term public relations.
"It's pejorative, it's associated with spin, it's fluffy," he tells The Power Index. "It sounds like balloons and T-shirts. The meaty end is influencing the political environment you're working in."
"It's not just about dealing with journos," explains Allen Consulting Group director Wayne Burns. "It's more about sitting around the CEO's table with the board, trying to inform them what's happening out there that can influence their company. The most important part is stopping bad things from happening."
Allen's influence isn't restricted to the private sector. The Allen Consulting Group, almost 25 years old and stacked with former senior bureaucrats, is considered the country's preeminent public policy consultancy. Over the past year alone, the firm's consultants have devised a new school funding formula for the Gonski Review, discovered that the NSW government has wasted millions of dollars on Indigenous employment programs, and advised the federal government on the future of the geothermal energy sector.
Allen himself is chairman of the federal government's Statistics Advisory Council and was, until recently, chair of the Trade Advisory Council.
The son of a reverend and an alumnus of Melbourne's exclusive Wesley College, Allen began his career as a federal public servant. He soon declared his political hand by becoming a senior adviser to Bill Snedden, first when he was treasurer and then during his stint as leader of the opposition during the Whitlam years.
In the early 1980s he helped set up the Business Council of Australia to give the country's biggest companies a greater say in public policy debates. Allen was executive director during the BCA's energetic early years, when it put enterprise bargaining on the agenda and played a key role in Bob Hawke's tripartite economic reform program.
In 1990, two years after creating the Allen Consulting Group, he established the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs (CCPA) to research and promote the role of corporate public affairs practitioners. The centre now has more than 150 members including Wesfarmers, Freehills, Macquarie Bank, News Limited and Fosters.
According to Noel Turnbull, almost every senior public affairs practitioner in the corporate, NGO and government sectors has been through a CCPA training program or participated in a CCPA seminar.
"In terms of intellectual influence – and the scale of the influence – they are miles in front of everybody else."
Allen, 70, still sits on more boards and committees than seems humanly possible, but says he's stepped back from the day to day running of the CCPA and the Allen Consulting Group. It's his heir apparent, former Keating government media adviser Wayne Burns, advising the up-and-coming generation of CEOs and corporate affairs heavies.
Allen knows he's made a difference.
"Public affairs practitioners are now increasingly part of the senior executive team and reporting directly to the CEO," he says. "It's now seen as a management function, not a communications function. You wouldn't have dreamt of that 20 years ago. We've gone from nothing to something."