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Glenn Bourke returns to his roots

by Marj Belessis / on 29 Mar 2008
Glenn Bourke in his SB3 at Skandia Cowes Week 2006 - Glenn Bourke (Volvo Ocean Race CEO, 1992 Olympian for Australian Finn Class, 7 times World Champion and 3 times Laser Class World Champion) Richard Langdon /Ocean Images ©

Former Sydney boy Glenn Bourke has spent the past six years jetting around the world in high-profile and glamorous jobs. Nice work if you can get it, you might say, but you can have too much of a good thing. 'Last year I spent two-thirds of the year 268 days out of 365 in the air,' he said. 'That's a lot of time to be spending in planes. I was chronically jet-lagged.'

Glenn Bourke is now back in Australia for good or at least, for the foreseeable future as the newly appointed chief executive officer for Hamilton Island, the Oatley family's tourist resort in the Whitsundays. It's a plum job for the former professional sailor-turned-businessman who, over the past decade, has built up an impressive CV first as sailing venue and competition manager at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, followed by a string of chief executive's jobs.

After co-ordinating all aspects of the sailing regatta for the Olympics, Mr Bourke did stints as CEO of the Cruising Yacht Club of Australia and Germany's Illbruck Challenge, which won the 2001-02 Volvo Ocean Race. Then Volvo invited him to take on the chief executive's job for the event itself.

For the past five years he has been living in the south of England in Southampton, where the VOR headquarters is based, so the opportunity to go and live on a tropical island was a welcome change.

Since taking up the appointment and moving to Hamilton several weeks ago, he has been living in a Spanish-style villa, the former home of Queensland developer and entrepreneur Keith Williams, who began building the now-famous resort in the late 1970s. Bourke is relishing his new environment.

'It's such a pleasure looking out at the beautiful vistas of the Whitsundays after years of waking up to grey old England,' he said.

However, he had a less self-indulgent reason for the sea change. Perhaps the main reason he decided to look for a job back home was that he wanted to see more of his children, daughter Bailey, 11, and son Mitchell, 9, who live at Berry on the NSW south coast.

'They are approaching puberty and I wanted to be part of their life before that happened,' he said. 'I can do that now in a two-hour flight.'What do the children think of the idea of dad being 'boss' of a tropical island? 'The kids are as keen as mustard to come up on their first holiday at Hamilton. Bailey has already put in her order for 'a drink in a pineapple with one of those paper umbrellas',' Mr Bourke said.

Before he moved into the lofty realm of big business and big events Mr Bourke, who grew up on the northern beaches and still maintains a local bolthole an apartment at Queenscliff had made a big name for himself as a sailor, winning three Laser world championships on the trot in the late '80s before switching to the Finn dinghy and competing for Australia in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

He was back in Olympic mode for the Atlanta Games in 1996, this time as coach for the Australian team.
He also competed in two America's Cups first as part of Australia's unsuccessful defence of the Auld Mug in 1987 as trimmer for Kookaburra and then as challenger, calling tactics for OneAustralia in 1995. He was also coach for Team Dennis Conner, the New York Yacht Club's challenger for the 2002-03 Louis Vuitton Cup and America's Cup series in Auckland,

As the Sydney Olympics approached, Bourke began thinking about life after sailing. 'I was a bit bored with the professional circuit and was looking for something more solid,' he recalled. 'The job of competition manager for sailing at the Olympics came up, so I went to the Australian Yachting Federation (now Yachting Australia) and they agreed to support my application.'

The ease and grace with which he handled that job doubtless was a key factor in his subsequent appointments.
Bourke began his working life as a boat builder after doing studies in shipwrighting and naval architecture at Sydney Tech, so he entered the new phase of his working life as a novice. 'It was a case of learning on the job, although I understood the basic formula involved,' he said. 'I learned as much as I could from the top echelon of business it was a bit like doing a combined degree in sports administration and business on the run. I guess I was a bit like a sponge.

'Sailing at a highly competitive level taught me it's the detail and preparation that's important, and if you are motivated to do a good job, your staff will be too. 'I've learned the practices of business along the way, about being pragmatic with finances, being able to identify efficient ways of using the resources at your disposal, about not blowing your budget and being frugal enough to put a contingency basket aside.

'The best way to alienate your boss is to have eyes bigger than your stomach.' Mr Bourke said for more than a decade he had been learning by doing and the staff numbers under his control had been constantly growing, as were his responsibilities and budgets.

Taking over the CEO helm at Hamilton Island will present him with a new set of challenges. The island resort's fortunes have had a roller-coaster ride since founder Keith Williams invited his mate, Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, to open the first stage in 1982. Three years later the central resort complex was destroyed by fire. It was rebuilt by the following year and construction of further phases continued into the 1990s. In 1992, the resort was placed in receivership.

The resort has had several owners since then, the latest change occurring in 2003 when 21st Century Resorts a company controlled by the Oatley family, whose name is as synonymous with sailing as it is with wine-growing won a bid to acquire 100 per cent of the shares in Hamilton Island.

Over the past two years and into this year, a total of $180 million will have been invested into Hamilton Island with new development including 'qualia', a luxurious, discreet, gated resort at the northern tip of the island, and upgrades to the marina and the Great Barrier Reef Yacht Club, set to open in August, in time for the now-famous Hamilton Island Race Week.

Bourke said his job, as the 'interface' between the Oatley family and the staff, would be to harness the enthusiasm of the family, together with that of the experienced team at his disposal to create a No. 1 tourist destination and give a return on investment.

'It's a delicate balancing act,' he said. 'I want to take the best of the cultures I've experienced abroad and try and meld that into what is a unique experience for every kind of guest you can imagine at Hamilton Island. I have 1200 staff to run an incredibly diverse and complex operation. I am enjoying it now and I'm sure I will continue for a long while into the future.'

But above all, Bourke said he was revelling in the opportunity to put his roots back down in Australia. 'I want to teach the kids how to sail, to skindive, to throw a cricket ball and play footy, to re-establish my family life in the country I love more than anywhere else in the world,' he said.

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