Tim O'Brien | Oct 22, 2012

TMR EDITORIAL

The Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce, VACC, is this week, with FCAI, staging the Australian International Motor in Sydney.

It's one of a number of high profile things that VACC, one of Australia's oldest and most financially-strong industry associations, is involved in.

But there is also something else going on this week that poses considerable risk to what VACC's 5300 members affectionately call 'The Chamber'.

Later this week, the Australian Electoral Commission will be mailing ballot papers to VACC members to conduct an election for the Executive Director's chair - currently held by long-standing ED, David Purchase.

Up for grabs is control of VACC operations and, with it, its asset portfolio, believed to total in the vicinity of $150million.

And this year, for the first time in VACC's 94-year history, there is a hostile coup afoot for the top job.

Leading the coup is an outsider, Lynden Kenyon, a suburban lawyer who has been conscripted - it would seem - by a band of disaffected body repairers.

David Purchase; an impressive portfolio of achievements, but endangered by member apathy.
David Purchase; an impressive portfolio of achievements, but endangered by member apathy.

And, remarkably, they may just catch enough of their VACC colleagues asleep to succeed. Voting is not compulsory and few VACC members bother to vote.

Such is the apathy that the challenger may snatch victory on just a few hundred votes.

But members would vote this time if they stopped to consider what's at stake for their Chamber.

At risk is the management of VACC's significant capital holdings - an asset currently protected by Chamber rules so that its income might serve members in perpetuity - and VACC's valuable property assets: its impressive headquarters in prestigious St Kilda road in Melbourne, sitting on a double-block footprint, plus other interests including a significant holding in MTAA House in the Canberra 'triangle'.

That the coup is even possible is due to a quirk in VACC's anachronistic rules that allow anyone - literally any 'Tom, Dick, or Harry' - to contest for the top executive position, provided he can find some members to nominate him.

In this case, it is any Tom, Dick or Harry who is contesting. The ambitious Mr Kenyon has no history in any similar executive role. He has spent the past 30 years running a suburban legal practice.

How that might equip him to conduct the corporate affairs of the motor industry, to run VACC's $30million annual business, to conduct motor industry public policy discourse, to manage its 450 VACC apprentices and its $13million+ group apprenticeship scheme, and to manage and grow its many services specific to the small business automotive sector, is anyone's guess.

A website manifesto - about "listening to members", of having "empathy with the motor trades industry", of making VACC "a modern business support organisation" - makes it no clearer how he proposes to do the job, or the agenda of his backers.

It is unthinkable that in any similar organisation of such scope and influence, someone so clearly ill-suited for such a role could get their resume past the reception desk.

Lynden Kenyon, a suburban lawyer with no experience in any similar role.
Lynden Kenyon, a suburban lawyer with no experience in any similar role.

What is also curious about this situation is that his backers don't seem to think there is a single person from within the motor industry capable of the role. Why else have they chosen a suburban lawyer to tell the motor industry how to run its affairs?

Would the legal profession risk putting someone of such limited experience and history into the top executive position of its professional industry association? Why then would anyone think the motor industry deserves such a candidate?

These are strange times.

David Purchase has been in the role for the past 15 years. For some, that may be his Achilles heel. But he has a solid portfolio of achievements over those years.

Not the least of which is the growth in membership thanks to the visibility of the brand to consumers, and the high level of business services, representation and assistance VACC provides.

Its technical services, both online and over-the-phone, are unique among Australian motor trades associations; as is the scope of its industrial relations advice and assistance.

And, against the trend for business associations who struggle with falling membership, VACC is 'a club' that many want to join. Its membership under David Purchase's leadership has grown by more than 30 percent over the past decade.

Take the motherhood statements out of the challenger's manifesto, and there is little left.

In an email letter to members, he claims to "have a proven track record of success in fighting issues of importance for your industry previously as a lawyer in my own practise (sic)", but neglects to list what these might be (we can't find any).

He also claims to wear the label of "militant" as a "badge of honour".

You would have to think that the notion of a VACC becoming more like the CFMEU might wake up enough of its conservative membership to get them to vote.

Notwithstanding the occasional divisions that emerge between competing industry sectors, the Victorian motor industry is remarkably unified with an industry association that is the envy of interstate motor trades bodies. David Purchase, and a historically cautious and consensual Executive Board and VACC Board of Management, can claim a lot of the credit for that.

If the challenger and his disaffected supporters succeed, and the Chamber divides, at risk is the whole box and dice.

When the Melbourne Motor Show rolls around in March next year, VACC will likely still be the joint venture partner with FCAI.

But it might be a very different VACC sitting round the table of the JV. Who knows, wait long enough, and Mickey Mouse might be in the chair.

Tim O'Brien
Managing Editor - The Motor Report