Stories in philanthropy

When corporate life embraces values for giving

Origin stories come in all shapes and sizes, from Hollywood blockbusters, to real life suburban triumphs. Some tales are well-known, others rarely spoken about. What they all have in common is the importance of experience as a foundation for reflection and success.

Peter Cooper’s story is no different. His company, Cooper Investors (CI), are values-based investors, manage $14b AUD and have been specialist long only equity managers investing in Australia, the Americas, ASEAN, Europe, China, India for more than 18 years. 

But he is also a committed philanthropist, through the company’s philanthropic arm and his own MaiTri Foundation. In person, Peter reflects the benefits of what he calls his contemplative practice – the yoga, meditation and breathing techniques – and exudes calm. “Some might call it a spiritual practice,’’ he says. “It’s helped me enormously as somebody fairly nervous, anxious and uptight at times.’’

It also suggests a state of equanimity that is an intriguing contrast to the sense of change that characterize his family’s past and Peter’s business beginnings. The Coopers were a family often on the move, constantly busy, and always caught up in the demands of a small business existence.

Peter traces the Cooper name back to a wealthy New Zealand family business, an agricultural operation called F. Cooper Ltd, that grew, imported and exported seeds. The company celebrated its centenary in 1960. Within 15 years, it was gone, and with it the family fortune. Peter’s father moved to Melbourne to start again. He worked as a prison guard at Melbourne’s notorious Pentridge Jail, where he knew George Hodson, the guard shot during the prison escape of Ronald Ryan and Peter Walker on December 19, 1965. Ryan was charged with Hodson’s murder and became the last person in Australia to be hanged after a bitter campaign to change Victorian premier Henry Bolte’s mind about implementing the death penalty.

The family moved from Melbourne to Pine Creek, an old gold mining town, 226km south-east of Darwin, and ran the pub there while the family lived on the premises. “It was miners, cattlemen and the local Indigenous community in a small town. It was Wild West stuff,’’ Peter recalls. After a while in Pine Creek – including the family organizing the local annual race meeting – the Cooper family moved around the small business world. “They were in hotels, car yards, contract cleaning businesses, so my father was a serial small business person, through the ups and downs of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, credit crunches and the seven-day-a-week businesses. I have a real appreciation of risk and return and what it takes to be a small business person,’’ Peter explains.

He is the first to admit that would never consider his upbringing “underprivileged’’. He boarded at a Catholic school in Darwin when his parent ran the Pine Creek pub and did his secondary schooling at the Christian Brothers’ Aquinas College on the Gold Coast. “I came from a tough background. I went to a bog-Catholic school where frankly there was schoolyard brutality: well, it was a tough place to exist. And family life in a small business is really, really tough,” Peter says. As he told this year’s graduands at his former university – the University of Southern Queensland -: “It is these memories that have driven my deep belief in prudent, frugal financial management, research-based risk-taking, conscientiousness, never-give-up mentality and not being complacent. As they say, only the paranoid survive!’’

Peter’s parents are still alive and living in Brisbane, and his sister has recently moved there. For all of that family experience, Peter believes his philanthropic journey has, in large part, been driven by others.

“It’s very bottom-up philanthropy here – it’s not me driving it at all,’’ Peter says. “It’s very much Natalie (Elliott, also the CEO of our Family Foundation) and the staff: we have some real gems in our business. They identify and back organisations, using the same principles and investment philosophy we follow at CI. They support cause areas reflective of community needs, and they back great people, inspirational founders with teams committed to delivering better outcomes for people who need them most.’’

The company is values-driven, extolling virtues that emphasize humility to authenticity. No surprise then that the result is that CI has its own philanthropy fund, established in 2008 and Peter, with his partner Suparna Bhasin, has a separate family foundation, the MaiTri Foundation. The CI fund, driven and shaped by the staff, has donated more than $2.6 million to a range of local and global causes in the past decade. The MaiTri Foundation has identified two focus areas - mental health and general wellness, and freedom and liberty - as its core causes. “There’s an emerging bridge between those areas, so that’s a bit of a work in progress for us in developing the idea that a healthy society cultivates freedom within boundaries, allows people and provides people - both individual and community – with opportunities to grow, to experiment and to innovate,’’ Peter explains.

These views about society were, in some ways, developed during the 18 months Peter was travelling the world, after he graduated. He visited Nepal, India, Eastern Europe and south-east Asia, flipping pancakes in England for a pound and a half and reflecting on the good fortune of his homeland. “I describe Australia as the best democracy on the planet – progress made but work to be done,’’ Peter says. “I bring an optimistic and positive view, not to downplay issues but to really make sure that we don’t forget that there’s a lot of great things here and we just want to make them better, to make them work for more people.’’

In the philanthropic sphere, government and the private sector have different roles to play Peter argues. “I don’t think of it in terms of one being better or worse,’’ he says. “The role of government is environmental – setting rules of engagement, and boundaries, making it safe to play within the rules,’’ Peter explains. “And I love the flexibility, accountability and innovation the private sector can bring. Environment though is incredibly important, so the role of government is important to get that right, to get out of the road of innovation and good practices and behaviour and market conditions,’’ he says.

“I see Nat, our CEO, is facilitating a session at Philanthropy Australia’s Summit on Place-Based Philanthropy. Localism is really a big thing philanthropically and even in business, people want – and are thirsty for – local solutions and I think the private sector can do magnificent things in this area if government can create the right environment.’’ Peter is enthusiastic about the possibilities. “Australia is a young country and young industry in this philanthropic space, so I’m really keen on helping to ramp this up because there’s a long runway of opportunity.’’  

Cooper Investors is a Supporting Partner for Philanthropy Meets Parliament Summit in Canberra, 18-19 September, 2019. Find out more about the Summit here.

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