Doing the business in Oz

Australia is proving a fertile land for a new generation of British immigrants - entrepreneurs. Robert Milliken talks to two
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The Independent Online
BOB GODFREY remembers vividly when he gave up his small business in Northampton and emigrated to Australia: "It was a wet winter's day in England, and we decided to get out." With his wife and two young sons, he moved Down Under through Australia's business migration scheme. Today, seven years later, he owns Aussie Bob's Water Sports, one of the country's most successful leisure companies.

Mr Godfrey and his family live in Paradise Waters, a suburb of palm-lined streets and year-round sun in the heartland of Queensland's Gold Coast. With a turnover of more than A$1m (pounds 450,000) a year, their small but thriving company caters for tourists in one of the southern hemisphere's largest holiday playgrounds - tourists who want to water-ski, to glide suspended from parachutes behind speedboats and to indulge in other water-based diversions.

"We've turned the Australian good life into a business," Mr Godfrey said. "The fact that I have become an Australian citizen, called myself Aussie Bob and still speak with a Pommie accent, has been one of my biggest selling points. Australians love that."

With his energy and skill for spotting a market, Mr Godfrey looks exactly the sort of business immigrant Australia is trying to find. Last month, Australia launched a campaign to attract more business immigrants from Britain by offering an extra 2,700 places next year, almost one-third more than in 1994-95.

The British have figured prominently in Australia's business migration programme since 1982 - they represent the fourth-largest number of such settlers over that period, after those from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and South Korea.

More recently, competition has intensified. Last year, the British were ninth in the queue for business immigration applications, behind nationals from six Asian countries, South Africa and Kenya.

Gone are the days of the "pounds 10 Poms" when Australia paid the fares of thousands of families of British stock, promising them jobs in a bid to expand the country's population during the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s. In an economically tough- er and more competitive world, where full employment is no longer guaranteed, the only component of its immigration programme that Australia now markets is the one seeking immigrants who are capable of creating jobs and exports.

Yet, for all the political hype in Australia about becoming an Asian country, the latest campaign indicates that Canberra is starting to look to traditional sources again - and with good reason. Britain and Australia are among the top four investors in each other's country, and trade is booming. Business immigrants are chosen on a points system, with English skills a leading criterion. The rules were broadened recently to make the scheme open to British business owners with an annual turnover of more than pounds 300,000, business assets of more than pounds 150,000 and at least three employees.

Business immigrants are encouraged to use their entrepreneurial skills to expand into new ventures rather than to transfer an intact enterprise from one side of the world to the other. Mr Godfrey owned a trout fishery and an asphalt business in Northampton. When he emigrated to Australia in 1988, he closed the doors on them. "I didn't have a clue what I was going to do, so I did nothing for six months but look around," he explained. "That enabled me to spot a gap in the market for water sports. When you're a foreigner, you see things through different eyes."

His payroll has grown from three employees to 25 and Aussie Bob has recently started selling "para-gliding" boats to resorts in Asia. At 47, Mr Godfrey said he aimed to retire in five years and hand the business over to his sons. "I've worked since I was 14, and now it's their turn."

Others have made money by exploiting Australia's less hedonistic opportunities. British-born Stephen Smith arrived in Australia as a young business immigrant 15 years ago and teamed up with another business migrant, John Keeney, an American. Both men had worked in publishing, Mr Smith for Asia Week magazine in Hong Kong and Mr Keeney for Scientific American in London.

"I considered three destinations - California, Canada or Australia," Mr Smith said. "Australia got the vote because of its closeness to the booming markets of Asia."

After five years working on publishing ventures aimed at international investors within Australia, the partners produced a glossy book called The Australian Adventure. It went into four editions and they later sold that business for a substantial profit to Kerry Packer, Australia's biggest magazine publisher. Next, they started Good Health TV, a video service for doctors' waiting rooms which promotes health, diet and exercise. That business now turns over A$4m a year.

Mr Smith, 39, and Mr Keeney, 44, have just launched Australian Enterprise Review, a magazine focusing on Australian companies that export to Asia.