From the outback to the City

Kathleen Brooks
YOU wouldn’t expect the Australian outback to be the breeding ground for one of the City’s best-known entrepreneurs, but it was for Ian Gowrie-Smith. He’s the first man in his family not to be a farmer for five generations.

The flamboyant entrepreneur made his name back in the 1980s and 1990s setting up companies including Medeva and SkyePharma. But in the last few years life has changed for Gowrie-Smith. He has ditched the Ferrari he purchased during his “male menopause”. He’s also ditched the pharmaceutical business.

Now he’s settled down with a Bentley and is concentrating on the oil sector. Kea Petroleum, the second oil company Gowrie-Smith has founded, was listed on Aim this February and so far it’s been a success. Kea’s share price has risen more than 30 per cent in a little over a month.

It’s easy to see his enthusiasm for oil – his first venture Rift Oil was also a phenomenal success after it found gas in the jungle of Papua New Guinea: “Maybe the early success of Kea and Rift Oil is a sucker punch, and now I think this is a great idea,” he says from his office overlooking the Houses of Parliament.

Gowrie-Smith explains why he is interested in the black stuff, just as the rest of the world is getting stuck in to “green” energy: “The world can’t replace its dependence on carbon-based products. Trying to find an alternative to carbon is going to get more and more expensive over time.”

But why the shift from pharmaceuticals? He achieved mixed success in the sector. The pharma company he built during the 1980s and 1990s, Medeva, he cites as his biggest success. However, his second venture, SkyePharma, was much more of a challenge. He was eventually forced out as chairman after a shareholder revolt in 2006. He says he has changed his philosophy on the pharma sector: “The challenge of getting regulatory approval and other delays with getting pharmaceuticals to market means that in my opinion the era for small pharma is over.”

Gowrie-Smith says his upbringing remains with him today: “You emerge from the outback a very grounded individual, and fairly conservative, and that’s stuck with me,” he says.
Even successful entrepreneurs with a track record of building successful companies have problems. Since Kea has listed on Aim it has struggled to attract institutional investors, who Gowrie-Smith says are reluctant to take risks, which is frustrating when you are trying to grow a business: “They don’t want to invest in small illiquid companies, they want to wait until we grow, het more mature and more successful.”

His advice to budding entrepreneurs: “Do it in your early twenties, after that you won’t do it because you get saddled with families and mortgages.”

Age: “A well kept secret.”

Studied: Economics at the University of Melbourne.

Reading: A biography of Peter the Great.

Lives: London

He started Kea with the same team from Rift Oil. The staff has remained fairly static in size because it contracts out all drilling and engineering work.

Gowrie-Smith was once interviewed for the Australian version of Cosmopolitan magazine when he was 30, after he was voted bachelor of the month.