By Angela Mollard, Stellar
IF an office is a reflection of its inhabitant, then Mark Bouris’s 11th-floor Sydney sanctum has all the hallmarks of a real-life James Bond.
A heavy door leads down a silent corridor, which leads to another heavy door and another silent corridor. Finally a huge chunk of wall pivots open — and there sits Bouris behind a desk so prodigious you’d need a dedicated assistant simply to tidy it.
But while his office suggests inscrutable secret service, the man himself certainly doesn’t. “Hi,” he says leaping out of his chair in jeans and a dark grey T-shirt. “I’m Mark.” Mark? Surely he prefers “Mr Bouris”, as he was known during his time as host of The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice?
“No,” he tells Stellar, laughing as he settles down on the other side of the huge boardroom-style table that adjoins his desk. “In my new role I’m no longer Mr Bouris, I’m Mark. I’m just like every one of you.”
If Celebrity Apprentice showcased Bouris at his ball-breaker best, then his new television show, The Mentor, is decidedly more collegial and hands-on. Indeed, during his photo shoot with Stellar a few days prior, the multi-millionaire businessman insisted he shrug off his suit jacket and roll up his shirtsleeves to appear less like a boss and more one of the team.
As the titular mentor — a title that is borrowed from his podcast of the same name — Bouris travels the country answering the call from struggling small businesses in need of professional help. Whether they require rebranding, refurbishment or a complete overhaul of their operating systems, Bouris — along with the experts he calls in — are gunning for them to turn things round.
For a man who’s made his fortune in big business — he founded Wizard Home Loans in 1996 and sold it eight years later for $500 million — Bouris enthusiastically champions the small enterprises that employ 60 per cent of our population.
“This show is different — I’m not here to fire anyone, I’m here to help them,” he says. “What excites me is that this group of people are the biggest employers in the country, but no-one gives them credit. They contribute 20 per cent of our gross domestic product, yet no-one ever gives them a pat on the back. They’re not looking for anyone to help them out, they are not unionised and they never whinge. They keep going to work and their attitude is, ‘Against all odds I’m going to survive.’”
At 61, and with a photograph of his own mentor, Kerry Packer, looking down over his office from the highest shelf, Bouris clearly feels compelled to give back. “Paying it forward is a really important concept,” he tells Stellar. “I had a lot of people mentoring me — Kerry Packer, Jack Gibson — and when you’re young you just suck it all in. I’ve got to the stage where I’ve got plenty for myself so I’m going to share it. What that does is bind you to the people you share it with. They take you on their adventure.”
While he’s not moved by hard-luck stories — “I’ve heard them all” — he has seen real people making tough decisions, often after episodes of deep personal loss or struggle. But that doesn’t mean he gets emotional. “What, me cry? No. They can get a hug from their family. I’m there to confront them with some truths.”
But he’s clearly captivated by some of the small-business owners, among them two sisters trying to run a gluten-free bakery, a florist who works such long hours that she barely sees her young son and a Queensland family who set up a company called Ubiquitous Realty despite the fact that, as Bouris points out, the public can hardly spell the word, let alone know what it actually means.
While he gives his advice generously — whether it’s over profit and loss, paying too much rent, or predicting that craft bread will be the new craft beer — Bouris insists he gets as much out of it as his underlings. “In my own business I get caught out putting out bushfires, doing admin, all that brain damage stuff. But dealing with these businesses is like dealing with children: they’re enthusiastic and excited to see me.”
Bouris uttered “You’re fired” plenty of times during his Celebrity Apprenticestint, but it was never delivered with quite the same brutal level of glee as his American counterpart, Donald Trump. Still, there is little doubt Bouris has plenty in common with the man who became President of the United States. Bouris — who now serves as chairman of Yellow Brick Road — was recently conscripted by treasurer Scott Morrison to chair the government’s Small Business Digital Taskforce, and entrusted with ensuring that small businesses adapt to an increasingly digital economy. Just before his meeting with Stellar, he was on the phone to the former head of ASIO, learning more about cyber security.
But if this indicates he could become the Australian version of Trump in more ways than one, Bouris hesitates to fully embrace the notion. “I don’t think I want to be Prime Minister,” he says, his manner more matter-of-fact than pompous. “I don’t think the risk versus reward is worth it. But I have been asked by quite an influential person to form a new political party. I’ve thought about it, but right now I’ve got too much to do. In the future? Yes, it’s possible. But it wouldn’t just be me — it’d be collaborative.”
He is, he says, “definitely not centre left like the Coalition… I am more centre right. I’m left of Trump but right of Turnbull.” Bouris says he admires and dislikes Trump in equal measure. “The public voted him in as a businessman to become President, and he’s held that position. He takes on everybody and he’s apolitical, but I don’t like all that idiosyncratic stuff like Twitter — it’s not effective and it’s disrespectful to the voting public. Also, he changes deals — if he doesn’t like it, he’ll change it.”
On the other hand, Bouris believes that Turnbull has forgotten he was elected as a businessman and has instead become a politician. “He’s playing to his weakness, not to his strength.”
Bouris is not textbook charming so much as he is carefully self-possessed. He’s a man who clearly thinks “Should I?” rather than “Could I?” In fact, it might be construed he’s sneaking up on politics, harnessing wider support through a populist-tinged television show and collaborations with the influential small-business community. Well? Is he? Bouris grins: “You’ll have to wait and see.”
It’s a measure of his chutzpah that he’s already thinking of how he would change the political system before he sets a foot within it. He’s not keen, for instance, on hanging around what he calls “the mothership” in Canberra. But he’d change that. We’d lose fewer good politicians, he says, if they weren’t forced to spend so many months a year in the nation’s capital away from their families. Any party he eventually led would also have a female quota — working with small businesses has taught him that women are good at reaching out for help. Men, not so much.
There’s also the undeniable truth that his face would just look good on the hoardings, never mind the nightly news. It feels adulatory to ask a man if he thinks his good looks have helped accelerate his career, but the plain fact is that Bouris is Clooney-level handsome. As ever, he reverts to facts over feelings when answering.
“It’s not good looks as such, but symmetry and stature are very helpful in your career,” he says. “They give you the opportunity to have a conversation. Then it comes down to what you know, what you are skilled at and how hard you work.”
When he was growing up in the western Sydney suburb of Punchbowl, the young Bouris was steeped in hard work. His father came to Australia from Greece and at one stage held seven jobs: aside from his full-time stint as a factory worker, he worked six part-time gigs. His mother also worked nights. Witnessing this high level of self-discipline firsthand prompted Bouris to follow suit, and he quickly learnt that effort equals reward. He recalls that at his first job in the city, he spied a white Mercedes-Benz sports car belonging to one of the partners in the company garage; he went on to apply himself so he could earn enough to purchase his own luxury vehicle. These days he works hard because having seen friends die or become incapacitated, he knows he’s one of the lucky ones. “I would hate not to be able to get to work or not have anyone who wanted to employ me.”
In 2006, following the break-up of his second marriage, Bouris’s mum Marsha told Australian Story that she worried her son had nothing else in his life besides work and his children. “She still worries about me, but she has given up wondering why I don’t spend time playing golf,” Bouris says. He and his last partner split up in 2015. Bouris still finds time for romance, but good luck finding out anything about how that portion of his life is going. “Yes,” he says with a wry smile, “I date… but I don’t talk about my private life.”
Away from his desk, the cameras, and his work with the government, Bouris leads what he calls a “process driven” life. He gets up early, trains six days a week and watches what he eats. In the evenings he prefers books to television, and has up to five on the go at any time. Currently he’s reading one on artificial intelligence (recommended by none other than Elon Musk), Stephen Fry’s Mythos, a retelling of ancient Greek myths, and Homer’s The Odyssey. “I love it,” Bouris enthuses. “The stories are timeless. I’ll read The Iliad after that.”
He keeps and enjoys good company — the night before his chat with Stellar, he dined with a group of older people and noted eight were wearing their Order of Australia badge. (He’d come straight from filming but wished he’d worn his own.) But he is happiest on his farm in northern NSW. He produces honey and grows olives which, he notes with pride, taste better than anything you’d get in a shop. Family — including his six-month-old grandson George — remains deeply important to him.
Ask him if he is happy, though, and the answer isn’t black or white. “I have a view on happiness, and that’s just to be happy enough. Even under adversity I feel happy enough, and I know things or people won’t make you happy. I’ve never thought I’ve got to be this or that.”
With that, Bouris stands up and accompanies his guest out of the office and back down the corridors of quiet power so he can get back to work. Then, a humble realisation. “Oh, no,” he says, suddenly patting his pockets. “I’ve locked myself out of my office!”
The Mentor starts after the Commonwealth Games on the Seven Network.
Mark Bouris is managed by The Fordham Company.