January 2014

An interview with Prof. Peter Little – Deputy Vice Chancellor (Corporate Programs and Partnerships) QUT, Governing committee member Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame

Honour role – Quiet achiever celebrates state’s business heritage

Featured in Brisbane News January 15-21, 2014
Article can be viewed online at the Brisbane News website (edition 963, page 12)

It’s every young lad’s wont to be a bit of a scallywag. But Peter Little was more than that. Bad egg probably says it best. Just how bad? Stealing?

“Yeah, look, a whole lot of those things,” Peter replies cryptically. “At high school I got up to some terrible things.” Today the self-confessed bad egg is a professor, barrister, consultant, busy director and deputy vice-chancellor at Queensland University of Technology – and has a 12-page CV. It’s fair to say Professor Peter Little got life back on track – thanks largely to his first employer, he says.

The youngest of three children raised by a single mother, Peter was just one year old when his father walked out.

“That was in the days when it was a true hardship not to have a father around,” Peter, 65, says. With no social security for single mothers, the family lived for several years in a garage on a friend’s property in Boondall. Their mother cobbled a living from shifts at a canteen in Bowen Hills, cleaning, ironing and working weekends at Baxter’s Seafood Restaurant (then in Deagon).

When his mother Emma remarried, Peter found himself in a blended family of seven. His route to individuation in the expanded family would be via mischief, he decided.

He was no great scholar and so opted instead for manual studies. Yet he could barely saw a straight line.

“I was always realistic about my abilities, even as a teenager. I could almost smell what I couldn’t do well, which on reflection is probably why I gave up high school.” He left Banyo High School after Year 10 and joined Brandon Timbers, a private business owned by an “honest, hardworking and ethical” family of firewood merchants who wanted to groom him to ultimately run the business.

Soon after he started, he received disastrous news – some predictable Year 10 results.

“The disappointment was not the failure in itself, but having let my mother down. That was my turning point. Someone at work – asked me ‘so what are you going to do about it?’, and I said, ‘I’m going to fix it up’.” Over nine years, Peter worked at Brandon, repeated Year 10, did management, accountancy and timber technology courses, and completed school to qualify for university, despite having no idea what he wanted to study.

“Someone suggested law because I never stopped arguing.

Yet I didn’t know a lawyer or really know what the law was.” In 1976, Peter graduated and was admitted as a barrister.

He went on to do a masters and PhD in law, worked as an academic in China and Hong Kong, and now fills a host of legal, corporate, management, arts and community roles.

One role is co-founder of the Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame, an institution inspired by the decency and values of the people at Brandon.

In the 1970s, Peter says he watched with sadness as a multinational bought Brandon and stripped it so ruthlessly that the company ultimately collapsed. “I’ve never forgotten that and I saw it repeated right across the Queensland business landscape. For 30 years, I’d been lamenting that our great Queensland businesses were either being closed down or merged into national enterprises.” Peter conceived a database to recognise the contribution of “all the people who made this state great”, many of whom built good businesses at a time when Queensland wasn’t the economic powerhouse it is today.

The showcase, established by QUT Business School, the State Library and Queensland Library Foundation, features more than 40 figures and institutions, a virtual home to document, collect and preserve the state’s economic heritage of 154 years. Peter sees it as giving back to the business community, to businesses such as Brandon that, along with his mother who sacrificed so much for him, gave him the values and foundation to turn his life around.

“You want to be where your gifts are. I knew that even when I was a teenager, but in my wildest dreams I never imagined I would end up where I did.”