Reflections: Henley Club

In 2011, I was on a bus in Vietnam on an Intrepid tour with my friends from university and we were discussing the topic of reimagining the exclusive social club in a way that retains all of the good features that explain why they (as a concept and specific institutions) have survived for so many centuries, and addresses the bad features – the reasons that people don’t like them (the impartial reasons, not because they aren’t invited).

Henley Club, 8 Rankins Lane Melbourne

I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.

Groucho Marx

Private clubs generally are considered to provide the following positive attributes in their most reducible form:

  • A deliberately-chosen membership group that meet some generally accepted criteria
  • A common set of behavioural values and an ethical code

They may also offer dedicated and quality infrastructure such as a club house, golf course, bar, restaurant, library, tennis court, etc. but these assets are not always essential to the value proposition. People do join some private social clubs just for access to the infrastructure, but I’m not going to spend much time on this here as the “club” aspect in these scenarios is more of a commercialisation model rather than the primary agenda.

The negative features of many of established private clubs we had been members of or had visited as guests, were considered at length at generally summarised in the following way:

  • Elitist on fading metrics and geographics
  • Clinging to privilege and patriarchy rather than individual and collective excellence and curiosity
  • Structurally racist and heteronormative, in addition to other biases

elite social clubs had members who were elite in terms that were quickly becoming obsolete

The primary feature which was objectively obvious and yet completely incongruous with established practice was the conclusion that elite social clubs had members who were elite in terms that were quickly becoming obsolete, and how the clubs themselves (as a result) were slipping into obsolescence. White men were no longer running the world’s most powerful companies, organisations and countries, so why fill your clubs with them? They should be included, but only in a measure that reflects their current contribution and future potential. Taking an unbiased, scientific and egalitarian approach to elitism would be critical. White men were declining in relevance and so would need to decline in their membership percentage.

Henley Community Manager, Leesa Charlotte (right) at Henley Club

The things that made you great and valuable as members in 1950 are not the same things that made you impressive today. For example, the technology pioneers & founders whose products have achieved full mainstream status and whose founders had normalised a level of wealth and power that was previously known only to robber barons, aristocrats, autocrats, royals, cronies and dynastic families, and yet their involvement in establishment clubs was almost non-existent. The writers, artists, journalists, performers and creatives who were challenging the general population as well as power with truth, perspective and imagination were ostracised from these clubs but for a few media owners.

Adam Bandt MP at Henley Club with Phillip Kingston in 2013

After a fairly rigorous period of contemplation, I settled on the entrance requirements for the Henley Club for the member candidate to be Interesting and Interested. This broadly boiled down to whether you could genuinely listen to other people and truly hear, as well as being passionate about something enough to enthral others in your passion, even if others were not interested in the particulars of your field. You had to approach the world with genuine curiosity and thirst, and be generally accepting of new ideas. Most importantly, you had to demonstrate that you didn’t just listen waiting for your turn to speak, but actively listened and participated in the contributions of others.

Phillip Kingston with US Embassador John Berry at the Henley Club
Phillip Kingston with Ambassador Berry at Henley Club in 2015

It turns out that an equally important component of membership criteria is the selection theatre and expectation setting process. How the founders, president and committee of the club set up and communicate the culture and expectations of the club have a significant bearing on the outward conduct of the prospective member. Even if the hierarchy-free, open sharing and listening culture wasn’t natural to everyone, the clarity of the expectation allowed the less-inclined to adopt a more open style to fit in and excel at the club.

Susan Pascoe AM at Henley Club

I wanted to ensure there was no pretence, so I made sure that we signalled the right way from the start:

  • Our clubhouse was tasteful but obviously inexpensive
  • All furniture was second-hand (also for environmental reasons)
  • There was no dress code
  • There was no restriction on phone or electronics use (outside of when someone was presenting)
  • There were no fancy alcohol brands
  • The cost of everything to members was as low as possible
  • The holding company of the enterprise was Old Kent Road Pty Ltd named after the cheapest property on the Monopoly board
Working Group Event at Henley Club in 2018

I brought in a few friends as seed investors including Edward Thomson, Matthew Donazzan, Finn Kelly and Sarah Riegelhuth. Then we brought in Lauren Broomhall and Leesa Charlotte as equity partners for their significant contribution. The strength of the community built at Henley Club was mostly due to the hard work and passion of Lauren Broomhall and Leesa Charlotte, and to the business support of Bonnie Tran. It was supported by a large team of volunteers who served on the Club’s committees and working groups.

Whilst we charged membership fees, and did raise some capital from the seed investors above, the club was only possible because of the support of Trimantium Capital who ultimately funded about 95% of its circa. $500,000 capital requirement over 6 years. I thank the Trimantium Capital shareholders for supporting this important social enterprise and building the Victorian entrepreneurial and creative ecosystem.

Darrell Wade and Phillip Kingston at Henley Club

We had significant membership from underrepresented groups and approximately even numbers of people who identified as male and female. We worked hard to be as reflective of the current and future population composition and identity as possible.

A summary of Henley Club ‘Conversations’ events:
All of these wonderful people volunteered their time to speak candidly about themselves and their values, careers, politics, families, projects and vision for Australia under the Chatham House rule. The Henley Conversations series was an informal Q&A for an hour with unprepared questions from the interviewer and the audience. We didn’t want our speakers to deliver anything prepared or scripted, but rather a very brief intro then straight into fruitful and challenging questions.

Many others spoke in addition to this list, but here is a snapshot of who donated their time to the club over the years:

  • Professor Peter Doherty – Nobel Laureate
  • Ambassador John Berry – U.S. Ambassador to Australia
  • The Hon. Justice John Middleton – Justice of the Federal Court of Australia
  • Naela Chohan – High Commissioner of Pakistan
  • Tim Costello – CEO of World Vision Australia
  • Carol Schwartz AM – Prominent Australian business leader – various directorship roles
  • Darrell Wade – CEO & Co-Founder of Intrepid Travel
  • Elana Rubin – Director at Mirvac and NAB Wealth, Former Chair at Australian Super
  • Adam Bandt MP – Federal Member for Melbourne
  • Susan Pascoe AM – Commissioner, Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission
  • Tony Reeves – CFO, Treasury Wine Estates
  • Michael Malouf – Former CEO, Carlton Football Club
  • Jan Owen AM – CEO, Foundation for Young Australians
  • Prof. Christine Kilpatrick – CEO of the Royal Children’s Hospital
  • The Hon. Dr Andrew Leigh MP – Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Member of the Australian Labour Party
Dr D’Souza with Elana Rubin at Henley Club
So after 6 great years, why did we shut it down?

Stay tuned for the next post which will cover why we decided to shut down Henley Club and the lessons learned which apply to business, community-driven organisations and alumni programmes.

I also want to collate and chronicle all of the great artists that exhibited at the club over the years in a future post.