Grant Dooley’s career has spanned navy intelligence, foreign affairs, trade, and now business, but he can trace much of it back to a brief interaction on the streets of Shanghai in 1986.
As Royal Australian Navy warship crew members explored the city, a woman approached Grant with a newspaper clipping of the ship’s visit. HMAS Derwent was among the first Australian vessels to dock in the People’s Republic of China since the Cultural Revolution and had captured the attention of a local Chinese language newspaper.
“I couldn’t read it, but I took it and I thought ‘one day I want to be able to read this’, and it’s as simple as that,” Grant said.
He had joined the navy as a 16 year old three years earlier without having finished high school, but the experience sparked a lifelong interest in China and Asia.
“That trip basically changed my life.”
Grant, who has a Bachelor of Asian Studies (1997) and Master of International Affairs (2003) from The Australian National University, is currently the Chief Executive Officer of ARA Infrastructure in Singapore, having transitioned into the private sector from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade eight years ago. While much of his career has focused on investment and trade, the former diplomat credits his humanities studies with building the language skills and cultural knowledge that have been integral to his work.
Grant’s interest in China was ahead of the times. Back in Canberra, having returned from the navy’s visit to Shanghai, Grant first studied Japanese at night school (“you couldn’t do Chinese at that stage”), and later learnt Mandarin as a linguist in the navy based in Hong Kong.
“It was a really interesting time to be studying Chinese because people didn’t quite see where China was going. And people have said to me ‘oh you had great foresight’ and you know, well, it was just bloody luck,” he said.
In 1996 Grant began his undergraduate degree at ANU, with the view of moving into a job where he could be more actively engaged in the story of China. After graduating, he left the navy to join DFAT in 1998 and by 2000 was living in Shanghai as Australia’s APEC Representative in China, ahead of China hosting APEC in 2001.
“Because it was APEC, it was my first real introduction to trade issues and I really felt that with China joining the WTO in 1999, the obvious lift-off was going to be on the trade and economic side of the bilateral relationship,” Grant said.
During his 14-year career at DFAT, Grant was based in China, Indonesia and Canberra, and held key positions in the department, including as the Director of the China Economic and Trade area. In 2010 he was appointed the Australian Consul-General in Guangzhou, a major centre for finance and trade.
If I hadn’t learnt those four lines of Song Dynasty poetry at ANU back in 1996, I might not be doing what I’m doing today.
While living in the city, Grant, a long-time Australian Rules Football fan, created the Guangzhou Scorpions, which competes in the South China Australian Football League. The Carlton supporter, who is a member of the AFL Asia Advisory Board, said the initiative helped him break down barriers with Chinese officials who were curious about the sport.
“I’ve been able to use my passion for the game and link it with China in a way that has some really good outcomes,” Grant said.
While in Guangzhou Grant deepened his understanding of trade investment issues, an insight that eventually led to him leaving DFAT and accepting an offer to join Melbourne-based Hastings Funds Management as its Head of Asia in 2012. During his six years at Hastings he led the company’s operations in Asia, raising capital to fund major infrastructure projects, and was keen to build a platform to invest in Asia.
“This part of the world needs infrastructure, it’s an enabler for economic growth,” he said. “Travelling around Indonesia, you very quickly realise how much power infrastructure has to change people’s lives.”
The opportunity to build his own fund to invest into ASEAN countries came in 2018 when one of Singapore’s richest men, John Lim, hired Grant to set up ARA Infrastructure.
Grant says his interest and experience in Asia helped him get the job, despite not having a strong background in finance.
“I’m a big believer that a key part of my success has been my understanding of people, the culture and the connections. And this idea that you just need to do commerce to be able to be a businessman, I’d argue, is wrong.”
Grant recounted how four lines of Chinese poetry helped him cement a billion-dollar deal in his first funds management job. Under pressure to close a deal on behalf of Hastings, Grant met with the head of overseas investments at a major Chinese firm.
“He was fascinated, wanted to know where I had learnt my Chinese, why Chinese, and I talked about Chinese culture, I quoted some Song Dynasty poetry. I only know four lines but they’re the best four lines I’ve ever learnt,” Grant said.
The meeting led to a deal worth US$1.75 billion.
“Straight away my value inside the business became apparent, but I’d argue if I hadn’t learnt those four lines of Song Dynasty poetry at ANU back in 1996, I might not be doing what I’m doing today.”
Interested in studying a Bachelor of Asian Studies or a Master of International Relations? Learn more about the programs offered by the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific here.