A high flyer expat business man finds he needs more

Tony McLellan had it all. From a boyhood on a sheep station, he had become a Concorde-flying business hero, hopping from CEO job to CEO job across the globe. Until he had a providential mid-life crisis.
In this extract from A Glorious Ride: from Jumble Plains to Eternity, we take up the story as McLellan has moved to Atlanta to become President of LJ Hooker in America, only to discover fraud in the company. McLellan resigned rather than engage in the cover-up which led to a major corporate scandal two years later.

Looking back in that first year in Atlanta in our 27th year of marriage, we seemed to be approaching a pivotal point in our lives. In February our son Scott celebrated his 21st birthday while in April, our youngest, turned 15. They remained close to us, but the days when the incessant demands of caring for our children dominated our home lives were fast disappearing. As I turned 47, I was showing all the symptoms of a man on the edge of what would fashionably be called a mid-life crisis. For me, however, it was just another step on the journey everyone must take if they aspire to be a mature adult, the realisation that despite everything I had done to deny it, Allan Anthony McLellan was not the centre of the universe.

With success in business comes exposure to the risk of pride, one of the seven deadly sins. All men are affected by pride, and I was far from the exception. I can relate to the dry wit of Dame Edith Sitwell who said: “I have often wished I had time to cultivate modesty … but I am too busy thinking about myself.” The Bible reminds us that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5; cf James 4:6).

During the revival of Christian faith known as the First Great Awakening in the US in the 18th Century, Jonathan Edwards was presiding over a massive prayer meeting attended by 800 men.

A woman sent a message into that meeting asking the men to pray for her husband who she said had grown unloving, obstinate and full of pride. Edwards read the note to the 800 men and asked if the husband in question would raise his hand so that the whole assembly could pray for him. Three hundred men put up their hands. I could have been one of them. In 1988 pride nearly cost me my marriage.

Despite all my effort and strain in my career, I was disappointed with my performance as a father and a husband and feelings of bitterness began to creep in. I became insecure in these relationships and began to abuse them. To give an example; when Rae underwent a total hysterectomy in Toronto, I left the next day on a business trip to Madrid rather than remain at her side at the hospital.

While at Hookers, we were doing business with a real estate agent, Bill Bugg of Cushman & Wakefield, who I was beginning to get to know socially. Knowing of our time in Egypt, he offered to introduce me to an Egyptian who had been living in Australia and was now the minister at his church in Atlanta. I readily agreed, so Bill arranged for us to meet the minister, Rev Dr Michael Youssef, over lunch.

Michael had an interesting story. I discovered, to my surprise, that my Arabic was a little better than his. Michael had left Egypt when he was 17 to come to Australia, because it was preferable to being recruited into the Egyptian Army. He later met an Australian girl and studied theology at Moore College. Afterwards, he completed a doctorate in California before getting involved in ministry work. He founded the Church of the Apostles, a new Episcopal Church in Atlanta, which by then had a congregation of around 70 people. He was pleasant company and an interesting, thoughtful guy. So, when he invited me along to his church, I said I would.

The simple act of turning up at church, however, does not make one a better person. Over Christmas and New Year, Rae and I had one of the biggest rows I could remember.

I wasn’t opposed to going to church. Rae and I attended occasionally if sporadically. With all the hectic activity of settling into a new city and forging a new direction for my career, however, attending church was not exactly top of our “to do” list. As any new minister would, however, Michael called me several times to repeat the invitation. Finally, on Christmas Eve, we went along with our whole family and their three friends who were staying with them. The eight of us sitting in the pew, increased the congregation by 10 per cent. What’s more, we absolutely loved it. The music was fantastic, the whole spirit was wonderful, and the place just felt right.

The simple act of turning up at church, however, does not make one a better person. Over Christmas and New Year, Rae and I had one of the biggest rows I could remember. With no Guiding Force, the pressures increased, and I allowed anger to take over our marriage. I became verbally abusive of Rae and the children. To Rae’s eternal credit, she stuck by me until she could bear no more. She could not stand my pride, my domination, my insolence. My shameful attitude towards her finally wore her down, and she called it quits. Finally, Rae looked me in the eye and said, “I’m not going to put up with this anymore.” I said, “I’ll just leave you to calm down” and took off for some time to play tennis in Florida.

It was only on my return that I realised there was nothing idle about Rae’s threat. She and Samantha had packed up their things and were about to board a flight via San Francisco for Sydney. I called Qantas and tried to upgrade her flight to first class. I was broken. If Rae had stayed and argued with me, I would have tried to patch things up, but it would only have been a band-aid. Sooner or later, we would have got back to the same point, with Rae feeling she came second to my work life and me too immersed in my business papers to read the signs staring at me on the wall written in letters two metres high.

For my part I felt desolate, with no strength to deal with this exhausted me, not knowing to whom I could turn. It was then, at my lowest moment, that Michael Youssef called.

In hindsight, Rae did the smart thing. She didn’t ever contemplate divorcing, but she gave me the jolt I needed, and a taste of what the world would be like without the smart, loving and generous soulmate who entered my life in the dining room of the Tottenham Hotel almost three decades earlier. I cannot recall a moment in my life of such despair and seldom have I felt so broken. Excuse my language, but everything that I busted my arse for, for the last 30 years, was now out the window. What’s the point? Why did I move around like a maniac and work so hard for nothing? I lay on the floor in the front of the house crying in front of our two sons. It was wretched. I needed help, but from where?

I tried to call Rae in Sydney to reason with her, as best as my tortured state would allow. But Rae was going through her own private pain and couldn’t bring herself to talk to me for more than a week. I can only imagine how she felt, and what had driven her to take such a drastic step. For my part I felt desolate, with no strength to deal with this exhausted me, not knowing to whom I could turn. It was then, at my lowest moment, that Michael Youssef called.

“Apparently, I was coming today to visit you and Rae,” he said. “Well Rae’s not here,” I replied without elaborating. Michael said not to worry, since in any case it was snowing, as it did from time to time in Atlanta with its high altitude. I said, “Michael, I’d really like to see you. I’ll send one of the boys to get you in the four-wheel drive.”

When Stuart brought Michael over, it didn’t require the wisdom of Solomon to see I wasn’t in the best of states. “Where’s Rae?” he asked in a tone that was more than just conversational. I told him the whole story, choking back the tears. “You’re in a mess,” said Michael. “You need Jesus.” “No,” I protested. “I need help. I don’t know what the heck is going on.” Michael leant forward and took my hand. “Well, let’s just start by praying together,” he said. So we did.

You don’t have to resort to a spiritual explanation to explain the healing power of prayer at a time like that, the comfort it brings to a man whose pride has been broken and is feeling wretched and desperately alone. The very presence of another human being who neither jumps to judgement about your character nor indulges you in self-pity is profoundly comforting in itself. The opportunity to talk openly about things you have been bottling up for years, much of it shameful, in the company of someone who shows no embarrassment, is a form of release. Finally, the appeal to a greater power, a figure who controls your own destiny at a time when you are definitely not, offers the hope of order in a world that appears to have collapsed around you.

The spiritual explanation, however, offers a truth far more profound and, for me, ultimately more believable. The Lord the Shepherd of a sheep who has gone astray, a creature who in his wretchedness recognises his sins, begs for mercy and hopes for redemption, which, thanks to the sacrifice of God’s own precious Son, is the gift of all who surrender to his mercy. I responded first with sobs, then with an enormous flood of tears, entirely involuntary, as if under pressure from the tension I could feel in my heart. The two assistants working in the room alongside my office must have wondered what in heaven’s name was going on.

Having dealt with the not insubstantial matter of my spiritual salvation, Michael moved on to practical matters. “I think one of the things you might want to do is go and get some psychological counselling. I’ll give you the name of a guy I think could help you.” My counsellor was a sympathetic Christian man, who had helped many people in my situation before, who helped me realise that many men go through the hell I was experiencing, and most, emerge a stronger person. I met him three times a week for a couple of weeks.

Michael asked me what more he could do. I said: “Michael, all I want you to do is call Rae and pray for her.” So, he did, and after two weeks of separation, Rae cautiously agreed that I could join her back in Australia.

As luck would have it, there could hardly have been a better time to be in Sydney. I landed at Mascot airport in bright sunshine on January 24, 1988, two days before the celebration of Australia’s bicentenary, the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the first settlers aboard the First Fleet. They, like me, had been imperfect human beings, yet many of them found redemption in the enlightened colony of New South Wales, founded by people of high principle who believed the Christian teaching that, thanks to the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, no sin is unpardonable, and that every sinner deserves a second chance.

We stayed with our friends Gerald and Susan Lancaster at their waterfront home in Elizabeth Bay with a dress circle view of the tall ships recreating the arrival of the First Fleet and the fireworks display on the Harbour Bridge. Rae and I went to the Presbyterian Church in Macquarie Street that I’d been to as a young man, and in which my mother had been married twice, but sad to say it was not the experience I once remembered, and there were only a few in the congregation. We flew home via Tahiti, stopping there for two or three days, before arriving back in Atlanta to begin our lives again.

After we settled in, Rae and I decided to give our remaining time to serving Christian ministries. We established The McLellan Foundation and set up a number of ministries for which we provided seed capital.

While in Atlanta, and to kick off my career in the Christian not-for-profit world, I co-founded Citizens for Community Values, of which I served as chairman. I then established We Care America, which we later based in Washington, DC, and of which I was deputy chairman. There, we worked closely with President Bush’s faith-based initiative.

When we returned to Australia, I was elected to the board of Opportunity International, on which I served for seven years. This was followed by my appointment as chairman of Habitat for Humanity for five years before I joined the board of Australian Christian Lobby and its affiliates. After ten years at ACL, I stepped down as chairman when I was given the honorific title of Chairman Emeritus.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Columbian author of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, once said: “A man has the right to look down on someone only when he is helping him to get up.” These prophetic words—which could have come from the mouth of Christ—have inspired Rae and me to try to help lift people up.

Psychologists believe that leaders frequently come from dysfunctional families and that, subconsciously, they spend their lives battling with their insecurity whilst striving to put things right. I think of the shy and afraid young boy from the bush. For sixty-five years, he has accompanied the man I have become on an incredible voyage of discovery. Together, this scared and lonely young boy and I can now look forward to the future with hope, for as Desmond Tutu once said, “People of faith are prisoners of hope.”

Eventually, all of us will depart this life, or “cross the bar.” But when comes the sound of low music, the scent of sweet flowers, and the crunch of footsteps on the gravel, those of us who have been called by God and made Jesus the Lord of our life can rejoice in the eternal lines of Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Twilight and evening bell,
  And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
 When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
 The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face-to-face
 When I have crost the bar.

—Alfred Lord Tennyson

A Glorious Ride: from Jumble Plains to Eternity
by Tony McLellan with Nick Cater
is available from Koorong and other bookstores