“I like to say that when I smell flowers,” Josh Kennedy-White says, “…when I smell roses, I think of funerals, not weddings.”
And so it begins. The initial inference seems to be that Kennedy-White (JKW hereinafter) is a pessimist. At second glance, however, the 53-year-old Australian seems to be anything but, with a confident, almost exuberant energy that is quite affecting. He said he was going to turn up to our meeting wearing a beige linen suit and I didn’t believe him, but he was true to his word, and looked every inch the international man of mystery that I expected him to expect me to expect him to be.
It’s often tricky to look shevelled in a linen suit, but JKW carries it off well enough. Come on! If the word dishevelled exists, surely its opposite can too. Wearing one through the course of a day and still expecting to look dapper by the end of it is surely the epitome of optimism.
Either way, along with a crisp white shirt and a pair of comfortably scuffed, brown RM Williams, he looks like a tea planting overlord about to go to church. He sports the ensemble with elan, because he’s a man who is comfortable in his own skin and confident enough to not care what other people think of him. He says, and it seems.
Our bromance started early. We didn’t even do the ‘safe lunch’. Faced with the prospect of having to schedule a physical meeting (with non-virtual whisky), JKW and I convened on WhatsApp.
Shakespeare once wrote that the “apparel oft proclaims the man”, but he didn’t say much about texting, which also oft proclaims. JKW gives good text. He has a decent array of bon mots and pithy witticisms, and he thinks he’s funny. To be fair, he is funny, on occasion (although not as funny as me obviously, but kudos for trying, and belated thanks are due for a series of compelling photos from his most recent overseas (ad)venture(s). He was in Saudi Arabia, racing camels or counting sand dunes—something like that—while taking pictures of skeletonised goats. Someone has to do it.
After a couple of months in the planning, we are finally together at Flow Bar, upstairs at restaurant JAG on Duxton Road, one of my favourite eateries in Singapore. What Chef Jeremy Gillon does with vegetables oughtn’t to be legal, but that’s a story for another day.
We start with a fairly basic question as I ask JKW: what’s the capital of Botswana? He gets it wrong, and I am mildly disappointed. I want him to know everything, simply because he’s a man with an interesting past; a stunning business résumé and a lust for life not often encountered. It’s not difficult to get to the root of his almost-picaresque sense of adventure.
“Sell the house, I’ve just bought a boat,” his father said to his mother when JKW was seven years old. Taken out of school, the family then spent the next two years sailing around his native Australia. He was ‘home/boat schooled’, which wasn’t a problem since both his parents were “hippy teachers”. They taught hippy? Taught only hippies? I’m a bit confused, but JKW seems to wear what he claims as the lack of a formal education as a badge of honour, although it would make an unseemly blemish on his linen suit.
His early experiences gave him a taste for adventure, and there’s a restlessness about him that suggests he doesn’t like being in the same place doing the same thing for too long. He’s decided to “front load” his life, which, as I understood it means stashing some cash early on so that you can enjoy it when you get older. This is not what JKW means at all.
“I want to do lots and lots of dangerous things so that, if I shuffle off my mortal coil, I can say that I just rode a motorbike across the Namibian Desert and parachuted and did all those sorts of crazy things.” He’s channelling his inner puppy at this point. “I would hate to be the person,” he continues, “who has a very, very safe life, retires and then gets hit by a bus.” Would a Porsche be better? I don’t ask.
The irony is that his work is all about safety and mitigating risk. He talks for a while, with some circumspection, about what he actually does for a living, and I fail mostly to understand. He speaks of being a “digital overlord”, involved in “digital overwatch”, so I assume that cyber security is the name of his game.
JKW speaks vaguely about who he might work for—other than to suggest that large companies, institutions and governments are his occasional paymasters—and this simply augments his international man of mystery air. He advises/consults on protecting various systems against cyber threats (I think) and maintains that if he does his job properly, he should become redundant (which he claims is the ideal scenario). This ties in perfectly with his approach to bringing up his two young daughters.
“My objective as a parent is to raise brave, independent girls,” he says, the implication being that he is not rearing kids, but nurturing adults. He hopes to become redundant at doing that as well in the fulness of time.
I ask what scares him. “Not realising my potential. Leaving cards on the table,” he says, and presumably with more than $10,000 in his account. “I’ve had a fantastic life,” he avers with maybe a hint of embarrassment and then insists, somewhat contrarily, that he’s “done nothing” yet, intimating that as far as he’s concerned, there’s much still to do.
And he’s not wrong. There are at least two more whiskies left to finish, as we pivot from a Lagavulin 16 to a Bunnahabhain 11, which gives me enough time to draw him more on the work/life balance he’s managed to achieve.
In his last ‘proper’ job, working with Accenture—I hesitate to use the word for, as JKW strikes me as being a reluctant ‘employee’ with a healthy disregard for assumed authority—he “went to 114 countries in (his) last year there. I think I was home for a total of six weeks.”
Now, however, in his Austin Powers role, he takes his kids with him on work trips whenever possible and exposes them to the kind of “experiments” his parents visited upon him in his formative years. These included danger, adventure, travel and excitement, to broaden the mind, feed the soul, and help to create the man that JKW has become.
When we met, he had just returned from a nine-week trip (part work, part pleisure; kids in tow). “I took them to Dubai, Cairo; we went inside the great pyramids, which was probably a highlight for them. Then a couple of weeks in London… and then we had four weeks driving around from Milan to the west of Sicily and back.” I begin to wonder if it is too late for me to be adopted. I enjoy ironing linen.
JKW seems to have it all and kind of knows it. But he’s not arrogant about it. There’s a self-confidence though, borne of already-attained success and the fact that he’s assured that there will be more to come. His line of work will be in constant demand for the foreseeable future as our human conflicts become less militaristic and more technology-based. I have little doubt that he’ll continue to think of funerals when he smells roses, and that’s why those who engage his services are in as safe a pair of hands as his snifter of fine single malt whisky.
This story first appeared in the September 2022 issue of Esquire Singapore.