The Frizelles and the Lis
The Frizelles and the Lis

Queensland’s top 25 power couples — part three

THEY are the couples who wield power and influence in Queensland.

These mover and shakers inspire and support each other at home so they can succeed in the workforce.

They juggle busy lives, while also raising families, but remain powerful figures of industry.

In the first of The Courier-Mail/QWeekend's five-part series - meet five of the state's 25 most powerful and influential couples in business, the arts, real estate and science.

They explain how they inspire each other on the way to the top.

The next parts of the series will roll out tomorrow and Friday.





LI CUNXIN - Queensland Ballet Artistic Director

MARY LI - Queensland Ballet Principal Coach/ Ballet Mistress




Mary McKendry was trying to be incognito when she slipped in to watch the Houston Ballet performing in London in The Sadler's Wells Theatre.

The young dancer from Rockhampton was a principal dancer at the English National Ballet (formerly the London Festival Ballet) at the time and was impressed with the Houston Ballet's Li Cunxin, who had famously defected from Communist China in 1981.

"I thought I was incognito but then Li, who had finished his part, came and sat next to me," she recalls.

"He tried to chat to me but I was watching the ballet and I think he thought I was rude."

Mary Li, 61, as she is now, recalls that first meeting with fondness all these years later.

Li (he's known by his Chinese surname) and Mary became a fixture in the ballet world when, a year-and-a-half later, she was invited to join the Houston Ballet too as a principal dancer.

"I took that contract and Li was my partner in Peer Gynt and he was marvellous to work with. He was a beautiful partner and we were simpatico."

So simpatico they have now been married for 33 years.

Both had stunning international careers.

Li Cunxin and his wife Mary Li at Queensland Ballet. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Li Cunxin and his wife Mary Li at Queensland Ballet. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

They fell in love, eventually came to Australia and since 2013 they have been in Queensland, Mary's home state, after Li took the top job at the Queensland Ballet.

Mary works there too as ballet mistress and a principal coach.

Li, 58, admires his wife and says he felt sad when she retired to look after the couple's firstborn, Sophie.

"Mary had to retire due to family reasons," Li says.

"That was premature and it broke my heart. It was as though one of my arms was cut off."

The Lis have three children - Sophie, 30, Thomas, 27, and Bridie, 22, who is at university and the only one still at home.

They have a happy family life in Brisbane's inner north and each day they drive to Queensland Ballet's headquarters in West End, sometimes together, which they like.

Li says he didn't think he would marry someone in the ballet world again after the failure of his first marriage to American dancer Elizabeth Mackey.

"But Mary was very different from anyone I had known," Li recalls.

"She was honest, open and forthright and she still is. She was horrified that I couldn't really read English when we met so she challenged me and got me reading."

Eventually he would write his own book, in English, Mao's Last Dancer, which was also a Hollywood film.









Frizelle Automotive Group owners

Gold Coast Titans NRL club co-owners


Rebecca and Brett Frizelle at the Audi showroom, Southport. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Rebecca and Brett Frizelle at the Audi showroom, Southport. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

He was the son of a veteran car salesman and she was a receptionist working in his family's Southport car yard while studying law when Brett, 54, and Rebecca, 48, Frizelle met and fell in love.

Accelerate almost three decades and the Frizelles are part of Australia's largest private auto group, selling almost 40,000 cars a year across Queensland and NSW.

They also co-own the Gold Coast Titans NRL club, and are among the Coast's most powerful citizens. The couple met in 1990 at Southport Mazda, the dealership Frizelle's father James had bought five years earlier.

They married in 1996.

Brett says: "The business was really small then, with just 11 staff. We were selling Mazda cars and Isuzu trucks and had just gotten into Hyundai."

It was the start of the Frizelle Automotive Group that today boasts 1000 staff and sells more than 20 marques, ranging from Kia to Ferrari, across eight dealerships stretching from Lismore to Springwood.

In 2017, the Frizelles joined with the Sydney-based Peter Warren Automotive Group and private equity firm Quadrant to create a $1.5 billion sales behemoth.

The same year, they teamed with trucking magnate and rugby league tragic Darryl Kelly to buy the Titans (which they have sponsored since 2006) from the NRL, which had taken over the club after financial problems.

Despite their schedules, the Frizelles, who have four children aged 16 to 22, say family comes first.

"It's fortunate that we can generally attend most school functions as the kids have grown up," Brett says.

Rebecca is also a director of listed developer Sunland and sits on several boards.





JOHN KOTZAS - Queensland Performing Arts Centre chief executive

JANO KOTZAS - The Prop House owner


John and Jano Kotzas at The Prop House. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
John and Jano Kotzas at The Prop House. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

Their work may seem complementary but John and Jano Kotzas keep several degrees of separation in what they do.

John, 64, is the chief executive of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre at South Brisbane and Jano Kotzas, 50, runs a business nearby, The Prop House at Kangaroo Point, which turns over $3 million annually fitting out shopping centres, corporate headquarters and government buildings for events.

The Prop House handles the lion's share of Christmas decorations for Brisbane's major public spaces as well as hiring out props for private parties.

Both jobs involve a bit of razzle dazzle but Jano points out that although she often accompanies John to shows at QPAC they keep their business worlds separate, although they compare notes.

"Who is the CEO at home? John would say it's him but I know I am," Jano says.

Jano has a 21-year-old daughter, Zoe, from a previous marriage and she and John have two children - Liberty, 12 and Charlie, 10.

Jano was Jano Dawes until May when, after 19 years together they finally tied the knot.

"We always used to refer to each other as husband and wife but now it's official," she says. She adds that while she handles a lot on the home front much of the year (John travels a lot for work and running QPAC is a very full-time job), John has to step up around this time of the year.

"Because I'm off somewhere on a scissor lift putting up Christmas decorations," Jano says.








Professors Kum Kum and Rajiv Khanna at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Professors Kum Kum and Rajiv Khanna at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute. Picture: Mark Cranitch.


They're two of the world's most distinguished scientists and unsurprisingly, Rajiv and Kum Kum Khanna fell in love among the Petri dishes and test tubes of a prestigious Indian medical institute where they were both studying for their PhDs.

Despite coming from a part of the world where arranged marriages are common, they followed their hearts and this year, celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.

In the past three decades, they've forged separate successful scientific careers while also raising daughter, Natasha, 28 next month, and son, Abhay, 24, who spent the first three months of his life in intensive care, weighing just 1100g at birth.

The trauma of seeing their son's suffering after being delivered 14 weeks early still shapes their scientific work, although neither specialises in neonatal research.

Rajiv and Kum Kum, both 57, have spent about half their lives in Queensland, working at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute, where they have been based since the early 1990s.

They met in the mid-1980s in their home town - Chandigarh, in India's northwest - where they were both working towards doctorates in parasitology at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research.

"We used to help each other out right from day one," Rajiv says.

To give Kum Kum a break, he would keep an eye on her experiments while working on his own well into the night - and she would do the same for him.

"After two or three years of working together, that collegiateness turned into something more than that," Kum Kum says.

They married in 1989 before Kum Kum took up a post-doctorate research position at the University of Adelaide. Rajiv followed her three months later, working in the same laboratory on a voluntary basis.

Rajiv was offered a job in Brisbane at QIMR Berghofer in the immunology laboratory of Professor Denis Moss. Although Rajiv's PhD was in parasitology, its focus and his main research interest was in immunology.

"I didn't have to make a big change," he says.

Rajiv started work at QIMR in early 1990. Kum Kum followed in January, 1991, securing work in the laboratory of Professor Martin Lavin, who was researching DNA damage and chromosomal instability syndromes.

She had to learn a completely different branch of science, arriving at the lab as the sun rose and regularly working into the early hours to retrain.

Within four years, her groundbreaking research into how cells sense DNA damage, and then repair it, was published in the respected scientific journal, Nature.

She juggled motherhood as her star in the science world was rising. Kum Kum, gave birth to daughter Natasha, in December 1991, the year she started at QIMR Berghofer.

"My waters broke in the lab on a Sunday," she recalls.

After five weeks of maternity leave, Kum Kum was back at her laboratory bench.

Although the couple now lead different laboratories at QIMR Berghofer, they revel in each other's successes and commiserate when applications for grant funding get knocked back or a scientific journal rejects one of their papers.

And when it comes to household chores, the partnership is equal.

"I felt that we had to be partners in everything," Rajiv says.

"I wouldn't be where I am without having day-to-day help from Rajiv from the get go," Kum Kum says.





ANTONIA MERCORELLA - Real Estate Institute of Queensland Chief executive

BRENT MARKS - Director of Aventus Legal


REIQ CEO Antonia Mercorella and Aventus Legal director Brent Marks. Picture: Steve Pohlner
REIQ CEO Antonia Mercorella and Aventus Legal director Brent Marks. Picture: Steve Pohlner

She is the first female chief executive of Queensland's real estate advocacy and lobby group, the REIQ. She is also the youngest to ever hold the coveted position.

And he has forged a respected legal career in both civilian and military circles.

Antonia Mercorella, 45, and Brent Marks, 52 became friends in their final year of law school at Adelaide University, then worked at the same law firm, Kelly & Co (now HWL Ebsworth).

"It was while working together that love bloomed. We kept it very quiet," Brent says.

Brent joined the RAAF at 17 as an intelligence analyst and undertook training to become an Indonesian linguist before transferring to an aircrew role flying the RAAF's P3 Orion aircraft out of Adelaide.

After he left the permanent RAAF to pursue his legal career, he joined the RAAF Specialist Reserve as a legal officer.

Together, they started Aventus Legal in Adelaide, before they moved their family - and law firm - to Brisbane.

That move was prompted by Antonia's new role at the REIQ, which soon led to her promotion to deputy chief executive and then chief executive.

Together they have two sons, Rhys, 15, and Zac, 12, plus Brent's two adult sons, Hayden, 28, and Owen, 22.

"Building in flexibility to whatever role you are in, if at all possible, is the key."

They admit work-life balancing act has not always been easy, with Antonia admitting that Brent often does "much of the heavy lifting" when it comes to raising their boys.

The couple were very candid about the difficulties of having it all, with Antonia admitting that she often had to deal with "that guilt factor" as a result of being away from the family.

"I'm a workaholic and find it difficult to switch off, even at home," Antonia said.

"Media tends to happen most weekends too. I'm not a great model for work/life balance."

But it is something she is working on, according to her husband.

"For a long time when Antonia first took the CEO job I felt like I was a single dad who was occasionally blessed with Antonia's presence, usually between when her work day ended and 6am when it started again," he says.

"Thankfully these days things are slightly less hectic and as the boys are able to stay home by themselves now we make a conscious effort to schedule time together.

"I've been blessed with the opportunity to be the primary carer for the boys and a stay at home dad for most of their lives and while it's had its challenges we recognise how fortunate we have been to be able to be in a position to be able to afford such a luxury."