Robert Holmes a Court – Australia’s First Billionaire?

I have enjoyed sharing with you an ongoing series about some of the most successful people on the planet, including Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg, Aristotle Onassis and Andrew Carnegie (look back through my website for these stories). I haven’t yet written about another of my heroes – an Australian – Robert Holmes a Court (though he was born in Johannesburg!)

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While it is not certain, there are many who believe that Robert Holmes a Court was Australia’s first billionaire. Holmes a Court rose to national prominence in the heady 1980’s business boom, alongside characters like Kerry Packer and Alan Bond. His journey from South Africa to Perth to build his corporate fortune is one that fascinated me as a teenager.

I wasn’t quite sure what “corporate raider” meant, but I did know that he made many millions of dollars on each and every audacious deal he set his mind to – even if he did not succeed in winning control of the company he was trying to take over.

Holmes a Court started his professional life in Australia as a lawyer in 1968 after obtaining his degree at the University of W.A. One of his jobs was the administration of an Albany Wool company that had gone broke. He took it over, turned it around this started a pattern that would describe his business success. His next purchase was a majority interest in Bell Brothers, an earthmoving group in 1976. An audacious bid for Ansett in 1979 ended with him selling his interest for a profit of $11M to News Corp. He made a profit of $16M in his unsuccessful bid for Elders Smith Goldsborough Mort in 1981, pulling out of the full takeover. His reputation as a skilled corporate raider was now fully developed.

Holmes a Court’s zenith is remembered as his bid for BHP – his company Bell Resources acquired almost 30% and a seat on the board of one of the biggest miners in the world, before selling his interest for $2.3BN right after the October 1987 stockmarket crash. Famously, Bell Group was bought by Alan Bond, who later ended up in jail for stripping the company of cash assets.

In short order following the crash, Holmes a Court disposed of a total of $5BN in assets, while buying rural properties, London theatres, vineyards and a horse stud. It was both a rebuilding phase and what looks to me like the next chapter in his life – moving on from raiding and enjoying the fruits of his labour.

He is known to have worked 18 hour days, often spending months on acquisitions. He did not make quick decisions to acquire assets, but would often drop those same targets at the last moment. He had a quick mind and an acerbic wit. Many saw him as aloof and a bit arrogant. I prefer to think that he liked to keep his thoughts to himself and was a very private man. He had a quiet manner and voice, and while courteous, could be ruthless in the next instant.

Tragically, in 1990, he died at the young age of 53, from a heart attack. He was a heavy smoker who suffered from diabetes.  His assets were estimated at the time to be in the order of $800M. Holmes a Court was reported to have died without a valid will. He is said to have carried an unfinished one around in his briefcase, but never signed it, seeing that act as an admission his disease could beat him. A valid will would have eased the life of his family in the transition period. It is almost unthinkable that a qualified lawyer, as intelligent and business savvy as he was, could not have prepared in such a way.

His wife Janet was left to pick up the pieces of a diverse business empire, which took decades. Janet Holmes a Court earned much respect in her work through of the business empire and now leaves that work to her children. She is well known as a patron of the arts and at one time was known as Australia’s richest woman.

So what can we learn from Australia’s first billionaire?

  1. Focus and hard work are necessary to succeed – 18 hour days helped propel his success.
  2. Speak softly but carry a big stick – being polite & courteous can win you friends, but you need to be strong and tough when required.
  3. Don’t be too quick to acquire an asset – do your solid research and be prepared to walk away if the deal isn’t right.
  4. Aim high – he tilted as some of the world’s biggest companies.
  5. There will be a point in your life when it will be time to enjoy what you have created – the trick is to know when this occurs.
  6. Having a legal will is one of the most basic wealth preservation tools available – if you don’t leave a will, the Government may decide who gets your wealth and your loved ones will have no say.
  7. Heavy smoking is not conducive to a long life.

I salute Robert Holmes a Court for his audacity and vision which led to his amazing success.

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