Obituary: Alan Bond
Colourful tycoon noted for his dealings but hailed as a hero for winning the America's Cup for Australia in 1983
Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30
Alan Bond who has died in Perth after heart surgery aged 77, lived on his wits and other people's money, and became the greatest entrepreneur of his day in Australia.
At his peak he was a national hero, applauded by the Australian prime minister, and fawned upon by the government of Western Australia. When his yacht, Australia II, brought home the America's Cup in 1983, 200,000 people lined the streets of Perth. Overcome, Bob Hawke, the prime minister, declared on television: "Any employer who sacks a worker for not coming in today is a bum!"
Eight years later, Bond, fighting off bankruptcy, was chased through the streets by a process server. Jail was to follow.
He was a man who married vaulting ambition to the instincts of an Arthur Daley. He lived from deal to deal, faked the figures, and personified a whole era of corporate excess. Greed was good, banks threw money at confidence men and otherwise sane citizens cheered. Bond was the battler who had succeeded, which did not stop him from hammering other battlers who got in his way.
He was born on April 22 1938 in the west London suburb of Perivale, the younger of two children. His father, Frank, came from a Welsh coal-mining family and was said to have been a footman with Lord Chelmsford in London before enlisting in the Army. His mother, Kathleen Smith, daughter of a Yorkshire chemist, was a stronger personality and Alan was the apple of her eye; a bit wild perhaps, no scholar, but independent and confident. He was 11 when the family migrated to Fremantle, Western Australia, because of Frank Bond's health.
A few obscure years at technical school, and Alan Bond, a tubby little pommy, left at 14 to become a signwriter. Within four years he had dropped out of his apprenticeship and set up his own painting business, Nu-Signs.
He married, became a father too quickly for conventional folk, and had his first recorded brush with the law. Found on private premises, he admitted an intent to rob two homes and was given a bond.
The later tales of serious night-school studies, skilled painting and hundreds of employees were flights of Bond fancy. He kept afloat by scamping the work, staving off creditors and buying and selling anything.
Then, at 22, he found the key to the future: his first property deal, on £10,400 of borrowed money. To finance real estate, he juggled the paint business. When he ran into trouble, he would buy more land, have it revalued, and borrow against the new valuation. The tricks he learnt early on were eventually to be repeated on an enormous scale across the world.
At 29, he was a millionaire, but still an outsider. Frustrated, he took up sailing, and told the world he had arrived by challenging for the America's Cup - essentially to boost his business and social prospects.
The Americans found him loud-mouthed, and thrashed him 4-0 when the contest was sailed in 1974. Three years later he was back again, manners a little better, but result the same.
The property boom had burst in the early 1970s and he was on the brink of disaster. By his own account, not necessarily reliable, at one meeting with his bankers he threw a bunch of keys on the table and challenged them - "OK, you take care of it all" - whereupon they caved in before he was out of the door.
He benefited from helpful decisions by the Federal and West Australian governments, but South Australia was less co-operative.
Refusing to allow him to gain control of the state's resources of natural gas, the energy minister, Hugh Hudson, told parliament: "If Mr Bond feels in a position of strength he will govern by fear. Once he knows the cards are stacked against him he will plead and give assurances without limit. Mr Bond has personally threatened to sue the government and to sue me personally. He also threatened the Premier with a campaign of vilification throughout Australia against the government..."
In his home state of Western Australia Bond gave heavily to Labour Party funds, and made splendid deals with the government of Brian Burke, a Labour premier naively bent on joining with big business to develop the state. The day after his America's Cup victory, Bond persuaded the government to buy his interest in a diamond mining company for £16m, when it could have bought the equivalent on the stock exchange for pounds 11 million. The same government rented a Bond office building at twice the going rate.
Ultimately, Bond's empire encompassed breweries and gold mines in Australia and the US, newspapers, a television network for which he paid £385m, telecommunications in Chile, property in Australia, Britain, New York, Hong Kong and Rome; coal, nickel, copper, oil, airships, satellites in space; and more. His biographer, Paul Barry, estimated that this mass floated on £4bn to £5.4bn of borrowed money. Out in the south Pacific, the Cook Islands provided Bond with a tax haven.
Bond ran great yachts and jets; he was as innocent of learning and culture as any corporate cannibal could be, but maintained a significant art collection of which the centrepiece was Van Gogh's Irises, for which he paid pounds 22 million. The man who had difficulty spelling words established Bond University, Australia's first such private institution.
He became a Freeman of the City of London and acquired two large townhouses in Kensington which he knocked into one. In 1988 he paid £11m for Glympton Park in Oxfordshire, a Georgian mansion which came with a 2,000-acre estate and a hamlet of 21 other houses - but he rarely visited (his wife allegedly referred to rural England as "Outer Pomgolia") and, as his finances began to implode, both his British homes were for sale again by 1990; the London house was sold to the then Telegraph proprietor Conrad Black, and Glympton (at a loss of some £5m) to a Saudi prince.
The mistake that hastened his end was to attack the Lonrho company in late 1988, as a preliminary to the intended takeover of Allied Lyons, Britain's biggest brewer.
From Lonrho, Tiny Rowland came out like a hurricane and never let up, asserting what people had come increasingly to suspect, that Bond's accounts were essentially a lie.
In 1989, while Bond shares collapsed, the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal inquired into his behaviour as a television proprietor and decided that he was not fit to hold a broadcasting licence.
He began to default on payments, and for the year ended June admitted to a loss of £377m.
The figures grew worse. Then he fell out with the West Australian government.
Suddenly, the banks put in a receiver. Work stopped on his £5.4m gift to the nation, a replica of Cook's ship Endeavour. The receivership was later nullified by the courts and Bond fought on tenaciously, but the end was never in doubt.
In April 1992 he was made bankrupt, and soon after was sentenced to two-and-a-half years' jail for soliciting money to rescue Laurie Connell, another failing tycoon, without revealing that he stood to gain a fat commission.
Of Bond's many transgressions, this must have been one of the least; he spent three months at a minimum security prison farm and was acquitted at a retrial in 1992.
Further convictions for deception and periods of imprisonment followed before he was finally released in 2000, by which time he was building a second fortune based on oil and diamonds, having been released from bankruptcy in 1995.
Biographer Barry concluded that Bond lost £2bn of other people's money. Yet, even bankrupt, he could still maintain a high life.
Bond had a boyish grin and a deceptively open manner. He was a great salesman and maker of deals. He enjoyed trendy nightclubs, though he neither smoked nor gambled, and he drank little. He liked Chinese food. He followed Clint Eastwood films avidly. He played a little tennis.
In 1955, he converted to Roman Catholicism to marry Eileen Hughes.
They were divorced in 1992 and in 1995 he married Diana Bliss, a theatrical producer; she was found dead in their swimming pool, having taken her own life, in 2012.
Eileen continued to support him after that.
Alan Bond, who died on June 5, took pride in his children and is survived by two sons and a daughter; another daughter died in 2000.