A geologist reviews the autobiography of one of Australia’s greatest corporate villains.
The official Alan Bond autobiography – what a read it is, tracing his life from immigration to Australia and then on a roller coaster ride of corporate success to final corporate failure. Pierpont of the AFR suggested one could spend one’s 45 dollars on some other diversion but I tend to disagree probably because having spent decades in Western Australia during Bondy’s rise
and fall Bondy might have had one or two grievances; There are many shades of grey where officially it is all black and white, but after reading the book, much seems to have been omitted, that is if my memory is anything to go by.
I came across Bondy a couple of months ago at Beaches at Cottesloe where some mates and I were having our regular Saturday sparrow’s breakfast. Bondy looked a tad haggard, kept to himself and that was that. Oh for the good old days at the Med’ when at one time “Red” gave me a distinct stare – which I never followed up but I recall it well, and the heady days of WA Inc. with “Hakka”,
“Earn” and the other 4-on-the-floor entrepreneurs making plenty of Hay while the sun shone until 1987 with the market correction followed with flights of the guilty to parts unreachable, many instances of metaphorical wrist cutting and banks being their usual parsimonious selves. Oh and we can’t forget odd stamp collectors and other characters of the State Labour government of the 1980’s either but come to think of it, those times were charactertised by quite a few cases of amnesia or memory lapses.
Bondy’s book starts like most autobiographies with childhood and family memories, father working in the Welsh coal mines, WWII with its tragic consequences to the physical health of many, including Alan’s father, culminating in the Bond family’s arrival in Fremantle in 1950, (Come to think of it, my family also arrived in Darwin in October 1950 to then transfer to the Bathurst Migrant camp). Then follows his schooling and commercial career as a sign writer in Fremantle, and if memory serves me, that famous Dingo Flour Sign is still there. His mother was a devout High Anglican but his father a little more relaxed, described as a “non practicing believer”, so it came as a surprise that Alan converted to Catholicism and perhaps it was because Catholicism is a bit more relaxed in its attitudes to mortal behaviour; after all, the confessional can absolve all sorts of moral lapses. His youth is pretty interesting, what with his moonlighting and other commercial distractions.
His first job as an apprentice signwriter came through the Freemason’s via his father, after which he encountered a Father O’Sullivan from the Order of Oblates who suggested he do some after hours painting for a bit of pocket money. It was O’Sullivan’s approach to life and his lack of proselytising that prompted Alan to think “if this is what the Catholic Church is all about then I should join it”, and he did. In comparison the High Anglican regime was too authoritarian, and his mother never really appreciated his conversion so the significance of this conversion only becomes clearer further on in the book. His marriages, his children, all get a fair mention in his book.
His rise to commercial success spans a few chapters and often not completely in chronological order, though reading his accounts and squaring up with what the rest of us thought had happened results in some puzzling lapses of recollection. For example in 1969 I joined John Taylors of London as a sample auditor to the Planet Group run by John G Fuller, (most of my time was spent
auditing samples and making sure everything was proper and above board, which would have been very important for the Planet Boys considering their corporate tendencies), and at the time Bondy was quite involved with a company called Pacific Island Mines along with some other serious involvements with the Planet Group at the time. Planet were mainly into oil and beach sands, but why this period isn’t mentioned in the biography is a bit of a puzzle. I recall Fuller complaining about that “brash West Aussie Alan Bond, and his kitsch Hotel Parmelia”, a reference to the rather onstentatious decor Bondy inflicted on the Parmelia.
Now I thought Lang Hancock had some significant input into the WA iron ore discoveries so it was a bit startling to find that Bond Corporation was also a significant driving force in the iron ore industry, well so the book states anyway. Amazing how flawed one’s memory can be.
On the other had Bondy’s successful turning of the old underground gold workings at Kalgoorlie into the famous superpit can’t be denied, but that has to be balanced a little by two humourous incidents where he was conned into buying a large gold nugget, The Yellow Rose of Texas, from some chaps who are indeed well known in Perth and have often assisted the police with their enquires from time to time, in matters of other instances concerning gold, and then in another deal buying some moose pasture called the Rabbit Warren from Danny Hill at Leonora. One suspects this certain degree of naivity acquiring mining properties and gold nuggets might have been an important factor since it seems Alan did not rely too much on geological advice. It is a common problem with entrepreneurs that often they think they know more than the geologists about certain things, and judging what one reads in the press theys days, nothing much
I suspect Alan’s account of the Rothwell’s debacle in the 1980’s is but one angle of many and the tip of the proverbial iceberg, since he insinuates both State and Federal government involvement since considering the personalities at the time, there is probably more to this involvement than what meets the eye. Just why Bondy had to mount the rescue of Rothwell’s is problematical. His
explanation was that Brian Burke the state labour government had signficant exposure which needed to be fixed, and Bond Corporation were expected to fix it, especially with some apparent prompting from the Federal area. This chapter alone is worth reading to see how Alan’s memory of the events squares with our memories.
This brings up the interesting episode of Northern Mining which had a 5% stake in the Argyle diamond mine and another company which he floated called Durack Mines.
Alan writes that he had a run in with De Beers over the marketing of the diamonds from AK1 when he had Northern Mining but if my memory serves me correctly, the mine was commissioned in 1985, so diamond production would have started then. And I thought the Ashton Joint Venture marketed the diamonds themselves, and Northern Mining was also acquired by the Burke State Labour Government so Bondy would have had a very small window of time to have marketed any diamonds, if any. From memory it was all a bit dodgy, to say the least, but those of us who remember that time of shenanagins will also recall Durack Mines (Bondy spells it Durak) from an earlier time.
Durack Mines was delisted in November 1972 after restructuring into the Planet Resources Group NL, so it must have been that group which purchased Durack Mines from Alan at the time, since he does not reveal who bought it off him as Durack Mines was supposed to be onto some very rich copper deposits which might rival the Zambian mines of the Copper Belt. I suspect the copper was a
prospect called Breen’s North Pole, near Marble Bar in the Pilbara, because I was there auditing the Planet Metal’s drilling in February 1971 in the middle of the cyclone season, when Cyclone Sheila stopped all our operations. By memory there was not much copper there, come to think of it.
Alan reckoned he formed and floated Durack Mines in his early 20’s, which puts it at about the early 1960’s, but what becomes puzzling is that from having large exploration leases in the Pilbara, we next find ourselves in the East Kimberleys and within days of the float of Durack Mines, someone offered Bond double his money, and it was onsold. Except that I don’t know of any copper
shows up in that part of the world. There was some exploration for ilmenite sand deposits in the Chamberlain and Durack Rivers by the Planet group, and perhaps the copper was on Bedford Downs where Planet were working in the early 1970’s, but something does not register too well here. So Alan must be relying heavily on his memory here I suspect because my memory is not so good. It was, after all, thirty years ago.
The autobiography focusses on the projects we all are so familiar with, the Chile Telephone acquisition, the Swan Brewery and its subsequent difficulties with Queenslanders perceptions about what is important in the universe (a blunder was renaming 4XXXX beer to something else – a capital crime in Queensland apparently) to tangling with Joe Bjelke Peterson and his agrarian socialists with their expensive railways and other dubious practices, and of course Bond University.
And that boat – Australia II – and the winning of the America’s cup – there are lots of little snippets of information one can read about. We can’t deny Alan that achievement though I did start to tire of the constant I did this, and I did that, littered throughout out the book.
An intriguing project was in Rome where his Church connections allowed him to do a property development – but the political control the Holy See had in local politics is a bit of an eye opener, and could be one reason Alan converted to catholocism – obviously good for business.
What is most striking about his deals is that whether it was the purchase of Channel Nine from Kerry Packer, Bell Resources from “Hakka” or the Rabbit Warren, Bondy always reckons that once they completed the purchases and looked into the books, things were never what they were told before the deal was done. Even the acquisition of Heileman Breweries in the US was flawed – Craig, his son, made an accurate assessment of the deal, don’t in other words, which was ignored by the board of directors, so I would call it a failure to do good due diligence but others might use another term though to be fair to Bondy, Bond Corporation was not the only company to have made mal-investments in that decade – BHP and WMC come readily to mind, for example, with their blunders in the North Americas and Canada. Queensland Nickel was another problem and the mysteries of the financing of that raises one’s eyebrows, let alone the logic of getting involved with a lemon.
Bond Corporation’s ultimate collapse is blamed on various factors, including trial by media, but the real reason probably can be linked to the way Alan operated – in the sense that he always needed to do new deals to pay for the previous ones, whether real estate or corporate plays, so when one deal finally came unstuck, for whatever reasons, the whole corporate structure collapsed like
a row of dominoes. Bell Resources was grabbed to pay for the Brewing operation restructuring, for example, and we all know what a mess that ended up in.
So while Pierpont reckons the most appropriate way of acquiring a copy of the book would be by shoplifting it, I would say try to borrow, beg or steal a copy because if you think what happened is what actually happened, then reading this book might allow you some new perspectives. Of course if you were unaware of what actually happened all those years ago, then Bondy comes out in quite a good light, for he single handedly started quite a few massive projects around the place, or as he remembers it, that is.
The other telling fact is the outright interference in commercial activity by government and I suspect that Bondy might have been a sacrificial lamb for the solution of some political problems given the nature of both the Federal and State governments of the 1980’s, because recent Swiss Banking irregularities have yet to be fully revealed, or so gossip around town suggests; The Fat lady
has yet to sing and I suspect it goes back to those good old days.
I was going to wait for the book to hit the remainder shelves but unfortunately I lapsed and bought it. I will gladly lend it to anyone one who wishes to borrow it. It is, if you can ignore the excessive use of the personal pronoun, quite a nice read, if only to see how one of the main players saw the events of the time. Once you finish the book, it is only then that you realise why Alan ended up where he did.
Bond is published by Harper Collins.