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Bond, Bell and Holmes a Court: Bond

Alan Bond

This page considers Alan Bond, sometime owner of Australia's Nine television network and holdings that extended from diamond mines and airships to breweries.


It covers -

  • introduction
  • Bond
  • Bell, Takahashi and the Nine Network
  • collapse and aftermath
  • the state of amnesia
  • studies

Introduction

Bond has gained notoriety as the most prominent of the 1980s corporate cowboys, distinguished by commercial failure and what Australian courts have judged to be personal impropriety but - in contrast to to competitors such as Christopher Skase, Abe Goldberg, Alan Hawkins and John Elliott - appears to have largely "got away with it".

His career is an illustration of what you can do with boldness and other people's money during a boom. It also illustrates the importance of complaisant governments - Bond recurrently owed his survival to support from the Western Australian state government - and bankers.

At its height his Bond Group and Dallhold (one a public company, the other private) embraced the Nine television network, West Australian Newspapers, major brewing operations in Australia and North America, an airship company, property development and hotel operations, extensive mining operations and other interests.

He had bid for - and in some cases acquired - major enterprises such as Arnott's, Castlemaine Tooheys, British Satellite Broadcasting, the Santos petroleum group, retailers Waltons and Grace Bros, UK brewer Allied Lyons, Chile's national telecommunications company, Lonrho and Argyle Diamonds.

The price paid for many acquisitions appears to have been too high and the strategic vision was questionable, with poor day to day management. Bond appears to have been better at doing deals - and promoting them to journalists and investors - than extracting lasting value from a disparate conglomerate assembled on an opportunistic basis.

In 1989 the music stopped, despite access to over a billion dollars within Robert Holmes a Court's Bell companies. Bond Corporation went into receivership with the largest debt in Australian history. Parts of the group were offloaded to a range of media competitors such as Packer or became independent entities. Others were simply, albeit often painfully, closed as commercially unviable.

Bond served time in prison but, apparently unabashed, has recently asserted that he was wronged and proclaimed a commitment to commercial success as an entrepreneur in Australia and overseas. Receivers meantime state an intention to discover information about and even retrieve substantial assets that may have hitherto eluded their grasp.

Bond

In the Australian version of the presidential log cabin myth early journalism about Bond highlighted the start of his career as a signwriter. In 1955 he married Eileen Hughes, member of a leading Fremantle family. Paint in the form of signs was apparently not his metier, as he moved into residential property development around Perth and Melbourne. In 1970 he bought 20,000 acres of a failing sheep station for $1.5 million, with an ambitious plan for development of the Yanchep Sun City resort and residential area.

Concerned that the landscape would look unappealing in promotional literature, Bond famously told one associate that "I've painted the sandhills to make the brochures look better". Yanchep was well north of Perth and mooted development costs of $250 million to meet the needs of a projected population of 250,000 people proved beyond the capacity of his financiers. Most of Yanchep was subsequently sold to the WA government and Japanese investors.

He acquired three America's Cup bid yachts from Sir Frank Packer in 1970, building the Observatory City resort at Scarborough (promoted through bids for the America's Cup, which resulted in selection as Australian of the Year in 1978) and buying retail operations such as discount chain Norman Ross and midrange department store chain Waltons. Some sharemarket activity such as a raid on petroleum group Santos in 1979 (foiled by SA government action to restrict the size of shareholdings) appears to have been profitable but failed to deliver control of the targets.

Neither Waltons nor Norman Ross flourished but presumably added both cash flow and commercial legitimacy to holdings such as Swan Brewery, acquired in 1982 for $164 million (of which around $160 million was borrowed). Swan had little debt, modern plant and roughly 95% of the local market. In 1983 Bond gained control of Perth television station STW 9, echoing Holmes a Court's purchase of TVW 7.

That year saw victory in the America's Cup bid with Australia II, followed by acquisition of 45% of dirigible manufacturer Airship Industries and sale of a 5% stake in Argyle Mining to the WA government for $42 million. (Strangely, the government then established the WA Diamond Trust, which purchased the stake for $45 million before issuing 65 million $1 units, with a State Government guarantee of an 8% return for 7 years.)

In 1985 Bond paid around $1.2 billion for Castlemaine-Toohey's, Australia's second largest brewer. He now had a 42% share of the Australian beer market. He also acquired Queensland Television Ltd (controlling Nine network affiliate QTQ-9). During the following year he bought Pittsburgh Brewing (Iron City Beer), the tenth largest US brewer and then spent US$1.7 billion on G Heileman Brewing Company in the US.

Other activity at that time included acquisition and disposal of the Thorn EMI film studios and film library, disposal of the ailing Norman Ross and Waltons department store chain, property development in Hong Kong, acquisition of New York's St Moritz hotel (collateral for a $500 million loan from insurer FAI) and purchase of a controlling stake in the Chile Telecommunications Co.

Bell, Takahashi and the Nine Network

Kerry Packer, after selling the flagship Nine network television stations to Bond, quipped that you only have one Bond in your lifetime, reflecting perceptions that the buyer paid too much. In December 1987 Packer offloaded the Sydney and Melbourne stations for $1,055 million ($855 million cash, $200 million in preference shares in Bond Media). Bond's other broadcasting interests included QTQ-9 Brisbane; STW-9 Perth, and TNQ/FNQ Townsville/Cairns; radio stations 6AM, 6KG, 6KA and 6NW in Western Australia and radio station 8DN.

Despite clashes with the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal over questions of his fitness to hold a licence Bond's reputation was buffed by reports that he had sold the Sydney Hilton for around $300 million (a deal that was subsequently questioned), had funded the Endeavour replica and was the owner of the historic de Chazal Flinders portrait. With Japanese property developer EIE International he founded Bond University in Queensland.

EIE was headed by subsequently disgraced Harunori Takahashi, aka 'baburu shinshi' (bubble gentleman). He had used US$5 billion loans from the Long Term Credit Bank (later nationalised after belated official recognition of a US$22 billion capital deficit) to build a global property collection. Takahashi famously characterised LTCB lending practices as like "taking buckets of water from a running tap and filling a bathtub".

The 1987 financial crisis saw the Australian stock exchange index drop 25% on October 20, with an overall decline by 11 November of 50%. In the aftermath of the crash Bond joined with the Western Australian state government - through its cash-rich State Government Insurance Commission (SGIC) - in a attempted rescue of fringe merchant banker Rothwells and investment in what was hyped as major petrochemical processing development.

More significantly, he took a controlling stake in Holme a Court's Bell Group and cash-rich Bell Resources. a Court's competitors such as Ron Brierley and Kerry Packer held crucial stakes which prevented Bell from absorbing its wealthier offshoot and thereby eliminating the parent's indebtedness.

Bond was ironically perceived as more stable, reflecting uncritical community acceptance of hype about a national hero, the weakness of regulators and skill with creative accounting. Aside from SGIC and other actors in 'WA Inc', a range of Australian businesses were hesitant about rigorous evaluation of the group. Merchant bank Tricontinental, under the umbrella of the State Bank of Victoria, had loaned Bond some $392 million secured against $285 million of Bond shares. (Tricontinental's own capital base was a mere $100 million.) A $1.7 billion 'reconstruction' of Bond group indebtedness included $510 million funding from junk bond vendor Drexel Burnham Lambert under Michael Milken.

The Bell companies delivered a range of media interests, notably the West Australian newspaper and TVW 7, and other companies such as civil engineering equipment dealer Waugh & Josephson. Bond never held all shares in Bell Group and Bell Resources. Courts subsequently judged that over $1 billion had been improperly employed by Bond without the knowledge/authorisation of other Bell shareholders.

Collapse and aftermath

Following the crash Bond gained attention for his supposed purchase for $53 million Van Gogh's Irises, acclaimed as a record price for any painting but in fact made possible through a substantial loan from Sothebys.

Bond then sought to take over the UK-based conglomerate Lonrho, whose founder 'Tiny' Rowland in repulsing the bid suggested that Bond's corporate clothes were somewhat threadbare. Bond Corporation announced a record $980 million loss before going into receivership. Overall debt at that time was around $US10 billion, with sales of around $9.5 billion.

As noted above, assets across the group were progressively disposed of or liquidated. Packer for example, gained a majority stake in Bond Media's Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane stations in 1990 after the group was unable to pay out the $200 million preference shares. The receivers floated WA Newspapers as an independent company in 1991 for about $220 million. Eva Presser's Sunraysia Television bought STW-9 for $95 million. Van Gogh's Irises was claimed by Sotheby's after Bond failed to pay the loan and was sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum in 1990.

Bond was declared bankrupt in 1992, paying his personal creditors $3.25 million to settle debts of over $500 million. It would appear that provision had been made for his family and personal associates over several years, through family trusts and other mechanisms beyond the reach of the receivers. His children for example are estimated to be worth over $30 million.

In 1992 Bond was jailed for 30 months after a jury convicted him of dishonesty relating to an Australian Securities & Investments Commission (equivalent to the US SEC) investigation of Rothwells. He was released after retrial but jailed by the West Australian District Court for three years in 1996 over the Edouard Manet painting La Promenade. In 1983 Bond's family company, Dallhold, had bought La Promenade for $4.6 million then leased it via an intermediary to Bond Corporation for around $100,000 a month for five years. Dallhold subsequently sold La Promenade for $17 million.

State of amnesia?

In 1997 he was jailed for a further four years after pleading guilty to deceptively siphoning $1.2 billion from Bell Resources. During the trial Bond claimed to be suffering from depression and brain damage, making recollection of the details of his activities impossible. Those ailments inhibited provision of details about offshore payments and transfers, eg through accounts in the friendly Swiss canton of Zug.

Concern over the sentence's leniency was reflected in a federal government appeal, which saw the court increase the sentence to seven years. He was released from prison on parole in 2000 after the High Court ruled in his favour on a constitutional technicality.

He has since been promoting deals in London (where The Money Centre proved a failure) and in exotic locations such as Kazakhstan and Western Africa. In 2003 he took part in a parade to celebrate the America's Cup win, which might lead an unkind observer to conclude that both Bond and the people of Perth are suffering from amnesia.

Biographer Paul Barry acerbically commented that in the course of his career Bond

broke all records .... He notched up the biggest corporate loss in Australia of around about $1 billion. He then produced the biggest corporate collapse with Bond Corporation of around $4 billion. He then proceeded to the world’s, or almost the world’s biggest bankruptcy, it was in fact the second I think around $600 million and he romped away with the title of Australia’s biggest fraud with $1,200 million. For twenty years Alan Bond plundered his public companies. He paid himself huge fees that he was not entitled to, he took huge private profits of public deals with other people’s money and he sold things into the public company at inflated prices and he borrowed money that he was never going to pay back and never did pay back. At the end of it he left a black hole of around $5,000 million, $5 billion Australian dollars which was losses borne by shareholders, creditors, bankers and the rest. He then managed to hang on to a private fortune of something like $100 million. Some of that legally because of the way in which the laws operate and the trust laws operate and some of it clearly illegally in the sense that it was concealed offshore. He had the usual things that tycoons collect. He had artworks, English country mansions, houses in London, a ski lodge in Colorado, horses, paintings and all sorts of other trinkets. Indeed he still has them, or most of them or he has the money that came from them. I must say I hope that Kerry Packer is right - that we only get one Alan Bond in our lifetime, because I think what he did in the 1980’s and the 1990’s was a disgrace to this country and brought us into disrepute throughout the world. I think more to the point what happened in the 1990’s was that he made a fool of the legal system and made a fool of all of us too. In the 1990’s he managed to hang on to a fortune despite the fact that he was bankrupt and despite the fact that his creditors, the police, the taxman and a whole bunch of other people were chasing him for the money.

... The police eventually gave up the chase against Bond after 4 or 5 years and the reason why, or one of the main reasons why they gave up, was because they met a brick wall in Switzerland. They were confronted by a series of legal actions that Bond and his lawyers took that frustrated their progress at every step in the attempting to get documents out of Switzerland in particular. Bond fought 13 separate legal actions over the space of some 4 years. He and his lawyers lost every single one of those 13 actions, they didn’t win a technical point in any of them and yet by fighting them they essentially won the war in that they outspent and outlasted their pursuers.

Bond subsequently complained that

Some people think they can say whatever they like about me. They throw mud and they hope it sticks. Well, it hurts, I can tell you. It hurts. I know it's not true, which is why it hurts all the more. I was never charged or convicted of being a con man. I'm not a con man and I'm not a deceiver. I made mistakes. I went to jail because of them and I'm genuinely sorry for having hurt so many people. But I've paid my dues. I've served my time. I'd just ask people: 'Isn't it about time they gave Alan Bond a fair go?'

Studies

Paul Barry's lucid Going For Broke: How Bond Got Away With It (Sydney: Bantam 2000) updates the story in The Rise & Fall of Alan Bond (Sydney: Bantam 1991) and Trevor Sykes' The Bold Riders: Behind Australia's Corporate Collapses (North Sydney: Allen & Unwin 1994). Bond appears in studies highlighted in profiles on Packer, Murdoch and the Seven network.

Conflict with Lonrho features in Tom Bower's Tiny Rowland: A Rebel Tycoon (London: Heinemann 1993).

Some of the most interesting material appears in reports by parliamentary enquiries, by corporate regulators such as the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal and ASIC, and court reports following the group's collapse.

Tricontinental is discussed in Tricontinental: The Rise & Fall of a Merchant Bank (Carlton: Melbourne Uni Press 1995) by Hugo Armstrong & Dick Gross. For Milken and the junk bond milieu see in particular Connie Bruck's The Predators' Ball: The Inside Story of Drexel Burnham & the Rise of the Junk Bond Raiders (New York: Penguin 1989). We have discussed the role of easy money in a detailed examination of the 1980s boom as a precursor of the turn of the millennium dot-com and internet bubble.

Henry Bosch's The Workings of A Watchdog (Port Melbourne: Heinemann 1990) and Of Manners Gentle: Enforcement Strategies of Australian Business Regulatory Agencies (Melbourne: Oxford Uni Press 1986) by Peter Grabosky & John Braithwaite offers insights into contemporary regulatory failures, as does Anne Lampe’s Media Coverage of Complex Commercial Fraud paper.

For Takahashi and LTCB see Peter Espig's 2003 The Demise of a Banking Dinosaur: Long-Term Credit Bank (PDF), Peter Hartcher's The Ministry: How Japan's Most Powerful Institution Endangers World Markets (London: HarperCollins 1997) and Christopher Wood's The Bubble Economy: Japan's Extraordinary Speculative Boom of the '80's and the Dramatic Bust of the '90's (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press 1992). There has been no major study of Lonrho; a sidelight is provided by Richard Hall's My Life With Tiny (London: Faber 1987).

The former mogul's Bond (Sydney: HarperCollins 2003) with Rob Mundle reflects recent media appearances, with corporate collapse being attributed to "greedy little banks", ailing/incompetent executives and clumsy regulators.

Although he'd he pleaded guilty to charges of breaching directors' duties with intent to deceive and commit fraud, in that book Bond comments that he agreed to the accusation of fraud only because he considered he would not get a fair trial and maintains "I was not guilty of fraud."