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Bond, Bell and Holmes a Court: Bell

Holmes a Court and Bell

This page looks at Robert Holmes a Court, the 1980s corporate raider who came close to taking over the Herald & Weekly Times group and BHP (then Australia's largest private sector enterprise) and whose Bell group was exploited by Alan Bond following the 1987 Crash.


It covers -

  • introduction
  • beginnings
  • the roaring eighties
  • the crash
  • afterlife
  • studies

Introduction

Holmes a Court is something of a contrast with Bond and Skase, distinguished by a subtlety and creativity rarely evident in their careers but an ambition that matched - if not overtook - that of fellow entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch, with whom he clashed on several occasions.

Beginnings

Robert Holmes a Court was born in 1937, a relative of Lord Heytesbury. After studying forestry in New Zealand he moved to Perth from South Africa in 1961 to study law at UWA. He formed his own practice in 1967; author Nicholas Hasluck later became a partner.

Holmes a Court established the beginnings of the Bell Group through acquisition and turnaround of the ailing Western Australian Worsted & Woollen Mills (WA Woollen, later Albany Woollen Mills) in 1970. Acquisition of the company - which provided a listing on the Perth Stock Exchange - and investment in new machinery was funded by Holmes a Court's successful speculation in the stock market. WA Woollen gained control of a string of small businesses such as Westate Electrical Industries before buying the Bell Bros transport and contracting group for $9.6 million through a reverse takeover of in 1973. Bell gained control of the Albany Advertiser, Katanning Great Southern Herald and radio station 6VA in 1973. Bids for companies such as Griffin Coal, Greenbushes Tin and Emu Wines were unsuccessful but lucrative.

He secured national attention in 1979 through an unsuccessful bid for the Melbourne-based Ansett Transport Industries (ATI) conglomerate, defeated by Murdoch and roadfreight group TNT. Control of ATI delivered a key TEN television station to Murdoch. Bell walked away with $11 million profit for deployment in future bids. By the end of 1980 had $100 million in cash and strategic stakes in range of companies, including 25% of TNT, 11% of Belgian shipper ABC Containerline and 7% of Elders Goldsborough Mort. Bell walked away from a $120 million bid for Elders in 1981 with a $16.5 million profit; Elders subsequently was absorbed by raider John Elliott's Elders IXL.

The roaring eighties

In 1980 Holmes a Court unsuccessfully bid for the London Times and launched the Western Mail newspaper in Perth, challenging the stodgy West Australian that was then owned by the Herald & Weekly Times (H&WT) group and later formed the core of WA Newspapers (WAN). 1981 saw him take stakes in Rolls Royce and Rugby Portland Cement and make an unsuccessful bid for control of the H&WT group.

In 1982, Bell acquired Seven network affiliate TVW-7 in Perth and Holmes a Court successfully moved on Lew Grade's moribund Associated Communications Corporation (ACC), famously but unfairly characterised as 'sunk by the Titanic' after failure of would-be blockbuster Raise The Titanic. Bell disposed of ACC's stake in UK ITV operator Central Independent Television (acquired by Carlton) and its travel and music publishing interests (US celebrity Michael Jackson bought the rights to the Beatles' Northern Songs copyrights). Bell subsequently acquired a television station in Adelaide and a handful of radio stations. In 1982 Bell bid for Carlton & United Breweries and Elders IXL, departing with a profit.

Bell acquired Weeks Petroleum, endowed with a 2.5% royalty on oil and gas production in Bass Strait by the Esso-BHP consortium and in 1985 acquired 13% of US mining giant Asarco, rescued by its Australian associate Mount Isa Mines (MIM) for $140 million. A bid for local utility Fremantle Gas & Coke was unsuccessful bid.

Bell's offshoot Bell Resources then made a daring bid for control of the torpid resources and steelmaking group BHP, at that time Australia's largest company. BHP was 'rescued' by Elders IXL in 1986: Elders bought 20% of BHP for $2 billion, BHP bought $1 billion of Elders preference shares.

Elders was a Melbourne-based conglomerate that began with jam maker Henry Jones, engulfed agribusiness Elder Smith Goldsborough Mort and - in tandem with Bond - absorbed Carlton & United Breweries (Australia's largest brewer) before taking over UK brewers and Australian wineries. The deal later resulted in action against Elders executives by corporate regulators.

In 1986 he served as a 'white knight' in defeating a £1.9 billion hostile bid from Lloyds Bank for competitor Standard Chartered. 1987 saw Bell buy a stake in Pioneer Concrete, take control of machinery distributor Waugh & Josephson and unsuccessfully bid for the Australian H&WT media group, which fell to Murdoch for $1.8 billion. One consolation prize was acquisition of the West Australian and other H&WT operations in WA. Holmes a Court spent US$800m to buy 9.6% of Texaco's stock, depressed after litigation by fellow oil giant Pennzoil regarding the 1984 US$10 billion acquisition of Getty Oil Company, and made a raid on steelmaker USX (which had acquired Marathon Oil for US$6 billion).

By that time he was one of the most globally feared corporate raiders, perceived as having the skill to walk away from an unsuccessful bid with the equivalent of a golden handshake. His reputation had not been damaged through injudicious acquisitions funded by junk bonds or a demonstrated inability to run a large organisation. He public persona was underpinned by a landmark collection of indigenous art, along with mogul bibelots such as vintage cars, a tasteful Regents Park residence in London, Double Island off Queensland's coast and the Vasse Felix winery.

The Crash

The 1987 Crash, with stock market prices diving 25% in a day and corporate lenders running for cover (Merrill Lynch for example withdrew Bell's $1 billion line of credit), posed difficulties. Bell Group had substantial debts along with assets that were valuable but not generating commensurate revenue.

Heytesbury - Holmes a Court's family company - at that time had 43% of Bell Group. Apart from strategic stakes in takeover targets (notably Texaco, UK retailer Sears and UK banks Standard Chartered and Morgan Grenfell) Bell Group's main asset was a 40% stake in offshoot Bell Resources, cash-rich as the result of a Court's bids for BHP and other companies. Bell Resources was not able to buy its parent; share raids on Bell Resources by Packer, John Spalvins' Adsteam and Ron Brierley's IEL (arguably unsuccessful greenmail attempts) meant that Bell couldn't acquire its subsidiary and thereby access the money.

In what seems to have been a move to regroup rather than distress Holmes a Court intially disposed of some Perth property interests and then succumbed to a takeover by Bond in tandem with the State Government Insurance Commission (SGIC). Both took a 19.9% stake in Bell Group; Bond was subsequently forced to bid for other shares and ended up with 68% of Bell Group. Holmes a Court retained 6% of Bell Group and had received $340 million from the sales to SGIC and Bond.

As noted on the preceding page of this profile, Bond Corporation then transferred over $1 billion from Bell Resources for its own purposes, a move that initially wasn't disclosed to the minority shareholders in Bell (indeed in Bond) and breached the WA company code. Bond disposed of some assets - for example TVW-7 was sold to Skase's Qintex - and incorporated the newspaper holdings into Bond Media.

As the Bond corporate collapse gathered pace Holmes a Court cultivated his personal interests, including acquisitions under his Heytesbury companies and a buy-back of Stoll Moss Theatres. In 1989 Heytesbury for example bought the Victoria River Downs (VRD) pastoral station and major Sherwin Pastoral Co cattle stations. He profitably traded in and out of Jaguar, Christies & New Zealand media group Wilson & Horton (WH).

Speculation that Holmes a Court was about to rebuild his public empire coincided with announcement that Bond Corporation Holdings had made a $980m loss, with lenders moving in and selling off assets. Elders IXL followed with announcement of a $1.3 billion loss. Bond Corporation entered a scheme of arrangement in 1991, with receivers taking charge of Bell Group and Bell Resources before floating WA Newspapers as an independent company for about $220 million.

Presumably to the relief of boards and executives in Australia and overseas, Holmes a Court succumbed to a heart attack in 1990.

Afterlife

Having died intestate, under WA law his estate was divided equally among his wido Janet and children. In 1991 Heytesbury bought the John Holland engineering group, later plagued by cost-overruns and litigation. It rationalised assets (eg some paintings and the stud at Wallen was sold in 1997).

Peter Holmes a Court enjoyed success with theatrical production company Back Row Productions, launched in 1992, and went on to serve as CEO of major pastoralist Australian Agricultural Company (AACo), in which he took a 9% stake, after selling his interests in Heytesbury for an estimated $30 million. AACo had been acquired and spun off by diversified group Futuris, headed by Robert Holmes a Court's lieutenant Alan Newman. Perhaps ironically, Futuris absorbed much of the Elders agribusiness in 1995 as part of that conglomerate's dismemberment after the relationship with BHP unravelled.

In 1999 Heytesbury sold 70% of John Holland Australia to competitor Leighton, with the remaining 30% going in 2003. The family's Stoll Moss theatres group, acquired through the ACC takeover, was sold to Andrew Lloyd Webber for £87 million in 2001.

In 2004 Peter Holmes a Court resigned as CEO of AACo.

Studies

Surprisingly, there has been no full-scale biography of Holmes a Court. He appears in passing in Trevor Sykes' The Bold Riders: Behind Australia's Corporate Collapses (North Sydney: Allen & Unwin 1994), Paul Barry's Going For Broke: How Bond Got Away With It (Sydney: Bantam 2000), Last of a Kind: The Sinking of Lew Grade (London: Quartet 1987) by Quentin Falk & Dominic Prince and in Still Dancing: My Story (London: Collins 1987) by Lew Grade.

Patricia Edgar's Janet Holmes a Court: A Biography (Sydney: HarperCollins 1999) is recommended. Undaunted (Sydney: Macmillan 1998) by Ethnee Holmes a Court is his mother's autobiography. His little-known brother Simon is the subject of Geoff Elliott's quirky The Other Brother (North Sydney: Allen & Unwin 2005)

Context is provided by King Icahn: The Biography of a Renegade Capitalist (New York: Dutton 1993) by Mark Stevens, The Predators' Ball: The Inside Story of Drexel Burnham & the Rise of the Junk Bond Raiders (New York: Penguin 1989) by Connie Bruck and The New Financial Capitalists: Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & the Creation of Corporate Value (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1998) by George Baker & George Smith. The move against Ansett features in Ansett: The Collapse (South Melbourne: Lothian 2002) by Geoff Easdown & Peter Wilms.