Australian media tycoon whose World Series changed the face of international cricket
Wednesday 28 December 2005
Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer, businessman: born Sydney, New South Wales 17 December 1937; chairman, Consolidated Press Holdings 1974-2005; AC 1983; married 1963 Roslyn Weedon (one son, one daughter); died Sydney 26 December 2005.
Kerry Packer was one of the last of the great Australian media tycoons whose families built their dynasties from scratch. In this league, only Rupert Murdoch survived him. Packer was born into one of the toughest newspaper families in one of the world's toughest newspaper cities. Dismissed early on as the "idiot son" of Sir Frank Packer, Kerry eventually expanded his father's empire to the point where he became Australia's richest and most powerful figure, with a contempt for business rivals and politicians alike.
He changed the face of international cricket when he went to war with the cricket establishment in 1977 in a successful bid to win television rights to the game, turning cricket in the process into a more commercial, television-friendly competition.
In his later years, Packer made several attempts to take over the Australian newspaper empire once controlled by the Fairfax family, against whom the Packers fought for years. It was not money that stopped him, but government regulations that prevented television barons like him owning newspapers in the same city. He also tried to gain control of Westpac Banking Corporation, Australia's largest and oldest bank, but walked away when the board stood up to him. Both ventures were typical of Packer's business philosophy: he wanted all or nothing.
His health was his other main preoccupation in the last years of his life. The Packers always suffered from heart disease. Kerry's father and grand- father both died from heart failure, at the ages of 67 and 54 respectively, as did his mother at 53. Kerry Packer himself once said that he would never live past 50. And he was almost right.
In late 1990, two months short of his 53rd birthday, he suffered a massive heart attack while playing polo in Sydney. Technically he died, when his heart stopped beating for seven minutes. But he famously came back from the dead when he discharged himself from hospital a week later and returned to the same polo field, where he abused photographers who were trying to record his recovery.
It was not Packer's first brush with death, or his last. He had a cancerous kidney removed in London in 1986 after collapsing while playing golf at Gleneagles. And in July 1998, he had his private DC8 jet fitted out as a hospital and flew from Sydney to New York, where he underwent yet another round of heart surgery, at Cornell Medical Center. Paul Barry, in his book The Rise and Rise of Kerry Packer (1993), the most complete account of the secretive tycoon's life, described him aptly as "vast, superhuman, angry and unstoppable". For the last five years of his life, Packer survived on a transplanted kidney donated by Nick Ross, his helicopter pilot.
Kerry Packer began his career in Sydney in the mid-1950s as a junior executive at Australian Consolidated Press, the company his father, Sir Frank Packer, founded in the 1930s. Sir Frank was an old-fashioned, tyrannical proprietor in a city where the newspaper business was driven by cut-throat competition. The building where the Packer family published two of Australia's most wealthy tabloid newspapers, the Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Telegraph, and its most profitable magazine, The Australian Women's Weekly, could have come straight from an old-fashioned Hollywood newspaper set.
The wood-panelled newsroom echoed to the din of reporters pounding on clanking typewriters stories of murders and city scandals, and of harassed sub-editors in eyeshades barking orders to copy boys. Sir Frank Packer, a one-time champion boxer, was glimpsed by the staff only in lifts or his chauffeur-driven limousine. But his rule cast terror through the place, as his son's would do 20 years later.
Kerry Packer first sprang to public prominence in 1960, soon after the young Rupert Murdoch had arrived in Sydney as a publisher from Adelaide. Murdoch quickly became embroiled with the Packers in a battle for control of an ailing suburban printing plant. On the night of 7 June that year, the plant was occupied by groups of men from both sides, including the burly Kerry Packer and his equally burly elder brother, Clyde. Punches were exchanged, and the plant's manager was shoved into the street. The enterprising Murdoch - who eventually won the battle in a legal settlement - had sent a photographer along, and splashed the story next day on the front page of the Daily Mirror, his recently acquired Sydney tabloid, under the headline, "Knight's Sons in City Brawl".
The incident foreshadowed a new landscape, which brought big changes for Kerry Packer. In 1972, his health failing, Sir Frank decided to sell the two Telegraphs to Murdoch for A$15m (then about £7m), turning Sydney from a city with four newspaper proprietors only a few years earlier into one with two: Murdoch and the Fairfax family. Consolidated Press was left with its profitable magazines and Channel Nine television stations.
Clyde Packer, always considered the intellectually brighter son, and the most likely heir, fought with his father, took his inheritance and left Sydney for California. So, when Sir Frank died only two years later, in 1974, it was the less prominent Kerry who succeeded his father in all corporate posts.
To many people's surprise, Kerry Packer embarked vigorously, and with considerable acumen, on consolidating and expanding the dynasty. He took a deep personal interest in the fortunes of Channel Nine, building it to a dominant role in Australian commercial television with slick, professional programming. His formula centred on popular current affairs programmes and grasping control of the television rights for as many big sporting events as he could.
It was his obsession with television sport which introduced him to a shocked British public in 1977, when he declared war on the cricket establishment in Britain and Australia with his outrageous World Series Cricket venture. This amounted to buying the world's best cricketers to stage his own matches on Channel Nine, in order to wrest the rights held by the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation. His WSC one-day matches featured matches under lights, with players wearing coloured clothing and using a white ball. Later that year, after bans were imposed on Packer players, he took the Test and County Cricket Board to the High Court and won, with the judge ruling that the bans were an unreasonable restraint of trade.
Packer agreed to disband his cricket venture only after the Australian authorities eventually caved in and granted him long-term rights to televise and market cricket in Australia. Despite the establishment's deep bitterness towards Packer, the shake-up did produce lasting financial benefits for many under-paid players. And it demonstrated, at their most brutal, two characteristics which Packer employed as an ever more successful tycoon: the power of money, and the ability to pick the right deals.
With his television and magazine outlets generating millions of dollars, Packer moved into the 1980s expanding Consolidated Press's investments beyond its traditional media base. In Australia, he bought coal mines, ski resorts, cotton farms, a chemical company and prime investment properties in Sydney and Melbourne. And, in 1983, he bought out the public's shareholding in Consolidated Press itself, turning it into Australia's biggest private company.
In Britain, he bought a strategic stake in TV-am, an investment in the merchant bank Hill Samuel (which he later sold for a £35m profit) and a share in Rank Hovis McDougall, the food company (which reportedly lost him money). In the United States, he took over Valassis, the largest newspaper coupon-inserting business in the country. With the Australian magazines, it became the financial core of his empire.
The year 1987 was pivotal for Packer. It was the height of the 1980s boom, when banks lent money with abandon and the business horizon swarmed with men like Alan Bond, Christopher Skase, John Elliott and Robert Holmes à Court stitching together new empires built on debt. Next to Packer and Murdoch, their pedigrees as media operators were zero. But, when the Australian Labor government changed the rules on media ownership, preventing simultaneous ownership of newspapers and television in the same city, it was a signal for the new breed of entrepreneurs to swoop.
In January 1987, Bond paid Packer the extraordinary sum of A$1bn (£458m) for the Channel Nine stations. Packer later described his decision to sell as ''gut- wrenching'', and likened it to how his father must have felt when he sold the Packer family's newspapers to Murdoch 15 years earlier. Like father, like son, sentiment was overriden by the fact that the price was too good to refuse. But Packer clearly thought Bond was a fool. He claimed, rightly, that he would buy the network back one day for less than half the price Bond paid for it.
The following September, Packer took advantage of the naïvety of another of his business rivals. The young Warwick Fairfax had embarked on a bold, and, as it turned out, disastrous move to privatise the Sydney-based John Fairfax media group, which had been in Fairfax hands for almost 150 years. Packer bought for A$225m most of Fairfax's substantial stable of magazines, which he was offloading to help pay for his privatisation. The titles entrenched Packer's dominance as a magazine publisher, and strengthened his role as a predator on the Fairfax group when the privatisation began to fall apart three years later. The Fairfax group wound up in receivership, from which it emerged in 1991 under the control of Conrad Black, the Canadian proprietor, for five years.
Packer liquidated his share-market exposure just before the crash of October 1987, which devastated most of Australia's new-wave entrepreneurs. He proceeded to use his A$1bn windfall from Bond to keep on buying. In 1989, he took over Australia's biggest engineering group, Australian National Industries, and teamed up with Sir James Goldsmith and Lord Rothschild to buy into Rank Hovis McDougall in Britain. A £13.5bn raid by the same trio on BAT Industries came to nothing, and lost him money.
But, in mid-1990, Packer won his most audacious prize when he bought back the Nine television network from a debt-stricken Alan Bond for virtually nothing: he paid for it by converting preference shares into equity. As he boasted later: "You only get one Bond in your life, and I've had mine."
So, by the beginning of the Nineties, when Australia's big-business names were either dead (Holmes à Court) or crippled by debt (Bond, Elliott, Skase, Fairfax), Packer had become Australia's richest man, with his personal and corporate assets valued at A$2.1bn. By the time he died, he was worth more than three times that. The value of his business empire had quadrupled in the seven years since he privatised Consolidated Press Holdings.
There was no apparent strategy in all this. He once said he would invest in anything, as long as the price was right and the long-term prospects were strong. "I buy low and I sell high," he told his television staff in 1990, during a rare office chat. It was an approach based on gut instinct for making money, rather than formal training, which he probably inherited from his father.
Kerry Packer was born in 1937, and sent to two of Australia's best private schools: Cranbrook in Sydney and Geelong Grammar in Melbourne. His father was a tough disciplinarian, who once sent Kerry by train from Sydney back to the Melbourne school, 500 miles away, to retrieve his tennis racquet, which he had forgotten to bring home for the holidays.
Kerry also inherited from his father a passion for competitive sports, such as boxing, golf, sailing and polo. But Sir Frank never quite shared his son's compulsion for gambling. Even as a junior executive on his father's newspapers, during the Australian mining boom of the 1960s, Kerry Packer was always keenly watching the share prices clattering off the newsroom teleprinters. His gambling became legendary in later years, when he won and lost millions of pounds in single wagers on Australian racecourses and in London casinos.
With whomever he dealt, Packer's approach had one thing in common: it was blunt, and often quite rough. He commanded extraordinary loyalty from staff, whom he rewarded each Christmas with exotic hampers worth hundreds of pounds each. But, as a business negotiator, he could be a bully, overbearing and intimidating. He had contempt for many rivals, and especially for politicians whose laws and regulations he saw as nothing but an interference in the rights of people like him to make money.
In a rare and famous appearance before a parliamentary inquiry into Australia's print media in 1991, Packer reduced the MPs interrogating him to mice. He told them:
Last year I suffered a major heart attack and died. I didn't die for long, but it was long enough for me. I didn't come back to control John Fairfax. I didn't come back to break the law. And I certainly didn't intentionally come back to testify before a parliamentary inquiry.
In business he reserved his greatest contempt for the Fairfaxes, whom he accused of considering themselves holier-than-thou towards the Packers. His hatred for the Fairfaxes intensified when one of their newspapers in 1984 published leaked allegations about him from a Royal Commission inquiry into crime and corruption. The allegations proved unfounded, but Packer never forgave the Fairfaxes for what he saw as a permanent slur against his name.
The experience made him deeply distrustful of the media. He hardly ever gave an interview after that, and revealed nothing about where his dynasty was heading. Instead, he retreated into a private world revolving largely around his passion for polo and other country pursuits. Packer imposed an edict on friends and associates to say nothing about him and his family.
His son and chosen heir, James, born in 1967, followed the same strict rules. James took over five years ago as executive chairman of Publishing and Broadcasting Limited, a company that controls the family's television and magazine empire, as well as lucrative casinos in Melbourne and Perth. He is said to be less enamoured of the television side of the business than his father.
As a business figure, Kerry Packer was a rock of stability during one of the most turbulent eras in Australian corporate history. His great achievement was his astuteness in picking the right advisers and the right investments, and keeping his dynasty together while his rivals, old and new, stumbled and crashed around him. The week before he died, he clinched yet another deal to win television rights, for the Australian Football League competition, against bids from rival networks.
To a stranger's eye, there was a threatening air about Kerry Packer, writes David Frith. Physically massive, he had a countenance that was never better described than as resembling a man in a stocking mask. Had cricket's 1970s revolution been mounted instead by someone as diminutive and twinkle-eyed as, say, Lindsay Hassett, the sense of assault would never have been so great.
When Packer's plan to hijack international cricket was revealed, it seemed he was acting not only outrageously but irrationally. And few of us believed that he was actually going to play with us in a press cricket match shortly after the news of his scheme had exploded worldwide. It was Ian Chappell, one of his lieutenants in the Channel Nine World Series Cricket programme, who lured him into playing. Equipped at Harrods with shirt, flannels and cricket boots (extra large), Packer took the helicopter to Harrogate, and his grace and charm took us by surprise. Of course, there was a scramble to get an exclusive from him; but he was there to relax, alert at slip after a short not-out innings.
I happened to be batting when he came in. He was jeered by the small Yorkshire gathering, so, after he had tapped the first ball to short cover, I tried to introduce a touch of light relief with the old call of "Yes! No! Wait!" He came down the pitch, menacingly I thought. His response startled me: "I'm in your hands," he sort of growled. If only it were so.
By 1978-79 Packer's plans were well advanced. While his WSC matches (until that extraordinary night in Sydney when, given permission to play at the Sydney Cricket Ground at long last, the Packer match drew a capacity - and very noisy - crowd) were not drawing big crowds, neither was the concurrent official Ashes Test series, and the cricket world was in distracted trauma. This juddering split could not go on. Neither side would win. Cricket was bleeding.
Those of us who had played with KP in that press match were welcome in his VIP enclosure, where I had the temerity to point out that Gary Gilmour's name was mis-spelt on the giant screen. He did not caution me not to be so petty. He simply called somebody over, and within seconds the correction was made. That impressed me.
Not that he was getting soft. He glanced at my Australian Cricket Board overnight bag with the sponsor's name all over it. "That won't last the season!" he sneered. He was a master of the sharp put-down, first publicly displayed at Lord's in 1977 after talks with the establishment had irretrievably broken down: "There's a bit of the whore in all of us" and "Let the devil take the hindmost."
Packer was impressive in the High Court showdown, calm and respectful in the witness-box. The court case having been smartly won by the rebels, cricket had been plucked out of its feudal era and thrust into a time of jangling bells, dancing girls and unbridled commercialism.
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