John Huxley reports on the 1980s boomers who bombed - and say that they will be back.
No one, perhaps, better exemplifies the spectacular "boom to bust and back again" story of Australian entrepreneurs than the podgy, Perth-based businessman Mark Povey. Still only 30, he was, in the words of one commentator, "a typical child of the greedy '80s". Povey began and ended the decade on the dole. Between times he had been carried on a bizarre roller-coaster ride through Australian business, effortlessly making millions and effortlessly, it seems, losing them.
His story is simply told. Having built up a grubstake while working as a barman at a bush pub, he returned to Perth and began driving, then buying and later selling taxi cabs. The proceeds he pumped into petrol stations and oil exploration. By the mid-1980s he was a multi-millionaire - at only 25, acclaimed as Australia's youngest. Newspaper pictures of the time show him posing proudly in front of his pink Rolls-Royce. Appropriately, perhaps, he is wearing a cowboy hat.
But like many young men in a hurry, Povey could not, or would not, stop, or even slow down, despite warnings that his A$30 million corporation was becoming seriously overstretched. Just as he was planning to buy into merchant banking, bankroll a Formula One motor-racing team, maybe even move on a television station or two, his company collapsed with debts of more than A$10 million. At 28, Povey was bankrupt.
Since then he has waited on tables at the family seafood restaurant (until that too went into receivership), lived on the dole ("No employer would want to touch me with a bargepole," he once complained), and was last heard of trying to sell insurance policies. And, of course, plotting his second coming.
Povey's demise may have been more precipitate than most, but it is sadly typical of Australian tycoons. Homo entrepreneurius australiensis (great, risk-taking, debt-carrying southern man) has become virtually extinct. Not so long ago he stalked the world, a feared species, preying on underperforming companies in five continents, parlaying cheap and abundant credit into seemingly endless business empires. Alan Bond, Robert Holmes a Court, John Elliott, Christopher Skase and many smaller movers and shakers, all of them making the methods of Rupert Murdoch before them look positively genteel. They were the wild colonial boys, the upstarts from down under, corporate iconoclasts whose rough-and-tumble tactics first affronted, then frightened the sedate and orthodox traditionalists who inhabited City and company boardrooms and bourses and were strangers to the newcomers' behaviour.
Bond - like Povey, from West Australia, the self-styled "state of excitement" - built a business empire which at its peak had worldwide assets worth almost A$10 billion and, as it crumbled, borrowings of even more. A national hero after his yachting exploits, he rapidly moved during the '80s from property into brewing and broadcasting, silver mining and satellites. He was the archetypal larger-than-life entrepreneur, a flamboyant "businessman in a blur", an inveterate doer of deals, buying and selling everything from villages in the Cotswolds to the world's most expensive Van Gogh paintings. So widespread and various were the trappings of his wealth that a "director of toys" was employed to keep track of them.
The more patrician, but no less ruthless, Robert Holmes a Court, another Perth man, became the nation's first billionaire (and later its first ex-billionaire) in a decade of wheeling and dealing through Australia, England and America. Only narrowly did he fail to take control of the nation's largest company, Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP), known as "The Big Australian".
Melbourne-based John Elliott, nicknamed "Thug" as much for his working man's love of footy (Aussie Rules, of course), fags and Foster's as for his Toby jug features, transformed Elders IXL from a suburban jam-maker that no one had heard of into one of the world's biggest brewers.
Christopher Skase, university drop-out and frustrated financial journalist, made squillions as his company, Qintex, moved from property, tourism and the media ("a TV station was the must have for any Australian aspiring magnate in the '80s", wrote one analyst). Accompanied everywhere by socialite wife Pixie, he bought flashy yachts, threw flashy parties, wearing still flashier waistcoats. Rarely had consumption been more conspicuous. It was, as one former colleague of Skase wrote, like "Dallas down under". For a few weeks, even, he became a Hollywood movie mogul.