Robert Holmes à Court
Michael Robert Hamilton Holmes à Court (27 July 1937, Johannesburg, South Africa – 2 September 1990, Perth, Western Australia) was an entrepreneur who became Australia's first businessman worth over a billion dollars before dying suddenly of a heart attack in 1990 at the age of 53.
Holmes à Court was one of the world's most feared corporate raiders through the 1980s, having built his empire single-handedly from virtually nothing to a diversified resources and media group with an estimated worth prior to the 1987 stockmarket crash of about A$2 billion. Shareholders in the company that became his flagship, 'Bell Resources', enjoyed enormous investment growth.
Holmes à Court was born in Johannesburg but spent much of his early life in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He was educated at Michaelhouse, in Natal, South Africa. Holmes à Court began his tertiary studies in 1957, at Massey University in New Zealand. He graduated with a degree in agricultural science (forestry). He then moved to Perth, Western Australia in 1961, to study law at the University of Western Australia. In 1966, he married science teacher Janet Ranford. Holmes à Court formed a law practice in Perth in 1967, in partnership with Nicholas Hasluck.
Holmes à Court entered the corporate stage by accident in 1970, when his law firm was asked to act as receiver of a small publicly listed company, Western Australian Worsted & Woollen Mills (later Albany Woollen Mills, also known as AWM or WA Wool). The company was the single largest employer in the regional city of Albany. In what he later described as his most challenging "takeover", probably because it was his first, he found a way to invest $500,000 in the ailing business, on the proviso that the state Minister for Industry, Sir Charles Court, would persuade the Government of Western Australia to forgive the $500,000 in loans they had made.
The source of funds for his initial investment in WA Wool were never made clear, since the $75,000 deposit for the purchase price of WA Wool shares came from a bank account that he shared with the partners in his law firm at the time, and his partners asked for these funds to be repaid.1 Nevertheless since Holmes a Court had no other apparent source of income at the time, a possibility is that his mother Ethnee financed his first foray into business, since she had stood to inherit from her mother Florence, who in turn had stood to inherit from her second husband H.R. Cumming, a wealthy Rhodesian land owner, businessman and colleague of Cecil Rhodes himself. Cumming had helped raise Ethnee during her childhood on his estate outside Gweru. As an adult and while living in Rhodesia and South Africa, Ethnee had also established and sold both a riding school and a game lodge in Chobe, and eventually sold several properties that she owned as investments giving the funds to Robert to manage on her migration to Australia in 1967.2
After acquiring WA Wool, Holmes à Court made it more competitive by reducing production costs, mainly by installing the latest wool milling and weaving machinery. This was acquired on favourable terms from a leading Belgian equipment manufacturer, which was keen to enter the Australian market at that time. He now controlled a company listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, and from there he began to gain control of a string of small businesses, including Westate Electrical Industries.
Holmes à Court was also a prominent member of the horse-racing community and owner of one of Western Australia's premier studs, Heytesbury Stud. Together with his racing manager, Valerie Gannon, he enjoyed great success with thoroughbreds such as Black Knight, Haulpak, Pago Pago and Family of Man.
In 1973, Holmes à Court's AWM acquired Bell Brothers, a well known West Australian transport and contracting group, for $9.6 million, through a reverse takeover. Bell brothers would ultimately become his flagship company as Bell Resources.
Bell acquired media interests including the Albany Advertiser, the Katanning weekly, the Great Southern Herald, the Collie Mail and radio station 6VA. It also made unsuccessful bids for companies such as Griffin Coal, Greenbushes Tin and Emu Wines. These bids, while unsuccessful, earned significant profits mainly by aggressive defences from owners resulting in inflated share prices held by the bidder.
In 1977, Holmes à Court's brother Simon disappeared in mysterious circumstances in Africa.3 His abandoned car was found more than 1000 km from his home and where he was last seen in Botswana. Author Geoff Elliott wrote a book about the disappearance.4
During 1979, Bell made an unsuccessful bid for Ansett Transport Industries but was defeated by Rupert Murdoch and roadfreight group TNT. However, a profit of $11 million was made by Bell for future bids.
Bell Group made an unsuccessful bid for The Times in 1980, and at the same time launched a new Perth newspaper, the Western Mail, challenging the The Herald and Weekly Times (H&WT) which owned the West Australian. By the end of 1980, Bell Resources had accumulated cash reserves of $100 million.
In 1981, it made a bid for Elders Goldsbrough Mort for $120 million bid and failed, but earned a profit of $16.5 million on the deal.
Bell subsequently acquired a television station in Adelaide and a handful of small regional radio stations.
In 1983, Bell bought Perth mining equipment company Wigmores, and was renamed Bell Resources.
In 1985, Bell acquired 13% of U.S. mining company Asarco for $140 million and made an unsuccessful bid for Perth utility Fremantle Gas & Coke. In 1982 it acquired Lord Grade's UK-based Associated Communications Corporation (ACC),5 and then sold off ACC's stake in Central Independent Television and ATV Music publishing interests, including Northern Songs, a company set up by The Beatles to control copyright of their music. ATV Music Publishing was bought by Michael Jackson, and as part of the deal, Holmes à Court persuaded Jackson to make a brief visit to Perth, in order to appear on Channel 7's annual Telethon. 67
Also in 1985, Bell Resources made its biggest and most daring bid to date for control of resources and steelmaking giant BHP, which was Australia's largest company. Before the deal was finalised the following year, Elders IXL took a 20% stake in BHP, for $2 billion. In turn, BHP purchased $1 billion of Elders preference shares. The deal later resulted in action against Elders executives, including chairman John Elliott by the corporate regulator.
In 1987, Bell purchased a stake in Pioneer Concrete and made a second unsuccessful bid for the H&WT group. The bid went to takeover competitor Rupert Murdoch for $1.8 billion. Bell took ownership of The West Australian, Perth's main daily newspaper. Bell also spent US$800 million, to acquire 9.6% of Texaco stock.
By the time of the October 1987 international stockmarket crash, Bell Group — like many investment companies — had accumulated assets that were valuable but not generating revenue sufficient to cover debts. Holmes à Court's family company, Heytesbury Holdings, at the time owned 43% of Bell Group, which in turn owned 40% of the cash rich Bell Resources. However, Bell Resources was not able to buy its parent, due to share raids being made on Bell Resources by Kerry Packer, Adelaide Steamship Company (under John Spalvins) and IEL (Ron Brierley). Merrill Lynch withdrew its $1 billion line of credit facility, meaning that the parent couldn't acquire its subsidiary and thereby access the money.
Holmes à Court initially disposed of some Perth properties before accepting a joint takeover by Bond Corporation and the State Government Insurance Commission (SGIC), in which both parties took a 19.9% stake in Bell Group. Holmes a Court retained 6% of Bell Group and received $340 million from the sale. Bond Corp was subsequently forced to bid for other shares in Bell with the result that it ended up with a majority shareholding of 68% of Bell Group. Bond Corp then proceeded to strip $500 million from Bell Resources in an effort to prop up its own debts. The asset stripping included transferring cash from Bell Resources for its own purposes (thus breaching the company code and ultimately sending its chairman Alan Bond to jail), transfer of ownership of newspaper holdings into Bond Media and disposal of certain assets including TVW-7.
During 1988, Holmes à Court concentrated on the rebuilding and expansion of his Heytesbury subsidiaries acquiring Stoll Moss Theatres in London, Sherwin Pastoral Co (owner of vast cattle stations in Northern Australia), and the Vasse Felix winery in Margaret River.
In 1989, Heytesbury bought the Victoria River Downs and major Sherwin Pastoral Co cattle and pastoral stations. Holmes à Court also traded in Jaguar stock, as well as Christies and New Zealand media group Wilson & Horton.
During 1990, Bond Corporation announced a record $980m loss and Elders IXL followed with an 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.
Heytesbury Holdings continues as one of the largest private companies in Australia. Janet Holmes à Court ran Heytesbury from the time of her husband's death until 2005, when she retired. She was, at one time, Australia's richest woman. The couple's eldest son, Peter Holmes à Court, is now a major investor and entrepreneur in his own right, after divesting himself of his share of Heytesbury, reported as A$35 million.8 Peter Holmes à Court along with Russell Crowe is the 75.8% owner of National Rugby League club South Sydney Rabbitohs. Another son, Paul Holmes à Court has since taken over as chief executive. Robert Holmes à Court's other children are Simon (married, with four children) and Catherine.
Robert and Janet Holmes à Court had 12 grandchildren by 2005, according to an interview with her.9
- Janet Holmes A Court, by Patricia Edgar ISBN13 9780732257156
- Undaunted: An Autobiography, by Ethnee Holmes a Court, Pan Macmillan Australia Pty, Limited, 1998 ISBN 0732909309, 9780732909307
- Tracy Bowden. "Story of the other Holmes a Court brother". Australian Broadcasting Corporation - 7:30 Report. Retrieved 2006-10-28.
- Geoff Elliott, The Other Brother, The Search for Simon Holmes à Court, North Sydney: Allen & Unwin 2005 (ISBN 17-411-432-41).
- "Holmes à Court, Michael Robert Hamilton (1937 - 1990)". Australian Dictionary of Biography Online Edition. Melbourne University Publishing, The Australian National University. Retrieved 25 Dec 2010.
- "Michael Jackson's visit to Perth (Australia) in 1985 for Channel 7's Telethon" (Youtube video). 25 June 2009 news report.
- Perth's love affair with Michael Jackson
- "Company Keen To Beef Up Industry". The Canberra Times (canberratimes.com.au). 22 May 2002. Retrieved 2010-05-26.
- Peter Lewis: "Producers await outcome of Pigeon Hole project", 4 September 2005
Edgar, Patricia (1999). Janet Holmes à Court. Australia. Harper Collins. ISBN 0-7322-5715-8The official biography of Robert Holmes à Court's wife
- Holmes a Court Website
- Holmes a Court Family Tree
- SMH article on Tony Oates, Bond Corporation executive
- Ketupa article on relationship with other media moguls