Alan Bond: Paul Barry's account of the a who tricked Australia | video
It’s May 1994, three years after Alan Bond’s business empire has collapsed with debts of around $5 billion, and the world’s wealthiest bankrupt is sitting in the dock at Sydney’s Federal Court, clutching his sandwiches in a green plastic bag.
“I’m Paul Barry from Four Corners, remember me?”
Paul Barry to Alan Bond
As he faces his interrogators, who are chasing the $50 million fortune he has hidden offshore, Australia’s most dynamic entrepreneur stares into space like a zombie, as if he’s brain dead.
They’re asking Bond about bank accounts in Switzerland and Jersey, companies in Liechtenstein and properties in London, but he can’t remember a thing.
On occasion he pops a pill into his mouth or pauses for a minute and asks for the question to be repeated. He’s doing his best, he says, but there were so many deals, it’s too long ago, and he has not been well.
At the end of the day, he shuffles out of court, a sad figure in a crumpled raincoat, bent and pale. But round the corner, out of sight of the cameras, he straightens up and tosses the bag away.
That evening he’s back at the Sheraton Wentworth working the phones, calling Switzerland, the USA and Singapore, doing deals, just like the old days.
Next morning, I resolve to test his memory. Surely no man can forget whether he has $50 million overseas? Surely this is all an act? I catch him as he comes to court with his lawyer and hand him my business card.
“I’m Paul Barry from Four Corners, remember me?” He stamps on it, dances on it, grinds it into the pavement and tells me to keep away. “Keep right away.”
“So you do remember me,” I say, “so you do remember me.”
This confrontation is captured by our cameras and broadcast on the ABC, and it becomes a memorable moment in TV history. It almost makes me famous. And understandably so, because it reveals so much about the man, his nerve, and the lies he told to save his skin.
A year later, Australia’s greatest salesman was back to his best. He had fobbed off his creditors with a payment of 0.6¢ in the dollar and was smiling his 10,000 kilowatt smile as he married his long-time girlfriend, Diana Bliss, at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
His skin was shiny, plump and prosperous again, and as the lightbulbs flashed, he looked pumped up with pride in his white tie-and-tails, like a big black and white bullfrog.
All signs of brain damage had miraculously disappeared.
Times would sour again, of course, as the police caught up with him and Bond was jailed for the biggest fraud in Australian history, for taking $1200 million from the shareholders of Bell Resources. And he would then have three-and-a-half years in jail to contemplate why he was no longer loved.
But insight and self-knowledge were not his strongest suit, and he would never be able to figure it out. In his mind, he was the victim of a conspiracy: brought down by politicians and journalists, and people like me who bore no gratitude for the good he had done for Australia.
And there were some achievements. In winning the America’s Cup in 1983 and building an international business empire – with gold mines, property, breweries, airships, TV stations, a telephone company in Chile, British Satellite Broadcasting, and an entire English village – Bond put Australia on the world stage and showed there was more to us than sheep, coal, cricket and funny animals.
But he also broke records for fraud, building up debts and stiffing his creditors of hundreds of millions of dollars. And for refusing to admit he’d done anything wrong.
I only met Bond face-to-face a couple of times, and normally he used these moments to warn me off or threaten to sue. But in writing two books about his life, I spent years on his tail – looking at his deals, talking to his friends, interviewing schoolmates, teachers, business colleagues, past employees, police investigators and, of course his victims – and I got to know him well.
He was an amazing individual, with boundless confidence and energy, and an unshakable conviction that things would turn out right. And he used his skills to win yachting’s greatest prize after three successive defeats, and to build his billion-dollar fortune from nothing.
But Bond was also a man with a huge ego, scant regard for the rules, and precious little empathy. And it was with other people’s money that he took huge risks as he carved off millions of dollars in secret fees for himself and his family.
Bond also had a strange ability to believe his own lies. The official version of his childhood – as told by Alan – was that he was a scholarship winner who could speak four languages, but the reality, according to his first employer, Fred Parnell, was that he could “barely speak English”.
In truth, he was unhappy and unpopular at school in London and Fremantle (where he came at the age of 11) and was constantly running away from home. By the age of 14 he had a criminal record in Western Australia as a petty thief, and at 18 he got into more trouble with the law when he was caught trying to burgle someone’s house, while dressed up as a meter reader.
Famously, Alan’s father told friends that he was worried about the boy, and that he would either become the richest man in Australia or end up in jail. As it happened, of course, Bondy did both.
Those who liked Alan waxed lyrical about how persuasive he was and how his energy could inspire others to do anything. Even his enemies admitted he had amazing talents in this area. He also had a fantastic nerve and a brilliant eye for a deal.
But his style of doing business was always going to end in disaster, because he made his fortune by borrowing big to punt on a rising share and property market. And, sooner or later, interest rates rise and markets fall.
Bond nearly went bust three or four times during the 1970s and 1980s before finally doing so in 1991, and he only survived the slumps by persuading his creditors that he was their best chance of them getting their money back.
These practice runs gave him the chance to protect his assets so that he would remain rich if his business empire collapsed.
And so, in 1974, he put his new $10 million family mansion on the Swan River into a family trust and set up a series of other trusts for his wife Eileen and their four children. Then, as his business expanded around the world, he began salting away millions of dollars in Jersey and London.
By the time his empire finally imploded, Bond had moved his money hub to Zug, in Switzerland, where it was managed by his Swiss bagman, Jurg Bollag, with whom I had a memorable encounter one Sunday afternoon in the early 1990s.
We had been in Zug for days, hoping to find him, and had scoped out his house on a couple of occasions, but he hadn’t been there and wasn’t answering his phone. So we gave it one last, half-hearted shot on our way to the airport.
Bollag lived in a modest house in a cul-de-sac , but our van was high enough to see over the hedge, and as we pulled up outside, we could see him sitting in a deckchair in the garden.
We were so surprised that we froze, but managed to recover before he saw us and poke a camera over his garden gate. “This is Sunday,” he protested, and called the police, but not before we had asked him why he was so nice to Alan.
Bollag had put his name on the deeds of three or four Bond properties around the world and stumped up millions of dollars for horses to be ridden by his daughter Suzanne or paintings to be hung on his walls. Bollag also claimed to own the family’s $10 million Tudor manor house, Upp Hall in Hertfordshire, which I visited in the early 1990s as we traced Bond’s fortune for Four Corners.
Both men insisted that he allowed the Bonds to live there rent-free out of the kindness of his heart.
But finally, after years of swearing on oath that black was white, Alan finally admitted in his autobiography in 2003 that it had belonged to the family all along. And, surprisingly, no one seemed to care or be surprised. Perhaps they already knew.
But it wasn’t just the fact that Bond remained rich while all who trusted him lost out. It was the way he treated some of the people he met along the way. When searching for an answer to why his business empire imploded, Alan often blamed his managing director, Peter Beckwith, who had been with him for 20 years.
But that explanation was both untrue and unfair. It was Alan who had flown round the world buying stuff for billions, often without telling his team back home, and it was Beckwith and others who had found the money and made it work. But Beckwith was easy to blame: he had died of a brain tumour in 1990, and could not fight back.
But there are worse examples. In 1985, Bond Corp bought Tooheys, the beer company, in the biggest takeover Australia had ever seen. And one of his first acts in the aftermath was to tell the landlords who sold his beer that they no longer had an interest in their pubs – so when their leases expired they would be out on their ear.
These were battlers like Bond had once been, people who had put their all into buying their pubs and building them up, and who were relying on a decent sale for their retirement years. And Bond was prepared to throw them out with nothing to show for all their money and hard work.
“Burn the bastards,” Bond told one of his managers when asked what he should do. And a huge legal fight then ensued.
By the time it ended in victory for the leaseholders, one publican had taken his own life, others had suffered nervous breakdowns, and families had split apart under the strain. Bond believed he had the letter of the law on his side – even though commitments had been given to the leaseholders that their investment was safe – but he had no compassion for the people whose lives he was planning to ruin.
The last run-in I had with Bond came in 2007 when he was trying to pull off deals in oil, gold and diamonds and make another billion.
I travelled to Lesotho in South Africa to see his diamond mine, and to Singapore and London to talk to his ex-partners who were complaining that he had pocketed their money and swindled them out of the project.
Bond had painted dreams to them, just as he had done to the world’s bankers in the 1980s, and persuaded them they would get rich together. But ultimately the gold and diamond deals had turned to dust and they had lost their dough. One of his partners, Greg Kennedy, who was himself no angel, told me he would sue Bond and that “Alan must be stopped”. But he never went ahead with the threat.
Bond did try to sue me, however, and brought in money from offshore bank accounts to pay his hefty legal bills, but he didn’t even get to first base. By then his reputation was in tatters anyway.
Now, of course, his deals will stop. His extraordinary life is over. So how should we remember him?
As a hero or a villain, or a bit of both? Well, he made life interesting, that’s for sure. And the world needs risk-takers like him to get things done.
But if Bond comes back in another life, my hope would be that he has a little more regard for the truth and that he takes as much care with other people’s money as he always did with his own. He had such amazing talents. It’s a shame he didn’t use them better.
Paul Barry is the host of Media Watch on ABC TV and the author of The Rise and Fall of Alan Bond.