Survival instincts and sheer money-making nous
Kerry Stokes: The Boy From Nowhere By Andrew Rule HarperCollins, 520pp, $49.99 (HB) KERRY Stokes is a phenomenon too few Australians fully appreciate. He’s possibly the greatest rags-to-riches story in our history, and although he was raised in Melbourne and now lives in Sydney, the decades he spent in Perth making his fortune mean he is one billionaire who has remained largely a mystery.
It’s not that we ignore “westerners”, given the extensive media coverage devoted to many of Perth’s colourful business identities, so it’s possibly Stokes’s enigmatic character that’s allowed him to fly under the radar for so long.
November 22-23, 2014
Journalist Andrew Rule has done an enviable job of capturing the essence of this fascinating man, from his Dickensian early life in the slums of Carlton to his relentless deal-making in the west and beyond. While the book is outstanding, it falls short when dealing with Stokes’s troubled personal life, and it has a few structural problems.
The innate survival instincts and sheer money-making nous that Stokes demonstrated at a very young age, despite having little education or family networks, is staggering. Consider these few facts. He leaves school at 14 in a semi-literate state and does a range of manual jobs, and by 19 he’s skipped a court hearing and flown to Perth to follow a girl and start a new life. He bluffs his way into a job installing TV antennas, then as a real estate agent, and within a few years he’s running his own business buy- ing and selling land on Perth’s urban fringe. He’s been his own boss since the age of 22.
From land subdivision he went to developing shopping centres, and then to regional TV and radio stations before he bought into the Seven Network in the mid-90s. Then he moved into mining equipment ahead of Western Australia’s resources boom. Stokes’s sense of timing is incredible. He avoided WA Inc in the 1980s and was cashed up when the 1987 crash hit, having sold assets to Frank Lowy.
Rule’s meticulous research into Stokes’s early life identifies two key factors: the power of literacy and the fundamental importance of doing your research. Perhaps the most important person to cross Stokes’s path was a bear of a man named Clarrie who decided that this foulmouthed 14-year-old tar boy working at a Melbourne woolstore needed to learn the English language. Clarrie gave Stokes a dictionary and a notebook and told him to learn three words a day. Stokes heeded the advice.
When Stokes arrived penniless in Perth in 1959 he secured the TV antenna job even though he knew nothing about it. He asked if he could start the following Monday so that he could spend several days in the library learning just what was involved.
When it came to land development, Stokes used to drive along back roads in rural areas outside Perth to spot potential land for subdivision. One day he noticed land for sale that no one wanted because it looked swampy. He went to the Lands Department and obtained hydrology maps that showed the water table wasn’t a problem and that it could be fixed by drainage. When the drainage was installed six months later, he made a 20-fold profit on this