Sur­vival instincts and sheer money-mak­ing nous

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Paul Cleary

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

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