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Baillieu and Aram dynasties survived the booms and busts

28 April 2012 2,799 views No Comment

AUSTRALIA hasn’t traditionally been a country where dynasties have held much sway. Taken to extremes dynastic succession can be problematic – look at North Korea.

This is not to say we don’t have them and one of the best known, particularly if you’re a Victorian, is the Baillieu family. They are obviously cognisant of their own place in the scheme of things because they commissioned this fascinating biography, by Peter Yule, of the person who founded what Yule regards as Australia’s greatest and most diversified business empire.

Born at Queenscliffe, Victoria, in 1859, the second son of 16 children, William Lawrence Baillieu rapidly earned a fortune as an auctioneer and investor during Melbourne’s land boom of the 1880s. But he lost it all during the disastrous crash of the early 1890s. Financially if not psychologically, he soon recovered. Through canny investments in gold mining, real estate and shares, Baillieu founded the Collins House group, which by 1914 was probably the most powerful economic force in Australia.

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Yule points out that Baillieu’s greatest achievements were in mining and the metals industries. After World War I, along with redoubtable financier William S. Robinson, he guided the Collins House companies through difficult economic times, using the huge income generated by the mines he controlled in Broken Hill to invest in a host of new manufacturing and other lucrative industries.

Yet despite his financial successes, Baillieu’s catastrophic fall in the crash of the 1890s had a lifelong negative impact on this otherwise intrepid entrepreneur. It was a dark shadow that stayed with him for the rest of his life.

As Yule explains, Baillieu “never again borrowed for speculation in land or shares”. While he did take risks in establishing new industries, only once thereafter did he risk the family’s capital. This was with Electrolytic Zinc when he had “the security of a long-term contract with the British government” rather than being involved in, as Yule aptly puts it, “the froth and bubble of the land boom”.

In the first two decades after federation in 1901, “Big Bill” Baillieu had considerable influence on the conservative side of politics. As Yule explains, it was “widely believed that non-Labor politicians, both state and federal, acted at his bidding”. Certainly in 1917 he played a key role in the establishment of the Nationalist federal government headed by W.H. (Billy) Hughes. Indeed his close relations with the so-called “Little Digger” and with other senior Australian parliamentarians led to charges that Baillieu had undue influence over them.

Fortunately Yule was able to interview Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, who not only recalls Baillieu being at her wedding but also throws light on his decision to successfully back her husband Keith Murdoch (against other rivals) to run the Melbourne Herald. If Baillieu’s intervention hadn’t occurred, it is inconceivable that Keith Murdoch’s son, Rupert, would now own and control the largest media empire in the world, which includes News Ltd, the publisher of this newspaper.

Replete with illustrations, thoroughly researched, amply footnoted and with a very helpful index, Yule’s portrait of this energetic Melburnian and Australian man of business is well worth reading.

The intrepid W.L. Baillieu died in 1936. Two years later a refugee boy named Henri Aram arrived in Sydney. Having fled with his Jewish family from Hitler’s Berlin, Aram would also proceed to make his mark on our financial sector.

Ghosted by journalist Michael Visontay, the fascinating life of the now 90-year-old financial guru has been given a strong contender for this year’s worst book title. Undies to Equities – what were the publishers thinking!

The talented Visontay previously ghosted Anh Do’s memoir, The Happiest Refugee, which last year picked up a number of prestigious literary awards, annoying those who argue that such prizes should not be given to ghostwritten publications.

Be that as it may, the ever-generous Aram makes it clear that, without Visontay’s input as a researcher and writer, no autobiography could have been produced at all. In ghosting Aram’s life, Visontay has done his subject proud. He tells a passionate story of a boy who, having lived through the rise of Nazi Germany, arrived in Sydney on the eve of World War II. After initially being declared an enemy alien, and starting with almost nothing, Aram soon founded a thriving underwear business – hence the book’s unfortunate title! He then became a hugely successful stockbroker and financial adviser. Later on, Aram, who was also involved in municipal and other politics, became something of a media celebrity whose public advocacy for seemingly lost causes is remembered with gratitude by many Australians.

By far the most touching parts of this quirky book deal with Aram’s adoptive grandfather, Moritz Sachs, affectionately known as “Onkel Mor”.

After the Nazis plundered most of his wealth, Onkel Mor gave most of his remaining savings to enable Aram’s family to flee the Nazi terror. Without this act of timely generosity, most of Aram’s family would most likely have been among the millions of other Jews murdered in the concentration camps. It is pleasing to note that, after finally locating his grave, in 1998 Aram and some friends and relatives gathered in a Berlin cemetery to erect a memorial to Onkel Mor.

Replete with a number of illuminating, and often touching, black and white and coloured photographs, Aram’s captivating book also has a helpful index, which is so often missing from books published in Australia today.

William Lawrence Baillieu
By Peter Yule
Hardie Grant Books, 423pp, $65 (HB)

Undies to Equities
By Henri Aram, with Michael Visontay
Rosenberg Publishing, 240pp, $29.95

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His most recent book is the co-authored political satire Fools’ Paradise. The Weekend Australian April 28-29, 2012 Review p22.