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Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens: Welcome aboard, Kerry Packer

Submitted by rickeyre on January 1, 2006 - 12:18pm

"I've been to the other side son, and there's f#$king nothing there."

- Kerry Packer, on his heart attack in 1990, during which he was clinically dead.

Kerry Packer, who died on Monday night, was one of the most remarkable characters of modern-day Australia. His career, his lifestyle, his personality made for a capitalist's wet dream. But he wasn't so much a captain of industry as he was the overlord of a feudal empire.

Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer was a third generation businessman, his grandfather Robert Packer having founded the Daily Telegraph in Sydney, his father Sir Frank Packer having built the publishing business into a news and magazine empire before gaining a foothold at the birth of the Australian television industry.

Kerry expanded the media empire further (notably television Channel Nine in Sydney and Melbourne), diversified into property and casinos (an industry in which he was a highly-valued customer) and into primary industry, especially cattle.

As a businessman he was aggressive, rude, foul-mouthed, ruthless and physically terrifying, traits that he inherited from his father. As an employer, he showed extraordinary generosity and loyalty to the staff of his many ventures, and expected (and mostly received) unswerving loyalty in return. This loyalty was taken to extremes in 2000 when Packer's personal helicopter pilot gave a kidney to save his life.

He made shitloads of money for himself, his family and his shareholders, and was comfortable in throwing smaller shitloads of it about. He was said to have lost $32 million in one night at a Las Vegas casino. After a near-fatal heart attack while playing polo in 1990, he donated over a million dollars so that every ambulance in New South Wales could have a defibrillator on board. He was exceedingly generous in his donations to hospitals and medical research - especially so in areas where he had suffered illness himself (he had polio as a child and smoked heavily as an adult). Donations to charity represented just one small area in which he was able to reduce his personal and corporate tax liabilities. For years the income and company taxes paid on the Packer empire's multi-billion dollar assets were just a handful of percent.

Unlike his contemporary and rival, second-generation media boss Rupert Murdoch, Kerry Packer had little urge to expand his business interests worldwide, (although he did own Yorkshire Television at one stage). He brushed aside the stock market slump of the late 1980s, and made a killing when he sold Channel Nine to Alan Bond for a billion dollars in 1987 and bought it back three years later for about a quarter that price. Bond was just one of the many corporate cowboys of that era to end up on the wrong side of a prison cell door. Packer's nose remained clean, even after a brush with a Royal Commission after it had been alleged that he was the mysterious organised crime boss known as "The Goanna".

Kerry Packer died on Boxing Day with an estimated personal wealth of around seven billion dollars. The new feudal overlord is his only son, 38 year-old Jamie.

The Fourth Lord of Packer already has two remarkable badges of honour to his name. One is that he lost around 800 million dollars when Australia's biggest dot-com, telco One.Tel, disintegrated. The other is that he is a disciple of L.Ron Hubbard.

Like so many elements of the Packer persona, Kerry inherited his love of sport from his dad. They were both partial to owning racehorses and America's Cup yachts. Kerry took up polo on medical advice, and was one of Australia's leading players for a time (hell, how many polo players in Australia do you think there are anyway?). Kerry loved following rugby league, especially his beloved Eastern Suburbs Roosters. He loved golf - he was good mates with Jack Nicklaus.

He loved tennis, and tried in 1976 to buy for Channel Nine the exclusive rights to telecast the Australian summer tennis circuit. He failed - Channel Seven won and still hold those rights.

If Packer had won, cricket might not be the game it is today.

Part two of this obituary will deal with Packer's involvement with cricket from 1976 onwards.