Alan Bond - the likable chancer who lived by pushing the rules in business and sport.
By Barry Pickthall
Alan Bond, arguably Australia’s best-known personality, has died at the age of 77 following complications during open-heart surgery. He came to fame by heading the Australian challenge that won the America’s Cup from the New York Y.C at the fourth attempt in 1983, breaking the longest sporting run in history. Australians marked it by taking an unofficial National holiday. From then on, anything ‘Bondy’ touched appeared to turn of gold.
Stock in his Bond Corporation soared. His corporate takeovers included the Swan brewery, the Chilean telephone system and Australia’s Channel 9 TV station, bought from Kerry Packer for A$1 billion. He even bought a complete village in the UK, and masterpieces purchased for record prices to decorate his corporate walls.
It was all bought on tick but only one person – Tiny Rowland – saw this burgeoning mountain of debt for what it was – junk. Bond saw Rowland’s cash-rich Lonrho Group as yet another juicy takeover target. Tiny saw Bond as the unwelcome opportunist. Peter de Savary, whose Victory ’83 was beaten by Australia II in the finals of the challenger trials, warned Bond not to take on Rowland. The last people to attempt to snatch Lonrho had been killed in a plane crash. Rowland countered Bond’s advances in 1989 by sending a team of forensic accountants to Australia who stripped away the veneer of credibility to show the Bond Corporation to be in effect, bankrupt.
The first time reality struck Alan Bond was on Hobart dock after winning line honours in that year’s Sydney Hobart race with his maxi yacht Drumbeat. There he learned that his brewery empire had gone into liquidation while he was at sea. The rest of the Bond Corporation fell shortly after and Bond became the biggest bankrupt in Australian history with debts of $1.8 billion.
He served 3 prison sentences, but auditors failed to find his secret fortune. During the third court appearance, where he claimed loss of memory caused by the onset of dementia, prosecutors checked his hotel telephone records and found Bond had been making regular calls to Switzerland. The number turned out to be a public telephone box in Zurich rail station.
What Bond will be remembered most for however, was beating the New York YC at their own game. The New Yorkers had been waiving the America’s Cup rules to their own advantage for the previous 132 years, until Ben Lexcen designed Bond’s victorious Australia II with its remarkable wing keel, won. Club committee members were convinced that the idea had been conceived by Dutch aerospace scientists and not the Australian designer as the nationalist rules then, prescribed, but were unable to prove it.
It was only much later that the truth prevailed, and by that time, the Cup had gone Down under. It was Dr Peter van Oossanen, director of the Netherlands Ship Model Basin where Lexcen had tested his models, who spilt the beans during the 1987 America’s Cup. Though fiercely denied by Australia II teammates, Van Oossanen claimed in an interview with The Times newspaper that Lexcen tested a model with the keel fitted upside-down which offered greater stability, but created appalling turbulence around the bottom edge. Ben went home to Australia and Peter took up the idea with a colleague at the Dutch Aerospace Laboratory who happened to be working on winglets for the Boeing aircraft. He provided van Oossanen with the information to develop winglets to provide an endplate effect on the bottom of the keel, and by the time Ben returned to Holland, the idea had been tested and proved.