Brian Sherman’s doctor called him the healthiest person in town recently after a spate of tests and an MRI. He grins as he tells me this from his headquarters in the hip suburb of Paddington in Sydney. The co-founder of Equitilink, former director of Network Ten and major stakeholder, and one of the most successful businessmen and arts connoisseurs in Australia, regularly does annual bike rides around countries such as Alaska, Cuba, China and India. “You have to concentrate,” he says in his typical understated manner.
But the diagnosis is not as simple as it seems. For several years now his health has been the subject of much speculation by the medical profession and by those of us who know him or have seen him out. The symptoms are there. Motor disturbances when walking and a disconcerting stare; sometimes pausing before he answers, like watching a TV reporter questioned from overseas with a time lapse. “I get woozy, dizzy, I go very slowly.” There’ve been endless tests, neurologists, psychiatrists, surgeons.
He has even been treated with genome stem-cell therapy in Israel for an undiagnosed neurological condition.
The word Parkinson’s has been bandied about by doctors, but his neurologist doesn’t think he has it. “He says: ‘Brian repeat after me, I do not have Parkinson’s’.”
He holds out his arms — “look, no tremors. I’ve just taken up tennis again.” It’s very hard to diagnose and if he does have it, it’s borderline. He concurs that maybe he had it but the genome therapy helped, which would be a medical breakthrough. But there is no way of knowing.
The prevailing medical belief is that it’s a crippling anxiety, severe enough to paralyse and overwhelm him several times a day. When it hits he has trouble finding sentences — frozen in the moment, feeling sick, disorientated, terrified of what he doesn’t know. Like many sufferers, aware only of the monster lurking just out of sight, as he stands there trying to appear calm.
“I tell colleagues the truth. The interesting thing is because I’m genuine, they open up to me in return. It’s remarkable the number of high-achievers, powerful people in business, law, medicine, politics, the arts who are fuelled by debilitating anxiety or depression. It drives us. By focusing on (a passion) so obsessively, we seem to be able to avoid the pain.”
I watched him at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival standing like an ethereal ghost; scanning the room with troubled eyes. Unlike me, who hides under the doona when the Black Dog bites, he’s never missed a day of work because of it. Does he have it today? I ask, as he struggles to get me a number off his phone and eats the salad in front of him too slowly. “No …. Yes … a little bit. I feel slow. Can you notice it?”
Whatever his ailment, Sherman, 72, worth a guesstimated $150 million, is still the brilliant, super-functioning entrepreneur he was when I first met him in the 80s as a budding finance journalist. He and long-time partner Laurence Freeman turned Equitilink into the largest private management company in Australia and raised $US856m in the US — at the time the biggest fundraising ever done on the US stock exchange for an initial public offering. Then they sold Equitilink in 2000 to Aberdeen Asset Management for $152m.
In his same humble voice he’s used all interview, he casually tells me how he just gambled a huge slab of his fortune on the US currency markets; and almost doubled his investment by tens of millions, effortlessly, just like that — not a moment’s doubt in his own abilities. “I don’t get the anxiety when I’m in the process of performing or doing something, just before and after.”
Sherman’s current investment strategy is holding on to international equities and foreign currency (only 35 per cent of his equity investments are here in Australia). “I’m taking a long-term view,” he says.
But it isn’t just self-confidence at play. The corporate world, leading institutions and the scientific community have thrown themselves behind him with vigour. He is chairman of Aberdeen Leader; and a significant stakeholder in Regeneus, an ASX-listed biotech, stem-cell therapy company for humans and pets.
He has six international projects on the go that he personally funds, with leading genetic scientists in Tel Aviv and the US. Formerly director of SOCOG and former president of the Australian Museum, he has now put together a formidable team of international legal experts for the Voiceless foundation for animal rights, which he started with his daughter Ondine in 2004. As a renowned philanthropist, he gives away more than he earns nowadays. “I’ve never been materialistic, which sounds crazy in a way because I became rich,” he laughs.
He says: “My anxiety comes from empathy. Suffering and cruelty creates anxiety in me, but I use the anxiety as a force to help animals and other suffering beings.” Brian has gone to abattoirs just to visit the animals before they’re put to death. I cry when he tells me this.
“The overwhelming burden of sadness from what I do fuels more anxiety. It’s a catch 22. But without meaning life is pretty tough, so in reality I’ve taken the easy path by pushing ahead — the difficult path is to do nothing.”
He is very involved in the arts through his son Emile (Oscar-winning producer of The King’s Speech) and his wife of 47 years, Dr Gene Sherman, director of the Sherman Foundation who has just returned from Cambodia and Vietnam looking for acquisitions for the Tate Gallery. Tonight he and she are about to host a party for 90 people.
“Strangely I don’t have social anxiety; and do much better socially than on my own where I have time to think. I get anxious before and after but not during events. When I am in the middle of things I’m very confident.
“It is focus that drives me. I just push ahead when I need to get something achieved.”
Doctors believe the underlying cause of his severe anxiety is a personal tragedy he is grappling with. Two of his six grandchildren, “the twins” (Ondine’s sons Dov and Lev), suffer a very rare genetic condition. “There is no known cure or cause. The twins, 7, have no capacity to walk, or speak. But they laugh and smile, and learn. They are amazing,” he says showing me a photo of what looks like two normal, happy, curly-haired, blonde boys.
“They are flesh of my flesh”.
He is now a medical crusader — like the parents in the true-story film Lorenzo’s Oil— and has found a diagnosis (previously unknown) for the condition; and also a treatment that has given them a radical improvement in the quality of their lives. He’s worked with leading world scientists for five years. Now, together with his son-in-law, Dr Dror Ben-Ami, he is looking for a cure.
His wife Gene says: “He doesn’t congratulate himself for his already huge achievements in this field. He gets obsessional with his goal and doesn’t give up even though it’s not healthy, but I love that he is perseverant, stubborn, ethical.”
The twins have had stem-cell therapy in Panama and Tel Aviv. Next month Brian is off to the US to host a meeting of 44 stem-cell researchers, neurologists, brain surgeons and endocrinologist from all over the world. He funds the two-day “think tank” once a year in what he calls “the lockdown”.
His research will not only help the twins, but potentially hundreds and thousands of children with genetic deficiencies around the world. He is not ready to commercialise the fruits of his labour yet, but says he may in time. Meanwhile he says he cured his late Airedale dogs of back problems using stem-cell therapy, and extended their lifespan. “I never give up. I’m the sort of person who bashes his head against a wall, I’m like a bulldog never letting go!”
Gene says: “He’s a deeply sensitive, remarkable man, a wonderful husband, father, he never gets angry which perhaps contributes to the underlying anxiety. I’m just sad he can’t get out of the zone of pain. But he does experience great joy when he’s with his dog and grandkids. He has so much to give.”
His other great passion is animal rights; he fights ceaselessly against cruelty to animals by factory farming: “They need our mercy otherwise their suffering is too great to bear. They have families, mothers, fathers, children, herds. They care for each other likes humans do, just in different ways.
“There’s huge discrimination between one animal and another. We love dogs or cats, but cows have no rights, we call the babies “veal”. I want to lift the veil on the horror and get people to understand this is a social justice movement. If abattoirs were made of glass no one would eat meat.”
Protecting animals is also his way to spirituality. “It comes from my heart and my gut. Saving one animal is like saving a billion. My religion is compassion. We must never lose sight of our humanity.”
He has heard boxing and juggling are good for the brain. He likes that idea and might take them up. After all, boxing and juggling is what Brian Sherman has always done best.