West Australian businessman, John Bond, and I have something in common. Neither of us want to discuss our late entrepreneurial father’s parenting style for fear of disloyalty. Both of our dads were deeply flawed but wonderful in their own right, loving and proud — so why not leave it at that?
We are talking about dads in light of his role as chairman of Perth-based The Fathering Project, which is due to be launched in NSW in the next few months. This is why the humble and reclusive John is finally prepared to open up to me about his own childhood with his dad, Alan Bond.
The program he is promoting teaches men to be better parents and role models to their kids. John, a quiet achiever, and a founding director of West Australian property giant Primewest and other interests, is behind the push to bring better fathering into the corporate world.
John says of Alan: “He was extraordinary. There will never be another like him. He taught me to have a go, love life and its challenges.” I tell him that for me, as the child of an entrepreneur, it was the joie de vivre I treasured most.
As we chat, the words “absent father”, “workaholic’’, “self-consumed” and “litigation” are not spoken between us, although for my part, both as a budding finance journalist and as a daughter, I remember the downsides of entrepreneurialism in the heady 1980s too well. I remember many of the people I interviewed, and a world of hard-living, hard-drinking, often womanising men. There were the gambles that too often didn’t pay off, and behaviour that created a sense of fear and abandonment for many children and wives, despite the material riches.
For John, the eldest of four, it wasn’t that black and white. He remembers parts of his childhood fondly swept up in the magic where money would come quickly: the heavyweights of the era coming over and having a great time by the pool. “Dad loved good times. He was not straight-laced. He loved to be surrounded by a fun environment.” Pictures of his dad’s “good times” grace the internet. It’s la dolce vitawith the tycoons and pollies of the day: Laurie Connell and “Bondy” fishing; Alan Bond with then prime minister Bob Hawke or then premier Brian Burke, Christopher Skase, or Robert Holmes a Court.
In the frames his mum, the fun-loving and flame-haired Eileen, in full flight. Especially memorable are shots of Alan Bond after the America’s Cup with a perpetually grinning John Bertrand. Alan famously bankrolled the yachting syndicate that won the race against the US, making sports history. These were the heady days that ushered in a time referred to as the “WA Inc” scandals, where many would end up disgraced or in jail — as Alan was destined to be. In 1992 he was declared bankrupt with personal debts totalling $1.8 billion. He was subsequently convicted of crimes, including one of the largest corporate frauds in Australia’s history for stripping Bell Resources, and jailed for four years.
I remember asking Alan in the mid 80s, “Why gamble $10 million for $100m?” when $10m meant a fortune. I don’t remember his answer. But it was like climbing Everest for them. It’s just what they did — at all costs. For my dad failure meant nothing: it was just a stepping stone.
We maintain the code of silence, John and I. Largely because it is clear John and his siblings loved Alan, and felt loved in return. But it’s what we both went on to do that speaks volumes. While I became fascinated with work-life balance among business leaders and how their power affects wives and children, John picked up the baton for good fathering. A few years ago he heard a lecture by Dr Bruce Robinson, founder of The Fathering Project (a University of Western Australia-based initiative), which drew him towards what has become his calling.
Corporations like Rio Tinto, Bankwest, Herbert Smith Freehills, Fortescue Metals Group and Woodside have run the program. An audience of 100,000 has participated, either live or via video from around the world. That’s no surprise, since research shows productivity is lifted by 25 per cent when you have happy dads with happy kids. “We can’t handle the number of requests,” says Dr Robinson, a respected cancer specialist who himself had a near-death experience. He says that the only thing dying people in his care ever regret is not spending more time with their family.
“Dads are not optional extras — they are not icing on the cake,” he says. John agrees, having adopted a very hands-on fathering approach to his four kids (aged 24 to 34). John says: “It’s not quality time that counts — that’s rubbish. It’s quantity, the little things, the driving to school, chatting about their interests. It’s the care of their souls. I took to it like a duck to water.”
Says John of Alan: “He was a decent dad on many levels, proud of his four children’s education and inclusive of us. But in my view he was way too out there. He would risk everything. He didn’t care if he lost. He’d say: ‘We can make it back on the next one’. But he wasn’t concerned with the impact on others around him. I don’t know what my siblings would say, but for me it was scary.”
Though John was fed with a silver spoon, he admits: “I felt very insecure … swept up in all the borrowing pressure. I’d seen him do his Houdini act a number of times — you never knew with him how things were going to work out the next time. Eventually it did come tumbling down.”
As a law student at university, John had to endure many examples of Alan Bond’s behaviour that shamed him. “It was nasty, confronting stuff. Bond versus someone. He was litigious — someone was always suing him or him suing someone. It wasn’t pleasant stuff. It affected me a lot to learn things in that way.” John, a man who early on adopted the conservative and gentle approach to life he is famed for (his mottos: “less is more”; “keep it simple”; and “win-win”), was very directly affected when he had to testify for his father in 1992.
But he says it’s worse now, with his own children going through the ringer, which he says has been very painful for him. “No matter what uni course my kids have done, Alan is a pin-up boy for what went wrong and bad decisions. Even in the arts, cultural studies or economics, he’s the moral compass of some bloody thing. It’s burnt me to the core that they had to go through that.” Now he has a grandchild himself and wonders what’s in store.
I understand what John means by the importance of strong fathering, having watched so many of my peers sacrificed to the volcano gods by this all-consuming need to succeed and a quest to overcome often poverty-ridden or humiliating childhoods. So many of our fathers went over the edge. The lament “Daddy, we never knew you” is the catchcry of a generation.
But it is by no means across the board. Many of the powerful males I’ve interviewed always put the raising of kids at a premium. Some, like Woolworths chairman Gordon Cairns, who changed when his kids and employees threatened to divorce him for being “a bastard, autocratic — I didn’t care about people”. He had an epiphany and embraced Buddhist philosophy, which has made him “a better boss, husband and father”.
John learned many valuable lessons from his dad. “He had a brilliant ability to pigeonhole issues. There’d be something awful and horrible. He’d look for a solution and then say ‘Right! I can’t do anything about that’ and park it, and move to something else while everyone else was crumbling or overwhelmed. He saw everything as a ‘can do’. He would get you to think of three solutions outside the box, and somehow you’d find a way you never expected!”
But without knowing or understanding why at the time, John found three “father figures” that suited his softer personality better, including his uncle Don Hughes, Eileen’s older brother, a priest. “I was always my own man. I was so different people asked ‘Were you adopted?’ ” he chuckles.
The qualities he admired in his chosen role models? “They took me under wing; they had enormous respect for me. All were honest, straightforward, decent people with time for others, all with a sense of humour, not taking themselves too seriously, interested in you and spending one-on-one time.”
John praises his mother Eileen who had a “massive role” in his personality development. “She was the glue that held everything together. She loved to party but was grounded at the same time. She’d do anything for her kids.”
He is now circumspect about his childhood: “How do you judge them? I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Dad couldn’t spell. He never wanted to go back to that. I don’t judge. I just do things differently.
“At Fathering Project we say a hollow Easter egg is the life of men who don’t have meaningful relationships with their partners and kids. You want your life to be a Caramello chocolate — with a rich, golden core.”