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‘Properly Shakespearean’: John Elliott’s fall from grace came after greatness

“The group he created from the mid 70s onwards, which developed from Henry Jones into Elders, into Carlton United Breweries, to Foster’s was incredible. He created a magnificent team of individuals around him, the executive team, and he very capably led it. John was a very intelligent, outstanding businessman.”

But while other businessmen were able to return to their business careers after addressing their failures, Elliott never recovered from his bankruptcy and business problems.

Sir Roderick Carnegie, who helped Elliott cut his teeth in the business world at McKinsey & Co.

Sir Roderick Carnegie, who helped Elliott cut his teeth in the business world at McKinsey & Co.

“It was unfortunate,” says Williams when asked if it was fair that Elliott’s business career stagnated after his bankruptcy and legal issues while others bounced back. “I would doubt in my career, and I’m roughly his age, that there wouldn’t be anyone with a greater business intellect than John.”

Williams recalls saying that if he had to put a business team together in the 1980s he would ensure both Kerry Packer and John Elliott were on his side.

Williams’ former employer Mark Carnegie knows Elliott’s story well. It was Carnegie’s father, legendary business titan Sir Rod Carnegie, who gave Elliott his break in big business.

Carnegie, a former investment banker turned venture capitalist, tells The Age and Herald from London that Elliott’s legacy of thrusting Melbourne’s staid and crusty business scene into the modern world should not be forgotten and his business woes should be put into context.

“People fail to recall what those entrepreneurs who strode the earth in the 1970s and 1980s achieved. John took an insular and inward-looking business community in Melbourne and shook it up from within,” Carnegie says.

“He was properly Shakespearean – a once great character who became a figure of pity. He was a remarkably smart man and a great leader. His strength of personality was unbelievable but he was overtaken by self-destruction.

“There’s been in recent years a focus on John’s many and varied failings, while others are lionised for the BHP and Billiton merger or the Magma Copper acquisition, despite those deals destroying more shareholder value than Elders IXL ever did.”

Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett also takes a balanced view, saying Elliott had “extreme success” and “monumental failure” during his business career.

“But the one thing I think all Australians should be thankful for was what he did with BHP. We people, like me, get those handsome dividend returns from a great Australian company, I think we should always be mindful that it might not have happened without John Elliott.”

‘People fail to recall what those entrepreneurs who strode the earth in the 1970s and 1980s achieved. John took an insular and inward-looking business community in Melbourne and shook it up from within.’

Mark Carnegie

Ian McLachlan, the former federal Defence Minister, shared the Elders IXL boardroom with Elliott for a decade and saw many of the big deals that built Elders into a major business force.

“He did some amazing things with his best guys.

“Although John fell upon some hard times after that, I always found him personable, and he held no grudges against anyone. I admired his energy. If he’d just maybe concentrated on politics or business, not everything all at once, he may have been even more successful. But he was a dynamo of his time.”

Ian McLachlan worked with John Elliott for 10 years.

Ian McLachlan worked with John Elliott for 10 years. Credit:David Mariuz

During the second half of the 1980s, Elliott was almost constantly followed by speculation that he would switch from corporate Australia to federal parliament. McLachlan believes Elliott did seriously consider the move, but would have found the vagaries of the political system difficult.

“And he had all these other loves. He loved the footy club, he loved business, he loved doing deals. I think he would’ve been a very good prime minister, but there are a whole lot of other things you have to do if you want to be prime minister that were not so attractive.

“I think he thought about being PM, he thought about whether he was going to do something else. And he was a big character. We went to the America’s Cup in Perth in 1987 and he had a great big boat full of important people, hosting big lunches … he was very good at getting new ideas up and putting a team together for that idea, and seemed to be able to absorb a lot of information quickly.”

~ with Rob Harris

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