David Hains remembered by James Packer, Lloyd Williams and his …

David Hains remembered by James Packer, Lloyd Williams and his …

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Hains, who died Sunday morning aged 92, has been remembered by his family and fellow Rich Listers for both his self-made business success, and personal warmth.

Melbourne billionaire David Hains, who died on Sunday morning aged 92, has been remembered by his family and fellow Rich Listers for both his self-made business success and personal warmth.

The engineer, entrepreneur, investor and celebrated racehorse owner will be missed “tremendously” by Lloyd Williams, a frequent golf partner and horse racing colleague.

Billionaire entrepreneur and champion racehorse owner David Hains has died aged 92. Tash Sorensen

“I’ve lost a wonderful friend for just on 60 years, and a wise counsel for me in life and business,” Williams told the Australian Financial Review.

Billionaire James Packer also paid tribute to Hains, who shared a long friendship with Kerry Packer and his son.

“David Hains was a legendary investor, but more importantly he was a legendary nice man,” Packer said.

Tributes also flowed from racing circles, with Racing Victoria tweeting condolences and pointing to Hains’ achievement in owning a three-time Cox Plate winner in Kingston Town, and 1990 Melbourne Cup winner Kingston Rule.

Hains’ eldest son, Stephen, said his dad’s passing carried with it the sense of an era ending.

“We’ve lost a father, but Melbourne’s lost a large person in its commercial world,” he said.

“He’s one of the last of that post-war business crew that really shaped the place.”

Hains made his final visit to the 8 Collins St headquarters of his private family office, Portland House Group, on Monday January 9, a feat that impressed Stephen, who will continue to manage Portland’s bond and derivative portfolios.

“He’d been quite ill over that weekend, he was slipping, so when my PA called me to say ‘your Dad’s in’, I couldn’t believe it,” said Hains, who with brothers Richard and Michael had joined their father at Portland House in 1987. It manages a family fortune estimated at $2.9 billion by the Financial Review Rich List last year.

“It was another reminder of that work ethic he’s instilled in all of us … We went through our normal pattern of a Monday morning – Michael and I had lunch with him and chatted about the world, politics and people. I’m glad he got that final moment in the office, which was so integral to who he was.”

Son of a State Electricity Commission clerk

David Hains had bought the 19th-century office at the “Paris end” of Collins St in 1963, capping the successful rise of an entrepreneurial career that had begun two decades earlier.

The then teenaged son of a State Electricity Commission clerk began making ornamental brass candlesticks for extra cash: his first lesson in the importance of gross margins, he later joked to the Financial Review.

Stephen Hains believes his father’s relentless drive, which took him everywhere from takeovers of US steel giants to owning racehorses with 35 Group 1 victories to their credit, came from his childhood experiences during the Depression.

David’s father Lyle was a soldier injured in the Gallipoli landing of 1915, and died in 1947 when David was just 17. Like his son, Lyle was a handy card player.

“David became very much the man of the house … He’d witnessed his father’s struggles with his health, and to a degree financially,” Stephen said.

“Lyle did pay off their house in Bentleigh with his card winnings, but David was determined to build a different kind of life for himself and his family.”

Indeed within two years, the technical college graduate had started his first business, Oriole Industries, whose hero product was an original-design washing machine and clothes dryer, branded the Hydromat.

Moving Oriole’s factory next door to the big Smorgon meatworks in Footscray around 1952, Hains fondly recalled kerbside chats with patriarch Norman Smorgon, who became something of a business mentor. It was a favour Hains passed on throughout his life.

“Dad was always open-minded, never judgmental, and he drew people from all walks of life and mentored them,” Stephen said.

“He’ll be remembered as a person always available to impart a bit of wisdom.”

Vowed to never leverage

Former competition tsar Graeme Samuel, whom Hains backed in a boutique investment banking operation after he left Macquarie in 1986, is one of many to have felt the billionaire’s influence, never mind his relatively low public profile.

Ever the opportunist, Hains sold Oriole in 1954 and, as the Australian economy experienced a sharp downturn, bought a whitegoods retailer called Peter Kaye Appliances on the cheap.

He was still running it in 1958 when the Financial Review first caught up with him, on the eve of a seven-week trip to the US and UK for a “special study of overseas trends in merchandising and hire purchase”.

The Australian Financial Review reported Hains’ trip on May 29, 1958. He still had the original photo in his personal archive. 

Accompanying Hains on the trip was wife Helen. They had married in 1953 and were together until her passing in 2017 – they are survived by their children Cathy, who ran Hains’ Kingston Park bloodstock business for many years and is now a successful racehorse owner in her own right, as well as sons Stephen, Richard, Michael and Paul.

In that first overseas trip, Hains began to build a contact book that enabled him to become one of Australia’s first businesspeople with a truly global mindset.

“The financial markets in the UK were much easier to deal with than in Australia back then,” he told the Financial Review in 2021.

Never lost his love for industry

Hains launched Portland House Group upon his return to Australia, and by 1964 had largely sold out of operating businesses in favour of investing, with property developments in Jamaica an early foray.

He had been shaken by Australia’s “Holt jolt” credit squeeze of 1960, which almost brought his retailing empire to grief, and vowed to never leverage his portfolio – a promise Stephen says he kept to the end.

Portland House’s coffers swelled in the early 1980s on prescient bets in North Sea oil and Japanese equities. Hains made the first Financial Review Rich List in 1983, with an estimated fortune of $70 million, and has appeared on every List since.

But Hains never lost his love for industry, and later in the decade it helped lead him to his most lucrative deal.

He often recalled another formative moment from his teens, watching the Gregory Peck movie Valley Of Decision, which concerned the tussle for a Birmingham steel mill.

“I can remember the final scenes [where] the brother, who had finally won back control of the family mill, walked back through these scrolled iron gates to take control,” he told the Financial Review in 2009.

“I suppose I dreamt of being in charge of a large industrial complex, even at that stage.”

Remade as a white-collar businessman he might have been, but Hains finally got his “Birmingham moment” in 1990 when after three years of negotiations with stubborn management, hard-nosed receivers and sceptical unions, he led a consortium that took the failed Wheeling-Pittsburgh steel company out of bankruptcy as a turnaround play.

“The entry to the main plant had a wrought-iron canopy over the gate, exactly the same style as the one I could remember from the film,” Hains recalled.

Having paid $US160 million for secured debt in Wheeling-Pittsburgh worth $US360 million on paper, Hains and his partners emerged with a controlling stake in a renewed and profitable steelmaker.

Later acknowledging the huge success of the deal, Hains added with characteristic self-deprecation that he could probably have made just as much merely investing in stockmarkets recovering after the 1987 crash, with a fraction of the hassle.

Their father’s humility will continue to drive the Hains brothers in steering Portland House, according to Stephen.

“The core philosophy is just sticking with what you know, and preserving capital through the ups and downs of financial markets, as Dad did so successfully from the 1950s onward.”

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Michael Bailey

Michael BaileyRich List co-editorMichael Bailey writes on entrepreneurship and the arts. He is also responsible for the Financial Review’s Rich Lists. He is based in Sydney. Connect with Michael on Twitter. Email Michael at m.bailey@afr.com

James Thomson

James ThomsonColumnistJames Thomson is a Chanticleer columnist based in Melbourne. He was the Companies editor and editor of BRW Magazine. Connect with James on Twitter. Email James at j.thomson@afr.com

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