How Oliver Mark rebuilt the Nilsen empire

OJ Nilsen created a large business, listed it on the ASX, but died with little to show for it all. Now, the fourth generation has completely turned things around.

There’s a surprising fact at the end of the Australian Dictionary of Biography entry for Oliver J Nilsen: when he died in 1977, aged 93, the estate of the Australian media pioneer and general household name was worth $1,845,530.

That’s about $9 million in today’s money. Compared to a certain other media pioneer, Frank Packer, who had died three years earlier, OJ Nilsen died a pauper.

Oliver Mark Nilsen, the fourth-generation Nilsen who now owns and runs the business, doesn’t really know what happened to his great grandfather’s wealth, but I can take stab at it. He stuck around too long.

Oliver J Nilsen, the posthumous son of a Norwegian sailor who was raised by his Scottish grandparents, was a wonderful entrepreneur and leader of his business. He started an electrical business in Melbourne in 1916, which eventually grew into a major public company, and in 1925 he launched the first commercial radio station, 3UZ, which was hugely successful.

Yet, at the end of his life, there was only a small pile to show for it.

OJ ran the business for more than 70 years; in fact he never really retired. He used to go into the office in a wheelchair in his late 80s, presumably terrorising the place.

His son, Oliver Victor (Vic) waited, and waited, and waited, to take over, and in the end only got five years in charge before he stepped aside for the third generation -- his son, Oliver John Nilsen (John).

The family took the company private in February 1996 after 50 years of sharing it with investors on the stock exchange, and then in 2006, the only male member of the fourth generation, Oliver Mark Nilsen, bought it from the family.

He’s not saying how much he paid, although his father John was the largest shareholder at the time and he vendor-financed that bit. But it wasn’t that much apparently: the business wasn’t travelling very well at all by then.

Mark took it back to the basics of commercial electrical contracting and set about rebuilding what was by then a 90-year-old business.

The company is now turning over $400 million a year and employs 1300 people around Australia doing electrical contracting, mainly in large projects and making switchboards. In other words, it’s back to its peak (minus radio).

Succession through the generations has been pretty simple, apart from the possibility that the first succession took too long to happen. Management and control just passed to the male heir, who was always named after the patriarch.

OJ had two children – Oliver Victor and Jean – and while Jean’s side of the family inherited some shares, it wasn’t many.

Vic had three children -- Oliver John, Elizabeth and Joan -- and between them they produced eight children … but there was only one male, who was naturally called Oliver – Oliver Mark Nilsen, who joined the company in 1996, just before it was privatised and then bought 100 per cent of it 10 years later when he took over as managing director.

He was then the only Nilsen working in the business since his father had retired from ill health, so it made sense to consolidate the ownership.

Oliver J Nilsen owned 3UZ for 65 years before selling it in the early 1990s, and the company also made two movies: BMX Bandits in 1983, which gave Nicole Kidman her first big break and remains a bit of a cult classic, and something called Jenny Kiss Me, which posterity has forgotten.

OJ was also one of the pioneers of television: a founding director and investor in GTV9.

Nilsen was also an appliance brand. There were Nilsen jugs, kettles and toasters and OJ also took the company into the manufacture of sintered bearings, made from zirconia.

Oh, he was also Lord Mayor of Melbourne in 1951 and was on the council for decades.

But for all this energy and vision, OJ didn’t have to worry about the old camel through the eye of a needle trick. He did not die a rich man. His great grandson and fourth generation owner of the business, Oliver Mark Nilsen, couldn’t be more different: he’s low profile and very focused.

And, yes, his oldest child is called Oliver -- Oliver Joshua (Josh), who’s 16. There’s also Harris, 12, and Milly, 8. Will there be another OJ Nilsen running Oliver J Nilsen? “No pressure,” says Oliver Mark.

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