RICH PICKINGS: Better with age

A growing band of older Australian entrepreneurs are showing no sign of retiring, choosing instead to continue expanding their businesses or even branching out into other industries.

Next year, 73-year-old beverages entrepreneur Peter Brooks will make one of the biggest debuts on the BRW Rich 200 list, with a fortune of about $350 million.

In late August, Brooks sold his company P&N Beverages Australia (the nation’s third biggest drinks outfit) to Japanese giant Asahi Breweries for $364 million in a deal that he acknowledged was driven by the classic Australian business problem – whether to get big or get out.

But for Brooks, it was also the right time to step down.

"I am at the stage where I am 73 years old. Poor old bastard, I should be pensioned off!” he said.

I asked him what he will do now after he finishes the merger integration process, which is expected to run for 12 months. While Brooks says he has no plans to build another business, he isn’t exactly retiring.

"I’ve got few other interests outside of interests of soft drink and I’ll just quietly pursue them. And I think I’ll take it easy and enjoy the children and grand children."

Brooks is part of a growing band of wealthy entrepreneurs that wealth management firm Barclays has christened the "nevertirees” – rich people who never retire.

A recent study of 2000 people with investable wealth of more than $1.5 million found 60 per cent said they would always be involved in professional or commercial work of some type; amongst entrepreneurs, a staggering 68 per cent said they would never retire.

The report argues that this is part of the changing attitudes towards retirement, particularly in the Western world. With people living healthier for much longer, entrepreneurs are better able to handle the rigours of ongoing work.

While their roles may change, an entrepreneur’s thirst for building a business will not. It’s not the money – they just love what they do.

The report’s findings are hardly surprising when you look at the top end of the Rich 200. Two members of the top five – Westfield founder Frank Lowy and Harry Triguboff from Meriton Apartments – are in their late 70s, and still going strong.

In total, there are 51 members of the Rich 200 over the age of 70 (and two over the age of 90), with all still active in their businesses in some way.

However, there is a special breed of "nevertiree” rich list member who actually goes to the trouble of retiring and selling up, only to start an entirely new business.

Here are a few of the best examples:

Clive Palmer

Mining magnate Clive Palmer is actually on his second business venture, after retiring from his first career in property at the ripe old age of 29. After a bit of travelling, Palmer decided to get back into business, and started buying assets. Amongst his purchases were the assets of two American companies getting out of Australia; within this was the parcel of Pilbara iron ore tenements on which Palmer’s billionaire fortune is built.

Len Ainsworth

Veteran gaming machine industry figure Len Ainsworth has one of the great post-retirement stories. Back in the mid 1990s, the octogenarian founder of poker machine company Aristocrat Leisure was diagnosed with prostate cancer and forced to hand his shareholdings and full control of the company to his wife and seven sons.

But a year later, new medical tests cleared Ainsworth of cancer and he was desperate to get back in the game. But there was one problem – his sons would not allow him to resume control of the company. After a stand-off, he started a rival gaming machine company, Ainsworth Game Technology. He remains executive chairman and has no plans to retire.

Max Beck

Veteran Melbourne property developer Max Beck officially retired from listed property company Becton in April 2008, but he is still managing to keep his hand in the property game. As well as helping with the development of mixed-use precinct Essendon Fields, Beck has emerged as the money behind Beck Property Group, run by his sons and a former Becton executive. Beck also found time to serve as chair of the Victorian bushfire reconstruction taskforce.

Lang Walker

This veteran property developer declared in 2006 that he was "probably too old" to start another property company when he sold the bulk of the assets in his company Walker Corporation for about $1.2 billion. However, any hint of retirement turned out to be short-lived. Walker aggressively acquired property during the downturn, and now has projects on the boil including a $1 billion office development in Melbourne’s Docklands precinct.

It’s also worth noting that the 2006 sell-off wasn’t Walker’s first. In 1999, he decided to sell his shareholding in the then-listed Walker Corporation to Australand to concentrate on his private interests.

Terry Peabody

One of the most recent rich list retirements was that of Terry Peabody, founder and former executive chairman of Transpacific Industries, who retired from the chairman’s role in June. Peabody, who has started and floated three billion-dollar companies in his career, is unlikely to step away from business completely. He still has interests in the wine industry, a construction materials business in the Philippines and investments in Canada.

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