RICH PICKINGS: The best and worst of 2011

While guarding against a volatile economy, our rich listers have provided plenty of excitement this year. Here are the highlights.

And so we come to the end of another fascinating year following the wealthy of the world. If I had to pick a theme of 2011 it would be caution. We’ve seen relatively few big deals or aggressive moves, as rich list members are seemingly intent on just getting through the choppy conditions in the global economy.

However, there have still been plenty of highlights and quite a few lowlights. Here are our awards for 2011:

Collapse of the year

To find the biggest collapse of the year we need to go all the way back to February, when property magnate John Beville placed his management company Bellevista in the hands of administrators after the banks seized his main asset, the Top Ryde Shopping Centre. That the banks acted was hardly a surprise, given they were owed $700 million. But the rapid unravelling of Beville’s empire was unusual. He went from having a $375 million fortune in May 2010 to opening the centre’s redevelopments in August 2010 to losing the whole thing by February.

Rising star

It’s taken decades for Silviu Itescue to become an overnight sensation, but his debut on this year’s Rich 200, with a fortune of $562 million, was certainly impressive. Itescue’s fortune is almost entirely based on his stake in stem cell company Mesoblast, shares in which have increased fivefold in the past two years thanks to two big deals with US pharmaceutical companies. Itescue deserves to be celebrated – he is one of the few Australian biotechnology entrepreneurs to make it onto the rich list.

Surprise of the year

I have to admit I had never heard of Ivan Glasenberg before the commodities giant Glencore announced in May that it was listing on the London and Hong Kong sharemarkets. But Glasenberg, who is the company’s chief executive and largest shareholder, made a spectacular debut on this year’s Rich 200, joining in second spot with a fortune of $8.8 billion. Glencore’s shares are down since then and so is Glasenberg’s fortune, but he will remain a feature of the rich list for many years to come.

Deal of the year

Let’s look to the Young Rich list for the winners of this title. Back in April, Gabi and Hezi Lebovich were the little-known owners of two of Australia’s most successful online retailers, Catch of the Day and Scoopon. By the end of May, they were known as the boys James Packer backed. Packer and a consortium of high-profile investors – including Seek founder Andrew Bassatt – bought a 40 per cent stake in the business for $80 million, instantly valuing the brothers at $120 million.

Non-deal of the year

Another year, another failed attempt by Clive Palmer to list his mining company Resourcehouse on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. This year’s attempt, which occurred over May and June, seemed the most likely but it was fourth time unlucky when nervous markets, and a $3.6 billion price tag many thought was too high, led to the cancellation of the float. Palmer says he can now go it alone with funding from China. But surely there must be some chance he’ll be back to try his luck for a fifth time.

Spat of the year

It was hardly blood in the streets, but media and mining equipment mogul Kerry Stokes raised the ire of Tasmania’s richest man, Dale Elphinstone, when Stokes’ Seven Group Holdings launched what many saw as a low-ball offer for the shares in National Hire Group, which Seven didn’t own. Elphinstone made Stokes wait until the Seven boss had made a higher offer and acquired most of the shares in National Hire. The two may yet clash again – if industry leader Coates Hire is put on the sale block, both Elphinstone and Stokes would be interested.

PR disaster of the year

Let’s go back to the start of the year. The Christmas sales had been and gone and the New Year sales had started with a whimper. For Gerry Harvey and Solomon Lew, the culprit was obvious – the internet, and more particularly the fact that goods bought overseas for less than $1,000 do not attract GST. Harvey and Lew announced they would back a campaign to get the threshold reduced or eliminated but were hit with one of the bigger barrages of anti-billionaire sentiment we’ve seen for some years. It seemed poor old Gerry was actually pretty hurt by the furore, but Kerry Packer’s old lesson was learned again: Never explain, never complain – especially if you are a billionaire.

Entrepreneur of the year

It’s been a pretty amazing 18 months for Melbourne businessman Gerry Ryan. Up until November 2010, he was largely unknown outside of sporting circles, but the win of his horse Americain in the Melbourne Cup raised his profile significantly. A few months later he was named Australia’s richest entertainer, thanks to his production company, which makes the Walking with Dinosaurs arena shows (he captured the title again in 2011). In May of this year he really made it, joining the Rich 200 with a fortune of $317 million, built mainly on his 800-people strong caravan business Jayco. Ryan’s next challenge is in the world of cycling, where he has backed the new Green Edge Australian pro cycling team. It could be another chapter in what is a great entrepreneurial story.

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