CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Alan Bond, the polarizing global entrepreneur who became an Australian hero by bankrolling a historic America’s Cup yacht race victory before going to prison over the nation’s biggest corporate fraud, died on Friday. He was 77.
Bond, who had rheumatic fever as a child which weakened his heart, died in Fiona Stanley Hospital in the west Australian city of Perth of complications following open heart surgery, said his son, John Bond. The surgery involved replacing a heart valve that had previously been replaced almost 20 years ago, and repairs to two other valves.
“He never regained consciousness after his surgery on Tuesday and has been on life support since that time,” John Bond told reporters. “To a lot of people, dad was a larger-than-life character who started with nothing and did so much. He really did experience the highs and lows of life. To us, however, he was just dad — a father who tried his best to be the best dad he could.”
In 1987, Bond bought the G. Heileman Brewing Co. in La Crosse for $1.26 billion — triple what many analysts said Heileman was worth — in a highly leveraged cash deal. A month later, the stock market crashed and so did Bond’s financial empire, propped up by junk bonds.
Struggling with a $1 billion debt, Heileman declared bankruptcy in 1991, and emerged later that year with a debt of $325 million. Under Bond, the company sold off its baking, snack foods and Machine Products Co. operations before Dallas-based investment firm Hicks, Muse & Co. bought Heileman for $390 million in 1993.
The flamboyant, London-born former sign writer divided Australians. Some remember him as a national sporting hero who transformed his once-sleepy adopted home of Perth into a global business center. To others, he will always be an audacious corporate criminal who was only exposed when his global business empire crashed in the early 1990s.
Perhaps Bond’s proudest moment came in 1983 when he headed the Australia II syndicate that won the America’s Cup from the New York Yacht Club that had held it since 1851. Australia II’s then-revolutionary winged keel had ended the longest winning streak in the history of sport.
Bond had already been honored as Australian of the Year in 1978 for sponsoring earlier unsuccessful America’s Cup challenges.
Perth’s neighboring port town of Fremantle, where Bond arrived as a 12 year old with his immigrant family in 1950, played host to the next yacht race in 1987. But Australia has never again won the prestigious trophy contest.
His fall came in the 1990s when he was bankrupted owing $1.8 billion Australian dollars ($1.4 billion), his flagship company Bond Corp. Holdings Ltd. collapsed and he was sent to prison three times for corporate crimes.
He pleaded guilty in 1997 to corporate law charges related to the siphoning of AU$1.2 billion from one of his companies, Bell Resources, to prop up Bond Corp. At the time, it was Australia’s biggest-ever corporate fraud.
Bond won a High Court appeal against his seven-year prison sentence and walked free in 2000 after serving a little more than three years.
He was sentenced in 1996 to three years in prison on convictions that he had improperly used his position as a director of Bond Corp. in a series of transactions that cost that public company millions of dollars and enabled Bond’s family company to buy French impressionist Edouard Manet’s painting “La Promenade” at a discount price. He was still in prison when he pleaded guilty the next year to the corporate law charges.
He was sentenced in 1992 — the year he was bankrupted — to two-and-a-half years in prison after being found guilty of inducing a former friend to contribute to the rescue of the doomed Rothwells merchant bank while concealing a multimillion dollar fee Bond’s family company made from the deal. He served only a few months before he was retried and acquitted.
Bond was born in the Hammersmith district of west London, the second child of Frank and Kathleen Bond.
He followed the footsteps of his father, who was a commercial painter, by becoming an apprentice sign writer at 14 despite failing a spelling test set by his employer, Fremantle firm Parnell Signs, according to Paul Barry’s biography “The Rise and Fall of Alan Bond.”
Bond completed less than four years of his 5-year apprenticeship before starting a rival business, Nu-Signs, in Fremantle with his father.
Bond showed early business acumen. But his honesty was always in question.
When he was 18 years old, he was convicted in a Fremantle court of two attempted home burglaries. He was fined and placed on a good behavior bond.
He started making big money in the 1960s, when he branched into property development around Perth.
He was one of Australia’s wealthiest people by the 1980s, as Bond Corp. gathered brewing, media and mining assets around the world.
In 2008, Bond made BRW magazine’s annual list of Australia’s 200 richest individuals for the first time in 18 years. BRW ranked Bond at 157th place with an estimated fortune of $255 million through interests including an African diamond mine and Madagascan oil fields.
“All things involving Bond and money are opaque, so we were very wary of overstating Bond’s wealth,” BRW editor in chief Sean Aylmer told The Associated Press at the time.
He is survived by his first wife Eileen and their children John, Craig and Jody.