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Holmes à Court, Michael Robert Hamilton (1937–1990)

by John McIlwraith

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Michael Robert Hamilton Holmes à Court (1937-1990), businessman, was born on 27 July 1937 at Johannesburg, South Africa, elder son of English-born Peter Worsley Holmes à Court, a former British naval officer, and his wife Ethnee Celia, née Cumming, born in South Africa. Robert was brought up mainly in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) but from the age of 9 boarded at Cordwalles Preparatory School and then at Michaelhouse School, Natal (KwaZulu-Natal), South Africa. In 1957-58 he was in New Zealand studying at the University of Auckland and Massey Agricultural College, Palmerston North. He returned to South Africa, and in 1962 moved to Perth to study law at the University of Western Australia (LL B, 1966). A skilled debater, he represented the university in inter-varsity competitions. He was also founding president of the University Flying Club. On 18 May 1966 at St Lawrence’s Church of England, Dalkeith, Perth, he married Janet Lee, née Ranford, a schoolteacher. Admitted to practise on 17 April 1968, he established his own legal firm, M. R. H. Holmes à Court & Co., in Perth; at weekends he and Janet would drive 435 miles (700 km) to Esperance to operate a branch office. For a time Nicholas Hasluck was his partner.

In 1970 Holmes à Court acquired Western Australian Worsted & Woollen Mills Ltd, Albany, which was in danger of closure. He `turned it around’ financially, ceased practising law, and in 1974 bought a controlling interest in Bell Bros Holdings Ltd, an earthmoving and transport group. In 1976 he incorporated these and other companies into the Bell Group Ltd. He had a gift for seeing an opportunity and soon developed a legendary reputation for his daring company raids. He bid in 1979 for Ansett Transport Industries Ltd and, before he could take control, sold his interest to News Ltd for an $11 million profit. In 1981 he pulled out of a proposed takeover of Elder Smith Goldsbrough Mort Ltd, making a $16 million profit.

Interested in the media industry, in 1980-87 Holmes à Court published a weekly newspaper in Perth, the Western Mail. Late in 1981 he failed in an attempt to win control of the Herald & Weekly Times Ltd but, through a merger with TVW Enterprises Ltd in 1982, gained television channels in Perth and Adelaide and four radio stations. Identifying business prospects offshore, in 1980 he unsuccessfully pursued control of The Times, London. In 1982 he acquired Lord Grade’s Associated Communications Corporation, a major British entertainment group, which included the Stoll Moss group of thirteen theatres in London’s West End. He was particularly proud of a 1987 deal in which Bell Publishing Group Pty Ltd bought West Australian Newspapers Ltd from News Corporation Ltd.

Holmes à Court’s most significant assault in Australia was on the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd in 1983-86. His company Bell Resources Ltd’s shareholding eventually reached 29.93 per cent; he had a seat on the board. After the stock market crash in October 1987 he sold his interest for $2.3 billion. Withdrawing from the world of listed companies, in less than three months he disposed of $5 billion in assets. The price of Bell Group’s shares fell at one point from nearly $10 to $1.30; Holmes à Court received twice the latter amount when the control of his group passed to another mercurial Western Australian businessman, Alan Bond.

Retaining the London theatres, a number of Australian pastoral properties, vineyards, a winery, a transport company and several thoroughbred studs, Holmes à Court quietly worked at rebuilding the family companies. The flagship was Heytesbury Holdings Ltd, which he described as the `family castle’; none of its assets was for sale. Carisbrook Pty Ltd was his trading company, of which he once said everything was `for sale at the right price’. Most of his revenue in that period came from trading in shares, and he spent more time at his Georgian mansion in Regents Park, London, bought in 1988. By this time he had his own Boeing 727 aircraft, in which he commuted to and from Australia. He formed associations with European companies such as Elf Aquitaine, and made a highly profitable investment in Christie’s auction house. In 1988 he established the Holmes à Court Foundation, with a brief to encourage people with `talent and imagination’. Next year Heytesbury acquired the Sherwin Pastoral Co. Ltd’s cattle properties, including Victoria River Downs in the Northern Territory.

Working eighteen-hour days, Holmes à Court did not usually move quickly in making decisions about his acquisitions. Many followed months of planning, and some were then abandoned at the last minute. He laughed at suggestions that he was a swashbuckling corporate pirate plunging impulsively into deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars. While his staff found his work regimen exhausting, they respected his abilities to go to the core of a problem and to display a cool nerve. A tall, unassuming man with a quiet voice and manner, he was courteous but capable of ruthlessness. In his understated style, a raised eyebrow could be a stern rebuke. He used words with precision, and enjoyed debate, particularly elegantly phrased arguments with journalists.

Although Holmes à Court stayed aloof from the local Establishment, he enjoyed gossip and could be acerbic when discussing his corporate enemies. He also appreciated jokes against himself. Describing his entrance to a party at Beverly Hills, California, at a time when he owned a film company, he recalled standing alone in his conservative grey suit, among the flamboyant creatures of the industry, one of whom told him that he looked `like ET’. His main hobby was breeding thoroughbred horses—in 1984 his horse Black Knight won the Melbourne Cup—and he relaxed at weekends at his Heytesbury stud at Keysbrook. He collected vintage cars and European, Australian and Aboriginal art. In 1986-90 he chaired the board of the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

Survived by his wife and their three sons and a daughter, Holmes à Court died of myocardial infarction on 2 September 1990 at Kelmscott, Perth, and was cremated. He died intestate, with assets estimated to be worth over $800 million. The Holmes à Court collection of Australian and Indigenous art is located in Perth.

Select Bibliography

  • Business Review Weekly, 5 Sept 1986, p 47, 12 Sept 1986, p 55, 19 Sept 1986, p 17, 26 Sept 1986, p 51, 3 Oct 1986, p 47
  • Australian Financial Review, 3 Sept 1990, p 1
  • Australian, 3 Sept 1990, p 1
  • West Australian, 3 Sept 1990, p 1
  • Bulletin, 11 Sept 1990, p 166
  • J. McIlwraith, `Holmes à Court: The End of an Era’, Australian Business, 12 Sept 1990, p 32
  • Australian, 6-7 Apr 1991, `Review’, p 1.

Citation details

John McIlwraith, 'Holmes à Court, Michael Robert Hamilton (1937–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/holmes-a-court-michael-robert-hamilton-12647/text22789, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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