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Hooker, Sir Leslie Joseph (1903–1976)

by Peter Spearritt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Leslie Joseph Hooker (1903-1976), by Jack Mulligan

Leslie Joseph Hooker (1903-1976), by Jack Mulligan

State Library of New South Wales, Australian Photographic Agency - 09784

Sir Leslie Joseph Hooker (1903-1976), real estate developer, was born on 18 August 1903 at Canterbury, Sydney, son of Nellie Tingyou. From the age of 8 Leslie was raised by Sylvia Pemberton whom he called 'aunt', although she was no relation. Educated in public schools at Canterbury and Beecroft, he began work at 13 in a Japanese import and export company, Mitsui Bussan Kaisha Ltd, before being employed as an assistant-purser in Burns Philp & Co. Ltd's ship, Mataram, which traded in the Pacific. Back in Sydney, he tried to take advantage of an economic boom, but his first real-estate business, operating out of Martin Place, failed in the mid-1920s.

Leslie changed his surname by deed poll from Tingyou to Hooker in February 1925. He opened a real-estate agency, L. J. Hooker Ltd, at Maroubra in 1928. At St Philip's Anglican Church, Sydney, on 23 June 1934 he married Madeline Adella Price, daughter of a storekeeper. Surviving the Depression, Hooker's agency flourished; by the mid-1930s he had hired his first salesman and opened an office in O'Connell Street in the city. In 1936 he bought the rent roll of Woods & Co., with offices at Kensington and Kingsford. Two years later he moved his headquarters to 98 Pitt Street and in 1939 opened another office at Randwick.

L. J. Hooker Ltd was listed on the Sydney Stock Exchange in July 1947, posting the best real-estate turnover for any company that year. The firm rode the wave of postwar reconstruction, supplying subdivided blocks to land-hungry owner-builders throughout Sydney. In addition, Hooker acquired a taste for taking over suburban real-estate agencies, and for buying hotels in Sydney and country towns through a network of family companies and Rex Investments Ltd (registered 1938, floated as a public company 1948). He gave evidence to the royal commission of inquiry into the liquor laws (1951-54) about his hotel licences and connexion with Tooth & Co. Ltd.

Hooker's real-estate activities, including his takeover bids and overseas trips, proved newsworthy. Although he himself seldom contributed to public debate, he did call for the abolition of rent control, arguing that there was little incentive for developers to build new blocks of flats in Sydney when older ones were full of tenants on fixed rents. In 1955 he formed what became Hooker Rex Pty Ltd to embark on developments at Batemans Bay, on the old racecourse in the Sydney suburb of Kogarah and on Queensland's Gold Coast. In 1958 he changed the company's name to L. J. Hooker Investment Corporation Ltd (Hooker Corporation Ltd from 1968) and in 1959 he established Australian Landtrusts Pty Ltd. That year Nation described Hooker as 'the most efficient selling agent of urban real estate in Australian history': the article explained part of his success by the way in which he had recruited young, trained, 'executive-type' salesmen and by his securing two knights, Sir Arthur Fadden and Sir Neil O'Sullivan, as directors of some of his companies.

Continuing to expand, Hooker's perfected the technique of buying undervalued companies that were in financial trouble, keeping their best assets and disposing of the rest. In 1959-60, its greatest takeover year, the firm's main acquisitions included City Investments Ltd (a Brisbane finance company), G. H. Thomas Pty Ltd, Accommodation Australia Ltd (with seven motels), Australian Wool Brokers & Produce Co. Ltd, Mainguard (Australia) Ltd (including Festival Records Pty Ltd), and W. L. Buckland's pastoral empire with vast holdings in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland and New South Wales. Hooker took delight in personally announcing these takeovers, and in the fact that—in the larger acquisitions—his company made almost no capital payments, but instead offered shareholders options to buy shares at par in Hooker's at a future date.

Having presided over one of the most breathtaking expansion programmes in Australia's corporate history and been fêted as the nation's 'biggest landholder', Hooker was happy to be publicized as the Sydney financier who rounded off the week by going for a swim. In an expansive mood, he told the Sydney Morning Herald that 'Australia is roaring ahead and it is up to us to keep pace with this development . . . If we, as an Australian company, don't keep this pace then overseas interests will only too gladly take our place'.

The Menzies government's credit squeeze in November 1961 hit the Hooker corporation which posted its first ever loss in the financial year 1961-62. The company's many subsidiaries had compounded the problem by using short-term borrowing to finance long-term commitments. (Sir) Keith Campbell, a 32-year-old businessman whom Hooker had recruited from his Thomas homes takeover in 1960, became acting general manager in 1962, charged with the financial survival of the company. Unable to raise money locally, Campbell eventually secured backing in the United States of America in 1964, and brought the company to a healthy profit by 1968. The two men got on well. Hooker reputedly 'enjoyed being the front man, the one who attended to the cocktail party circuit but who needed someone back in the office'.

On announcing his retirement from executive positions in the company in 1969, Hooker said: 'I have an instinct, a sixth sense for choosing well in real estate', adding that his recipe for success was to be born with a businessman's brain, to be 'tenacious and determined', and not to believe in bad luck. He observed that parts of Maroubra that he sold in his youth had come to be regarded as treeless and ugly, but he reflected with pride on his company's 'model estates' in the North Shore suburbs of Castle Cove, Killarney and Winston Hills.

Hooker lived at Mosman and belonged to a number of Sydney's leading clubs—Tattersall's, the Australian Jockey and the Sydney Turf clubs. He was a director (1945-64) of Sydney Hospital (vice-president 1965-76), a life governor of the Royal New South Wales Institute for Deaf and Blind Children, and president (1970) of the Council for Integrated Deaf Education. In 1973 he was knighted. Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, Sir Leslie died on 29 April 1976 at St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated. An agnostic, but 'born a Catholic', he received a requiem Mass in St Mary's Cathedral. By the time of his death he had more than 170 branches throughout Australia, their distinctive red and yellow signs a hallmark of real-estate activity. The Hooker Corporation went into liquidation after the property crash of the late 1980s, but his name survived in a system of over four hundred franchised real-estate outlets.

The name of Hooker had become synonymous with real-estate development. Obituaries portrayed him as a 'champion' of the industry and as a 'great salesman'. In his heyday in the 1950s and 1960s Hooker was criticized for his pro-development push and satirized in Frank Hardy's Outcasts of Foolgarah (1971) as 'L. J. Hookem', a self-made, upright philanthropist who exploited black labour on his pastoral properties in the North and was 'the greatest single cause of inflated land prices in the South'.

Select Bibliography

  • R. T. Appleyard and C. B. Schedvin (eds), Australian Financiers (Melb, 1988)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Jan 1956, 8 May 1960, 2 June 1973, 1 May 1976, 13 Mar 1985
  • Nation (Sydney), 5 Dec 1959
  • Australian Financial Review, 21 Jan 1960
  • Observer (Sydney), 28 May 1960
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 9 Feb 1969
  • Bulletin, 1 Mar 1975
  • private information.

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Citation details

Peter Spearritt, 'Hooker, Sir Leslie Joseph (1903–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hooker-sir-leslie-joseph-10537/text18709, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 22 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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