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Viertel, Charles (Carl) (1902–1992)

by Mark Cryle

This article was published online in 2016

Charles Viertel (1902–1992), accountant, businessman, and philanthropist, was born on 23 November 1902 at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, and named Carl, eighth of eleven children of Julius Herman Viertel, an engineer who had been born in Saxony, and his English-born wife Henrietta Louise, née Dunn. At the Kangaroo Point State (Boys’) School, Carl won prizes and in 1915 gained tenth place among males in the State-wide scholarship examination. Continuing his education at the high school department of the Brisbane Central Technical College, in 1917 he passed seven subjects in the junior public examination, concurrently qualifying for entry to the State and Commonwealth public services. By this time he was known as Charles (or usually ‘Charlie’).

After working for three years with the Agricultural Bank of Queensland, Viertel joined Offner, Hadley & Co., public accountants. He had been studying part time with Hemingway & Robertson, and in 1923 he met the requirements for enrolment as an associate of the Federal Institute of Accountants. By 1929 he was heading his firm’s cost accounting department, responsible for evaluating and reducing costs and, in some cases, retrieving companies in difficulty during the lean economic times of the Depression. In 1934, the same year in which he completed degree studies at the University of Queensland (BCom, 1935), Viertel went into business on his own as a cost accountant. He involved himself in professional organisations as an examiner for the Federal Institute of Accountants and as president (1952–53) of the Australasian Institute of Cost Accountants.

From the 1920s Viertel had begun to acquire significant residential real-estate holdings and to fund share purchases from the rental income. In 1940 he bought J. Hooper & Co. Pty Ltd, makers of Quill stationery, and was to maintain control of the firm into old age. During the 1940s he purchased properties at Woolloongabba and, cheaply, large tracts of land on the Gold Coast, the sale of which further boosted his cash flow. He read company reports diligently and impressed his colleagues with his remarkable ability quickly to scrutinise and analyse a balance sheet. A shrewd investor, he drew on his extensive experience as a cost accountant in selecting acquisitions. He rarely ‘played’ the market and tended to hold on to stock during a downturn. Investment became an absorbing interest as well as a source of income for him. By 1980 he was reported to hold probably the largest personal investment portfolio in Australia. He regularly attended company general meetings and gained a reputation for tempestuous relationships with some directors, often challenging them publicly if he felt that their performances were not meeting his exacting standards. By the time of his death, his net wealth was estimated at between $90 million and $95 million.

Viertel frequently recounted stories of disadvantage in his upbringing, noting that it inspired him to achieve. A non-smoker and non-drinker, who did not gamble, nor borrow to buy shares, he maintained a lifestyle marked by its express lack of anything that smacked of extravagance. He lived frugally in a relatively modest home at Coorparoo and was notorious for dressing casually. In his own words he ‘wanted a taste of the power that money could bring, not the material things that money could buy’ (Australian 1992, 27). He was far from a recluse, however. Something of a raconteur, he seemingly enjoyed the attention of the print media and he fostered his image of a simple, almost eccentric, down-to-earth investor.

Although Viertel had few hobbies outside his investments, as a younger man he had been a keen and capable sportsman. In addition to being an A-grade club cricketer, he toured (1923) New South Wales as a reserve for the Queensland junior soccer team. He was also well versed in history and literature, readily quoting Shakespeare and Dickens.

On 23 January 1941 at the Methodist Church, Torwood, Brisbane, Viertel had married Sylvia Amy Buchanan, a shop assistant. The couple had no children. Sylvia ‘was a quiet woman . . . who was apparently unaware of the extent of the wealth Charles had amassed’ (Gregory 2013, 12). After years of eye disease she died in 1980. Viertel died on 23 March 1992 in Brisbane and, following a Uniting Church service, was cremated. In 1982 he had been appointed OBE for his services to the blind, but his greatest legacy was the Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation, which he provided for in his will with a bequest of some $60 million. The foundation was established to benefit medical research and to provide services to the aged, through a program of annual grants.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Australian. ‘Player’s Frugal Lifestyle.’ 25 March 1992, 27
  • Cromie, Ali. ‘Sharemarket Warrior’s Charity Lives On.’ Business Review Weekly, 26 May 1997, 40–41
  • Grant-Taylor, Tony. ‘Profile: Charles Viertel.’ Australian Accountant: Journal of the Australian Society of Accountants 59, no. 1 (February 1989): 16–19
  • Gregory, Helen. The Sylvia & Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation: The First 20 Years 19922012. Melbourne: Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation, 2013
  • O’Meara, Michael. ‘Death of a Boardroom Terror.’ Australian Financial Review, 25 March 1992, 1, 11
  • Penberthy, Jefferson. ‘Charlie’s $ Million Share Chortle.’ National Times, 23–29 November 1980, 6
  • Stewart, Andrew. ‘Charlie Sticks to Solid Values.’ Business Review Weekly, 6 April 1990, 32–33

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Citation details

Mark Cryle, 'Viertel, Charles (Carl) (1902–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/viertel-charles-carl-17176/text28980, published online 2016, accessed online 22 November 2017.

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