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Lawrence James (Larry) Adler (1931–1988)

by John Perkins

This article was published:

Lawrence James (Larry) Adler (1931-1988), businessman, was born on 2 November 1931 in Budapest, Hungary, and named Ladislaus (Laszlo), only son of Bela Adler, button manufacturer, and his wife Antonia, née Vorosvary. Laszlo attended technical high school in Budapest. Previously prosperous, the family suffered privation during World War II; Bela had died in a camp at Mühlhausen, Germany, by 1945. With the communists in control in Hungary, Laszlo tried to leave; he was successful on his second attempt, escaping in 1949 via Austria, where, after a brief stay in a displaced persons’ camp, he accepted a free passage to Australia in return for two years’ indentured labour. He arrived in Melbourne in March 1950.

Known as `Larry’ in Australia, he started the two years’ allocated employment in Adelaide with the South Australian Railways. In 1950 he moved to Sydney, where he worked as a petrol-pump attendant, storeman, motorcar-parts procurer, sales manager and taxi owner-driver. He operated an electrical goods store, then a record shop in the mid-1950s. Concurrently, he ran an investment business, the Prosperity & Security Corporation Ltd. He dabbled in real estate before forming a used-car dealership, Eagle Motors Pty Ltd (named after the English translation of the German Adler). He was naturalised in 1952. On 11 March 1956 Adler married Ethel Kaminer, a secretary, at the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He officially adopted the name Larry by deed poll in 1957 and changed it to Lawrence James in 1965.

In 1960 Adler had established the Fire & All Risks Insurance Co. Ltd, known as FAI. He was chairman and managing director. The company’s initial paid-up capital was £7500 (soon increased to £25,000 to give the impression of solid backing for the company), its prime asset being a small building in King Street. Initially the company conducted fire, marine and accident insurance, but in 1965 it bought the Car Owners’ Mutual Insurance Co. Ltd. FAI was an innovator, offering generous no-claim bonuses and an honour plan for minor repairs. Progress was not always smooth: the company suffered reverses due to heavy exposure in Darwin property and car insurance when Cyclone Tracy caused devastation in 1974.

Diversification within the insurance field began in the mid-1960s, with the company acquiring the Falkirk & Stirlingshire Assurance Co. Ltd in 1966 (which gave it the ability to offer life insurance); buying Automotive & General Industries Ltd of Melbourne in 1967 for `asset stripping’; and purchasing Australian & International Insurances Ltd and Omnibus & General Insurance Brokers Pty Ltd in 1968. Australian & International Insurances Ltd acquired Fire & All Risks in 1971, achieving public company status for the whole group, and changed its name to FAI Insurances Ltd in 1973.

From 1969 Adler expanded his activities beyond insurance through Cumberland Holdings Ltd (previously Cumberland Credit Corporation Ltd), which began to operate nursing homes, followed by private hospitals. Not all his activities were successful. The 1981 purchase of Horwood, Bagshaw Ltd, an Adelaide agricultural and mining equipment manufacturer, was a disaster, as was the 1982 acquisition of Offshore Oil NL. In the 1980s Adler made a fortune for FAI and himself as a corporate raider, acquiring share-holdings in underperforming companies likely to attract takeovers. In 1987 the strategic holdings he acquired in Pioneer Concrete Services Ltd and Ampol Ltd netted a profit of $194 million. The stock market crash of 1987 halved FAI’s market valuation of $1.6 billion but Adler rode out this crisis too, in spite of not obeying the risk-averse investment pattern of most insurance companies.

Adler was frequently involved in civil law suits, as both plaintiff and defendant, against the insurance commissioners and various businesses. A member of the board of the Insurance Council of Australia from 1985 until his death, he was appointed AO in 1988. Though never a regular synagogue-attender, he remained proud of his Jewish identity. For relaxation he owned a yacht and tried some sports: `I work golf. I work tennis. But I play business’. But his leisure time was mainly spent with his family and watching television at his Vaucluse home. A diabetic, he suffered his first heart attack in 1979. He died of diabetes and myocardial infarction on 13 December 1988 at Camperdown and was buried in the Northern Suburbs Jewish cemetery, North Ryde. His wife and their son and two daughters survived him. On his death FAI’s share value dropped fifty cents (one-sixth of their value) overnight.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Ostrow, The New Boy Network (1987)
  • P. Denton, From Cabbie to Chairman (1991)
  • Bulletin, 24 Feb 1981, p 94
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Mar 1985, p 5, 10 Aug 1985, p 45, 14 Dec 1988, p 20
  • Australian Financial Review, 29 July 1985, p 11, 14 Dec 1988, p 6
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Dec 1988, p 25
  • private information.

Citation details

John Perkins, 'Adler, Lawrence James (Larry) (1931–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 20 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Adler, Ladislaus
  • Adler, Laszlo

2 November, 1931
Budapest, Hungary


13 December, 1988 (aged 57)
Camperdown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.