08/02/2018 - 15:33

Award an act of generosity?

08/02/2018 - 15:33

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This year’s Australia Day honour’s list includes a name familiar to many in WA, but the timing seems odd.

Award an act of generosity?
Laurie Wilson, pictured in 1986, has retreated from public gaze since the 1990s, but emerged in this year’s Australia Day honours list. Photo: Source State Library of Western Australia 324147PD

Laurie Wilson is almost one of those mythical names in the Western Australian lexicon of entrepreneurialism.

Unlike many other high flyers of the 1980s, he would be unfamiliar to almost anyone outside their late 40s. Perhaps he didn’t quite steal the limelight in his heyday: he wasn’t linked to dirty deals with governments; he had built a global business of substance; his charitable work was considerable and genuine; and when he flamed out, he wore the consequences – after pleading guilty to stealing in 1996, he repaid what he had taken and, from what I can tell, all but disappeared from public life.

If only some others had similarly spared us from their efforts to rewrite history.

Nevertheless, Wilson has not completely disappeared. An internet search of his legal name, Lawrence Wilson, will mainly exhume news about exhibitions at the prominent art gallery situated on the grounds of the University of Western Australia, which bears his name due to a $1 million donation in better times more than two decades ago.

Of course, younger folk will be familiar with the Wilson name, albeit unwittingly. It is attached to what in some places appears a near-ubiquitous parking business he founded as a 15 year old in 1955, and became the basis of a personal fortune worth an estimated $200 million before a foray into the stock market lost him the title of car park king.

Or maybe, like me, they trawled through the fine print of the 2018 Australia Day honours list and discovered one Lawrence Leslie Wilson of Ascot Waters had been made a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to the community through philanthropic support, particularly for medical research organisations and art scholarship funds.

I am not fully aware of the process for such awards but presumably someone lobbied for such recognition. And clearly someone listened.

The brief citation gives little away as to what exactly Wilson has done. There are too numerous potential recipients of his largesse for me to understand which have gained from his generosity in recent times.

His cited good deeds appear, though, very similar to those referenced in sentencing proceedings following his admission that he stole $200,000 from an unlisted public company called Stinoc, a crime for which he narrowly avoided jail.

In dismissing an appeal by the prosecution against the leniency of his sentence, the judgement of the Court of Criminal Appeal included: “That while he was wealthy the respondent had donated $1 million towards the construction of a new art gallery at the University of WA and had made very generous donations as well as giving a lot of his time and energy to the Australian Foundation for the Prevention of Blindness, the Lions Save-Sight Foundation (WA) Inc and to scholarships for disabled artists.”

That wealth referred to was significant. Documented court proceedings between Wilson and his first wife (after they split in the late 1980s) shows the family had $45 million in a trust, which funded a $1 million-a-year lifestyle through an income distribution that was subject to very little tax.

It seems that divorce settlement was part of the dramas that led to his demise. Around the same time, he diversified from parking into public companies in a decision that lost him millions and cost him the rest of his fortune.

His theft of $200,000 was after he had lost most of his wealth and was again trying to win big on the stock market in order to buy a block of land for his second wife.

It ended in bankruptcy and criminal charges.

It is hard to say if he has rebuilt his fortune. He has definitely been involved in the car parking business to some degree since those times. Whether his business enterprises in the past 20 years have been successful enough to generate sufficient excess funds required for the kind of charitable giving that earns an Australia Day gong is not clear to me. If he has, he has done it very quietly, which is his right.

However, if the Australia Day honour was recognition for his pre-1996 giving, then it seems he has been recognised for that generosity twice.

In the first instance his charitable works helped him avoid jail. To my thinking that would exhaust any goodwill generated by prior charitable giving.

Then again, have the mists of time, the lack of information available on Google and, perhaps, the monumental appreciation of past beneficiaries, altered the ledger in favour of another round of recognition?

I write this not to be spiteful or in any way nasty to a man that, in my view was, despite his flaws, a genuine and generous businessman rather than a true villain like many of his peers. I am simply bemused by an opaque process that throws up what seems to be an odd result.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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