Perhaps best known these days for her support of the local arts and culture scene, Janet Holmes a Court spoke to Business News over lunch at Julio’s in West Perth about her first career as a teacher, how she was thrust into corporate life following the sudden death of her husband, Robert, and her current projects.
Perhaps best known these days for her support of the local arts and culture scene, Janet Holmes à Court spoke to Business News over lunch at Julio’s in West Perth about her first career as a teacher, how she was thrust into corporate life following the sudden death of her husband, Robert, and her current projects.
Janet Holmes à Court’s many and varied public achievements over almost three decades have not dimmed her enthusiasm and passion, with the philanthropist and businesswoman as energetic and driven as ever.
Leadership potential was not something that showed itself during her high school days, at least not by normal schoolyard definition.
“At high school, I was told by one of the teachers that I was not going to be made a prefect as I was too much of a rebel,” Mrs Holmes à Court said.
“I was at Perth Modern School. We had the most marvellous maths teacher, Harry Orris. My inclination is to be mathematical, it’s a family trait. Mr Orris inspired me.”
In those days, a large proportion of the brightest girls went into teaching.
“There were 50 girls in my year who would have been the top students in the state; 35 per cent went into teaching,” Mrs Holmes à Court said.
“That’s a fascinating statistic, because today if you took the top students, they wouldn’t be heading into teaching. That’s terribly sad. We need the best people to be teachers. It’s such an important profession.”
Later, at the University of Western Australia, she was involved in student politics, where she was vice-president and secretary of the guild council, and president of the science union. It was as a member of the guild council that she met her (future) husband.
Graduating with a science degree and a diploma in education, Mrs Holmes à Court returned to Perth Modern to teach science.
The following year she married Robert Holmes à Court, and believes this may have had some effect on her early career because her new teaching timetable included subjects she was not equipped to teach.
“I think I was regarded as untrustworthy, as I was now married,” Mrs Holmes à Court said.
“So I went to the head office of the education department and asked to see the regulations pertaining to married women. When they asked me what I wanted them for, I said I wanted to show them to my lawyer, not telling them my lawyer was my husband.”
Mrs Holmes à Court was then placed at Governor Stirling Senior High School, where she was back teaching what she loved – chemistry and science – albeit at a pay rate less than that of male teachers.
After teaching for three years, she left teaching and was employed as a law clerk in her husband’s law practice.
In 1983, Mrs Holmes à Court joined the board of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (which she chairs to this day). She then joined the senate at UWA, where she was pro-chancellor, set up the Consumers Advisory Service for the Health Department (being its first chair), and was chair of the King Edward Memorial Hospital.
“Many of Heytesbury’s 1,000 employees, in subsidiary companies such as Stoll Moss in London and the cattle stations in Australia, thought this would be the end of the company,” Mrs Holmes à Court said. “I went to the office the next day to calm everyone down and reassure them that we would press on.”
However, many assumed the business would fail without her famous entrepreneurial husband at the helm.
“I’ve never been frightened of surrounding myself with people who are much smarter than I am,” Mrs Holmes à Court said.
“I had drive and determination, and was convinced that no matter how much debt there was in Heytesbury, there were some amazing assets. I used to imagine a hessian bag with all the assets and all the debt together. If you shook it up, something would be left to float to the top.”
In hindsight, a benefit may have been not having a set plan.
“It was a bit like setting off to drive to Sydney, heading for Kalgoorlie and finding a road block, so you had to divert to Southern Cross. It was necessary to be very flexible with our plans,” Mrs Holmes à Court said.
“We knew we wanted to have a company that produced things. Robert’s life revolved around share trading. I knew that this activity had to stop immediately, as there was nobody in the company who could do that except him.”
In early 1991, Heytesbury purchased John Holland Construction and Engineering, and Mrs Holmes à Court spent more than two decades as chair, gaining experience in the construction industry in Australia and South-East Asia.
As her husband had not left a will, she received a third of the estate, and the four children each received one sixth.
Eldest son Peter exited the business, and in 2000 youngest son, Paul, took over managing Heytesbury. In 2007, he made an offer to the family to buy them out. They all accepted.
“I did not want to see the art collection broken up so I received that as part payment,” Mrs Holmes à Court said.
These days, Mrs Holmes à Court’s main activities revolve around her art collection and voluntary work, notably the WA Symphony Orchestra, the board of which she chairs.
“We’ve been trying to find a home for 16 years since the ABC moved from Adelaide Terrace from where we also operated,” she said.
“Since January last year, WASO has been running the Perth Concert Hall. We are very dependent on our patrons and corporate partners, for example, Wesfarmers. We’ve been hit by the downturn, but then again Wesfarmers has increased its sponsorship, and many Australian and Japanese companies have continued to support us. They are not fair-weather friends.”
Her other main project is to look after the Janet Holmes à Court Collection. Presently, a new storage space for the collection, which will include a performance space, is being constructed in West Perth and will open in the New Year.
Mrs Holmes à Court also sits on the boards of the Australian National Academy of Music and the Australian Urban Design Research Centre.
She is also a member of the International Advisory Board of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Mrs Holmes à Court is not on social media and uses the phone and email to catch up with family and friends, who are spread all over the world. She loves to read.
“Sometimes I wish that all the great modern writers of the world would stop writing for a few years, so I could catch up,” Mrs Holmes à Court said.
“The last book I read was The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna, which won the Miles Franklin Award last year. We have a disproportionate number of excellent women writers in Australia, particularly in WA.”