15/07/2003 - 22:00

Copley keeps eyes on market

15/07/2003 - 22:00

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WHILE Save Ningaloo campaigners were in the final stages of their long running and, ultimately, successful battle against the Maud’s Landing development, a wealthy conservationist linked to their cause may well have had his mind elsewhere.

Copley keeps eyes on market

WHILE Save Ningaloo campaigners were in the final stages of their long running and, ultimately, successful battle against the Maud’s Landing development, a wealthy conservationist linked to their cause may well have had his mind elsewhere – the UK stock market.

Martin Copley is viewed as one of Australia’s pre-eminent nature-based philanthropists – reported to have spent about $10 million in recent years funding the purchase of Australian bush and pastoral country for wildlife preservation.

Much of this land has been in WA, where Mr Copley and the not-for-profit organisation he founded, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, are based.

The Save Ningaloo campaign is also understood to have been a beneficiary of his largesse, at least according to claims made in both State and Federal parliaments – claims not denied by Mr Copley.

So you could understand if his attention had been focused 12 hours’ drive north of the State capital towards the end of June.

But just a week or so before the State Government’s official decision to knock back the Maud’s Landing proposal, at least some of Mr Copley’s considerable fortune was being used to buy back into the UK insurance sector where his wealth was created.

According to recent UK stock market announcements, in late June Mr Copley spent more than $1.1 million taking to more than 3 per cent (worth around $14.6 million) his beneficial interest in London-based Domestic & General Group, the household appliance insurance company he floated in the late 1980s.

While WA Business News has been unable to reach Mr Copley for comment, the purchase appears to go against the grain of his investment and lifestyle decision making of the past decade as he exited the heady heights of UK insurance to embark on his Australian conservation crusade.

Perhaps it was the strengthening of the Australian dollar against the pound, or maybe Mr Copley sensed the company that he grew from an inheritance to become a major specialist player in the world’s leading insurance market was under-valued. Whatever the case, the investment seems somewhat out of place with the direction the wealthy insurance baron seems to have taken upon his retirement as chairman of Domestic & General in 1998.

At that time he sold down his interests in the company from almost $100 million in early 1992, when he had a 40 per cent stake.

But the to and fro between the UK and Western Australian bush is not completely out of character for the Copley family.

Mr Copley’s insurance business roots go back to 1912 when his grandfather, Samuel, started the Western Australian Insurance Company to provide protection for sheep transporters. Within two years Samuel had established an office in London and, over time, the direct link with WA was lost.

Domestic & General, though, still retains some of that history.

The company’s logo is a stylised swan emblem with black and gold, even though the business itself is a far cry from the handful of insurance assets Mr Copley compiled in the 1970s to create a small power-house, which went public in the late 1980s and remains a strong performer.

These days Mr Copley’s interests remain linked to that pastoral past. AWC now controls a 140,000 hectare sheep station at Mount Gibson, four hours north-east of Perth that was bought from Peter Underwood, a Curtin University professor and former country doctor who is on AWC’s board.

AWC has also taken a stake in the Ningaloo Station lease – though the foundation’s move has not been entirely welcomed by the owners of the remaining 75 per cent, a branch of the Lefroy family.

It is at Ningaloo Station where AWC would like to establish a bush camp tourist and research establishment, something it says would fit within a new tourism and development strategy for the region.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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