02/05/2012 - 10:09

Iron ore magnate slips away quietly

02/05/2012 - 10:09

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Michael Wright challenged the public’s view of the average mining billionaire.

PLANNER: The late Michael Wright did not want his estate to be dragged through the courts after his death and developed a succession plan with his children ahead of time. Photo: Grant Currall

Michael Wright challenged the public’s view of the average mining billionaire.

While the common view of the iron ore billionaire is that of an anti-tax campaigner waving a public fist at the government, the late Michael Wright offered a contrast.

An heir to an iron ore fortune worth an estimated $2 billion, which he shared with his sister Angela Bennett, Mr Wright, 74, was a relatively low key individual who was scarred by numerous legal battles over his wealth that repeatedly dragged him into the public sphere.

His preference for privacy may also be shown in the decision to exit the family’s media businesses upon the death some decades ago of their father Peter, a key business partner of the late Lang Hancock, who was instrumental in the early development of Western Australia’s iron ore industry.

Instead Mr Wright, who died last week, opted for the somewhat more private option of pursuing agricultural interests, including the development of a winery, Voyager Estate.

Mr Wright, who did not drink, bought Voyager Estate in 1991 and developed the vineyard and its cellar door into an extensive business. 

More recently, the Cottesloe-based businessman bought a 600-hectare rural property in the Wheatbelt, which he planned to use as something of a retreat and a way of continuing his long-held interest in farming.

But that is not to suggest that one of the state’s richest men was a shrinking violet or lacked an opinion.

Carefully choosing his moments, Mr Wright was outspoken on a number of issues, including his concerns that productive agricultural land was being threatened by the encroachment of suburbia and other forms of urban development.

While this might have been viewed by some as self-interest due to his rural assets in the Margaret River area, it also represented a knowledgeable viewpoint expressed with passionate concern for preserving both a way of life and a productive industry of regional importance.

Such a stance is familiar among other WA mining magnates who have garnered far more headlines in recent years.  

While Mr Wright was consistent in his concern about poor public policy that was damaging Australia’s interest, he also had another frustration that he highlighted in WA Business News last year.

He was acutely aware of the problems that might come from passing on his wealth, including significant iron ore royalties, the winery and rural WA assets, and significant commercial property interests in Texas and Nevada, most notably as the biggest land holder on the Las Vegas strip, just outside the main gambling area.

He did not want his estate to become the subject of legal contests which he had experienced first-hand.

“There is no point in having a succession plan if the kids tear each other apart,” Mr Wright said last year.

Some time ago he and his sister settled a long-running legal dispute with the children of their brother Julian, who claimed they were owed more from Peter Wright’s estate despite their father’s decision to sell his interests to his siblings some decades ago.

More recently, Mr Wright and Mrs Bennett were locked in a legal battle with Mr Hancock’s daughter Gina Rinehart over ownership of a 25 per cent stake in the Rhodes Ridge iron ore deposit, which is 50 per cent held by Rio Tinto.

“I would like to get rid of these legal issues,” Mr Wright told WA Business News last year.

“Why at my time of life do I have to deal with the bloody things that have been going on since 2000? I don’t know.

“They are fatiguing and frustrating and, if I want to feel sorry for myself, I could say they are demonstrably unfair, but there is no point thinking like that, you are stuck with them and you have to deal with them.”

In discussing his succession plans last year, Mr Wright said after significant planning and consideration, both his daughters – Alex and Leonie – had decided to become directly involved in the family business, while his son, Myles, had opted to stay out of it and concentrate on a career in the theatre sector. While he was not clear about his daughters’ roles, Alex is listed as the CEO of Voyager.

He said he wanted to play a role in the transition to ensure it went smoothly, but was also aware that parents who hung on to the family business too long could wreak damage of their own.

Notices in The West Australian newspaper this week recognise Mr Wright as an unpretentious gentleman with a generous spirit. 

Apart from close friends, including some of WA’s most wealthy people, institutions he supported such as the West Australian Ballet and the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research expressed their condolences.

Mr Wright was also noted by the Australian Model Ships Society as both its patron and an enthusiastic supporter.


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