01/07/2021 - 15:00

Jack Bendat’s final deal

01/07/2021 - 15:00

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The sale of the Perth Wildcats could be the final big deal for Jack Bendat, who is both a renowned philanthropist and one of the toughest business operators WA has seen.

Jack Bendat’s final deal
Jack Bendat led the Perth Wildcats to six championships during his time as chairman and owner. Photo: Perth Wildcats

The sale of the Perth Wildcats could be the final big deal by the ageing Jack Bendat, who has been a highly successful property developer and media investor, a prominent philanthropist and one of the toughest business operators Western Australia has seen.

The American-born businessman built his fortune in partnership with Kerry Stokes in the 1970s, when the two men developed shopping centres across Perth.

He subsequently played a prominent role in regional television and in pioneering FM radio in WA.

He built a fortune estimated to be north of $700 million, with most of his money believed to be in blue chip shares.

Mr Bendat’s focus over the past two decades has been ‘giving back’ to the West Australian community through philanthropic donations to numerous charities and arts groups.

As part of that ‘giving back’ theme, he bought the then-struggling Wildcats in 2006 in an $8 million deal.

His financial backing helped the Wildcats become one of the most successful sporting franchises in the country.

Today’s announced sale to ASX-listed Sports Entertainment Group, for $8.5 million, indicates he got back his original investment though its unknown how much money he made, or lost, supporting the Wildcats in the intervening years.

Nonetheless, the deal caps off a remarkable business career for someone who arrived in Perth 55 years ago with little money and no connections.

EARLY YEARS

Jack Bendat was born in 1925 in Chicago but grew up in Los Angeles after his family moved there.

He served as a private in the US Army during World War II, including in Papua New Guinea, where he famously envied the officers who were able to come to Australia.

In 1966, he made a life-changing decision to leave the US, after losing money on a big construction project in Los Angeles and becoming concerned about race riots.

He boarded a freighter with his wife Eleanor and their two children, sailing through Asia before disembarking in Perth.

Mr Bendat didn’t know anyone when he arrived but soon made business connections, notably at property firm Jones Lang Wootton, which introduced the opportunity to build Bunbury Plaza shopping mall.

Mr Bendat convinced a US bank to lend him the money and proceeded to complete the mall in 90 days, using rapid construction techniques he had learned in the US.

PARTNERING WITH STOKES

The next big step came in 1967 when he teamed up with two ambitious young land developers – Kerry Stokes and Subiaco footballer Kevin Merifield.

Their first project together was Dianella Plaza – one of the first suburban shopping malls in Perth.

Mr Merifield pulled out of the business in 1970, but Messrs Stokes and Bendat continued to work together, building 11 shopping centres.

They moved into television in the late 1970’s reportedly after Bunbury mayor Ernie Manea asked Mr Bendat to support South Western Telecasters.

That expanded into Golden West Network, across Albany, Geraldton and Kalgoorlie.

It became the first satellite TV station in Australia.

Mr Bendat became a major shareholder and director of two listed companies in the 1970s, Consolidated Property Investments and South West Telecasters.

However, he tired of the regulations, the reporting and the demands of minority shareholders and ended up buying them out, which he said was “the best thing we could ever do”.

Messrs Bendat and Stokes moved into radio in 1980 after Perth media executive Brian Treasure sought their backing for a bid for Perth’s first FM radio station licence.

That became 96FM, which was wildly popular, and profitable, through most of the 1980s.

They sold 96FM to Westfield founder Frank Lowy in 1987 while Mr Bendat reaped $100 million when he sold 94.5FM and 92.9FM in 1997.

THE BREAK-UP

The business partnership between Messrs Bendat and Stokes lasted 18 years.

The split occurred in the mid-1980s when Mr Stokes wanted to build a national media business.

This was the era when there was a bidding frenzy for TV stations, with famous business figures Alan Bond, Christopher Skase and Frank Lowy paying hundreds of millions of dollars to create national TV networks.

Mr Stokes wanted to compete hard in an auction for the east coast Channel Ten stations but Mr Bendat didn’t want to invest outside Western Australia.

Margaret Simons, who wrote an unauthorised biography ‘Kerry Stokes: Self-Made Man’ in 2013, said Mr Bendat was “badly burned” as a result of Mr Stokes’ media plays.

This included Mr Bendat losing control of the Golden West TV network.

Ms Simons’ book was followed in 2014 by Andrew Rule’s authorised biography of Mr Stokes, ‘The Boy From Nowhere’.

It was critical of Mr Stokes’ former business partner, saying “people still talk about the Bendat of those days more with admiration than affection”.

Mr Rule’s book referred in several places to Mr Bendat’s reputation as a tough operator.

“Stokes would observe later that the secret to staying in partnership with Jack Bendat so long was to park his own ego,” Mr Rule wrote.

“He was probably embarrassed by his partner’s hard line with creditors and contractors who assumed they would always be paid in full.”

Reflecting on their shopping centre partnership, Mr Stokes was quoted as saying: “I have never come across anyone as good as Jack as a contract builder – nor as difficult”.

In a similar vein, Kevin Merifield was quoted as saying: “To Jack’s credit, he built fast and he built economically. But he played hardball with the subcontractors”.

WINE

Mr Bendat made a big move into the wine business in 1995 when he bought Goundrey Wines.

It was the largest winery in the Great Southern and expanded to become the third largest wine producer in WA.

He ploughed a reported $25 million into Goundrey before selling in 2002 to Canada’s Vincor for $62.5 million.

One year later, he sold a big stake in casino company Burswood (now Crown Resorts) for $24 million.

PHILANTHROPY

In the mid 2000s, around the time he turned 80, Mr Bendat’s main focus became philanthropy.

“I’ve made as much money as I ever want to make,” he said at the time.

“My philosophy today is: what can I put back into this country to make it better for future generations?”

He also professed to having little interest in the ‘toys’ that wealthy people often accumulate.

“I’m the luckiest person in the world,” he said on radio station 720.

“I don’t need aeroplanes, I don’t need boats.”

He once said it was boredom after a boat trip around the world that was the catalyst for him buying the Wildcats.

In May 2015, on his 90th birthday, the WA Basketball Centre was renamed the Bendat Basketball Centre in his honour.

Mr Bendat's major charitable contributions have included a $5 million donation in 2004 to the Bendat Family Comprehensive Cancer Centre in Subiaco.

Other contributions have included $500,000 to Passages Resource Centre, $2 million to St John of God Foundation’s Horizon House, and the Bendat Family Foundation scholarships, including to the WA Youth Jazz Orchestra.

In 2015, he transferred $25 million to the Bendat Family Foundation.

The foundation distributed $1.2 million to a range of beneficiaries in the year to June 2020, ranking it #18 on the Business News’ Data & Insights listing of philanthropic foundations.

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