Kerry Packer -- tycoon who loved a challenge

Published: Tuesday, December 27, 2005, 23:53 [IST]
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Sydney:Media mogul Kerry Packer combined a love of making money with a typically Australian passion for sport, pausing in his relentless rise as the country's richest man only to revolutionise the international cricket world.

Packer, who died in his Sydney home late Monday aged 68, was regarded with awe by Australians, as much for his larger-than-life personality as his fearsome business reputation.

While the Publishing and Broadcasting Limited (PBL) chief attempted to keep out of the spotlight, the Australian public were always keen on stories about everything from his massive gambling plunges to his many health problems.

Packer adopted a typically no-nonsense approach to his own mortality when he nearly died playing polo in 1990 after suffering a severe attack during which his heart stopped beating for at least six minutes.

"I've been to the other side," he reportedly told an ambulance officer. "And let me tell you son, there's fucking nothing there."

He suffered other heart attacks and underwent a kidney transplant in November 2000, receiving an organ donated by his helicopter pilot and friend Nick "Biggles" Ross.

Packer built PBL into an empire that stretched from the core businesses of the Nine Network television station and Australian Consolidated Press magazine stable to ski resorts, rural properties and diamond exploration.

In recent years he had steered PBL into the gaming industry, taking control of Australia's largest casino, Melbourne's Crown Casino, the Burswood casino in Perth, as well as developing two new gaming complexes in Macau in a joint venture with Hong Kong's Melco International Ltd.

He bulldozed the sleepy cricketing establishment of the 1970s when the Australian Cricket Board (ACB) refused Channel Nine's offer for Test match television rights.

Ignoring the gentleman's club that ruled the game at the time, he launched the "Packer revolution" with his own World Series Cricket.

By placing an emphasis on the entertaining one-day form of the game, Packer was credited with generating enough revenue to save the once-faltering five-day Test version loved by the purists.

Packer's success was such that the ACB, now known as Cricket Australia, was among the first to pay tribute after his death.

Cricket Australia chairman Creagh OConnor said Packer stood alongside the late Donald Bradman as one of the giants to have influenced the shape of Australian cricket.

"That cricket is today taken for granted as a natural part of the Australian way of life is in no small measure due to his influence," O'Connor said in a statement.

Packer related his love of sport back to his childhood. While born to a wealthy family he suffered polio at an early age and was packed off to boarding school for much of his youth, enduring a distant relationship with his father Frank Packer.

"My life was sport," he said in a rare 1979 interview. "I was academically stupid and my method for surviving through school and those sort of things was sport."

Despite his lack of academic achievement, there was no doubting Packer's business ability.

His greatest business coup came when he sold Channel Nine to Perth businessman Alan Bond for just over a billion dollars (750 million US) in 1987, only to buy it back at a quarter of the price when Bond hit hard times three years later.

"You only get one Alan Bond in your lifetime," he said at the time.

But high-profile Australians ranging from Prime Minister John Howard to News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch were at pains to point out that behind the brash exterior was a family man given to acts of great generosity.

"He gave so much to so many people but never wanted anyone to know," Packer's close friend, the former Wallabies coach Alan Jones, said on his Sydney radio show.

Packer was coy about his gambling habits but they still became the stuff of legend.

He was once reported to have become annoyed at a Texas oil baron who was playing the big shot in a US casino.

Packer then offered to toss a coin for the oilman's entire fortune of 100 million dollars -- at which the man baulked and walked away.

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