Sunday, September 27, 2009

the Fairfax family do a little house-clearing

James Fairfax with NSW Art Gallery director Edmund Capon (c the Shuttle)

 The Fairfax family have long dominated the Australian media world with their chain of venerable newspapers-The Age in Melbourne being regarded as one of the great broadsheets of the world. In fact the Fairfaxs had been the longest continuous newspaper owners on the planet.

That came to an end in 1987 when Warwick Fairfax, the youngest child of the late Sir Warwick and Lady Mary Fairfax-fresh from Harvard, launched a bid to completely privatize the publicly listed company. It was however a bonus to leading Fairfax family members who were major shareholders with brother James and mother Lady Mary picking up an estimated  $200-$300M each although they lost control of their newspapers for all time. Cousin John B.Fairfax picked up a sizable fortune as well. 2 years after Warwick's bid the newspaper chain was in receivership but the Fairfaxs were cashed-up.
One old Master inspects another-Barry Humphries at the James Fairfax art launch (c) the Shuttle
In hindsight and with the advent of the internet young Warwick's scheme, roundly criticized at the time as being overly ambitious looks to have been a smart move. Perhaps he knew more than he let on..  
James Fairfax has become a leading philanthropist as well as an art collector who continually donates works to the Art Gallery of NSW. To date the gallery has received works by such masters as van Ruisdael, Rubens, Canaletto, Claude, Boucher, Amigoni, Domenico, Tiepolo, van Mieris and drawings by Ingres, Watteau, Fragonard and Greuze.

Now he has announced he will donate his historic Southern Highlands property Redford House-once the home of the Horden department store family,to the National Trust. Warwick will divide his time between a Sydney apartment and houses in London's Mayfair and Devon.

Lady Mary Fairfax is doing likewise with the family seat-the harbourside mansion Fairwater with it's many acres of splendid gardens which also serves as the Monaco Consulate-Lady Mary being the Honorary Consul. Lady Mary also used part of her good fortune to purchase the then most expensive apartment in the world-forking out $34M in 1992 for the top 2 floors of New York's Pierre Hotel which boasts a grand ballroom over looking Central Park. Recently a Saudi prince paid over $120M for the New York digs.

As for cousin John B. Fairfax, things aren't looking rosy. He decided to buy back into the publishing world around 15 years ago with the then successful Rural Printing Press followed by the real estate advertising heavy chain of Courier Newspapers plus a 10% stake in the old family Fairfax Newspapers group.

Things are looking grim as Fairfax Newspapers stumble from woe to woe. Those "rivers of gold" as Kerry Packer once described classified advertising are drying up. Fairfax newspapers are still hugely profitable but board room battles are never-ending, share prices have fallen and John B is reputedly down about $60M and it's rumoured, has recently negotiated a mortgage ( the Fairfaxs never have mortgages) on the magnificent 120 year family home Elaine. right next door to Fairwater and regarded as far grander as it has it's own ballroom.

While Fairwater will end up with the National Trust when Mary leaves this  mortal coil-Mary has stipulated each of her faithful retainers live there for the rest of their lives rent free and have the run of the place. She's good to her staff. 

Lady Mary, like all the Fairfax family is good to charity and like the family she married into prefers be a low key helper but many a charity fallen on hard times in this difficult financial climate has praise for the dear lady.
Lady Mary, born Jewish, converted to Catholic faith when she married Sir Warwick. Never one to do things lightly, she had herself confirmed by the Pope.

 Once in New York Lady Mary contracted an eye ailment and was told on doctor's orders she must not fly for 5 days. Anxious to return to Sydney Mary had her loyal chauffeur and his wife who accompany her everywhere, purchase a new Rolls Royce to drive from NY to LA. "we'll ship it home from there" said Mary. When the driver pointed out that a left hand drive Roller wasn't the best for Oz roads she replied"well we'll just find a nice charity to give it to".

As for young Warwick Fairfax who brought all this about just over 20 years ago?. He lives quietly with his wife and kids in the USA.
## update Monday 28th ; Fairfax chairman Ron Walker-who brought us Melbourne's Grand Prix in partnership with Bernie Ecclestone has agreed to step down today. This is a major triumph for John B.Fairfax who has been demanding his abdication. 

Now John B, and son Nicholas Fairfax look set to take leading roles in running Australia's-and the world's-oldest and best chain of newspapers. These chaps have newsprint in their blood. Hopefully they will lead Fairfax Newspapers back to the glory days. They have an advantage-Fairfax media was one of the first to enter the digital age.