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POWER ON THE PACIFIC RIM : Profiles : 10 Pacific Rim Giants Tread Own Paths to Influence : Kerry Packer: 'Powerful Mate' Survives

May 21, 1991|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANILA — One is the illegitimate son of a wealthy industrialist. The foundation of another's fortune was a long-ago U.S.-backed loan.

A third is a notorious high-stakes gambler liable to risk millions of dollars in a day at the racetrack, while yet another furnishes his house in plastic.

A capitalist who backed a revolution is on the list, as is a refugee from communism who is now devoting much of his energy to courting his giant Communist neighbors.

They're all among the wealthiest and most influential businessmen in Asia--10 titans of the Pacific Rim. Not surprisingly, several of them have extremely close ties to the political leaders of the region. Five are ethnic Chinese. Six were born to wealth, but four others started from little or nothing.

Meet a diverse group of business leaders likely to continue having a strong influence on the shape of the region:

Kerry Packer is not only the richest man in Australia. The burly media magnate is one of the few tycoons to survive and prosper after an astonishing year of corporate collapses, personal bankruptcies, forced resignations and criminal convictions that have rocked the Land Down Under.

Equally important, billionaire businessman Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer is one of the "powerful mates" of four-term Labor Party Prime Minister Bob Hawke, part of a tight network of business and politics that has helped both men.

Packer, now 54, draws his power from the Sydney-based Consolidated Press Holdings Ltd., which dominates magazine publishing in Australia and New Zealand. A pioneer in Australian television, he also has extensive investments in rich farmland and Gold Coast properties, ski resorts and shipping. There are also huge holdings in cotton and cattle, gold prospecting, toxic waste disposal and chemicals.

A poor student, Packer left school at 18 to enter his father's already huge publishing business. Brash, even bullying, chain-smoking and hard-talking, he quickly earned a reputation for a fierce temper and even fiercer business acumen. His legend only grew when he sold more than $1 billion in assets, including the nation's most powerful television network, in the months before the 1987 stock market crash, then regained them later for a fraction of the price.

A high-stakes gambler--he casually wagers millions on a single horse race or London gaming table--Packer plays to win. He buys companies as he bets: boldly and with big payoffs. Aides say his decisions are usually quick, sealed with a handshake and always final. He rarely reads memos or legal documents--aides explain them aloud instead--but boasts an extraordinary memory. An insomniac, he routinely holds overnight meetings, or wakes aides with pre-dawn phone calls. He survived a massive heart attack last year while playing polo.

Unlike many of his more flamboyant and now-fallen contemporaries, Packer avoids the media spotlight. Indeed, the elusive media baron used one of his rare interviews, with the London Sunday Telegraph in 1979, to complain about the press. The media, he said, were "writing us down as a failure. I have become anesthetized to it. It no longer irritates me, but I just don't understand how people can put so little value in their credibility."

Packer's own credibility was badly tarnished in 1987 when an Australian Royal Commission alleged that he was tied to tax fraud, drug smuggling, pornography and the death of a Queensland bank manager. Furious, he took the legal offensive and was cleared in subsequent investigations. The government ultimately apologized, saying the charges had caused him "incalculable and unwarranted damage."

Packer shrugged it off, as he did widespread criticism when he tried to commercialize international cricket several years ago. "I want to be tough and hard," he told sportswriters at the time. "I don't care whether I'm liked or disliked. I have a job to do, and I'm going to do that job to the best of my ability."

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