Ben Woodhead Deputy editor - digital

Ben Woodhead is deputy editor - digital at the Financial Review Group. He writes on business, technology, politics and the economy and can be found on BRW, The Australian Financial Review and Smart Investor.

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Tech no gateway to Australian success

Published 24 May 2012 10:06, Updated 31 May 2012 04:15

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Tech no gateway to Australian success

At No. 72, Computershare founder Chris Morris is the highest ranked Rich 200 member classed as having made his or her fortune in technology. Photo:

The 2012 BRW Rich 200 throws into stark relief the paucity of hyper-successful technology entrepreneurs in a country that considers itself among the cleverest in the world.

Cast an eye over Forbes’ list of the world’s billionaires and tech and telecommunications moguls fairly leap off the page.

Take the first two names, Mexican Telex chairman Carlos Slim Helu and American Microsoft chairman Bill Gates – self-made men who between them have amassed a gob-smacking $US130 billion in personal wealth.

A few places lower at No. 6 is Oracle founder Larry Ellison with a $US36 billion fortune, while Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page make an appearance at equal 24th ($US18.7 billion a piece), marginally ahead of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos at 26 ($US18.4 billion).

By the time a reader reaches 72nd place on the Forbes list they’ll have passed more than a dozen entrepreneurs from countries as diverse as the US, India, Mexico and Russia who are logged as having made a decent chunk of their money in technology and telecommunications.

Why is 72 significant? Because that’s how deep into 2012 BRW Rich 200 readers need to delve before they hit the first member who’s classed as having made their fortune in what’s often touted as the cleverest of clever sectors.

That person is Computershare founder Chris Morris, with personal wealth of $555 million, less than 2 per cent of Rich 200 leader Gina Rinehart’s $29.17 billion fortune and barely 7 per cent of No. 2 ranked mining billionaire Ivan Glasenberg’s $7.4 billion stash.

Speaking to BRW for the Rich 200, Byron Bay-based software developer Ric Richardson says it’s no surprise that invention is not a gateway to success in Australia.

“It’s rare to reap significant financial rewards for invention in Australia,” he says. “We don’t like to stick our necks out to try and make ourselves look special. Even the idea of having a patent in your name is countercultural.”

Some who have stuck their necks out have enjoyed great success – and great wealth – just not as much as the mining executives and property developers who dominate the Rich 200’s top 10. In contrast, only one mining and energy magnate makes Forbes’ top 10, Brazil’s Eike Batista with a cool $US30 billion.

Richardson, who earned his wealth after a hard-fought patent infringement lawsuit against Microsoft, says a big part of the problem is that Australia’s don’t celebrate success.

“Here we get bored with celebrating a grand final win after a few days ... In the US they’ll wear a signet ring from winning a football game in college 20 years ago and still talk about it,” he tells BRW.

“They celebrate people going out on a limb and a lot of investors are happy to lose money so long as they were part of an exciting project. You don’t need to be making money – you just need to prove that what you’re doing is popular or of interest to another company.”

Following Morris, the next most wealthy members of the Rich 200 classed as having made their money in technology are husband and wife team David and Vicky Teoh, with $US525 million between them.

Other tech and telco-oriented Rich listers include Silviu Itescu, the founder of biotechnology play Mesoblast ($505 million), Datacraft founder George Kepper ($385 million), Temenos founder George Koukis ($315 million) and former Computershare executive Tony Wales ($305 million).

Two sets of brothers also put in an appearance in the form of CatchOfTheDay duo Gabby and Hezi Leibovich ($240 million) and Seek founders Andrew and Paul Bassat ($220 million).

That’s not to say other Rich list members haven’t parlayed tech or telco winnings into a fortune. Patricia Ilhan, widow of Crazy John’s founder John Ilhan, has amassed $300 million through wise investment after she opted to exit the mobile phone business following her husband’s death.

But by far the biggest chunk of Ilhan’s portfolio today is in property, like many other wealthy members of the Rich 200.

As for Richardson, he’s not motivated by money, which is just as well given his share of the $US388 million settlement Microsoft was ordered to pay doesn’t even get the inventor onto this year’s list.

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