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submitted by Ruth Ostrow on 29.12.2005

Sir Arthur George

Battling the Establishment

From, The New Boy Network

Ruth Ostrow

William Heinemann Australia
Richmond, Victoria

Sir Arthur George is disarming. He wastes no time skirting round questions with platitudes. He says: ‘When you get older you can say what you think.’
On himself he says: ‘I’m a pushy bugger. I like to get to the top.’ On his relationship with politicans: ‘I make it my business to be friends with the premiers and politicans in most states. It is important to have access to ministers and the people in power—not on a subversive basis but on a equality basis.’
On making deals ‘You have to use common sense when dealing with people [you want something from]. You have to be creative and to find out what they are interested in — what’s in it for them. On being a immigrant: 'If you have bright ideas the Establish­ment will join you in five minutes. Money opens a lot of doors'.
On people: ‘I learned about human nature from drawing up wills. It gave me a great insight into what people do to each other.’
On his survival tactics: ‘I say if they kick you (between the legs) you kick ‘em back twice as hard. That’ll shut them up ... unless they are bigger than you, then you think of something else.’
The son of poor Greek immigrants from islands west of the mainland, Sir Arthur (born Athanasios Theodore Tzortzatos) spent his childhood trying to survive. ‘I grew up in Surry Hills and Kensington. I often got abused at school. There were constant battles. A couple of times I was beaten up.
‘In the 1920s there was no multicultural society. No one went to Europe, only the millionaires. There was no television and no foreign newspapers. The odd fellow would eat spaghetti and olives. It was only after the war that things changed.
‘People were antagonistic. They were ignorant and frightened of new things. They ridiculed you for eating olive oil. They would say to my mum on the tram, “You stop speaking that foreign language or go back where you came from”.
‘We weren’t fighting the Establishment then, we were fighting ignorance.
But the fight to be accepted by the Establishment came in due course, as George struggled to make it as a lawyer.
‘We spoke Greek at home. It was very hard to balance the two cultures at school. But it was harder when I got into law and I didn’t have the right connec­tions.’
Before getting into law he had to fight financial difficul­ties. In 1933, just as George finished school, his father’s business failed. ‘It was the Depression and I couldn’t afford to go to university.’ Not to be outdone, he enrolled to do the Law course through the Supreme Court.
But at the onset of the course he was faced with another financial problem: how to get accepted as an articled clerk, which was a prerequisite of the course. ‘In those days you had to pay a law firm a thousand pounds to take you on, then they would pay it back to you over five years. We had no money.
It was in these years, working in his family’s milk bar, that the young Arthur learned the value of expediency and the opportunism that seems to mark his success.
He says: ‘One night a fellow came in from the theatre, beautifully dressed, but drunk as a lord. We searched his pockets and Dad sent me to put him in a taxi. He came back the next day to thank us. He asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I wanted to be a lawyer...
‘He said: “I’ll get you in”, and on the condition that I got paid nothing for the first year, I was given a job.’ (The firm he began with is now defunct.)
‘I don’t know how he did it, but I was elated. I worked hard, and earned most of my costs by the third year. I rendered more bills than most and was very productive ... I was very good. I always had a sense of money from the tough days.’
Then he changed firms and started doing legal work on land subdivisions. This attracted him to and prepared him for his later thrust into property development.
In these years, he says, he became close to Hooker Corporation through ‘expediting settlements’. This led to his becoming a member of the board.
‘Though I didn’t have the contacts, once I got into the legal world I was pushy and there was no one to stop me. My determination was formulated.
‘I’m not egotistical. But I am very sharp with money.
Then in 1938 he opened his own office in Martin Place. Because there were not many Greek lawyers operating in those days, George had a ready-made clientele of Greeks.
He did very well but encountered hostility. ‘People said something must be crook because I built myself up so quickly. I
used to advise Greeks at a time when no Greeks were lawyers. I got a huge following.’
He says he would go to the courts and not know anyone because most of his peer group was hit by the Depression and never made it to university or to the professional jobs. ‘They were eaten up.
‘Being Greek was my biggest advantage but that only overcame the disadvantages of being a migrant, and was a substitute for having a father who had influence in business or a wife or family.’
Always looking for opportunities and deals, the minute his practice netted him his first five hundred pounds, he says he plunged it into all kinds of businesses.
‘I was involved in consortiums with trawlers, taxi cabs, milk bars, building shops, house building. I had a reputation as a fellow who would listen to anyone. You listen to twenty idiots and then you hear one bright idea. I’d put up the cash and they would do the work.’
In 1949 after the Second World War, Sir Peter Abeles arrived from Hungary and he and Sir Arthur became friends and later partners in a number of business ventures. Sir Arthur says they met in 1950. ‘I was director of a cement company and he wanted to cart cement.
He says after the war there were opportunities everywhere. ‘The big flood of migrants made the community here more sophisticated and created demand for homes and facilities... There were boundless opportunities and the only restrictions were time and energy.
He moved into the building of houses and flats, and land subdivisions in the 1960s boom, and later into city office developments.
He says: ‘Property survives all, in a capitalist system. It is the underlying asset of all wealth. It is the ultimate. The first property I bought was a home in 1940 in Bellevue Hill for three thousand pounds. It is now worth $350,000 and that reflects what has happened to the currency in the intervening years. Land is the only commodity (apart from gold) that doesn’t depreciate or get damaged by time. Nothing keeps up with inflation better than good land.’
Meanwhile he took on part­ners in the law firm and the business grew, until he retired in 1980 and his firm merged with Simons and Baffsky.
His many interests include the Budget and Thrifty rent-a-car companies; the Pancake Parilours; Wyndham Wines; private pastoral companies; and ‘lots of property’ including hotels in Brisbane, pubs and taverns, CBD home units, and two shopping centres with Sir Peter Abeles. He is on the boards of companies including TNT, Ansett and Wyndham Wines, plus host a of private companies.
His expansive pastoral properties include wheat, sorghum and cattle interests. And he has just built 4 - 10 Bay Street Double Bay, Sydney, where his new office is situated.
He controls his empire from a host of complex infrastructures. He holds up a diagram of his ATG network which has dozens of linked components including private companies, public compa­nies, and trusts.
His business dealings have not been without controversy. He has had his wrists slapped by the business and legal worlds on a few occasions, and he attracted a good deal of media attention in relation to a meat export deal.
During the years of the Greek Junta, an Abeles and George company, Oceanic Meat Traders, agreed to supply meat worth several millions of dollars to the Athenian Meat Company. The finance was supplied by the National Bank of Greece. Tovema, an Australian Greek newspaper, claimed the meat did not arrive. George denied the charges, claiming the meat was sent but the purchasing company collapsed. He said he had citations from the Greek Government to prove the charges were untrue. [1]
He believes people are always ready to scorn the successful. ‘I have, in fact, been decorated by the Greek Government.’ This was since the incident, he says.
Business is not the focus of Sir Arthur George’s life. Much of his time goes to the various institutions he is involved in. He is President of the Australian Soccer Federation; a member of the executive of FIFA, the international body which controls soccer worldwide; a part-time commissioner of the Australian Sports Commission; legal adviser to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese; and President of the Association of Classical Archaeology at the University of Sydney.
George, who was recently made an honorary Fellow of Sydney University, also lends money to students so that they can go to university. Just as he was assisted by the stranger in his youth.
He says: ‘I want the pursuit of excellence in both my business and cultural life. Whatever you do you should always aim to be in the top 10 per cent.’
Of his friend, businessman Sir Paul Strasser, he says: ‘Paul has one of the fastest minds alongside Peter [Sir Peter Abeles]. He has quickness in figures and valuations. He and Peter pluck figures out of the air.’
‘Uncle Peter’ (‘that’s what my daughter calls him’) lives next door. ‘I like intelligent men. We just chat about any subject. I couldn’t do what he’s done and vice versa . . . I am prepared to do the detail. He takes a long term view—an overview.’
As for his own secrets of success Sir Arthur says: ‘Damned if I know. Hard work, determination and ambition, common sense. I won’t suffer fools.
‘I made my mind up when I was young that I was going to be a millionaire. I feel my father came here as poor boy and that I have managed to do that is a great pleasure.’
He says immigrants could be the answer to Australia’s current economic woes. We need more migrants now. After the war there were 250 000 hungry ambitious migrants coming here every year. Now there is fear that they will take Australian jobs. But I can’t get labour to work on my grazing property, or to do engineering work there. People have become lazy, complacent and opulent. They think the world owes us a living. We have forgotten what it is to struggle.
‘Half of the joy of life is to struggle to meet the challenges. Fighting and winning. Fighting, winning the challenges and moving on to new things.’


[1] The National Times, 20 September 1985.

The Australian Financial Review, 22 August 1980.

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