Single-minded dedication to a cause or a goal or an idea is usually something that society admires. Think of the athlete striving for a gold medal, a philanthropist or even a political leader.
But when the dedication turns to obsession, things get ugly. And when money is involved, things get uglier still.
That’s essentially the theme of Adele Ferguson’s new unauthorised biography of Gina Rinehart, called Gina Rinehart: The untold story of the richest woman in the world.
What Ferguson paints is a picture of a woman to whom building and protecting her mining company Hancock Prospecting is a driving obsession that nothing can get in the way of. Her battles with her father Lang Hancock, her fights with her stepmother Rose Porteous and her tragic war with her children are examples of the lengths that Rinehart will go to achieve her dream of turning Hancock Prospecting into a global mining force and, perhaps most importantly, a miner in its own right.
For a woman whose wealth and power will cast a long shadow over Australia for years, Rinehart’s personality remains something of a mystery. Where Ferguson’s book excels is in delving into Rinehart’s background and going through in detail the events that shaped her.
Rinehart had a childhood that few could imagine, even in wealthy families.
She was just a child when she started travelling the world with her father, attending business meetings, talking with industry leaders and heads of state.
She was just 19 when she married for the first time to Greg Milton, a man who would later be all but written out of the family history.
She was just 25 when she organised what amounted to a right-wing think tank in the air, the Wake Up Australia campaign that saw paying guests fly around the country in a rented Qantas jet, discussing the promotion of mining.
That event, in 1979, might have been the high watermark of Gina’s relationship with her father Lang Hancock, the man who discovered the Pilbara iron ore reserves on which the House of Hancock is built.
By 1983, Gina had married Frank Rinehart, an American lawyer who, like her first husband, would leave little mark on the public Hancock Prospecting story.
But Ferguson hones in on Frank Rinehart’s colourful past, which included secret families, tax evasion allegations and stories of domestic violence. Much of this past was unknown even to Gina’s children, so Ferguson’s detective work in Australia and New York pays dividends.
Gina’s marriage to Frank, and Lang’s subsequent marriage to Rose Porteous, would set in train the disintegration of Lang and Gina’s relationship. Ferguson has rich detail around how Frank’s legal knowledge of trust law would help turn Gina into a fearsome litigant.
The battle between Lang and Gina – which spilled out of lawyers’ offices and into awful notes exchanged under the cover of darkness – is eerily similar to the current war between Gina and her children.
It’s fitting that both episodes receive as much attention in Ferguson’s book as Gina’s significant business successes, as they underline the complexity of Rinehart’s character.
As Ferguson points out, she is a woman whose outlook on life contains a series of contradictions, where she is pulled (and in some cases torn) between two opposing ideals.
I’ve called these the five trials of Gina Rinehart:
1. The proud daughter vs. the empire builder
As Ferguson’s book highlights, Gina’s love for her father often crossed into hero worship – he was, in her eyes at least, a truly visionary business leader who laid the groundwork for national prosperity. But while Rinehart has honoured her father in various ways – from statues to flowing tributes – she has recently bristled at suggestions her wealth is based on inheritance, pointing out that her father’s estate was bankrupt and Hancock Prospecting was left with crippling debts. As several Rinehart allies ask in the book: Why can’t both be true? Why can’t the credit be shared?
2. Privacy vs. a strong voice
Like most billionaires, Gina Rinehart jealously guards her privacy, rarely engaging with the media except on her own, tightly-controlled terms. Why on earth then would she want to invest in media companies such as Ten Network and Fairfax Media, and refuse to engage with the public other than through short, often cryptic missives? Bringing in advisers, such as Jack Cowin and John Singleton, has helped Rinehart manage this conflict, but staying out of the media at the same time that you own it is impossible – and Gina must know it.
3. The best help money can buy vs. total control
To help win her legal battles, Gina Rinehart has engaged many of the top commercial lawyers in Australia, and more than a few criminal ones, during her battle with Rose Porteous. To help her build Hancock Prospecting, Rinehart has hired many of the nation’s best geologists, engineering and mining executives. And yet Ferguson paints a picture of a revolving door of talented advisers and employees, most forced out after disagreeing with “The Chairman” as Rinehart likes to be called. One great question raised by Ferguson’s book is: Can one woman really run a mining empire with a potential value of $100 billion?
4. Succession vs. the lazy kids
At various times during the short and unspectacular business careers of Gina Rinehart’s four children, the billionaire has seemed to want each of them to take their rightful place as her hardworking heir. Yet son John Hancock and daughters Bianca Rinehart and Hope Welker have left the business, with John complaining bitterly about a lack of respect from his mother. The departure of the children from the Hancock fold hasn’t stopped Rinehart whacking the kids during the current legal fight for having poor work ethics. Does Gina really want the kids in the business or are they too lazy and useless to make a meaningful contribution? The billionaire seems to want it both ways.
5. Family vs. money
With the exception of her relationship with her mother and perhaps her daughter Ginia, who is siding with Gina in her fight against John, Bianca and Hope, Ferguson’s books suggests Gina has damaged almost every family relationship by fighting over money or control. Many of these spats are eventually settled – Rose and Gina eventually agreed to a deal, and Ferguson reveals Gina has tried to stop her children suing her by offering financial settlements – but Rinehart’s blind determination to go to any length to protect her fortune and Hancock Prospecting means the battles are long and bloody.
What makes Ferguson’s book important in understanding Rinehart’s winner-takes-all strategy is the details about Gina’s early years.
Here is a child brought up to believe that it was her birth right to own an empire beyond anything Australia has ever seen. It’s Gina’s core, unshakable belief. And she’ll do anything to protect it.