'Mr Melbourne', business giant and Grand Prix boss Ron Walker, has died, aged 78

Mark Thompson/Getty ImagesRon Walker in 2013 with Australian F1 drivers Mark Webber and Daniel Ricciardo.

Ron Walker, the Victorian businessman dubbed “Mr Melbourne”, who brought the Australian F1 Grand Prix to his birthplace, has died. He was 78.

Walker, whose long list of credits include the development of Crown casino, being Melbourne’s Lord Mayor in the ’70s, Fairfax Media chairman, and chairing the Australian Grand Prix for more than two decades, defied a terminal cancer diagnosis in 2012 for six years.

The influential businessmen, whose personal fortune was estimated at nearly $1 billion, was a key Liberal Party member and both Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and former PM Tony Abbott paid tribute to him on Tuesday evening.

Turnbull tweeted that Walker was “a great Australian, magnificent Melburnian and ferociously committed Liberal”.

“Ron was a wise and true friend to me as he was to so many Liberal leaders,” he wrote.

Abbott said: “Australia, Victoria and Melbourne have lost a great son with Ron Walker’s passing. For decades, not much happened in Melbourne without Ron being at the centre of things. As well, he was a great supporter of good causes, from medical research to the Liberal Party, which he helped to keep together in tough times. He was a staunch friend and constant encouragement to successive Liberal leaders and will be much missed.”

Opposition leader and fellow Melburnian Bill Shorten said the city “owes much to his vision and drive”.

Victorian Labor premier Daniel Andrews, who called him “a giant of Victorian cultural and political life”.

“Whether feared or revered, Ron was someone who you never forgot,” he said.

“Ron helped put Victoria back on the map…. it’s in great part thanks to Ron that we are now known as the sporting capital of the world.”

Former Victorian Liberal premier Ted Baillieu called him “a role model for giants”.

Ronald Joseph Walker – also sometimes referred to as “Big Red” (he was 1.98m/6’6″ tall) or 1A (a reference to his jet setting business life) – was born in Melbourne 1939 and went to Caulfield Grammar School.

His first business was washing cars in Caulfield.

“I used to wash [Premier Investments chairman] Solly Lew’s mother’s car. She used to give me 10 shillings and a piece of fruitcake,” he recounted to the AFR in 2016.

He then sold newspapers at the train station. Decades later, he was the chairman of Fairfax Media from 2005 and 2009, before a falling out with the Fairfax family led to him stepping down. Two years later, he was part of a Melbourne business consortium that launched an unsuccessful bid for the media empire.

Walker started out running a chemicals business that supplied the RBA’s banknote printer, but his passion was property and he bought his first land, on Philip Island, aged 17, paying “about five or six hundred pounds for these two blocks” before selling them at a loss years later. It was a rare dud deal for the man who co-founded the development business Hudson Conway with Lloyd Williams in the late 1970s and went on to change Melbourne’s skyline.

One of his more controversial projects was the Crown casino and hotel complex, which Hudson Conway developed and ran until setting it to Kerry Packer in 1998.

Along the way, he also became an English pub owner, when Hudson Conway and John Elliott’s Elder’s IXL (brewers of Fosters) formed a joint venture to buy England’s sixth largest brewer, Courage, and its pubs for around $A2.1 billion. They subsequently sold it for more than $A800 million. Walker kept the framed cheque for $300 million to Hudson Conway from the deal in his office

His most recent business, Evolve Development, with Ashey Williams, produced a range of residential apartment projects around Melbourne.

Among many passions Walker was a self-confess petrolhead.

After then Victorian premier Joan Kirner appointed him chairman of the Melbourne Major Events Company, his first bold move was stealing the F1 from Adelaide in 1993. He would go on to chair the Australian Grand Prix Corporation for 22 years before stepping down in 2015. He was close friends with F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone.

Another key achievement was winning the rights to host the Commonwealth Games in 2006 and he chaired Melbourne 2006, the organising body for the games.

It wasn’t his first time leading the city – he spent three years, 1974-76 – then in his mid-30s – as Lord Mayor of Melbourne. There is a photo of a Walker standing between then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and Opposition leader Malcolm Fraser at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet as the rivals shook hands. All three men are smiling. The date was November 10, 1975.

Walker was an elder statesmen of the Liberal Party and was the party’s honorary National Treasurer from 1987 to 2002. He was a generous benefactor – and also a major fundraiser for the British Conservatives – and while he never took the next step into state or federal politics, he was wise counsel to his party.

He’s credited with playing a key role as party treasurer in helping John Howard get elected in 1996, and in a 2011 interview on politics offered some prescient advice to then-opposition leader Tony Abbott and backbench.

Walker told the AFR over burgers at Rockpool Bar & Grill in Melbourne:

“When [former prime minister Bob] Hawke came out with that statement: ‘If you can’t govern yourself, you can’t govern a country’ it stuck, it just resonated with all the voters. Before the next election [in 2013] there will be some other people who are not content with their lot and they will say things off the record to journalists and away it will start again.”

Walker believes part of the solution was for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to consult more closely with Coalition backbenchers as Howard did.

“John Howard was very clever – having spent years in the wilderness, he knew the perils of disunity and he used to spend a lot of time with backbenchers at night. If Tony Abbott stays on course he will consult with his party. After all, these backbenchers love to be consulted by their leader. If they’re included in discussions rather than the leader making all the decisions by himself, that’s what welds people together. They feel wanted.”

In a 2016 interview, he also revealed what he looks for to figure out whether the person he’s dealing with is legitimate.

“It’s when people get itchy. When they start to move their shoulders around you get a sense that there’s something beneath the shirt that might not be the truth,” he said.

Walker had a narrow escape in 2010 following a cycling accident that saw him undergo emergency brain surgery.

Two years later, he was diagnosed with melanoma – a legacy of sunbathing in Torquay in the 1950s – and it had spread. There were six tumours in his brain and others in his lungs, bones and adrenal gland. He was told to go home and get his affairs in order. Christmas 2012 would be his last.

It was the start of Walker’s last two remarkable fights – including one he considers the greatest achievement of his life.

He managed to be part of the first clinical trial of a new drug, Keytruda, in the US, in early 2013. The drug helps the immune system fight tumour cells, which it’s normally prevented from doing.

It was a miracle cure. By 2014, Walker was given the all clear. In the meantime, he focussed his considerable lobbying powers on making the drug, which costs around $150,000 annually, available to all Australians.

By early 2015, the Therapeutic Goods Administration registered the drug for patients with advanced melanoma and by September 2015, it was a PBS-listed item, helping more than 1000 patients.

“Of all the things I was able to achieve over the years, I wake up in the morning knowing that somebody’s life has been saved using this drug. I’d like to think that was my greatest achievement in 50-odd years of public life,” Walker told Fairfax Media at the time.

Walker was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1977 New Year Honours for service to local government, and Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 2003 for services to business, the arts and the community. He was also a former Victorian of the year and Victorian father of the year.

Ron Walker is survived by his wife, Barbara, three children and three grandchildren.

Ronald Joseph “Ron” Walker AC CBE
15 September, 1939 – 30 January, 2018

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