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The gambler with a knack for winning

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Obituaries (General)
Kerry Packer
Media
Casinos and Gambling

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The late Australian media magnate Kerry Packer was a brilliant businessman with a talent for high stakes gambles, who was still negotiating massive deals even as he knew his death drew nearer.

Packer, who died in Sydney late on Monday, aged 68, was Australia's richest man with a fortune estimated at $5.1 billion. He was 94th on Fortune's global rich list.

His business empire was built around Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd (PBL), which he inherited from his father Frank. He diversified PBL's portfolio, amassing a formidable empire by expanding the company into the Internet sector and professional sport, as well as casinos.

The move into gaming was particularly astute -- the casinos now generate nearly half of PBL's annual revenue.

One of the most remarkable deals the man regarded as among the shrewdest businessmen in Australia ever made occurred when he sold the Sydney and Melbourne stations of his Nine television network to Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond in 1987 for $770 million, including shares.

When Bond's fortunes tumbled just three years later, Packer bought back the two stations and two more that Bond owned for just $150 million -- one-fifth of his sale price.

"You only get one Alan Bond in your lifetime," Packer said at the time. "And I've had mine."

That tactical acumen continued until the very end. Only last week, with his health already deteriorating, Packer was involved as the Nine network trumped its rivals with a $570 million bid for broadcast rights to Australia's domestic brand of football.

'A fearless gambler'

One longtime rival, News Corporation tycoon Rupert Murdoch, praised Packer as a lifelong friend and a tough competitor who was the leading businessman of his generation.

"He had an uncanny knack of knowing what people across the country were thinking," Murdoch said.

"He was a man who you could truly say was larger than life. A fierce competitor who was ... at the same time capable of great generosity to people and organizations in need."

Ron Walker, chairman of newspaper publishers Fairfax -- a longtime takeover target of PBL's -- called Packer a "very bold businessman with a very calculating mind ... a fearless gambler who was prepared to take a punt on his instincts."

That fearless gambling instinct became the stuff of legend as rumors of massive betting splurges circulated over the years. And with the mogul ever reluctant to grant interviews or respond in any public way to what was said about him, the apocryphal soon became juxtaposed with the accurate.

One story had Packer offering to toss a coin for a fellow player's entire $100 million fortune after becoming annoyed at his antics in a U.S. casino. The competitor is said to have baulked and walked away.

Other stories had Packer winning millions of dollars in a single sitting and tipping staff tens of thousands each. After asking an Australian waitress how much her mortgage was, he is said to have left a check for the entire sum as a tip.

Heir

Packer handed control of PBL to his eldest son James in 1998, eight years after a heart attack during a polo match stopped his heart for eight minutes.

PBL shares shed 26 cents -- 1.25 percent -- in trade on Wednesday to close at $A16.40 after the first day back for the Australian exchange after the Christmas break.

The result was seen as a substantial vote of confidence in James Packer's abilities to take over the reins. Some analysts had said shares could fall as much as 10 percent.

The heir's reputation had seemed to take a body blow after a telecoms company he was involved in collapsed with debts of $750 million. But Kerry Packer refused to blame James for the losses.

A close friend of the Packers and Australia's largest media buyer, Harold Mitchell, told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio that James would improve on his father's legacy.

"He's financially literate, he's tough, he's strong, he's clever," Mitchell said.

"It's never easy to be the son of a great man, and James has had to live with that but ... he'll take it on and he'll double it, quadruple it."

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