3.

FISTICUFFS AND FAILURES

The wildest colts often make the best horses.

—KEN TREGONNING, former Hale School headmaster

With its sandstone buildings, lush lawns and Swan River frontage, Christ Church Grammar is the school of choice for Western Australia’s wealthy. It is Perth’s equivalent of Melbourne Grammar or Sydney’s Cranbrook, churning out educated young men with a network of ready-made connections. And like those institutions, Christ Church tends to boast of the triumphs of its alumni. Among those to have worn the blue-and-gold school tie are former British Airways chief executive Rod Eddington, Western Australia’s chief justice Wayne Martin, national men’s hockey coach Ric Charlesworth, entrepreneur Peter Holmes à Court, renowned solo yachtsman Jon Sanders, comedian Tim Minchin and the lead singer of rock band The Triffids, David McComb, who died in 1999.

Christ Church also likes to claim Andrew Forrest as one of its “old boys”, referring to him in school literature as a member of the class of 1978. In truth, however, Forrest never made it that far, and many at Christ Church were relieved to see the back of him when he left abruptly in 1977.

Forrest arrived at Christ Church, in Perth’s old-money suburb of Claremont, in 1970 as an eight-year-old with a severe stutter that badly dented his self-confidence. “I always had the stutter, I grew up with it,” he later recalled. In fact, Forrest had inherited the disorder from his father Don. “I’m amazed he speaks so well now [because] he used to stammer at school and at home,” Don Forrest said in 2007. “I was a stammerer and Andrew took it up.”

Forrest was placed in Walters boarding house, which fellow students of the era remember as a Dickensian place. There were ten to fourteen beds to a room, the mattresses were thin, the food was terrible and the spartan dormitories were icy-cold in winter. The bathrooms in the boarding house consisted of several showers in a row, with no partitions and a highly unreliable supply of hot water. By the late 1970s some effort was being made to redress these privations. The school yearbook of 1977 – when Forrest was in Year 11 – records that the boarders’ common room had just been fitted with “carpet, curtains, heating and colourful posters, which all helped to make the room much more pleasant”. Christ Church may have been expensive and prestigious, but clearly the boarders were not living in luxury.

Forrest’s boarding master at Walters house, Tony London, was a key figure among the staff at the school. He recalls that bullying was rife when he took over the boarding house, likening the environment to the savagery in William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies. Younger pupils, he says, were forced to be subservient to the senior boys, mainly the Year 12s, who had the power to decide how much the smaller boys could eat and to dish out tasks and punishment as they saw fit. Along with other senior staff, London introduced key reforms during Forrest’s time at Walters, including a smorgasbord which prevented the Year 12s from controlling the food. “Walters house had been run very loosely; the boys had the run of the house,” he says.

The long-serving headmaster at Christ Church was Peter Moyes, a conservative educator who had won plenty of kudos for reviving the school’s fortunes. But, as one ex-student notes, Moyes was “well past his use-by date by the 1970s”. By all accounts, there was little room for freedom of expression and the cane was employed frequently to deal with all forms of insubordination. If boarders left the school grounds on a Sunday, it was only after attending the compulsory 7am church service, and they were expected to wear the full uniform, including the blazer and tie.

One legendary sports teacher, Akos Kovacs, who died in 2012, was known for frequently striking students with his bare hands. During swimming lessons in the Swan River, Kovacs would use a long pole to push boys into the water. Only if a hapless youth was close to drowning would Kovacs, an eastern European immigrant and World War II veteran, bring out the pole at the last second to save him.

Forrest’s brother, David, who is two years older, was ensconced in this harsh environment at Christ Church when Andrew arrived fresh from the Pilbara. David’s widely used nickname at school was “Twig”, a play on the family name, but it would be several years before Andrew also came to be known by that moniker. In fact, he appears to have inherited it only after David left school; for Andrew, “Twig” may also have been a reference to his exceptionally scrawny physique as a youth. In the school annual of 1977, history of sorts was made when the name “Twiggy Forrest” was used for the first time in relation to Andrew. It would be thirty years before it became the best known nickname in corporate Australia.

People recall Forrest as difficult and disruptive in class, rude to teachers and disliked by many of the boys at Christ Church. A more generous view is that he was a larrikin in a hostile environment who was deeply anxious and insecure because of his stutter and desperately sad at being more than 1000 kilometres away from home. A former classmate, Rohan Pixley, says Forrest loved the land and was always talking to the other boys about his fondness for Minderoo. “Twiggy hated coming back to boarding school,” he says. “He would have wanted to be back up on the property.” One former student recalls Forrest taunting a fellow student who had a large nose by calling him “Arrowhead”. “He used to put his hands over the top of his head to make an arrow shape every time the poor kid walked past him,” he says.

David Forrest has claimed publicly that Andrew was bullied by students and victimised by school authorities, referring to a “boomerang elbow” his brother still carried as a result of being pushed down the stairs by a teacher. But it’s difficult to find anyone who can confirm that incident and David declined to be interviewed, saying Andrew would not allow him to speak. A number of those who were there at the time say Forrest instigated much of the violence in which he became involved. One former student, who is now a leading businessman in Perth and wants to remain anonymous, recalls: “He was very quick with his fists. He claimed to have learned to fight from the Aboriginal kids on Minderoo station and he would fight in a way that put an end to the argument very quickly – a really hard punch to the nose or the eye, or both.”

Forrest wasn’t particularly popular at Christ Church and he was certainly not academically bright. He was enrolled in the lowest level of mathematics, known as Maths IV – proof that the future master of financial markets was no whiz with numbers as a youth. Forrest’s main claim to fame around Christ Church appears to have been as a keen, and particularly aggressive, member of the school rugby team. He was also a decent swimmer from the moment he arrived. A photograph of the prep school swimming team from the 1973 school annual shows Forrest as a rake-thin eleven-year-old with pale skin and a mop of sandy hair. Sitting casually with his arms crossed, he is almost reclining in his seat while the other boys make an effort to sit up straight.

David Forrest told journalist Mark Drummond in 2007 that one teacher at Christ Church had written on Andrew’s school report that it was lucky he had a sheep and cattle station to go back to because he wouldn’t amount to much in life. Over time it has become accepted – by Forrest and many others – that Tony London was the author of that remark. But London, who was an English teacher as well as Forrest’s boarding master, rejects this, saying he would never have written such a remark and headmaster Peter Moyes would never have allowed it on any student’s report.

London has also heard talk over the years that Forrest blames him for his deep unhappiness at Christ Church. “He was a very unhappy boy – I felt sorry for him,” says London, who ran into Forrest in 2007 and finally made peace with him, telling him he had achieved much more than anyone had expected. Like many others at Christ Church at the time, London is adamant that Forrest brought on much of the bullying he received. “Andrew divided people one way or the other and he would say things which would stir people up,” he says. “He said he was bullied and I believe that was the case. Unfortunately, people who are bullied sometimes attract it.”

Then one day towards the end of the 1977 school year, Forrest was gone. It’s not entirely clear whether he was asked to leave Christ Church or whether his parents decided he’d been in enough trouble and needed a fresh start. Either way, his abrupt departure appears to have been precipitated by his decision to pick a fight with a bigger student called John Weatherhead. “He was fighting one morning and he was gone from school that afternoon,” says one student who was in Forrest’s year at Christ Church.

Weatherhead says he clearly recalls the events of that day – and he still sports a small scar above his right eye as a reminder of the young Twiggy’s punching ability. “I was standing at the top of the stairs when Forrest, who was down below with a group of mates, looked up at and yelled out, ‘Poofter!’ I was quite shocked because I’d never even met the guy. And then it escalated. I said, ‘Come here and say that,’ and he said ‘Poofter!’ again. There was some pushing and shoving and then punches started flying. I copped one in the eye, which needed a stitch, but the only other recollection I have of the fight is I had his blazer over his head and I had him on the edge of the steps. I was in two minds – I thought, I could just push him down here. It was a split-second thing. I thought, I will hurt the guy too bad. That’s when he came up with a blind left hook, because he had his jacket over his head. Then it got broken up by teachers.”

Weatherhead says he bears no malice towards Forrest and the pair have been friendly towards each other during a few chance encounters around Perth since school days. “After our encounter, he always gave me the impression he felt somewhat remorseful and wanted to make amends, even years later when we ran into each other,” he says.

Another former student, Bruce “Jock” Strapp, has a different recollection of the brawl that appears to have been the final straw for Forrest’s teachers and parents. Strapp says he was walking down the stairs with Forrest when Weatherhead made a joke about Forrest’s stutter. In itself, that was unsurprising to Strapp because students would regularly make fun of Forrest.

After his abrupt departure from Christ Church towards the end of Year 11, Forrest was enrolled at Hale School the following year to fulfil what must have been his parents’ fervent wish for their wayward son to complete his secondary education. One of the state’s oldest and most illustrious schools, Hale is set over forty-eight hectares in Wembley Downs, one of the many comfortable and serene suburbs that lie between Perth’s CBD and the sapphire waters of the Indian Ocean. Like most private boys’ schools, Hale has an integral focus on sport. These days, the campus includes an Olympic-sized heated swimming pool, sixteen tennis courts, four football fields, five cricket ovals, four soccer pitches and a gymnasium with basketball, badminton, volleyball, squash and rock-climbing facilities.

Hale’s list of alumni is possibly even more impressive than Christ Church’s. The school has produced six premiers of Western Australia (including Sir John Forrest), thirteen Rhodes scholars and a bevy of prominent musicians, artists, scientists and captains of industry. Hale is nowhere near as blue-blooded as Christ Church; its location in Wembley Downs, slightly north of Perth’s wealthiest enclaves, means it draws more students from the city’s middle-class suburbs.

When Andrew Forrest arrived at Hale as a boarder in early 1978, with a reputation for pugilism and poor marks, he would have been viewed as the one of the least likely candidates to follow in the footsteps of the school’s famous graduates. Forrest appears to have been extraordinarily lucky that Hale took him in at all. The school’s former long-serving headmaster, Ken Tregonning, reveals that Forrest’s father, Don, an old friend and a Hale alumnus, approached him personally to ask whether he could enrol his son to repeat Year 11. He admits he didn’t ask Don too many questions about why Andrew had left Christ Church. “I didn’t want to pry,” he says. “I said ‘yes’ because he [Andrew] was the son of an old boy and I was good friends with Don.”

Tregonning, a keen historian, was well aware that the Forrest clan had a long association with Hale, dating back to the education of John, Alexander and David Forrest. These days, Twiggy’s only son, Sydney, is a student at Hale and Forrest is recognised as a generous donor to the school. In 2009 he was invited to open the Forrest Library, which was named in recognition of the family’s association with Hale and was the beneficiary of a fat cheque from Forrest. That same year, the school magazine lauded Forrest alongside fellow old boys such as Wesfarmers chief executive Richard Goyder and former WA Liberal treasurer Christian Porter as examples of alumni who had “seized the day” and achieved great things. “They are the sorts of people who haven’t been too tired when things were a bit hard and they definitely didn’t put things off until tomorrow,” the magazine said.

The move to Hale was the seminal event in the young Andrew Forrest’s life. “There was no way if he stayed at Christ Church that he was going to pass Year 12,” says former classmate Rohan Pixley. “Hale deserves a lot of credit for that.” Tregonning, as headmaster, appears to have played a central role in the transformation of the sixteen-year-old Forrest. “The wildest colts often make the best horses,” says Tregonning, now comfortably retired in the posh Perth suburb of Peppermint Grove. “I used to relish boys who were in trouble. Often all they need is encouragement, guidance and praise, and they will come good.”

One morning quite early in Forrest’s time at Hale, Tregonning decided to stroll across to the school pool before breakfast to watch the swimming squad train for the upcoming Public Schools Association carnival, a prestigious event on the calendar of Perth’s private boys’ schools. But Forrest hadn’t turned up to the early-morning training session, prompting an angry headmaster to storm over to the boarding house and wake the youth from his slumber. For Forrest, the image of an irate white-haired headmaster in his dressing gown at the foot of his bed at 6am seems to have been a proverbial light-bulb moment. “He told me long after that it was the first time somebody had ever really wanted him,” Tregonning recalls.

The official line is that Forrest became a model student under this sort of guidance at Hale School. He did become a school prefect and a boarding house captain in his final year and made the rugby and swimming teams. “Hale School represented a turning point in my life,” Forrest wrote in a message published in a 2012 newsletter for the Hale School Foundation. “To attend a school which believed in me and my potential allowed me to achieve well above what I ever had in many areas. On reflection, the support and drive that was instilled in me can be traced back to the staff, many of whom saw more in me than I did myself.”

The truth about Forrest’s turnaround, as with many events in his colourful life, seems to be a bit less clear-cut. Former students recall that Forrest never lost his larrikin streak at Hale and was often the leader of the pack whenever the boys were getting up to mischief. But many also recognised at the time that their mate was likely destined for bigger things. “You knew if you were going out somewhere with Andrew you’d have some fun and that he’d end up pushing the envelope a bit,” says one former student who is still close to Forrest. “He was great fun and larger than life. Even then, it was obvious that his success would come from a combination of personality, hard work, the gift of the gab and his contacts.”

Forrest also brought to Hale his love of a good scrap. Some recall him instigating a brawl with students from Churchlands Senior High School, the local government-run school, outside a nearby shopping centre. A tale still circulating among Forrest’s old classmates is that he would always carry a mouthguard in his back pocket just in case the opportunity arose for a fight.

During his two years at Hale, Forrest claims to have suddenly lost his stutter, which had always grown noticeably worse whenever he was under pressure or before an audience. The teenager’s parents had earlier sent him to a hypnotist, who had promised to cure the stutter with just three expensive lessons. “After about the ninth or tenth lesson, we realised he was a snake oil salesman and we stopped,” he recalled. According to Forrest, he suddenly “lost” the stutter by volunteering for the debating team. It was a valuable lesson to the youthful Twiggy that risk could bring great rewards: “It was a real blood sport at school, a gladiatorial environment – all jeering and hissing and booing. I was the first speaker – the weak link – and the auditorium was packed because they all knew I had a stutter. I just cracked it. I managed to speak slowly and softly. I knew I could do it and I have never looked back. That taught me the power of real determination.”

There is no complete cure for stammering, and it’s well documented that many successful people – from King George VI to Hollywood actors and politicians – have learned to control the disorder to the point where it is almost undetectable. Forrest has never spoken in depth about the psychological impact of the stutter on him as both a child and an adult. He suffered from it for many years after leaving Hale and even into his late twenties and early thirties. “His stutter was still quite pronounced, even in Year 11 and 12,” confirms an old friend. “He was very conscious of it and worked on it. Being on the debating team did help him and it gave him confidence. But it certainly hadn’t gone by the time he finished school.”

Forrest’s confidence was also rising rapidly when it came to chatting up girls. “He was very persistent in asking girls out,” recalls the old friend. “He could pull girls like no one I knew because he just didn’t give up – and he did have a charm.”

His academic performance appears to have lifted at Hale, to the point where Forrest had the marks from his final exams to enrol in a commerce degree at the University of Western Australia, the state’s most prestigious tertiary institution. The marks needed to enrol in commerce were quite high, but still well below those required for courses such as law and engineering. Tregonning believes the fact that Forrest repeated Year 11 at Hale in 1978 helped him compete academically with boys who were a year younger than him and also gave him a chance to mature. But students from that period say it would be wrong to suggest that Forrest was one of the brighter pupils in the class of 1979. “He was reasonably good academically,” says a classmate. “But I don’t think he was an outstanding student academically. He did well enough to get into university but he certainly wouldn’t have been in the top ten guys in our school.”

Forrest’s close mate at Hale, Adam Rankine-Wilson, was another who never excelled academically. Rankine-Wilson, who died of cancer, aged forty-nine, in 2011, started his career as an insurance salesman with AMP but went on make a fortune in investment banking and was not afraid to show off his money-making ability by acquiring flashy toys. Both Forrest and Rankine-Wilson had qualities that can’t always be taught in school: street smarts and self-belief in spades. Forrest may have been reflecting on himself and Rankine-Wilson in 2010 when he said: “The world is full of intellectuals that failed and ordinary people that you would never have rated at school, that are successful. The difference between them is determination.” For their thirty-year Hale anniversary reunion in 2009, Forrest and Rankine-Wilson, the billionaire miner and the deal-making whiz, got the chance to show off their financial success by taking their old schoolmates – many of whom were still paying off mortgages and living ordinary lives – to Rottnest Island on their huge launches.

One of Forrest’s teachers at Hale, Bill Edgar, remembers well the teenaged “Twig” and says he is never particularly surprised when boarders from yesteryear make good. Edgar, who is these days the official archivist at Hale, believes boarding schools breed character and toughness in young men, and that this may well be the secret to much of Forrest’s resilience in later life.

After school, Forrest sated his fledgling appetite for adventure by flying to Africa with his Hale classmate John Morrison, who these days is a top investment banker at Grant Samuel in Melbourne and remains one of Twiggy’s closest friends. The pair headed straight for the Ugandan capital, Kampala, where Forrest bluffed his way into a meeting with the country’s tourism minister on the basis that he was there exploring investment opportunities. The youthful Forrest, showing all the talents that would later land him with the nickname “Silver Tongue” in Perth stockbroking circles, managed to persuade the Ugandan minister to give him a special certificate which guaranteed the two Australian visitors unimpeded access to the country’s best tourist sights.

But while Forrest and Morrison were snorkelling on a pristine coral reef about twenty kilometres offshore, a huge wave sank the small fishing boat they had been travelling in. Twiggy reportedly helped those on the boat, including a mother and her baby, to scamper onto a rock, where they all stayed for two days without food or drinking water. Finally, the bedraggled group, by this time close to dehydration, was rescued by a passing boat. The African adventure story has been told to a few journalists over the years, although we may never know the precise events that took place or the extent of the duo’s bravery. Regardless of the facts, it wasn’t to be the last time that Twiggy’s smooth talking and penchant for risk would lead to unexpected problems.

Back in Perth, Forrest started his commerce degree but soon switched to UWA’s arts faculty, completing a double major in economics and international politics. He then returned to Minderoo in 1982 to ponder his career options. By now, his parents’ marriage had ended and life on Minderoo, where droughts, floods and cyclones were frequent events, was becoming even tougher for Don Forrest, who was in his mid fifties. (Don later remarried and stayed another sixteen years at Minderoo, before selling the station in 1998 to pay his mounting debts and moving to Perth.)

If Andrew had any lingering thoughts about whether he might remain on the land and take over the family business, his father quickly dispelled them. “I’d kind of been given the impression by Dad that Minderoo would most likely go on a hands-on basis to my older brother David and that was fine by me,” Forrest said. “And if I had a role it would be of a more investor/accountant/financial advisory role. So reading the tea leaves it was like, ‘You’d better go and make your own way, son,’ and I think that was probably a very good thing.”

According to Don Forrest, it was Andrew who showed the least interest of the three children in staying at Minderoo. “He was never really interested in cattle and sheep; he was much more interested in the business side of things,” he said.

Forrest spent several months working for his father at Minderoo before heading back to Perth in search of a job. It was 1983, Perth was gearing up for yet another economic boom and Forrest was about to discover his first true calling in life: making money.

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