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Australia bids farewell to the "Cardboard King"

Known affectionately as the "Cardboard King", Richard Pratt passed away at the end of April. The patriarch of the family-owned, $5 billion Visy business group was one of Australia's most successful businessmen and philanthropists. Campden FB looks back at his extraordinary life.

Richard Pratt grew Visy from a small family manufacturing company to one of the largest privately-owned packaging, paper and recycling companies in the world. Operating more than a hundred manufacturing facilities in Australia, the US, New Zealand and Vietnam, the group today employs over 8,500 people with annual sales of around $5 billion.

He was born in Poland in 1934 but moved to Australia with his parents, Leon and Paula, in 1938. Soon after arriving down under, Leon Pratt invested the family's savings on a 25-hectare orchard near Shepparton, Victoria. They joined with Paula's brother Max Plotka, and an engineer friend Les Feldman, to develop a business.

Their experiences with the orchard had shown them that there would be a demand for corrugated cardboard boxes, and these could be readily manufactured without a massive capital investment. Visy Board was established in 1948, taking its name from Max Plotka's wife, Ida Visbord, who provided £1,000 to help the business begin its operations.

Richard worked as a salesman for the family business while at university, but as a keen member of the amateur dramatics society the lure of the stage was almost too strong to resist  after he was cast in a play that toured London's West End and New York's Broadway.

He returned from overseas in late 1957, and although he appeared in a few plays in the following couple of years, he concentrated more of his energies on the family business. Two years later, Richard married Jeanne Lasker, and he gradually became more active in the management of the company, although his father and his uncle, Max Plotka, were still the "bosses".

Plotka died in 1966, and when Leon, who had been in poor health for some years, died three years later, Richard stepped into his position. The company hasn't looked back since.

In the 1960s it employed 200 staff and had annual revenues of around $5 million. When Richard took over Visy, he was determined to prove himself in the face of those who doubted that he could continue with his father's success.

In contrast to his father's belief that the company should operate from only a single site, Richard was keen to expand into other locations. In the late 1970s and early 80s, Visy opened its first paper recycling mills - an investment which put the company at the forefront of the recycling movement.

Richard's son Anthony headed the US operations, expanding and growing the company alongside his father in Australia.  In 1995, Pratt Industries USA signed a wastepaper recycling contract with the City of New York to recycle more than 150,000 tonnes of the city's wastepaper annually.

In 2001 Visy branched into others areas of packaging, such as plastic bottles and steel cans, when it acquired Southcorp Packaging – effectively doubling the size of the business.

But he was not "just" a businessman. He established The Pratt Foundation in 1978 and since then the family has given well over $200 million to a wide range of charities and socially beneficial causes in Australia, Israel and the US.

The Pratt Foundation exists to "enrich the lives of our community" and is the most generous private foundation in Australia – it currently distributes over $13 million a year to carefully targeted causes.

His children paid heartfelt tribute to their father at his recent funeral. "My father was many things to many people: business leader, football president, philanthropist, arts patron, environmentalist," said son Anthony. "But to me, he was simply my hero – the man who taught me the value of family, work, charity, courage and honour in all he did and achieved.

"That twin devotion to work and family – he always said family came first but work was second – not third, or fourth – was one of so many things I admired about him."

His daughter Heloise was equally effusive. "My future, our family's future, The Pratt Foundation's future, is bound up with your life and your past, and the most wonderful legacy which you have created," she said.

Richard Pratt passed away on 28 April 2009 aged 74.

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