1941 - | VIC | Business journalist, publisher
Gottliebsen pioneered many aspects of business journalism in Australia. He was the first daily business columnist as "Chanticleer" in The Australian Financial Review and popularised regular business commentary on ABC TV news and on morning radio. He founded Australia's first weekly business magazine, Business Review Weekly, as well as Personal Investment magazine. Then, at an age when most journalists are thinking of retirement, Gottliebsen became one of the three founding investors and commentators for Australia's first successful online business news and commentary site, Business Spectator. In 1977, Gottliebsen was the second Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year, having won a Walkley the year before.
Robert Gottliebsen is a truly extraordinary journalist. He has not only succeeded at every stage of his still evolving career, he has also been a pioneer of the profession.
He grew up in Melbourne, where his father was a basket weaver with his own business. He completed year 12 at Essendon Grammar School in 1958 and joined as a cadet The Melbourne Herald, whose then managing director, Sir John Williams described him as “over educated” in an era where most would-be journalists started as copy boys after Year 10.
He gained a Diploma in Journalism at Melbourne University, studying part-time, a course aimed at those starting in the profession who were not graduates. He then shifted to The Age’s business section as a third year cadet in 1960 – a pattern of his career has been to keep moving to where the best opportunities beckon. Thus the following year he was on the move again, to Packer’s Consolidated Press, which launched The Australian Financial Times in a short-lived attempt to take on, as a weekly, The Australian Financial Review, which had become fortnightly.
The new title lasted only a year, and in 1962 Gottliebsen moved to Sydney to head up the news pages of the Sydney Morning Herald’s finance section, reporting to the section’s editor and leading commentator Tom Fitzgerald. “I learned a lot there,” he said.
He returned after two years to Melbourne, under Vic Carroll, who had been appointed editor of the AFR, which had recently gone daily – at the same time as losing many staff to the newly launched The Australian, with its business guru Max Newton.
Gottliebsen said: “It was a time of big crashes and the lifting of secrecy surrounding large companies like BHP, it was a wonderful time to be a business reporter.”
He landed the first ever formal interview with a BHP chief executive (Sir Ian McLennan) – at the time it was a major journalistic event and a boost for the AFR.
He married Barbara in 1967. Journalists’ pay was so low that in 1969, he moved into stockbroking. Late 1973 he decided to go back to journalism but knew he had to rekindle his writing skills so, anonymously, he started writing the Wildcat column for The Bulletin. He re-joined Fairfax and the AFR in July 1974 to launch what became the country’s premier business column, in the AFR. More than 100 titles were considered, before the name “Chancellor” came up – to which Max Walsh responded, “let’s call it Chanticleer.” Over the next few years he also wrote for Fairfax’s weekly publication The National Times, and was the second recipient of the Graham Perkin Award as Australian Journalist of the Year, and a Walkley award.
He became a director of Fairfax’s radio station 3AW, whose board hired Derryn Hinch. Like Hinch, Gottliebsen understood controversy was an essential part of talk radio and at one time Gottliebsen waited with his thumb over the cut-off button when Hinch threatened to break the law.
It was on 3AW that Gottliebsen began broadcasting himself, winning many listeners to follow business news for the first time with his inimitable, excited, breathless style. He also became a member of the board of National Business Review in New Zealand, which Fairfax had bought.
The times were changing in ways that suited his journalism. Companies were starting to provide information to promote themselves more broadly, and their leaders were agreeing to talk publicly.
While Trevor Sykes took Fairfax to court successfully to retain the ownership of his famous column Pierpont, Gottliebsen left his Chanticleer title with the AFR when after half a dozen years, he thought, despite the column’s immense success: “Is this going to be the rest of my life?”
He appointed Alan Kohler as his successor, and worked with him for six months with a joint byline, until Gottliebsen left his Chanticleer in 1980. They were to rejoin in 2007 to launch another stage in Gottliebsen’s career. In 1980 his next big role was to found the magazine Business Review Weekly, at first an insert in The National Times, then a stand-alone title. In 1981 Gottliebsen had just six weeks to launch BRW as a stand-alone magazine after gaining Fairfax board approval to challenge Kerry Packer’s fortnightly Business magazine which had launched six months earlier. “The BRW early editions were terrible though,” he admits. “We were newspaper people.” The learning curve was sharp, but effective. Gottliebsen also launched Personal Investment magazine with David Koch as editor but taking the role of managing editor of both titles, and writing weekly for BRW. Both BRW and Personal Investment flourished. BRW obtained a big boost in 1983 after publishing, under Jefferson Penberthy’s editorship, the first Australian Rich List.
In 1984 Gottliebsen pioneered nightly business news commentary on ABC TV. “They told me not to use the style I’d also developed for radio, but I persisted,” he said. He was everywhere – print, radio and TV plus countless speeches. He then started to take Australian business publishing abroad, following his first taste in New Zealand. Under Gottliebsen, Fairfax began publishing titles in London and Hong Kong. As Fairfax hit financial trouble in 1987, he and Stuart Simson bought half of National Business Review, then later sold it for a profit. The London and HK ventures had to close when Fairfax hit problems. But BRW prospered, peaking with a circulation above 70,000. The ever curious Gottliebsen, who had become a regular attendee at World Economic Forum events, was swiftly convinced in Davos in 1997 of the potential of the Internet, and prepared BRW for online presence, well ahead of the rest of Fairfax.
He was also excited by the potential of the Chinese world. In 1999 he launched with HSBC a publication in both English and Chinese for the bank’s huge customer base.
Always at core a journalist, he stepped aside from BRW’s day to day management to focus again on writing. Not long after, Fairfax’s management seized direct control of the operation, shutting the HSBC arrangement just as it was about to extend Australian publishing into mainland China. BRW’s Internet program was also trashed. Characteristically, the resilient Gottliebsen said: “It was a sad time, but there was no looking back.” He joined The Australian as national business commentator as the millennium began, and launched a nightly business show for Sky TV, as well as broadcasting on an Asian business TV channel.
In 2006, when he turned 65, he nominally “retired,” including ending his morning radio segment after 37 years. This retirement only lasted a year though. Kohler asked him to join in establishing online venture Business Spectator, with Stephen Bartholomeusz, in which all three invested and wrote daily. They secured a significant market share against their bigger, established rivals, chiefly News Ltd and Fairfax – which both bid for Business Spectator in 2012. The former won, and Gottliebsen continued, with the others, to write for and develop the business. The ready access to information through the online world, he said, “makes it possible for older journalists like me to stay on longer.” He has always, besides his frenetic journalism, engaged in the community, including as treasurer of Essendon Presbyterian Church and a governor of the Clunies Ross Foundation. Gottliebsen has remained an active director of his old school, now Penleigh and Essendon Grammar, whose board he first joined in 1973. In 2013 they named the new middle school boys complex, Gottliebsen House.
John Durie, a successor of Gottliebsen as Chanticleer with the AFR and high-profile daily columnist with The Australian, said of him: “He pioneered in Australia the business journalism style which focused on the person as much as the company. This has been sometimes criticised for placing too much spotlight on the individual when businesses involve many people. But it gave more personality to reports and highlighted the characters who were making the decisions, and their motivating forces.”
Durie said that at core, “business is about business personalities, and Gotty recognised that. As a marketer at BRW he was nothing short of superb, and when it was up against Packer’s Australian Business magazine, which arguably had the better journalists, Gotty’s special circulation deal with the Australian Society of Accountants gave him the scale and marketing clout which literally ran the Packer product out of business. His team from that time all went on to make powerful names for themselves having learned the trade from the master. And his breathless TV reports were something to treasure.
“He remains indefatigable, and with his Business Spectator colleagues showed himself to be always at the forefront of the latest trends in media, and prepared to take the risks to launch new products. A true legend.”
Rowan Callick is The Australian's China correspondent. He is a former committee member of the Melbourne Press Club and the 1995 Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year.
10 Best and Worst Decisions by Australian CEOs 1992-2002, Robert Gottliebsen, Penguin, 2003.