Philanthropist Reg Richardson at home with his art and rugby league colours.
Philanthropist Reg Richardson at home with his art and rugby league colours.

Pockets as deep as Reg’s big heart

WHEN it comes to choosing a philanthropic project Reg Richardson (AM) looks to his "emotional quotient" to gauge what is the right one to support.

It's that instinct for what will and what won't work that has led the 80-year-old to drive the establishment of outstanding organisations across a wide spectrum from indigenous health and melanoma research to the arts.

Putting his hand in his pocket is his inclination. It's been an approach Reg has taken since his early business days.

He was reared in what he describes as modest circumstances, growing up in Sydney's Darlinghurst with his grandmother.

"I have seen social issues as a pretty personal thing," he said. "If you are competent enough to do something about it, I believe you should, and do in my case."

His business background was centred around service industries where "you deliver a service, whatever it happens to be, efficiently, on time and at the lowest cost possible".

Since retiring Reg has turned his hand to finding financial answers to vexing projects, coaxing millions of dollars from wealthy Australians.

Reg Richardson and Shaun Ewen. Picture: Attila Szilvasi.
Reg Richardson and Shaun Ewen. Picture: Attila Szilvasi.

"I am good at asking people for money, particularly if they are wealthy," he said. "As you go through life you do happen to know people who surprisingly have made a fair bit of money and unsurprisingly are quite willing to give some away."

Take for example Greg and Kay Poche. Alright, there is the exception here; Greg is Reg's oldest and closest friend.

Greg sold his Star Track Express business for $750 million.

"I asked him what he was going to do with all that," Reg said. "He said he was going to give a lot of it away. He also replied, 'I have seen what you have done over the years, so I am going to get you to do it'."

With Greg suffering several stokes which inhibited his walking and talking, the task of finding suitable projects was handed over to Reg.

A casual introduction by a mate to melanoma surgeon Associate Professor John Stretch, who was eagerly seeking funding for melanoma research, led Reg to ask Greg for $10 million.

"He just said yep like that so I thought, I can get more out of him," Reg said. Three months later he went back to Greg with a proposal for $30 million to build a centre to house melanoma specialist.

"Greg provided the dough, I provided the energy to get it all going because that's who I am and John provided the medial advice," Reg said.

The end result; ten years down the track and $40 million later, Reg has retired as chair of the board for Melanoma Institute of Australia and the Mater Hospital owns the asset which is being used exclusively for critical world-recognised melanoma research and treatment. "It's there forever and one day there will be a cure for melanoma," he said.

Not one to stand on his laurels, Reg went back to Greg Poche and suggested they have a "crack at indigenous health".

"I said (to Greg), if we were Aboriginal, we'd be dead." Greg agreed that was compelling reason.

Through Reg, five major city universities have received $10 million each which led to the establishment of the Poche Indigenous Health Network.

Its focus is on closing the gap in life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders through healthy teeth, hearts and children.

"I told each university the money had to be invested at a rate of 9% (the rates were 15% at the time) in perpetuity and the capital to remain untouched, for them to invest wisely so that they increased the $10 million to a higher figure. In most cases it's sitting at around 12 and they live on the $900,000 (interest) annually, then go out to get more dough."

His passion runs deep

Flashback: Reg Richardson with previous NSW Governor Marie Bashir and philanthropist Greg Poche.
Flashback: Reg Richardson with previous NSW Governor Marie Bashir and philanthropist Greg Poche.

Reg's attachment to the arts started when he was about 28. An artist friend, who ultimately became an art critic for a Sydney newspaper, opened Reg's eyes to this world.

Reg attended many art openings and read all his friend had to write.

"I then started to buy my own works including eight of my friend's," Reg said. From there his collection grew and hasn't stopped growing.

"One was Tracey Moffatt, an Aboriginal photographer. I now have the most of any person in the world I am told."

By the time Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art opened Reg was recognised as an art collector and soon he was asked to become the president of its fund-raising foundation.

"I don't do the openings now," he said. "I (now) see every show, but I'd rather go privately," he said.

Healthy mind and body

Keeping up with his philanthropic responsibilities means also keeping fit. The trim Reg walks every day as fast he can, but on the flat. The hills around his Mosman home and down to near-by Balmoral Beach are just too hard he admits.

He says with a smile that playing Golf is definitely out, but spending his free time advising the local Mosman Art Gallery is in.

"I would like to do smaller things that make a bigger impact," he said.

It's not always about lots of money he says; it can be about a small contribution made to truly needy organisation.

The rewards for Reg are difficult to articulate. The straight talking, switched on man with a raucous laugh and realistic view of the challenges each of his projects face, draws breath when asked what continues to drive him. Like his friend Greg, the big-hearted man is quietly modest about his contributions.

Red and green forever

Reg might not have sporting talent, but that hasn't stopped him from following the South Sydney Rabbitohs.

In his reading room among his magnificent art and small selection of personal photos, the passion for his football team is never more evident.

Red and green reading glasses, Rabbits on the side table. Red and green miniature scarf around the neck of one of his favourite sculptures. He wears his passion on his sleeve.

Reg has been cheering for them since 'the little master' Clive Churchill played for the Rabbitohs in the 50s. "They say, once you are a South Sydney supporter, you are for life," Reg said.

That passion he said has been passed onto his two daughters and to the grandchildren.

"I am passionate about whatever I do," Greg said.


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