Vale Robert Oatley started out as a man of modest means and built a business empire on coffee beans, wine and luxury resorts, but many will remember him as a yachtsman and a sailor. Oatley died Jan. 10 from a lung infection. He was 87.
“Bob mentored many sailors and supported them throughout their careers, and many people owe him a debt of gratitude. He was a Foundation Member of the Australian Sailing Team Patrons’ Program, and we are extremely grateful for his contribution and support over many years,” Matt Allen, president of Yachting Australia, says in a statement. “He replicated his business success in sailing by putting good people around him, which proved a winning formula.”
Oatley’s love affair with sailing started in his early teenage years on Australia’s Sydney Harbour. The multimillionaire owned a series of increasingly larger and more high-tech racing yachts, all of them named Wild Oats. His latest, Wild Oats XI, is a 100-foot maxi that holds the record for the fastest time in the 630-nautical-mile Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, in addition to taking line honors there eight times. The defending champion was dethroned in the 2015 race in December, when the skipper had to retire with a damaged mainsail. Oatley was not on board.
Although an icon in business and sailing in his homeland, Oatley was known as a man of few words, a private individual who shunned notoriety. “The thing he dislikes intensely, aside from people discussing him with reporters (which is why hardly anyone will), is any mention of his wealth — so much so that he once asked journalist and ABC news presenter Juanita Phillips if she would ‘be so kind’ as to not use the word millionaire or billionaire about him in her column in The Bulletin magazine,” wrote Nikki Barrowclough in a 2007 profile of Oatley for Good Weekend magazine.
Still, it was hard for the press to ignore that aspect of a man who owned wildly successful businesses, three Bentleys, four homes, a private jet, yachts and Hamilton Island, which he purchased for $200 million (Australian) with part of the $1.5 billion he made by selling his Rosemount Estate winery in 2001. The Oatley family is nearing completion of a luxury resort complex on the island.
Oatley was also a generous philanthropist and sponsor of the Australian Olympic sailing team. At the annual Yachting Australia Awards last November, he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions, including the founding of the Balmoral Sailing Club in 1945, leading the Australian team to win the Admiral’s Cup and his own racing successes.
Oatley is survived by his wife, Valerie, three children — who are running his businesses — seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. “The Oatley family has been touched by the many kind words and tributes that have already been received from friends, colleagues and the wider Australian community. They thank everyone for their love and condolences,” reads a statement the family posted on Facebook.
This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue.