Before settling down as a Melbourne socialite, “Captain” Peter Janson was a racing car driver. Perhaps that explained why he came out of the pit full throttle when asked about Russ Withers, the disgraced 7-Eleven tycoon.
“A wonderful man, a true gentleman,” Mr Janson said. It hadn’t been mentioned yet that Withers took a giant social whipping in a media investigation last year about the convenience chain’s employees being bullied into taking slave wages.
Even so, Mr Janson was moved to add: “And it was nothing at all to do with head office. Nothing at all I am assured.’’
Mr Janson, who routinely wears a cravat and smoking jacket, confirmed that Mr Withers had attended some of his celebrated parties and of course he knew the man.
“I knew his father too. Reg. A great man.’’
Surely then, he knew Russ Withers’ sister and business partner Bev Barlow? “No I don’t. I didn’t know he had a sister.’’
Janson can be forgiven his ignorance. Gerry Harvey, the billionaire Harvey Norman merchant and a brawler who keeps his ear to the ground, said when asked about Ms Barlow, “Who? Never heard of her.’’
Beverley Barlow currently shares the 35th spot on the BRW Rich list with her brother; they run an empire worth $1.3 billion – a fortune that actually grew by tens of millions of dollars after the 7-Eleven expose found workers were being paid as little as $5 an hour.
“Yeah?’” said Mr Harvey. “Good luck to her if nobody knows her. Obscurity!’’
There’s truth in that. While both brother and sister were named and ostensibly shamed in the wage rorting scandal, it’s Russ Withers who has been put in the public stocks. It’s his photograph you see in the papers and online. That’s what happens when you have a public profile.
Russ Withers was a member of the Australian Olympic Committee (until he resigned), deputy chef de mission for the Australian team in 2008, and known to be fond of a glam knees-up with his former beauty queen wife Di.
His sister Bev Barlow is none of that. Business journalists who spoke with The New Daily said they only knew Mrs Barlow as someone whose name pops up from time to time, but none had ever met her.
John Stensholt, who edits the BRW Rich List, said in an email: “I’m afraid not much is really known about Bev at all regarding the Rich List, other than her having ownership of various assets and so on.’’
Mr Stensholt added: “We do speak to most on the list when we compile every year, but it’s fair to say she and her brother have never cooperated with us unfortunately.’’
That’s not to say that Bev Barlow has never made a splash. In May 2015, just three months before the joint Fairfax/Four Corners investigation detonated, Barlow and her husband Doug paid a record $20 million for a Brighton mansion.
Reporters later came knocking at the Brighton home for a comment about the scandal, only to find the Barlows had not yet moved in.
Even so, The New Daily understands Mrs Barlow was unhappy to find herself under siege. Barlow was apparently furious with her brother, “because she couldn’t leave the house” during the scandal.
This week, her name popped up again. Barlow and her husband Douglas are selling their Noosa Waters beach house: they’re asking $3.4 million, having paid $535,000 in 1999.
The selling agent, Marek Realty principal Joanne Marek, didn’t want to talk about the sale. She claimed to have been misquoted in an online tabloid as saying Mrs Barlow was spending less time at her canal-frontage holiday home.
Asked if she had met Mrs Barlow, and to describe what she looked like, she said: “Just an average woman, really. Mousy brown hair, that’s all I can say.’’
RG Withers Holdings Pty Ltd, the family holding company, shares a switchboard and a Mount Waverley office building with 7-Eleven Australia.
The switchboard operator said she’d take a pass on requests for an interview with Bev Barlow, or even just a biographical sketch.
The operator said she couldn’t give out the email of Jessica Richmond, Head of Brand and Communications at 7-Eleven, presumably the one person authorised to field media enquiries. Neither Richmond or Barlow returned my call.
I think at some point people gave up approaching them.
Where a journalist might fail, surely Melbourne’s philanthropy gurus had managed to track down Bev Barlow for a bequest – hefty donations to hospitals and such being a rich-family burden.
As the head of philanthropy at a local university told The New Daily: “Most major families in Melbourne give to our top institutions like universities, hospitals and arts organisations … However we [name withheld] have absolutely no record of Bev Barlow having ever given anything, in fact we don’t even have a prospect manager assigned to her or the family, I think at some point people gave up approaching them.’’
A prospect manager is someone who works to build a relationship with a potential donor or an existing one.
This isn’t to say Bev Barlow is a tightwad. There’s evidence to the contrary with The Barlow Foundation. According to its website, the foundation “delivers grants to charitable organisations that seek to foster self-reliance and self-empowerment in women and children from disadvantaged backgrounds”. There’s a page where you can apply for a Barlow grant.
An email to the foundation went unanswered. However, the website provides the following sketch:
“The Barlow Family is a successful retail family from Victoria, Australia. Doug Barlow moved from Canada in the 1960s with his Australian wife, Beverley. Together they ran a small wholesale grocery store and had three children. Those children have since also had children and together they have continued to expand and grow their business interests. They are now co-owners of one of the largest private companies in Australia. They jointly own over 650 retail stores as well as a substantial diversified investment portfolio.
“The … now multi-generational family felt that they wanted to share their good fortune by helping others achieve their own personal goals.’’
The Barlow children, not the parents, are named as members of the foundation board. In fact, there’s quite a bit of detail about the kids, but nothing about Mum.
Deborah Barlow, serving as Chair, and director of one of the family retail boards, is a film producer, and holds a law degree from Monash University.
“Her area of interest in law is international and human rights and she works pro bono for asylum seekers in preparing their applications for refugee status.’’
Chris Barlow is a Director on the board of the family company, and a director on the retail company board. He holds a Masters in Business Administration from Melbourne University, and has completed the program for Executive Development at IMD, in Lausanne, Switzerland and the Private Wealth Management Programme at Wharton Business School.’’
Lisa Blundell, also a director on the board of the family company, “is the best-selling author of four fiction novels, two of which are published in five languages. She has worked in advertising and marketing; from account management to design … Lisa speaks French and each year spends time visiting the recipients of her philanthropic investments in emerging nations around the world.’’
Blundell’s books include Gucci Mamas and Versace Sisters, published by Penguin. They’re jointly written with journalist and author Michelle Hamer and published under the name Cate Kendall. Penguin markets the books as “Desperate Housewives meets Melbourne Yummy Mummies”.
Ms Hamer told The New Daily she didn’t want to be a part of a nasty story about the Barlows in general, or Bev in particular – but she was happy to talk about how the books came to be written, and how Lisa Blundell was the driving force behind them.
Blundell and Hamer met at a Victorian school in 2005, dropping their kids off. Over coffee they decided that poking fun at posh mums would make a good book.
“Lisa was the one who got us organised,’’ said Hamer.
They had a lot of fun together, the book was a best-seller – and Random House then signed them to write three more of the same, with diminishing returns creatively and monetarily. Somewhere the working relationship broke down and the women are no longer in contact.
Hamer said she probably met Bev Barlow ten times. In fact, the Barlows had put on a lovely launch for Gucci Mamas at their Brighton home. Bev Barlow she described as “petite and elegant and very proud of Lisa”.
If there were any clues of a tough businesswoman simmering beneath the fine couture, Hamer wasn’t saying. Still, she’d been told that Bev had “won Fashions on the Field back in the day … probably in the 60s”.
“They said she was the first woman to win … who wore trousers.”