by A. Charles Smith
At 56, he is perfectly at home in a skin tempered by hardship and experience. Quietly confident, Sean Howard is measuring his next foray into the high-tech world he first entered in 1980, rising to become founder of OzEmail, formerly Australia’s largest Internet company.
His measured manner may derive from a fractured early life and being at the centre of conflict. It is evident that he eschews it but that has not embittered him.
His father, a lecturer in chemical engineering and a widower with two daughters, married a divorcee. He and two younger sisters were born. The marriage was volatile and combative and as a young boy he endured fights, arguments and violence that no child of tender years should have to bear.
“Seeing your parents in the front yard battling over piffling goods with a long-handled axe was very scary for me. I still suffer nerves from what happened.”
Yet a spirit of entrepreneurship seems to have been derived in part at least from witnessing his father’s venture into magazines in the late sixties. Utilising a narrow laneway in Chippindale to house a printing press, the operation was a successful adjunct to his work at the University of New South Wales.
The home environment remained unstable and untenable. His mother took matters into her own hands, relocating with the three children to his grandmother’s home in Melbourne.
“It was cloak and dagger, midnight flit stuff in 1971, but necessary. She had to get us away from that poisonous atmosphere.”
They had no money. His grandmother was a widow living in a tiny three- bedroom house in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick. He shared a room with his older sister. His description of the sloping floor, telling of the home’s integrity, is the first window into Sean’s sense of humour.
“At twelve I realised the slope was not a design feature to improve the interest with which one played the game of marbles. The foundations had given way and Nanna could not afford to fix the problem.”
Still they managed, not just becoming adept at marbles but financially, things improved when his mother obtained a position with the Road Traffic Authority.
Sean was a brilliant student demonstrating particular excellence in pure mathematics. He won the Science Prize on that account.
Somehow he avoided the vicious canings meted out by the Marist Brothers but their cruelty left an indelible impression upon him when in later life, endowed with bounty, he focused on philanthropy to children’s charities such as Youth Insearch Foundation.
He was accepted into the Faculty of Medicine at University and well on his way to becoming a doctor after three successful years of study. But it was not what he desired to be.
“I had no problem with sawing up cadavers,” he says rolling his eyes mischievously. “My issue was blood, not what came from me but what drained from my face. I’m told that the professor supervising the pathology heard a thud and his enquiry as to the source of the noise was met with the laconic response from another student-‘It’s nothing sir, just Howard on the floor.’”
Business beckoned and it was a blood-sport with which he could live. He went to Britain and was instantly mesmerised by micro-computers. He studied the magazines there and decided he would launch one in Australia. Having contacted many publications, one owner was an eccentric entrepreneur called Felix Dennis.
“Felix was my only respondent and he sent me many back copies of his publications. Out of it all I cobbled together my first issue.”
That effort did not happen by chance. Shoe leather and savings were sacrificed as Sean trudged from one computer store to another seeking advertisers drawing on money he had put aside from unemployment benefits. Yes, he ‘saved some of his dole.’ Tell that to the politicians today!
The initial run of Australian Personal Computer was 15,000 copies at 32 pages. And he was grateful for the sixty-day credit grace from the printer.
It met with outstanding success. In just a year on the stands, he set up his own production facility after joining forces with a printer called John Lewis who had an offset machine.
“I bought the binder and the magazine was saddle stitched.”
But it was not long before burgeoning editions overwhelmed that method of stapling the pages. The printing and binding was outsourced again.
“The market had shifted in the 80’s and pretty soon we had displaced the electronics mags. Computers were the new ‘go to’ for the tech-heads.”
It was a monthly publication that eventually outputted to four hundred pages. To this day APC remains the longest running magazine on computers in the English speaking world.
Four years into its development, Sean received an unsolicited phone call from Trevor Kennedy, the CEO of Australian Consolidated Press wanting to buy into the magazine. He was keen to arrange a meeting with Kerry Packer.
“He told me they published the Women’s Weekly and the Bulletin and noted that, “You may have heard of us. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I conceded that, ‘I had heard of them!’”
Not long after that, another similar call from the rival Fairfax organisation set Sean to thinking that he might be in comfortable territory occupying the centre of a bidding war.
His father, with whom he had little involvement up till then, drove him around to the various appointments.
“As the meeting with Kerry Packer ended, he offered me a lift back to Melbourne in his private jet. I regretted my inability to do so on account of an assignation with Mr Gardner of Fairfax. A realisation that I might have overplayed my hand dawned when Packer replied nonchalantly, ‘Oh well.’”
Fortunately ACP and Fairfax did compete and ultimately Sean felt more comfortable with the Packer group.
During the 1980’s along with publishing, Howard developed the email service, Microtex. In 1988, he injected capital into ISYS Search Software, a pioneer in search engine products.
Sean recalls an extraordinary meeting with Packer when it came to the issue of acquisition of the remaining portion of the publishing business which Kerry Packer had not bought already. Up until 1992, ACP had acquired interests in Sean’s publishing business incrementally starting at 60% and advancing from there.
“Packer in his inimitable style said, ‘Son, you can keep your f**king R and D division.’ I told him I would have to buy it back and the consideration was $1. We shook hands on it and I retained Microtex.”
That was 1992. Microtex morphed into OzEmail which ultimately became the largest internet service providers in the country.
“Trevor Kennedy was interested but we needed another partner. He recommended Malcolm Turnbull. I had known that he was good in a stoush when he was in-house counsel working for Packer. Liking the idea, Turnbull wrote out a cheque for $500,000.”
The business started off in a large building in St Leonards with just eight employees. One of those who headed up customer enquiries asked what had to be done as they were getting swamped.
“I told him, ‘just keep hiring people’ and we grew from there I can tell you.”
Sean credits Turnbull as being instrumental in having OzEmail listed on NASDAQ in the United States and this led to spectacular success for the partners after its launch in 1996. It was listed on the ASX in 1998.
In March 1999, OzEmail was sold for $520,000,000. Five years after Turnbull’s relatively modest investment, he collected $55 million.
“I walked away with one hundred and twenty million bucks before tax and so even after the ATO’s grab, I was now seriously wealthy.”
Not smug about his fortune, he approached Turnbull’s wife Lucy about a worthwhile charity for young people. She introduced him to the actress Rachel Ward who in turn recommended Youth Insearch, a group supporting victims of physical and/or sexual abuse.
He has donated millions of dollars to that entity over the years both in money and in kind. It was not the amounts donated that earned his appointment as an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2015. Rather, the citation pointed to the time he devoted to helping disadvantaged youth and distinguished service to a range of charitable organisations, medical research, and to his contribution to business.
The sale was propitious as to timing. The dotcom crash followed with the U.S. buyer going into bankruptcy. Interest in such stock bottomed. Aside from a board seat on a domain provider, Howard developed other interests.
Aged care and retirement facilities attracted his investment dollars. One of the biggest in the country, Cumberland View in Wheelers Hill in Melbourne’s southeast he acquired with Trevor Kennedy.
Before the Global Financial Crisis, he had purchased Double Island near Cairns in the Great Barrier Reef and would fly sixteen to eighteen Youth Insearch young people there. In all there were some thirty six such flights. As well, he used his helicopter to ferry Youth Insearch volunteers to the Double Island resort as a ‘thank you’ for their unstinting efforts.
“I derived enormous satisfaction from hearing one of these lads saying years later, ‘Sean Howard changed my life. He gave me ambition.’”
Howard spent ten years as the chairman of Youth Insearch.
Sean had a serious health scare that forced him to confront the spectre of his own mortality. He contracted encephalitis about four years ago. It sent him into a coma for six days. Since then, he wrestles stoically with the sequelae that have included a profound loss of vision in one eye.
Unfortunately, the GFC forced him to sell the Island and his private jet. But he clawed his way back from these setbacks and has a new venture firmly in his sights.
For the first time in 18 years since the OzEmail sale, Howard is creating a new dotcom. He is about to launch a new company to be known as, “My Life”. The byline for the company will be, ‘A better way to compute.’
Conscious of the second chance he has been given, he is determined to make it work. “God still has me on the radar,” he asserts pointing to a reversion to habit, writing computer code in the wee hours.
He is developing a series of tools he says will be able to augment the education system and modernise the archaic principles it is based around, as well as providing some other mobile-based services.
“We might be reinventing the wheel,” he declares with conviction, “but it’s going to be a much better wheel.”
He posits a range of ideas and benefits to those he hopes to buy the products on offer including the issue of four tokens to every customer. If each of those tokens are acquired and registered with the company, then the original purchaser will receive a refund of his/her money and so, we hope, it will proceed exponentially.
“I’m coming back!” he declares musing rakishly that the Elton John song, The Bitch is back, may well be the promo vehicle.
He highlights the features of flexibility that his products will contain.
“You can make the applications the way you want them instead of the way they might be designed. For example, if you don’t like the user interface, our applications will permit customers to change their User Interfaces, changes that will be retrieved from one session to another.”
The products will be available both for computers and mobiles.
“The Media Manager application will sift through historical hard disks, Outlook and Zips, find photos and videos and arrange them in a tree based on the years, months and days the photograph or video was taken. Ultimately that pyramidal database can be assembles to a customer’s taste and printed into a book which MyLife will have printed and delivered to the customer.”
MyLife’s suite of products, along with education, includes home security through mobile devices, enhanced cloud storage and e-learning, and is in beta or audience testing. Howard, always the enthusiast, says it will be “world class stuff’’ when it is launched.
“MyLife” intends to become an Internet customer service centre for the world. Fiji will be the intended locality for the call facility. Fiji has wonderfully fast, reliable and cheap internet facilities. People are well-educated and it is the ideal location.”
Sean Howard has also acquired a 99-year lease of a remote Island in the Fiji group that is twice the size of Double Island.
“This is a place of extraordinary beauty and purity.”
Because of its isolation, no one has ever lived on the Island, be they Fijian or European. It is virgin, fertile soil and the air as clean as any Sean has breathed.
“I have a twin jet-engine chopper that is one of the safest machines in the air that can ferry people around.”
He also intends to purchase in 2019 (when they are expected to be available) a new concept in amphibious aircraft that will be fitted with a parachute should any difficulties arise.
“From the Island, it will mean a twenty-five minute flight to the shops. There’s an expanse of 3,400 square kilometres around my island which should provide some idea as to its remoteness.”
He has already constructed accommodation for up to forty people.
Sean looks back on a life well lived, an unimpeachable work ethic and delights in the prospects for the future of his MyLife enterprise.
He embodies the words of Thomas Mordaunt’s, One crowded hour of glorious life is worth an age without a name.