Glory days … Bob Jane after winning the 1972 Australian Touring Car Championship.
Bob Jane lives in the shadow of his dream. when cars thunder around his beloved racetrack, the tyre tycoon hears them from his house. Thirty years he has dedicated to Calder Park Raceway, a man-made mountain that rises from the desert-drab plains of Melbourne's north-western suburbs. But the champion racing driver will not enter the complex of tracks, which includes a drag-racing strip and a banked oval known as the Thunderdome. Like much of his multimillion-dollar empire, Calder Park is now part of a bitter dispute with his eldest son, Rodney.
Not long ago, Bob and Rodney talked three times a day. At an unremarkable diner in Melbourne's Lygon Street, they would catch up over egg-and-bacon sandwiches at 6am. And no matter where they were, the tough-as-nails tyre man would always kiss and hug his son. "Never be ashamed to be my son, and I'll never be ashamed to be your father," Jane snr would say.
My dad creates the world that he believes, like his own virtual world. I’ve seen the brutality of him but, until now, never between us.
"I don't care who is in the room, I'll always give you a kiss and a hug."
Behind the wheel … Bob Jane T-Marts owner Rodney Jane. Photo: Mike Baker
There are no kisses or hugs any more. Only lawyers and writs, claims and counter-claims, wild accusations and tawdry tabloid headlines. Rodney, now the public face of Australia's leading tyre retailer, Bob Jane T-Marts, stands accused by his father of stealing the family riches after Bob suffered a stroke in 2006 and was in a fog of ill health. "My son doesn't love me," says Bob. "Love is love: you don't take advantage of someone who is sick. I had 29 companies and trusts and a whole bunch of properties. The only property I have now is the one we are on today. Everything else is gone."
But Jane, even at 83, is nothing if not a fighter. Just beyond Calder's dam-like wall, at his Diggers Rest farm, the father wages war on his son. From his home office, surrounded by motor-racing memorabilia, model cars, filing cabinets and a bust of his own youthfully maned head, Jane goes to work every day, plotting to win back his formerly glorious estate. "Rodney," he is fond of saying, "is a bank robber, a thief and a liar."
This year the father-and-son battle has been prosecuted in public, with the two going head-to-head in the Victorian Supreme Court. ("When you go to court," says Bob, "you hang out your undies.") The case concerned only a few million bucks - a mere skirmish in a broader war over the Bob Jane T-Marts business, worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Rodney, 41, now owns the business under a deal struck in 2002. He says his father transferred the debt-ridden tyre retailer to him so he could save it. Bob says the deal was a "forgery" by Rodney to cheat Bob's third wife Laree out of her rightful divorce settlement.
A matter of trusts … Laree and Bob Jane outside the Supreme Court in Melbourne in May. Photo: AAP
This battle is not just about the sad fracture of a once intimate father-and-son bond. Nor is it simply, as some see it, the story of a much-married man, his younger wife and the lengths she will go to protect her turf. And it's not just a tale of how a magnificent folly, Calder Park, brought its creator to near ruin. This is the story of the "tough little bastard from Brunswick", a trailblazer who fought his way to fortune and fame, then fought almost everyone he loved.
The things that made Bob Jane great - his hard-nosed business style, his pride and self-belief and his crash-or-crash-through ways - are the things that eventually unmade him. Like King Midas, who turned everything he touched to gold yet ended up starving, Jane once had it all. Now he faces bankruptcy. And he's refused to reconcile with his son. "His love is either amazing and right there with you, or it's not," says Rodney. "And if it's not, it's on the far side of love, it's hate. There's no grey bit in the middle."
It is perhaps fitting that the story of the Janes begins with the father - Bob Jane's father. Fred Jane, a violent drunk, was the first of many people Bob stood up to. One night, Fred punched Bob, 13, as he stood in front of his mother, protecting her from Fred's blows. ''That was enough," Bob once recalled, "to send my mum off her tree." Merle Jane took a rolling pin to Fred and then took her family from Melbourne's bayside Middle Park to gritty inner-city Brunswick. Bob, eldest of three children, left school and became the man of the family.
Wonder years … Bob and Rodney circa 1973-74. Photo: courtesy of Rodney Jane
Brunswick was, in 1943, a more aggressive place than the multi-ethnic, muesli-belt suburb of today. Local gangs regularly gave Jane a beating until one day a group of seven confronted him. "Instead of running, I attacked and beat the gang leader. This became widely known and life in Brunswick became easier for me." At 18, Jane left his uncle's leather business for timber cutting. He returned to Melbourne with the physique he maintained most of his life: broad chest, grapefruit-sized calves and a woodcutter's pectorals.
In 1951, aged 21, Bob and his brother, Bill, opened their first Brunswick car dealership, and by 1968 they had nine. When helmets were, as Jane says, "just a sort of pudding basin with a strap", the kid from Brunswick began a crazy-brave racing career that made him a track legend. He cheated death twice, including a 1961 crash that left him in a 10-day coma, his right hand dangling by a piece of skin. He won more than 300 races, including the Armstrong 500, Australia's premier endurance race (now the Bathurst 1000), four years in a row - the only person to have done so - and four touring car championships.
Off-track, Jane started importing tyres in 1962. Broadcaster Phillip Adams, then an adman, convinced Jane to use his own name and image in the tyre business, leveraging his race fame. Bob Jane T-Marts soon became a franchised network across the nation, underpinned by a female-friendly retail philosophy. Says Jane: "The boys won't make innuendos behind her back, there are no filthy, disgusting posters on the wall, and she can go to our toilets without getting rabies."
Advertising man Austin Begg, who pitched for and won the Bob Jane T-Mart account on a cold Melbourne night in 1975, says Jane was an inspirational and fearless leader who made many of his franchisees millionaires. "Bob changed tyre retailing in Australia," says Begg. "He was one of the first to really make franchising work. He was a marketing machine in his own right, and because he was a legendary motor-racing driver he was always on television."
By the mid-1990s, Jane's empire - the car dealership Southern Motors, the T-Marts, Calder Park and another racetrack in Adelaide - produced annual gross revenues of around $220 million. In 1996, Jane's personal wealth was about $50 million, his life splendidly furnished with the chattels befitting a multimillionaire - several holiday houses, a yacht, a helicopter and a fleet of luxury cars parked in a five-door garage.
The ladies, meanwhile, had always loved Bob Jane. As he did them. But he was always upfront about the limits of his love. "It was cars first and women an easy second," he once said. As he pursued his business and racing ambitions, marriages and even children fell by the wayside. After his first marriage ended, he and his second wife adopted three sons, but he now never sees them. "They were lost in transit in a sense," he unsentimentally told the ABC once, as if the boys were missing airport baggage.
With his next partner, Geraldine, he fathered Rodney and his sister, Georgina, but the latter fell in with the wrong crowd and died in a car crash in 1991, aged 20, with, says Jane, her drug-user boyfriend at the wheel. For many years Jane blamed himself for not spending more time with her.
At a T-Marts franchisees convention in the early 1990s, Jane explained his ethos: "Marketing is war. There is no bloody quarter given. Your opposition are quite nice people, with wives and kids that need shoes. Our kids have bigger feet, our wives have bigger appetites and want prettier dresses, so kill! Go to the extreme!" Jane spoke from experience. Few wives would have bigger appetites for luxury goods than his own, Laree Madonna Jane. By 2007, her jewellery alone was worth $4.1 million.
Laree Hope was a pretty teenager in Bathurst when, Cinderella-like, she met the man who would transform her ordinary life. In 1986, 56-year-old Jane had separated from Geraldine, and was on his way to the Bathurst 1000 race an avowed bachelor. But at the Bathurst Ball, Jane came across 18-year-old Laree. "Beautiful little girl," he says now, recalling his first impression of the teenager, just two years older than Georgina. (The 38-year age gap, says Jane, "sounds dreadful, but it was nice, actually".)
The next year, in March, he arranged a lift for Laree to Adelaide for the Australian Grand Prix. Keith Williams, one of Jane's best mates and the owner of Hamilton Island, agreed to pick Laree up. In his Learjet. As the townsfolk watched on from the Bathurst airport, Laree, with her chaperone girlfriend and pink make-up case, climbed the steps of the private jet to find Beatle George Harrison kicking back on board. This would be Laree's new life. Bob and Laree married in 1988 and had three children - Courtney, now 24, Robbie, 23, and Charlotte, 20.
Laree, a softly spoken woman of reserved poise, knows what it is like to fight Bob Jane. Things started to go wrong for the couple in November 2006, when they fought over a property purchase. The next month, Bob alleged that Laree had brandished a large serrated knife at the couple's South Yarra apartment while threatening to get her loaded gun and shoot him. Laree admitted "waggling" a knife at Jane, but denied that the fight had escalated. They had a cup of tea and watched Law and Order, she said.
Jane filed a complaint to police, who charged Laree with assault, false imprisonment and threatening to inflict serious injury. Soon she found herself the centrepiece of a high-farce courtroom drama. Jane depicted himself a victim of his "loony bin" wife. Laree's lawyer, Phillip Dunn, QC, called Jane a "dishonest rogue" who made up allegations. A jury later cleared her of all charges, but Jane's media-savvy performance during this case and later legal battles ensured that Laree would forever be known as the housewife who struggled to get by on $70,000 a month.
In September 2009, Laree, Bob and Rodney signed a property settlement and Laree walked away with roughly $25 million from the Jane estate. But less than a year later, Bob had a change of heart. In mid-2010, shortly after he began fighting with Rodney over money, Jane was hospitalised for a bladder problem. He asked Laree to visit and offered her a blanket apology for anything he may have ever done wrong. "The most important thing is our kids," he says he told her. He now regrets going to police about the South Yarra incident.
Soon the pair were holidaying in Bali, but the relationship had changed in some fundamental ways. Today, Laree is more carer than lover; they don't share a bed. "It's a relationship, not a romance," says Jane. "I don't want to get involved in romance with Laree or anybody. I'm 83 and I've had enough." But the duo also became a partnership in revenge, united in their quest to reclaim the T-Marts from Rodney. Laree, who declined numerous requests for an interview, sees the business as the birthright of her three children, and it's a fight she's not particularly subtle about. She has set up a rival tyre business which offers a model called Vanquish. And the name of this business? Vendetta Tyres.
In a musty old Victorian Supreme Court building in May, 2013, Bob and Rodney sit on opposite ends of a bench seat. Father and son stare straight ahead at the bent, black-robed backs of their lawyers. The stocky little dynamo that was Bob Jane, racing champion, is barely recognisable now. His lips are darkened with sun damage, his skin mottled. He moves stiffly, with action-figure joints. Rodney Jane, now the face of the T-Mart advertisements (their old-timey jingle as familiar as Vegemite), is fit, good-looking and small-framed, like his father.
Bob is suing Rodney over three specific matters. Bob says that $540,244 transferred to Rodney for a property purchase was a loan, not a gift. Bob also alleges that $2.4 million lent to his son to purchase the Bob Jane Corporation's headquarters was not paid back. And Bob wants his loan account with the corporation reopened, alleging that it was misused during his period of ill health. Unfortunately for Bob, the case does not go his way.
In a judgment earlier this month, Justice Michael Sifris agreed with Rodney: the $540,244 was a gift, the $2.4 million was paid back, and the loan account was settled and therefore unable to be reopened under statute.
But the case was really over the small change of the Jane family wealth. Bob is yet to litigate his main gripe: the 2002 business transfer. This deal was based on a document called the Declaration of Trusts. It was drawn up by Bob Jane Corporation director Alex Chung, Rodney says, on the request of his father, and signed by Bob on February 23, 2002, four years before Bob and Laree's marital problems. The document said that when Rodney, as the corporation's chief executive, delivered a $10 million profit in one year, the business would be his. Rodney says this target was chalked up in 2006, shortly before Laree and Bob split.
Bob says he has "proof from hard drives" that the Declaration of Trusts is a forgery created between July 2006 (a month after his debilitating stroke) and March 27, 2007 (just before it was presented to Laree's divorce lawyers). There is one major problem with Bob's story, however: his own sworn legal evidence about the document.
During the legal battle with Laree, Jane signed two affidavits, witnessed by his lawyer, testifying that he had transferred the business to his son under the trusts document. "I seriously doubted that the tyre operations would survive,'' Jane wrote in affidavits. ''If Rodney did not manage to save the tyre operations, most, if not all, of the Bob Jane Group would be lost." He also gave evidence that 18 of his 29 companies and trusts were either in the process of being liquidated, no longer required, or of limited value.
Bob now says that Rodney wrote these affidavits and presented them to him while he was suffering post-stroke confusion and memory loss. He says Rodney expected him to die and wanted to steal the business and reduce Laree's claim over it. "I relied on my son, who I loved and trusted," he told Justice Sifris in the recent court case. "You see, I woke up - virtually woke up - I am using the wrong words, Your Honour. I virtually realised about 2011 that my wife was correct in her assertions that Rodney had taken all my properties and all my companies."
Neurologist Amy Brodtmann, a post-stroke behaviour expert, told Good Weekend that memory is affected by depression, which many stroke survivors suffer. (Jane said he was overly emotional, cried often and turned into a "nasty old bugger" post-stroke.) But Brodtmann says it is extremely rare to see stroke patients wake up to a sudden realisation after five years of memory loss. Rodney's lawyer, Ian Waller, also questioned Bob's "dire" health, pointing out that, shortly after the stroke, he went on a cruise, a holiday to Broome, an overseas business trip and a high-speed drive around a racetrack.
In his judgment, Justice Sifris was not prepared to make any findings about Bob's health without expert medical evidence (none was led in court). He did not doubt the seriousness of the 2006 stroke, but said the crucial thing was the "causal nexus" between the stroke and Bob's ability to give instructions and understand and make effective and informed decisions. "The evidence does not establish any sufficient deficiency or difficulty in this regard," Justice Sifris found. "In fact, the contrary is the position."
But who to believe when it comes to the Declaration of Trusts? There seem to be three possibilities. One: Rodney defrauded his sick father out of the company against the backdrop of his stepmother wanting a large slice of it. Two: Bob colluded with Rodney to limit Laree's ownership of the business and has now become a victim of his own cleverness. Or three: Rodney inherited the business and, now that he and Bob are fighting, the arrangement no longer suits his father, especially for tax purposes. (In a case that may bankrupt Bob, the tax office is pursuing him over $84 million, penalties and interest having blown out the original $24 million bill related to the business transfer. Bob denies that his fight with Rodney is motivated by tax avoidance.)
A clue to this puzzle lies in the state of the Bob Jane T-Marts business between 1999 and 2002. Rodney says it was in trouble. Bob, on the other hand, rejects this notion and points only to a GST problem. "In 2001, after the GST was introduced, some people buggered up the introduction, and the cash flow went to shit," he says. "But Laree and I sold $18 million worth of assets. And we saved the company."
Documents seen by Good Weekend and filed during the recent court case show that the company did not, in fact, have a GST problem. It had a sales and wholesale tax problem prior to the GST's introduction. More importantly, it had a debt problem. In 2000, Mark Mentha, one of Australia's leading insolvency and business restructuring experts, was at accountancy firm Arthur Andersen when he was sent into Bob Jane Corporation under orders from its creditors, the ANZ bank.
Mentha says there were many problems, but the GST was not one. "It was a business that had almost systemically broken down at every level. It was in a debt spiral." The company lacked "business hygiene", says Mentha, and had no modern-day accounting systems. Badly performing franchisees had taken stock without paying for it, owing $13 million by 2000. "Unless things changed dramatically, it would have been taken out of Bob's hands and the bank would have taken control of the business," Mentha says.
Driving the debt spiral was Calder Park Raceway. In 1983, Bob Jane left the day-to-day running of the tyre business to pursue his dream of building an American-style NASCAR track at Calder. He left the tyre operations to his right-hand men, Alan Coleman and Maurie Ryding, who were widely regarded as honest, hard-working lieutenants but would later come to know the fury of the Bob Jane temper first hand.
The Jane empire had boasted vast real-estate holdings, but between 1983 and 1999, 80 T-Mart properties were sold to fund the raceway. Bob's monument to speed turned into a monumental money-eater. An internal corporation memo estimated that Calder cost $250 million - all funded by the tyre operation - and no number of race events would ever make that up. (Bob says the cost is less, but won't put a figure on it.) "In many respects," says Mentha, "Calder almost became his tombstone."
As the bank hovered in 1999, Bob discovered "the secret wages file", which he said revealed that Coleman, a close friend, and Ryding had been stealing from him. They denied this, but Bob abruptly stood them down. (Accusations of fraud were a well-known tactic of Bob's: a court document seen by Good Weekend lists 28 people against whom the tycoon has made allegations of fraud in his lifetime.) Bob quickly went through two chief executives and, in 2002, turned to Rodney.
But the son had doubts about running the business. "It was a ridiculous scenario," he remembers. "We were almost broke, we had a massive tax problem, a massive bank problem, we had Arthur Andersen in here and I was 30 years old.'' In the end, Rodney says, father and son agreed that if Rodney fixed the business, he would own it. "As I said to my dad at the time, I am not going to allocate my life to turning the business around without certainty as to what the outcome would be for me."
Says Mentha: "Rodney had a led a pretty charmed life. He could drive cars around Dad's racing park and pretty much do whatever he wanted to without having to roll up his sleeves and earn a living." But Mentha says Rodney knuckled down and worked 100-hour weeks. He didn't pretend to know the business, but systematically found out how every bit worked: "He did an outstanding job." Under Rodney's leadership, Bob Jane T-Marts has doubled sales in the last 10 years and regained its place as Australia's biggest-selling tyre retailer.
When the ANZ came in to Bob Jane Corporation, it laid down some ground rules. It insisted on the sale of assets worth $18 million, or ''surplus shit'' as Bob calls it, including a Gold Coast holiday house and the helicopter. ANZ also insisted Bob withdraw no more than $840,000 each year from the business. Suddenly Bob and Laree were on a budget. To the average Australian family, life on $840,000 a year would be a breeze, but that's not how Laree saw it.
Laree's spending - particularly on Paspaley pearls and other luxury goods - continued unabated and stressed an already problematic dynamic between stepmother and stepson. In 2002, Rodney says he stumbled across an invoice for Laree's new car lease, a $315,000 Mercedes-Benz. "Has anyone noticed we are almost going broke?" he recalls saying to an employee. In 2005, when the $840,000-a-year budget was not enough to cover her credit-card bills, she took out a
$1.5 million loan against the family home. "Mrs Jane," a bank employee noted on loan documents at the time, "appears to be a serial shopper."
Rodney Jane, who grew up with his op-shop-loving mum in the country, is reluctant to talk. When he sits down with Good Weekend in Bob Jane Corporation's Melbourne headquarters, the task of articulating the feud seems, briefly, to overwhelm him. He doesn't want to hurt the T-Marts brand, or his father. He loves the person he is fighting.
"I have trouble questioning my dad even now," Rodney says. "It's hard-wired into you. Parents are the most precious thing you've got. So you're torn between having to fight with a monster, but the monster is the person you love." There's certainly no escaping his father: Bob Jane's face peers from every logo on every store and every piece of stationary.
Rodney, married with three young children, says his father's actions - money-losing ventures at Calder and constant legal forays - have cost the company money and damaged the brand. For instance, when Bob pitches to overseas investors for his new business, Bob Jane Global, he uses a slightly modified Bob Jane T-Marts logo and presents doctored pictures of T-Marts stores. Rodney says he can't let this continue, yet he doesn't want to bankrupt his father. Against his lawyer's advice, he never pushes for full costs when he wins or settles a case.
Rodney remembers the exact moment things soured with his father. Since 2002, the tyre business had spent $15 million bailing out Bob's commercial pursuits at Calder. The tyre business paid Bob's bills - a hundred grand here, a couple of million there - but in mid-2010 Rodney said he would pay no more without a cash-flow plan. His father ignored this and presented bills totalling $131,000 for payment. Rodney refused.
After days of argument, Rodney said he was standing firm. Rodney says his father told him: "You know what? F... you. I created you. I will f...ing destroy you." Bob then advised his son to start buying the tabloid Herald Sun newspaper and watching A Current Affair, adding, "I will make you more famous than Laree Jane." Bob denies he threatened to destroy his son, but agrees he said he'd make Rodney more famous than Laree. "And I have done that, frankly. Have I not?"
Indeed he has. Bob, the great yarn spinner, has a canny knack with the media. He knows A Current Affair cannot resist another rich-people-fighting chapter of his family saga. And he knows that media-shy Rodney - cast as the evil son running away with the old man's fortune - comes off second best. In May, Bob, flanked by Laree, made the Herald Sun's front page: "Tycoon was worth $100 million - and now has nothing." The pair have also given several interviews to A Current Affair. In one, Laree tells of her terrifying ordeal when two gun-wielding men tried to carjack her in 2007. (Bob alleges his son was behind it; Rodney denies it.)
Bob Jane is accessible to the media, but bristles quickly if you stray from his script. In my second interview with him, specific questions challenging his version of events were met with a "Mind your own f...ing business''. On a Calder Park business that went bust: "Goddamnit, you are worse than the lawyers, you bitch." Silence. "I'm just joking, all right?"
Bob regularly faxes and emails the 140 Bob Jane T-Marts stores - small businesses owned by franchisees who are concerned by the Jane feud - telling them of Rodney's "fraud of the century". Bob also talks down his son's racing record (he races V8s in cars sponsored by T-Marts). But perhaps the most bizarre move Bob has made is to question his own son's paternity.
In late 2010, after he reconciled with Laree, Bob gave his son an "anonymous" letter suggesting that Rodney was the love child of Geraldine and handsome Italian motorcycle champion Giacomo Agostini. The letter contained pictures of Agostini and Rodney, who says the photo of him was taken from a family portrait only family had access to. He trusts his mother, who denies the affair. Bob says: "I have not disowned him as a son, but only he and his mother know the truth."
On a June morning, Bob Jane sits like a sentry behind the desk in his home office, his estate's black iron gates in his line of sight. He buzzes visitors in with a remote control. Daughter Courtney rings. "Watcha doin', darling?" he tenderly asks. "Thank you, darling, love you. Bye, darling." Bob Jane, at 83, has few qualms about his life. Certainly not Calder Park Raceway: "It was my money to spend. I did it and in no way regret one minute of it."
Bob has no desire for reconciliation. ''I can say to you emphatically there is no going back." Rodney lives in hope - especially as his father ages - but he's not sure his wife, mother or staff will ever forgive Bob. He looks back on all his father's conflicts with others over the years and is not optimistic. ''My dad creates the world that he believes, like his own virtual world." He says his father, on his good side, is a "dear soul". But he's black and white. "I've seen the brutality of him but, until now, never between us."
Arthur Bartlett, Bob Jane's man of God and chaplain at Calder Park Raceway, prays for reconciliation. ''Money's just been the thing that's been so bad in the Jane family. Money, money, money,'' he says. But the chaplain, who is respected by both Rodney and Bob, believes the situation must be dealt with soon. "Something has to happen before Bob goes to eternity. I don't want him to go feeling the way he is."
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