Heloise Waislitz was only 13 years old when her parents, Richard and Jeanne Pratt, took her to South Africa on a family holiday that changed her life forever.
“I was completely traumatised. It was pretty horrendous for me. I was in absolute shock. I saw people with looks in their eyes that they were different. Black people were different,” she says.
While she never saw violence, the simple sight of segregated black and white toilets was truly confronting.
“I thought ‘How can you separate people by the colour of their skin?’ And that’s why I got involved in philanthropy,” she tells The Australian in the first wide-ranging media interview.
In 1995 Richard Pratt made Heloise, his eldest daughter, the chairman of the Pratt Foundation. He implored her to give and give, declaring he had never heard of an unworthy charity.
Yet today, two decades later, when people hear the name Heloise Waislitz, many think simply of a chardonnay-set, billionaire heiress. The 52-year-old’s net worth on this year’s Forbes Asia rich list was listed at almost $US2 billion ($2.6bn).
Or they recall her as the wife of another billionaire, Thorney Investments boss and star small-caps stock picker Alex Waislitz. They think of the legendary and lavish parties at the couple’s Toorak mansion, the glamorous photos in the social pages of newspapers or the couple’s passionate support for the Collingwood Football Club.
Or they simply gossip. A newspaper report last year speculated that Heloise and Alex had split.
Waislitz confirms this as true when she is asked about their three children and the potential future burden of the family’s wealth upon their young shoulders.
“You know Alex and I separated,” she says, without flinching. Although the couple still both live with their children in the family home. And she won’t say a bad word against her husband.
“Alex is a brilliant father. He has very strong values and knowledge that he imparts to our children. If you met our children you would find they are very academic and well grounded.”
Few know Waislitz as one of the nation’s leading philanthropists, for which she is today being awarded a Member of the Order of Australia.
The Pratt Foundation, which started out as a one-drawer operation in suburban Melbourne in 1978, has now grown to be worth more than $1bn and is one of the nation’s largest philanthropic enterprises.
Run by distinguished journalist Sam Lipski for the past 17 years, it donates to causes in Australia, the US and Israel, giving away $15 million-$17m a year. It has arguably set the benchmark for philanthropic giving in Australia.
Waislitz wants to expand it further in the coming years, doing more with female prisoners and the Australian Football League.
Her own brother, Anthony Pratt, suggests his sister doesn’t get the credit she deserves.
“She has led the Pratt Foundation brilliantly with great heart, brains and modestly, never seeking credit for her work,” he says.
But Waislitz makes no apologies for remaining silent all these years about her real job.
Dressed in a striking all-black outfit and immaculately made up for our interview that she says will be her first and last, she is clearly nervous. For which she profusely apologises.
She has agreed to talk in the place she feels most comfortable, in the homely surroundings of her Toorak mansion. Its lavish front dining room gazes out on to a windswept tennis court. Two of her children’s striking photos gaze down from the mantlepiece as the family dog occasionally yaps away in the yard outside. Yet as we commence our discussion, her hands disconcertingly shake.
For a period she reads from pages of neatly ordered prepared notes about her philanthropic work. Finally she drops them to the ground.
“I am shy. I don’t really recognise the work that I have done,” she says sitting back in her chair.
“Even in getting this award (the AM) I feel very humbled.”
I ask why has she eschewed talking about her great passion for so long?
For a moment she rhetorically asks herself the same question, before a pause. Her eventual answer is telling. “Because we have had a family history that has been very confronting for me,” she says, bluntly, looking you straight in the eye. “So I have been a bit scared of publicity.”
She is referring to the scandal that plagued her father in his final years, when Richard Pratt and two senior Visy executives confessed to illegally fixing the price of cardboard boxes with Amcor.
He later faced criminal charges flowing from Visy’s settlement of the civil case. They were withdrawn just before his death. But the headlines continued after his passing. One famously read: “Bribery, corruption, illicit-sex: The other world of Richard Pratt.”
Waislitz acknowledges the legacy of her father has been tarnished. She knows the worst critics simply see him as nothing more than a criminal. And she knows there is an especially bittersweet edge to her acceptance of an MA.
Richard Pratt was given the highest honour, a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC), for his services to industry, sport and the arts. But he handed back the award after being named in the cardboard price-fixing scandal.
Waislitz is reluctant to comment on the matter. But she does say that her father was “very concerned not to involve the honours system in the controversy”.
“And so he took the decision to hand back his AC. He was deeply distressed about it, but all during that time and all the time afterwards he never stopped encouraging me to continue to give generously and put back into the community. To keep going forward.”
So did she ever talk to him about his decision to hand back the AC or the court cases?
“I had to remove myself because I was too emotionally involved. It was very difficult for me. He was a very good man, Dad. I could see his bad points and his good points,” she says.
Indeed ask Waislitz what was the most important thing her father taught her, and her answer is instant.
“To be honest. Be honest,” she says proudly. “My father, as I was growing up and as much as I knew him, was the most honest man.”
While her brother has never publicly discussed the price-fixing scandal or the impact upon his father, his sister happily admits she was never angry about the events that rocked her world.
“Because I think, in life, life is grey. It is not black and white,” she says softly. “One lives their life to the best of their ability. I think you always have to take a helicopter view of things. I am able to see outside myself.”
The only no-go area, it seems, is when you ask about the impact of the scandal and its aftermath upon her mother. “That is for her to answer,” she says, politely but pointedly.
But bring the discussion back to the topic of Jeanne Pratt and philanthropy, and Waislitz is on much safer ground. “My mother is like a saint in her heart. She is so caring. A lot of my thoughts and inspirations come from Mum. She would give her shirt off her back for a person,” she says.
Some who know the Pratt family well claim Waislitz is the most like her father out of her two siblings, Anthony and her younger sister Fiona. Even if Waislitz herself says most people believe the apple has fallen closest to the tree in her sister.
As one family observer puts it: “Richard was a complex guy. But Heloise got his big heart and generosity.”
Certainly Heloise and her father had the greatest personal battle of all in common. After initially believing he had beat prostate cancer, Richard Pratt eventually succumbed to the disease in 2009.
But almost a decade earlier, only months after celebrating the dawn of the new millennium, his daughter fought and survived a battle with the disease that has brought a very personal edge to her philanthropic passions.
Seven months pregnant with her second child, the then 37-year-old Waislitz was diagnosed with throat cancer. The tumour at the back of her nasal passage was picked up by Dr Jack Kennedy, these days the vice-president of the Collingwood Football Club, after Waislitz woke up one morning swallowing blood. “I do know what it is like to ask, ‘Have I got cancer?’ ‘Fuck, what is going to happen to me?’ ‘What is going to happen to my family? I’m about to have a new born baby. Freaking out,” she says, recalling the moment Kennedy dropped the dreaded ‘C’ word.
“I turned around, put my back to him and asked ‘Am I going to die?’
“He said ‘No.’ And I immediately thought ‘I'm fine.’ I knew I would get on with it”.
But it wasn’t so simple. Within weeks of the birth of her only daughter Millie, Waislitz had surgery and began aggressive radiotherapy. It went for two months.
“My treatment was horrendous, they burnt the shit out of my nose and throat. It was the most agonising experience,” she says.
But she has lived to tell the tale. The Pratt Foundation subsequently bankrolled the establishment of a broader support service for cancer patients at Melbourne’s Peter MacCallum Cancer Institute. “Every time I get a cancer check-up it is horrific — wondering if it has come back. But I have been cured for 15 years. After five years it is pretty safe,” she says.
Her father was not so lucky. His daughter still misses him. Even if some who know the family well say that while she always craved her father’s affection, it wasn’t always forthcoming when she most needed it in her life of ups and downs.
She muses out loud for a moment whether their cancer battles were coincidental. Or something else. “Dad was larger than life. Probably no one was closer to him than me. I was terribly close to him,” she says slowly, her eyes looking momentarily to the sky in the distance.
Interestingly she says her father rarely talked to her directly about philanthropy.
“He would show me. It is not what you teach your kids. It is about your actions. Dad said to me before he died that even if you weren’t my daughter, I would give you this job (as chairman of the Pratt Foundation),” she says with a broad smile.
Sam Lipski remembers Pratt senior using the saying regularly in his final years.
“He was right, of course, because she’s a natural philanthropist who brings both head and heart to her giving. This has been especially true of her leadership on innovative philanthropic support for mental health projects, where she was years ahead of governments,” he says.
Waislitz describes the mother of Rupert Murdoch, the late Dame Elizabeth Murdoch — a great philanthropist herself — as one of her key mentors.
When Waislitz’s first son Jacob was born, Dame Elizabeth appeared at the door of Waislitz’s hospital room with a bunch of fresh flowers from her home at Cruden Farm. “She was a saint. She was a great inspiration to me,” Waislitz says.
As was Microsoft founder and arguably the world’s most famous philanthropist Bill Gates, who Waislitz has met twice, including at a private dinner in Sydney organised by ANZ and Coca Cola Amatil chairman David Gonski and attended by News Corporation (publisher of The Australian) chairman Lachlan Murdoch.
But two of her greatest inspirations are her siblings. She and Anthony, she says, are “like Karen and Richard Carpenter” from the 70s hit band, The Carpenters.
“He is a brilliant brother and I am very proud of him. Beyond words. What he has done, to reinvent himself. People look at people like James Packer and Anthony Pratt and say ‘Silver spoon, he had it all to start with’. But it is much harder to start with that,” she says.
Waislitz calls Fiona Geminder (or “Fi” as she is affectionately known) a “quiet achiever”. Geminder has four children and yet, like her father, is regularly walking the floors of Visy’s factories. She is also a trained lawyer. She and her husband, Raphael Geminder, own the listed Pact Group.
“Out of the three kids, I am the most hedonistic,” Waislitz says with a wide smile. “But I just like to give. It puts a smile on my heart.”
Some call her eccentric. Critics use far more derogatory terms. But she will always have a big heart. And is clearly no fool. Heloise Waislitz knows her place in the Pratt family.
“She cares. She really cares. A lot of work goes into running the philanthropy like a business. She genuinely does want to improve the world,” says a close family friend.
“The Pratt Foundation has been a leader in having a plan for giving and measuring its outcomes. Sam and Heloise have been the leaders in that sort of thought.”
Waislitz also has a seat on the board of the Pratt family’s Visy paper, packaging and recycling group. Richard Pratt’s three adult children each own a third of Visy, but under a succession plan agreed in 2002, chairman Anthony Pratt has the power to make the ultimate decisions.
Jeanne Pratt is co-chairman of Visy with her son and sits in on all the family board meetings.
“When I sit at those board meetings, I talk to the people that run the factory floor. Is it safe, how can we help the employees? That is what I care about. I care about our workers. I am not involved in the strategic architecture,” Waislitz says. But she does back her brother’s regularly recited mantra, reflecting the views of his mother and her late husband, that Visy will always remain private.
One close observer of the family notes that Waislitz is “smart enough to know she doesn’t want to run the business and get in Anthony’s way”.
“She has been able to carve out a good niche for herself without treading on people’s toes,” they say. She and her husband also own Thorney Investment Group, which has a cash, shares and property portfolio worth more than $1bn and now a listed subsidiary Thorney Opportunities.
“I do not get involved with Thorney much. Alex does a good job at that,” Waislitz says with a smile. “But I know everything that is going on.”
Whatever the future holds, both Alex and Heloise Waislitz are keen to protect and nurture their most important assets — their three children, Jacob, Millie and Joseph.
Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg once remarked that “the best financial planning ends with bouncing the cheque to the undertaker”.
Graham Tuckwell and Neil Balnaves, two other great philanthropists of the nation, believe that the worst thing a well-endowed parent can do is fill their child’s bank account. But Heloise Waislitz will hear nothing of it.
“Each person has the right to do what they want to do in life. I do not think it is my role or my responsibility to give their money away,” she says of her children.
“I simply don’t believe in it. I would want them to have a career, to have their money, and by seeing what I do — hopefully — want to give back.”
Where the feet of some billionaires’ children have left the ground and never returned, Heloise and Alex Waislitz plan to ensure that theirs remain well and truly planted on the earth. Or as best they can be in what many call the weird and wonderful world of the Pratts.
“When they were younger my kids would come home and say ‘Gee that person has a really small house’,” Waislitz says. “And I would turn around and say, quick as a flash: ‘It is not the size of the house that matters, it is what is inside the house’.”