Tuesday, 11 March 2008
Mr Rudie Sypkes
I have been in lifts on many occasions, but I think it may well have been before I was a senator. I rise tonight to pay tribute to the life of an outstanding Tasmanian whose legacy will be long felt, not just in Tasmania but across Australia and even internationally. Rudie Sypkes, best known as one of the most successful Tasmanian businessmen in the past 50 years and an excellent example of the success of Australia’s postwar migration, passed away in Hobart on Friday, 8 February 2008 after losing a two-year battle with the rare lung disease idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Born in May 1950 in Wildervank, Holland, Roelf Sypkes—or Rudie, as he was always known—migrated the following year with his family to Tasmania. His family went on to capitalise on the move towards supersized grocery markets in the 1950s, starting with one store in Sandy Bay and building a chain of 13 supermarkets across southern Tasmania under the ‘Purity’ name. Interestingly, another Dutch migrant to Tasmania, Roelf Vos, who built a similar chain of supermarkets across northern Tasmania under the ‘Roelf Vos’ name, arrived with his family on the same plane as the Sypkes family.
Rudie joined Purity Supermarkets in 1967 and worked his way up the business, experiencing all level and manner of tasks on the way, until he was appointed CEO following the sale of Purity to Woolworths in 1981. A year later, Woolworths also acquired Roelf Vos supermarkets, giving them 32 per cent of the Tasmanian market at that time. Rudie left Woolworths in 1982 and became actively involved in Finance Brokers of Tasmania. He undertook a number of commercial and residential developments in Tasmania and was involved in flower farming in Victoria and Tasmania and, along with his father, Engel, in cattle farming and mango production in the Northern Territory. The Northern Territory concern eventually became the largest mango producer in Australia. In 1983, Rudie established the successful investment advisory business Rudie Sypkes and Associates, at a time when this industry sector was just emerging. He developed it into a major Tasmanian player in that market before selling it in 1989. It became Garrisons Financial Services, which is now part of Challenger International Ltd.
Looking for new challenges and always with a keen sense of what the next big thing would be, Rudie, with his brother, Peter, established Chickenfeed Bargain Stores in 1990. Despite his many major achievements in his then 40 years of life, it is as the proprietor of Chickenfeed that he would become best known in Tasmania. Rudie and his brother developed Chickenfeed into a 25-store chain over a 10-year period before selling it to Millers Retail Ltd in 2001. At the time of the sale, the company had around 520 employees. Later that year, Rudie opened the Hobart Corporate Centre as premium serviced offices in Hobart. In the same year, he became involved in large-scale land development in Bundaberg and Brisbane. He then continued those business interests and supplemented them by investments elsewhere, including in oil exploration and development in Texas. In 2002, Rudie was appointed the Honorary Consul for the Czech Republic. In recognition primarily of his business activities, Rudie was awarded the Tasmanian Service Medal in 2002 and the 2007 Gold Medal Award by the Australian Institute of Company Directors, Tasmanian Division.
I first met Rudie when I was about five years old, through my first cousin, then Beth Bushby and now Beth Sypkes. The first wedding I ever attended, at around six or seven years old, was that of Rudie to Beth. To me he was always Beth’s husband, the one with the funny name—‘Rudie’ has a certain ring to a small child—who was also a funny man, who I naturally knew as a child I could trust and who I genuinely liked.
As the stature of my cousin’s husband, Rudie, grew in the Tasmanian business and wider community, it all seemed a little surreal to me as a young Tasmanian yet somehow understandable, as I could see why people would like him and that he would always get things done. Rudie also seemed to be someone who always had good fortune with him. He is the only man I know of to have survived two small plane crashes. I guess many in the community also saw him as lucky, picking the right industry to kick off a business in at the right time and selling out at the right time. But what I know is that he was a man who created his own luck through hard work, belief in people and vision.
Rudie was an outstanding man in so many ways. Clearly, he was a man of immense business talent and acumen. His ability to understand markets, particularly emerging ones, and to deliver what people were just then looking for was a key to his success. But, as the outpouring of tributes for Rudie demonstrated, there was a lot more to Rudie than his Midas touch. In fact, it can probably be said that his passion for life, his love for people, his extroverted nature, the rock that was his love for his God, his strong belief in hard work and above all his love for his family were as much reasons for his business success as was his nose for business. Those traits also fuelled a lot of other activity. As his good friend Hank Petrusma has noted, we will probably never know the extent of his philanthropic activities because he was not the sort of man who sought publicity and certainly not for good deeds he had done—yet do them he did.
The disease that took him was a terminal one without cure. The only hope he had was for a full lung transplant. In the face of this reality, Rudie did go public with his philanthropy, publicly providing $600,000 for the conduct of respiratory medicine research in Tasmania and using the announcement to highlight the need for people to register as organ donors. He did this not to earn public accolades or even to promote cures or changes in transplant rates that would help him. He knew it was too late for him. Rather, he publicly called for people to register as organ donors so that others might be saved. It also cannot be said that his diagnosis with a terminal illness suddenly promoted a new tendency to philanthropy. Assisting those in need had been a way of life for him and Beth. They had always quietly gone about their business of supporting community, church and other organisations and individuals. Rudie took his social responsibility as a man who had done well in life very seriously.
An example is his little known work in North Korea. Rudie would make money available to trust banks which would then give low-interest loans to help people in North Korea become self-sufficient. Loans were made for 26 weeks with weekly advice given to borrowers, the aim being to make people self-sufficient within three years. He had a 98 per cent success rate in loan repayments and 90 per cent of the borrowers were women. He was also involved in a joint venture with the North Korean government designed to train people to operate in the market place. As a true believer in free enterprise and the benefits for all people of a free market system, I have no doubt that Rudie saw this as a way to help people not just individually but on a greater level. By encouraging a whole lot of new North Korean entrepreneurs, I imagine he foresaw a lifting of the socialist yoke that imposes so much unnecessary hardship on North Koreans.
At his funeral, his son Andrew played a video recorded in the past six months. In it Rudie spoke of his obligation to help others, saying that it was something between him and God that did not require recognition. Rudie’s faith was also central to who he was. His daughter, Sharon, also at his funeral, read from an email written by Rudie last July in which he said:
I can feel disappointed and angry at the disease, but not at God.
She said that even on the day he died he had notes in his diary reminding him to call a family member who had lost a loved one and to pray for a friend who was gravely ill. It was typical of Rudie to think of others even at a time when he knew the disease he was battling was winning.
He was also a man of conviction. In 2000, Rudie engaged a building firm to undertake extensions to his Cambridge warehouse. As part of the building program, he had selected Parmic Pty Ltd to fit a new fire sprinkler system. However, the builder informed Rudie that it had an agreement with the unions not to let any subcontractor on the site that did not have a union sponsored EBA, and Parmic did not have one. Rudie insisted that Parmic be allowed to install the fire sprinklers, took on both the builder and the Communications Electrical Plumbing Union—then led by failed Franklin Labor candidate Kevin Harkins—and won. This was despite threats from union members to Parmic staff that they would return with baseball bats. Rudie later testified to the Royal Commission into the Building and Construction Industry. Rudie was also prepared to back his beliefs in the political arena and was a strong supporter of the Liberal Party.
One of Rudie’s greatest successes was as a family man. The tributes by his three children—Andrew, Sharon and Luke—at his funeral demonstrated clearly what a loving and caring father he had been. I know personally from my own observations that he had been a wonderful husband to Beth throughout their married life. In recognition of their love for him, Rudie’s family have, since his passing, pledged to continue his philanthropic legacy, focusing on promoting organ donation. As noted by his son Luke:
He was a vocal campaigner on the issue of organ donorship and we thought if there was one thing he would like us to contribute to it would be raising awareness for organ donation.
I acknowledge the life of a great Australian, an Australian who will be missed by his family and his community but whose legacy will be long remembered. I am proud to have known him.