JOHN CALDON: 1947-2021
John Robert Caldon, investment banker and entrepreneur, rose from humble beginnings in Yorkshire to revolutionise investment banking in Australia. But that was only one huge impact he had on his adopted land.
Born on February 24, 1947, the youngest of two sons to a nurse and ex-navy small businessman, Grace and Harry Caldon, in the small village of Drighlington in Yorkshire, he stood out from a young age. He won academic competitions and a scholarship to study at the Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, an independent private school for boys in Wakefield, 19 kilometres from home. He won another scholarship to study classics (Greek and Latin) at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, 1965-68, and gained an MA with highest honours.
Protest, flower power, the 1960s era of student revolt, was not of much appeal. He could not afford the indulgence. He wanted to get on with life. On graduation, good with numbers, he joined an accounting practice and married childhood sweetheart Pauline nee Shaffrey, a nurse, in Ireland in 1969.
In 1973, the Caldons sailed to Australia. It was a long trip on the boat, and John did his homework, reading the entire Australian tax code on his way over. In 1973, he joined Price Waterhouse, and in 1977 became the youngest tax partner, setting up in the Parramatta office. Pauline continued working as a nurse and they had two children; she later went to university, completed an arts degree at Macquarie University and worked as a librarian. The Caldons separated then divorced in the late 1990s.
Right from the start, Caldon’s special brand of charm, commercial nous and on-his-feet lateral thinking established him as the pre-eminent tax advisor to some of the largest companies in Sydney. Hill Samuel, soon to become Macquarie Bank, became one of Caldon’s major clients. As they paid the accounting firm so much money annually in fees, it made more sense to hire him as a senior director.
Recruited by Robin Crawford, and backed by chief executive officer Tony Berg, Caldon joined the Macquarie team just before the bank’s formation in 1984 and founded the bank’s “project and structured finance” division. He hired Nicholas Moore, a future chief executive, and spawned Macquarie’s fabled infrastructure funds management empire.
He inspired a generation of Macquarie executives to think big and think globally. Here, he had his greatest impact.
In 1996, promoted to joint deputy managing director, assumed to be next in line to the redoubtable Allan Moss, he decided on a different course. Turning 50 prompted Caldon to think about life after Macquarie and he resigned in 1998 to pursue other business interests.
Still, he derived great joy from Macquarie’s continuing success on the global stage and avidly followed the successful careers of his former understudies, including the former chief executive Nicholas Moore and current chief executive Shemara Wikramanayake.
Appointed in 2009 by the Commonwealth as chair of the Australian Rail Track Corporation, he quickly set to work on establishing a national freight network, curing inefficiencies in port links (most notably in the Hunter) and organised new investment in the network.
Between 2007 and 2009, he chaired Haddington Resources Limited, a diversified base metals exploration and development company and helped it to become one of only three tantalite producers in Australia.
Caldon tried his hand at many businesses, most recently Flame Media, which media celebrity Lyndey Milan, his devoted partner for the past 16 years, founded with him a decade ago. They quickly established Flame as a producer and exporter of leading Australian documentaries and programs that might otherwise not have reached an international audience.
He hated bureaucracy and stultified thinking. In late January, in one of his last emails to friends, he lamented the many failings of private enterprise but added: “how much worse are government businesses — protected; bureaucratic, totally defensive in approach etc. — a mistake has to be avoided at all cost; totally hung up on trivia like four gold watches.”
In 2014, with Bob Carr, he co-founded the Didius Julianus Society meeting to discuss the classical world from about 637BC (birth of Solon) to 637AD (fall of Jerusalem) over an excellent menu. Caldon led many of the learned discussions with great verve given his vast, near encyclopaedic knowledge of ancient Roman and Greek history.
A life-long atheist, he loved discussing religion and philosophy and empathising with another person’s viewpoint.
His formidable achievements notwithstanding, his legion of friends remember him most for his insatiable curiosity, abundant generosity of spirit, eagerness to mentor others, readiness to assist colleagues in need and an infectious love of life.
Last April, John was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Milan and he travelled a journey of every treatment imaginable. He fought for life to exhaustion, but without complaint. It all took a turn for the worse a couple of weeks ago when he suffered a stroke, and he died a week short of 74, on February 16.
He is survived by loving partner Lyndey, son Patrick and daughter Liz, who all were with him at the end), their partners, his brother James, his former wife Pauline, and four grandchildren.
Adam Geha is chief executive and co-founder of EG. He worked closely with John Caldon for six years (1997-2002).
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