by Nicholas Way*
Barrie Dunstan, devoted husband and father, dedicated Magpies (Collingwood) fan, and highly respected business and finance journalist – by both his peers and the wider business and finance community – died from cancer in Melbourne last Tuesday, January 15, aged 80.
His family, friends, former colleagues, business leaders, and his many readers, will cherish their own memories of Barrie. But it’s certain all who knew him personally will remember one of his defining characteristics: he was a gentleman of the old school.
Barrie mostly worked in a bygone, the pre-Hilmer era (Fred Hilmer, a former management consultant was Fairfax CEO from 1998-2005) when print journalism was often known for its larrikins, long lunches and inflated egos. By contrast, Barrie was unassuming, measured, unfailingly courteous, and generous, especially in the time he willingly gave young, up-and-coming journalists.
There was no better evidence of these qualities than to see Barrie operate at the ASFA and CMSF superannuation conferences. Working for the Australian Financial Review, he was the doyen of the super writers, clearly the most authoritative writer on the issue. Yet his time was available to all, from a young trade journalist to a PR flunkey, as he willingly shared his insights on a fledgling industry that was beginning to play an integral role in reshaping the Australian economy as part of the broader Hawke-Keating economic reforms.
His journalism was not aggressive. He mostly saw his role to elucidate, not denunciate. Blessed with the ability to convey often complex themes in a way easily understood, he took his readers on a journey that revealed to them the world of business and finance with all its intricacies, intrigues, and significance.
Barrie began in the 1950s on the Melbourne Argus, a “bastardised” broadsheet that was part of Melbourne’s rich newspaper tradition for more than a century before closing in 1957. He then moved to the Age before joining the Herald (then part of the Herald Weekly Times group that boasted a newspaper empire that stretched from Port Moresby to Hobart) as business editor in 1968.
In 1987, he moved again, this time to the Australian Financial Review. [“Uncle Rupert” had just acquired the Herald & Weekly Times under Labor’s changed media laws.] With hindsight, it was almost inevitable that Barrie would end up on Australia’s only specialist business newspaper, where he was to remain until retiring from full-time journalism in 2012.
Business reporting changed in the 1980s. It was not just the sharemarket bull run, and the subsequent 1987 crash, that fuelled reader interest. A new breed of entrepreneurs hungry for media attention, such as Christopher Skase, Alan Bond, and Robert Holmes a Court, often took business from the inside pages to the front page, whether it be their corporate manoeuvrings (with large licks of debt) or their social/sporting lives.
New publications, such as BRW and Australian Business, emerged as part of this phenomenon, while the established mainstream media enhanced their business coverage.
For Barrie, it was like manna from heaven. He had a “licence to write” on a finance industry that Labor had unshackled. It was not just superannuation. Like a moth to a flame, a growing funds management industry attracted Barrie’s interest.
But unlike some of his peers, Barrie realised this was a global industry of which Australia was just a small cog. So, where others derided interview opportunities with overseas fund managers (“visiting firemen”), Barrie sorted the wheat from the chaff to deliver the insights of fund managers such as favourites AQR, especially its colourful CIO, Cliff Asness, and value manager Tweedy, Browne. He was one of just a handful of Australian journalists who could get rare interviews with the likes of Vanguard founder Jack Bogle (who died, too, last week), GMO’s Jeremy Grantham and Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio. He appreciated that their considered views had currency for the local market. And AFR readers concurred, with the added bonus being the book that emerged from these interviews – ‘Investment Legends: The Wisdom that leads to Wealth’.
Family (wife Jo, children Maryanne, Stephen, Elizabeth, Dominique and Philippa and four grandchildren), journalism, and the “Pies” largely dominated Barrie’s life. To visit Barrie in recent weeks was to endlessly, and joyously, reminisce about the “good old days”, the rogues, the editors (good and bad), the long lunches, the junkets, and the conferences. It’s a time largely past. Barrie, like many of us, mourned its passing.
Tragically, Collingwood could not deliver its 16th flag in the last Saturday of September last year. Like all Pie supporters he carried the loss of nine grand finals (and one draw) between 1958 and 1990 like a crown of thorns until the emphatic victory over Essendon (only beating Carlton by one point after the siren could have made it sweeter) availed us the opportunity to sing “good old Collingwood forever”. Over and over and over again.
Vale Barrie. You will be sorely missed.
*Nicholas Way is a former Fairfax journalist and current executive director at Shed Connect, a PR and lead generation firm.