How Sandy Oatley brought his luxury island empire back from the brink

Sandy Oatley steps off his family's private plane and on to his family's private island. There's only a handful of people in the country the above sentence could be written about. And it says much about the ever-modest Oatley that's he's probably not happy the sentence has been written at all. The family has never been ones to seek the limelight – it has been several years since Oatley has given anyone a one-on-one interview – but when your family's wealth is ranked in the upper echelons of the AFR's annual Rich 200 list, then it's the limelight that occasionally seeks you.

It's yet another sunny winter day in northern Queensland when the Cessna Citation touches down. Sandy, patriarch of the Oatley family, has arrived at Hamilton Island to tie up some loose ends in the business before heading off to Sardinia, where the Oatleys have for decades owned a villa. He plans to visit his daughter, Nicky Tindall, who has been in Europe, but before that he has agreed to a photo shoot for 51698009 at Cateye Beach, a secluded spot around which the world-famous Qualia Resort is built.

Time passes

Three years have passed since we last met at the exact same beach, and much has happened in the life of the Oatley family in the time since. In January 2016, Sandy's father – the respected Australian businessman, sailor, winemaker and philanthropist Bob Oatley – passed away at the age of 87. A little over a year later, in March 2017, Cyclone Debbie then tore through the family's beloved Hamilton Island. Winds of up to 280km/h wreaked havoc and caused considerable damage. But now, as Oatley casts an eye over the Whitsundays from his chair at Catseye Beach, you would be hard-pressed to realise. Qualia is as pristine as ever.

"You should have seen the place when we arrived," Oatley says. "We were in shock, absolute shock. I have never seen anything like it. The first thing that hit you was the damage to the vegetation, the trees, the palm trees. Then you look past that, and you saw all the buildings with the rooves missing, and people starting to clearing up, but you know it was a very hard to describe, but my heart was very low but I took heart in knowing that there was no one injured, and everyone was safe."

Eye of the storm

Oatley recalls sitting in his Sydney office when he first heard the words "Cyclone Debbie". It was late on a Friday, and Oatley immediately picked up the phone and called Glenn Bourke, CEO of Hamilton Island. "Glenn said 'it's heading right towards us' and he said he would keep us informed. Glenn was actually meant to be in Sydney that weekend, for a meeting here, so I suggested he stay on the island. He did, which was very fortunate, because that was on the Friday that I spoke to him and on the Sunday night the cyclone hit. There was no communication. The phones were out. We have a satellite phone for emergencies and that was out. But we knew we had Glenn on the ground to take charge while we were out of contact."

Dad told me to move to Sydney to start getting used to wearing a shirt and tie rather than just a T-shirt.

Sandy Oatley

He was adamant for Bourke to stay put for a simple reason. There were more than 4000 people on Hamilton Island at the time, including 1200 staff, plus 500 at concessionaire businesses and 2500 guests. "Because the cyclone was coming we couldn't actually evacuate anybody," Sandy says. "Aircraft stopped flying in because they had anticipated the cyclone would hit a bit earlier, so the airlines stopped sending planes. The Harbour Master, who controls all the waterways in the Whitsundays, stopped all the ferries and our barge. Everything ground to a halt, and we had to sit and wait. No one could get off the island or on, so it was very frustrating."

Cyclone Debbie eventually made landfall at Hamilton on the Sunday. Those on the island who endured the next 48 hours described it as "bloody mayhem". With the damage to the island uncertain, and Bourke and his team completely cut off from the mainland, Oatley and his daughter made one of the more pragmatic decisions in the history of Australian disaster control. They went to Bunnings.

"I think we bought 800 rakes, 800 pairs of gumboots and all the gloves we could get," says Sandy. "I think we bought 20 chainsaws, too. The local chainsaw dealer in Dural was very happy with us. We were out of contact with the Island for three days after Debbie hit, so we basically had to guess what they needed."

To that end, the Oatleys also stocked up on toilet paper and bottled water, and loaded it all on the private plane. "It was just me and Nicky and Steve McClintock, our CFO, and all the stuff from Bunnings. We flew is as soon as we could and just got cracking on the clean up."

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Hamilton history

The story of how the Oatley family came to own Hamilton Island is part of Australian business folklore. Keen sailors, Bob first sailed past the stunning beautiful island in the Whitsundays in 1983. Two decades later, Bob and his family dropped by the main office to thank the organisers after another enjoyable Hamilton Island Race Week. "We said to the island management, 'thanks very much, we've had a great year, a great season, a great week of sailing' and they said we mightn't be here next year as they were trying to do a management buyout."

Hamilton Island was on the brink of bankruptcy. That discussion was in August 2003, and by that Christmas, the Oatley family had settled on purchasing the entire island. "We kept the management team on as we had experience with wine and distributing wine and selling wine and making wine, but not one bit of experience in the tourism sector, and now we owned an island."

Bob Oatley paid $200 million for Hamilton Island. That may seem a fortune, until you realise Bob had sold the majority share of Rosemount Estate Wines to Southcorp in 2001 for a reported $1.5 billion. The initial purchase price also pales when compared with the amount the family has invested in Hamilton Island in the 15 years since the purchase, spending an estimated $350 million on "Hamo" in the years since. They have expanded the marina precinct, added a breathtaking yacht club, and built the jewel in the island's crown, Qualia, which alone cost in excess of $100 million.

Gold standard event

Race Week has since become one of the most coveted invites on the nation's annual social calendar. A record 252 yachts entered Race Week in 2016 and Hamilton Island was booming – then Debbie hit. "The estimate of the damage was well in excess of $100 million," says Oatley. "We had half of that covered by the insurance companies, and they were very good to deal with, but we have still paid at least $50 million. It has been a big journey. As soon as everyone sort of took stock of themselves after the cyclone hit, I spoke to Glenn Bourke. He said to me, 'what are we going to do boss?', and I said, 'Glenn we are just going to fix it, so let's work out how we fix it'.

And fix it they did. Debbie hit in March. Race Week was scheduled for August. For Hamilton Island's staff, it didn't matter if they had previously worked as a chef, a general manager or a life guard; they were now all gardeners. "Everyone got in, pitched in, and started cleaning."

In less than six months the island was operational again. To put that in perspective, neighbouring Daydream Island is yet to reopen.

A family affair

Hard work has always been a trademark of the Oatley family. As part of the family regime, Oatley started out planting vines at the Rosemount Estate vineyard in 1969. Daughter Nicky, who now plays a central role in the family business, started working in a call centre selling holidays while nephew, Robbie – another earmarked for a greater role in the family empire – started out in the accounts department. "It is very important, they have to understand how the business works," he says Sandy. "One of the things my father always said, you can't ask someone to do something if you don't know yourself what they have to do ... so we all start out at the very bottom."

More than two years have gone by since Bob passed away, and it's evident that his wisdom is at the heart of the family empire. "We were very close," says Oatley. "I used to live up at the vineyard and in the year 2000 Dad told me to move to Sydney to start getting used to wearing a shirt and tie rather than just a T-shirt, working in the vineyard. So I moved down here with the family and I had been with Dad for his last 16 years, doing just everything together."

That 16 years of working side by side meant the change in leadership of the family business was seamless. "With the passing of Dad, the main concern was to give stability back to the business, to let everyone know that business was as usual, as normal as it could be without him being there and that is what we attempted to do, and I think we have succeeded that quite well in that transition."

And the plans for Race Week? Business as usual, as always, for the Oatleys. The devastation of Debbie just a bad memory.

Hamilton Island Race Week runs from August 18-25.