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Sydney (Syd) Fischer (1927–2023)

by David Salter

When asked about his reputation for toughness in business and sport, Syd Fischer replied, “Well, if I meet an arsehole I can be an arsehole, too. It’s as simple as that.” That typically blunt response might serve as the motto for his long and vigorous life.

Fischer, who has died just short of his 96th birthday, reserved little room for sentiment, and expected none in return. His character was expressed as a carapace. For him, the world was essentially a hostile place – a battleground on which the hardest men would survive and prosper by dint of their unflinching self-reliance. Only close family were spared that standpoint.

This forthright, stubborn man who became one of the most successful builder/developers and yachtsmen in Australia was born in 1927. He grew up as an only child in a modest double-fronted Federation cottage in West Marrickville.

His father Harry was a plumber who was often out of work during the Depression years. Fischer’s mother, Sally, died of pneumonia when Syd was just 11. He took a fundamental lesson from that battling childhood, saying “The one thing it instilled in my bloody mind was: I don’t want to be poor.”

Bright enough to qualify for the local selective high school, Fischer’s interests lay more with sport and he left at 14 to begin his apprenticeship as a carpenter. When not labouring on building sites or attending his trade courses Fischer was swimming, boxing, playing football, tennis and crewing in surf lifesaving boats on the northern beaches.

Physical fitness was close to an obsession for Fischer. He took enormous pride in his strength and stamina. His judgment of other men was often based on whether he thought they had kept themselves in “good shape”. He was still attending regular gym sessions into his 90s.

Never happy working for others, Fischer soon went into business for himself glassing in verandahs to make extra bedrooms for returning servicemen and their families. Before long he was borrowing money from a bank to build houses ″⁣on spec″⁣, the traditional first stage of a property developer’s career.

But in his late 20s came a moment of dramatic revelation. A woman who’d known the family came to the door of his home late one night, yelling “You’re not a real son, you’re adopted!” Fischer’s father then had to reveal the truth of Syd’s background. His original, “real” name was Sydney Hall. His birth mother, whose family had emigrated from Glasgow, handed him over for adoption when he was six weeks old. The identity of his biological father is still unknown.

In the 1950s there was still a strong social stigma attached to adoption. To have been an adopted child marked you as an outsider, and Fischer kept that fact largely to himself. But there seems little doubt it helped forge the combative, achievement-driven aspects that dominated his personality.

His acumen and daring as a young builder/developer soon yielded his first million. With a sharp eye for acquiring undervalued property he rode the home unit boom of the 1960s and ’70s amassing the capital reserves that would help make his Australian Development Corporation into a highly profitable private company.

Meanwhile, Fischer married Valda Reynolds, a hairdresser he’d first met at a surf club dance when she was just 17. They had a son and three daughters but the marriage ended abruptly during a time when some of their children were still at high school.

In what must have been a profound blow to Fischer’s ego, Valda had left him for another man. A contested divorce judgment then divided custody between the parents. Mother and father were each made responsible for two of the children, but they all had to be together on weekends.

Forty years later Fischer blamed the failure of that marriage on deficiencies in his own upbringing, citing the early loss of his mother. “I grew up with the old man. I didn’t have a clue what women were like – not a clue in the bloody world – and I found out the hard way.” He had a number of relationships in the following years, including with champion sprinter Betty Cuthbert, but none of them lasted.

Fischer’s energies were now fully directed to business and his newfound passion for sailing. He is Australia’s most decorated offshore yachtsman, yet came late to the sport, aged 33. It was the last competitive pastime he took up after retiring as a champion surfboat sweep.

Most sailors learn the ropes as children in small skiffs. Typically, Fischer went straight out and bought himself a substantial yacht. A few years later, he skippered his own offshore boat, Malohi, in the 1962 Sydney-Hobart race. The first of his eight famous Ragamuffin ocean racers followed in 1968.

Fischer’s offshore yachting achievements are unparalleled. He was Australian Yachtsman of the Year twice and Offshore Racer of the Year four times. He competed in 47 Sydney-Hobart races, his last aged 89, winning line honours twice and the overall handicap prize in 1992.

Fischer represented Australia eight times at the Admiral’s Cup international offshore racing competition, seven times as captain of the national team, leading them to victory in 1979. His win in the stormy 1971 Fastnet Race has been matched by no other Australian, and he won the World One Ton Championship in the same year.

Fischer’s five self-funded America’s Cup campaigns (a record he shares with Sir Thomas Lipton) were less successful. He never earned the right to either challenge for, or defend, the Cup. While he encouraged young sailing talent, including Iain Murray and James Spithill, and backed Australian designers, each of those America’s Cup campaigns eventually struggled because of his unwillingness to spend the extra thousands of dollars that an international contest at that level demands.

Indeed, there is no escaping Fischer’s reputation for hard bargaining and slow paying. Both in sport and business he was a notorious penny-pincher, often challenging the acceptable boundaries of sharp practice. To his rivals he was “Syd Vicious”. Litigation was his second hobby after sailing and he tended to enlist the law as a blunt instrument in his unceasing pursuit of commercial advantage and profit.

An instinctively canny, calculating person he was also wary that even low levels of self-exposure might give potential rivals an advantage. “When I’m forced to do something I’ll be a loner until I can get a good handle on it,” he said. “It’s keeping your powder dry. Anyone who doesn’t wants their bloody head read. I think if you open up and give people a target you’re asking for trouble.”

If there is a physical monument to Fischer’s decades as a property developer it is the 18-storey Gazebo building that still stands as the dominant visual feature of King’s Cross in Sydney. Built and operated by ADC in the late 1960s as a 200-room hotel it was later converted by Fischer’s company to apartments. But his initial design concept of a circular concrete and steel exoskeleton survives as evidence of his faith in his own ability as a builder – and willingness to take risks.

Fischer was ambitious, forceful, demanding, impatient, impetuous, suspicious, aggressive, disrespectful of authority, secretive, and sometimes a bully. But he was also privately generous, good company and a loving father to his children and grandchildren in a family that had been split by divorce.

In the foreword to Fischer’s biography, Ragamuffin Man, his long-time sailing associate Sir James Hardy wrote that it was a misjudgment to dismiss him as little more than a harsh ruffian. “There’s much more to the man than that. When the dust settles, Syd has always respected the ideals of sportsmanship. He’s an old-fashioned, four-square Australian and you can’t help but like him for that.”

Fischer was awarded the OBE in 1971. He is survived by his daughters Penny, Annabel and Dominique and son Clayton.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

David Salter, 'Fischer, Sydney (Syd) (1927–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/fischer-sydney-syd-33263/text41506, accessed 27 February 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

4 March, 1927
New South Wales, Australia

Death

23 February, 2023 (aged 95)
Australia

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