Charles Viertel is a true-blue, rags-to-riches success story. Born in Brisbane in 1902, the eighth of eleven children, he would not own his first pair of shoes until he was 15, and only pulled on his first pair of long trousers when he qualified to play A-grade cricket at the Gabba in 1918.
Yet it was never material wealth that Charles craved as a result of the disadvantage he experienced in his youth, but respect: “I wanted to make sure nobody stepped on me again.”
He set about this goal with equal measures of determination and efficiency. After finishing his education and gaining experience in the public service, he was, by 1929 – still a few years shy of his 30th birthday – the head of an accounting firm’s cost accounting department. Five years later he went into business as a self-employed cost accountant.
Even more impressive though was what Viertel had achieved on the side: starting in the early 1920s he had built up a major real estate portfolio. He combined the rental income from this with his extensive experience as a cost accountant to make shrewd investments, building wealth over the decades until, by 1980, he was reported to hold probably the largest personal investment portfolio in Australia. In 1991 the Business Review Weekly ranked him as Queensland’s fourth-richest person, and his net wealth when he died the following year was estimated at nearly $100 million.
Not that the average person would have ever picked it. Viertel never flaunted his money – indeed, his wife Sylvia Amy Buchanan, whom he married in 1940, seemed to be “unaware of the extent of the wealth Charles had amassed”. He didn’t gamble, didn’t borrow to buy more shares, didn’t smoke or drink – a lifestyle so modest and free of vices usually associated with a man of such means that he came to be regarded as a bit of an eccentric.
Viertel’s obituary in the Canberra Times summed up the investor’s public persona when it described him as “a respected, if eccentric, player of the stock market”. He happily played to this reputation by dressing overtly casually; it was said that he was more comfortable in a hand-knitted beanie, cardigan, shorts and slippers than being dressed in a suit and tie. And though Viertel may have died a multi-millionaire, he never forgot his “dirt-poor” roots. A quiet donor to charities throughout his life, upon his death he bequeathed more than $60 million to the Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation, established by his Will to benefit medical research and provide services to the aged through a program of annual grants. In addition, Viertel’s Will specifically referenced three Queensland organisations close to his heart: the Cancer Council Queensland, the Salvation Army (Queensland) and the Queensland Eye Institute Foundation.
Today, The Sylvia and Charles Viertel Charitable Foundation is one of the largest charitable foundations in Australia, worth more than $165 million thanks to careful management by its trustees (Equity Trustees along with current Trustees Justice Debra Mullins, Rex Freudenberg and Paul de Silva, as well as its past trustees, particularly Mr George Curphey OAM who was a trustee from inception until 2018). Its flagship program is its medical awards program that funds Senior Medical Research Fellowships and Clinical Investigator awards, which financially support post-doctoral scientists to pursue their own promising research projects. To date well over 100 researchers have benefited from Viertel’s generosity – you can read about the latest Fellows in our 2018 media release.
One recipient of the Foundation’s funding was Melbourne-based blood researcher Professor Benjamin Kile. After providing a molecular explanation for why platelets – the tiny blood cells responsible for blood clotting – have a very short lifespan, Professor Kile was awarded the Viertel Fellowship and said his lab has gone from strength to strength since the Fellowship backed his work. “It provided a lot of motivation in the sense that you suddenly think ‘wow, these people have recognised something in me and put their faith in me’,” he said. “The Viertel Foundation was the making of me.”
Professor Leedman, chair of the Foundation’s Medical Advisory Board, says “If you look back over the years, the Viertel Foundation has developed a very good track record of supporting people who go onto be spectacular scientists. Charles Viertel would be very proud of the achievements and the legacy of his Will. He had a pretty amazing vision and we believe that we are bringing that to fruition.”
From “dirt-poor” beginnings to amassing a fortune, Viertel is not only an inspiring story of a truly humble and self-made man, but a story of living on and helping others achieve great things through a philanthropic legacy.