It is hard to fathom the mind of a bankrupt, or to share his inner torment. Sean Buckley can still recall the sleepless nights bathed in a cold sweat. These nights were the worst. Even success cannot fully expunge the sense of failure he endured for years after his breathtaking fall from grace.
So what was his crime?
The Sydney-born, Melbourne-raised entrepreneur was 26 when he made his first million on the stock market and 27 when he lost it all.
Poor judgement? Perhaps, but he was in good company.
“It was the height of the stock market crash,” he recalls with some bitterness. “There were many others in the same boat, although people have tried to mitigate my responsibility by saying that youth and inexperience were the reasons.
“Yes, I was young, but I thought I was invincible and I refused to believe that it could happen to me.”
The worst thing for Sean was the loss of close friends. He invested their money – with their consent – but when the bubble burst it inevitably influenced their relationship. Common sense suggests that his friends were just as complicit, but Sean refuses to blame them.
“I was the one who made the promises of great wealth and had the track-record to prove it. They were seduced by my lifestyle but I don’t think it’s fair that they should shoulder the blame.”
Much has been written about Sean and his situation and, judging by his success in litigation, most of it has been wrong.
Twenty five years later Sean is living the dream that as a teenager he promised he would achieve. The difference is not simply that he has learned his lesson, but in his success he has ensured that others enjoy it as well.
History tells us that entrepreneurs who recover their position after a fall tend to close off to all but their closest friends and advisors. If others make money as a result of their efforts, it was not primarily the aim.
“I understand how they feel,” Sean says. “Partly you are driven by the need to prove to yourself and others that you are capable of being successful.
“Partly it is the fear of leaving this earth as a failure.”
This was never his intention. Not that Sean was driven by some messianic zeal to bestow riches on others. It was a more temporal calling.
“Experience taught me that to get ahead in life you need people, and if they benefit then you benefit. You can’t do everything or be everything, it simply isn’t possible. If you value the skills of others and direct them accordingly, everyone is the winner.”
The catastrophic events in his mid-20s informed this view.
When he took over the running of car servicing business UltraTune in the mid-90s, it was virtually a basket case.
Sean went about building the business at the expense of his own comfort. He was taking $100 a week in wages so that he could invest back into the business, specifically the franchisees, because these were the people who were driving the model.
When he started in the mid-90s there were 80 franchisees with a turnover averaging $200,000 per annum. Now there are 230 franchisees with a turnover averaging $770,000 per annum, and of these 32 are members of the UltraTune Millionaire’s Club. To qualify a franchisee has to demonstrate a turnover in excess of $1 million per annum.
The same philosophy is evident in all of his business enterprises, whether it be Ultrahair, his magnificent horse stud in Kilmore, Victoria, his horse racing interests, roadside assist business or his fledgling UltraTune operations in the Middle East and Indonesia.
His view of life was formed to a large extent by his late father. By his own account he was a less than attentive student at high school. Understandably his parents were frustrated by his attitude and behaviour.
Sean recalls the day his father took him to the local park to teach him a lesson. It was not meant to be punitive, but instructive.
“He pointed out a guy collecting rubbish which is a menial, thankless task,” Sean says. “Dad asked me if I was capable of doing more with my life, and whether I had the brains and commitment to forge a better life for myself and my family.
“The alternative was in front of me, and it made a big impression. Actually, it scared the hell out of me.”
Sean was always self-reliant. Although his father died a reasonably wealthy man, his success came later in life. It meant that Sean and his brother had to fend for themselves growing up if they wanted more than what the family finances would allow.
Not only was Sean a hard worker, he often worked two jobs while studying to pay his way. He was never afraid of hard work and to this day puts in the hours.
There is much to learn from Sean’s life. Clearly there are regrets, but success has overtaken the early failures and revealed a man of strong character who values honesty, family and friendship above everything.
“I honestly believe that had I continued to enjoy the success that came to me in my early 20s I would have taken a much bigger fall later on in life,” he says.
“I don’t want to rewrite history and pretend that things didn’t happen. Nor do I want to minimise how they felt at the time or their painful legacy.
“This is who I am. This is what I am. But hand on heart, I can honestly say that the lessons have been invaluable and have taught me to be a better businessman, friend, partner and father.”