A financial crunch won’t break this former Maroubra boy, writes Adrian Proszenko.
You sit across from Max Delmege, the man who saved the club that so many hate, with a $15 million question at the forefront of your mind.
But before you ask it, you want to know how he got there. How a bloke who grew up with his five siblings in a housing commission home would be in a position to pull Manly from the precipice. And whether it was all worth it. Best to start at the beginning. Before the cash, the cars and the club. Humble beginnings.
“At the end of the day we got fed, we got three meals and you got to go to school,” Delmege said of his youth in Maroubra. “That was probably about it. But we were fortunate. A lot of people wouldn’t have been lucky enough to even have that start in life. We did what we had to do.”
As soon as the school bell tolled at Randwick Boys High, a 12-year-old Delmege would literally get on his bike and head to the tip at La Perouse. “I used to fill my saddlebags up with whatever I thought was useful,” he recalled. The little entrepreneur would scavenge and collect bike parts, which he would assemble into two-wheelers. He’d sell them for three quid to a local garage owner, who would on-sell them for five. Two years later, he had enough money to buy his first car. But the seed that led to him becoming a multimillionaire property developer was planted much earlier.
“As a little boy, my mother would take me down to Maroubra shopping centre and I would look into LJ Hooker’s window,” he said. “I was probably only eight or nine. I’d say to my mum, ‘God, that man must be rich!’. I thought he owned all the houses. I thought, ‘Who would want to sell fruit and vegetables for a couple of shillings when this bloke owns all these houses for thousands of pounds’. I was fortunate enough to think that – I was quite entrepreneurial.”
Delmege worked three jobs at a time in his teens. At 20 he was working as a salesman at LJ Hooker; two years later and he was taking business off them. Delmege borrowed $4000 and opened up his own real estate office in Avalon with a mate.
And so a Fibro became a Silvertail. The boy from Maroubra, who started life as a Souths supporter, moved to the northern beaches and supported the local team. The good times were very good indeed. He almost single-handedly built from scratch Mona Vale’s commercial and industrial area. He met one of his greatest mates, Balmain legend Benny Elias, while doing a spot of shopping in a Porsche dealership. Maxamillion was worth many a million.
“I did build an empire,” he said.
Meanwhile, another empire was crumbling. The Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles were bust. The powerhouse that plundered and pillaged from its rivals was no more, replaced by that most doomed of all joint ventures, Northern Eagles. Worse still, the team that everyone loved to hate was now being pitied.
In 2002, the club was about to be wound up. Manly’s junior rugby league boss Peter O’Dwyer, along with chief executive Ian Thomson and fellow official Col Burton came to Delmege with cap in hand.
“They came to me to see if I could help out with the last piece of property they owned. They said they were in a terrible financial state, that the leagues club couldn’t help them because Manly spent a lot of money fighting Super League and that they needed $1 million urgently. Like within five minutes urgently. So I wrote out the cheque and gave them the money to save them, pretty much on the spot.”
In return, Delmege was given the major sponsorship for the rest of the year. But, as Delmege describes it, the cash injection was just a “Band-Aid” solution. The same problems arose again the next season, when no one else was prepared to sponsor a sinking ship. Delmege again dug deep – $2.6 million over three years – to keep Manly alive. It wasn’t enough.
“That was when we decided on privatisation and I stumped up another near $4 million to inject into the club,” he said. Private ownership comes at a significant cost. About $15 million from whoa to go. It was a much higher price than Russell Crowe paid to own the pride of the league. In 2007, the property magnate looked across at Russell’s Rabbitohs, the team he supported as a child, and offered this gem. “They’ve got Armani suits – we can’t afford that,” Delmege said of Souths, the club he labelled the new Silvertails. “I remember with Reuben F Scarf we used to get two suits for the price of one and a free tie and a free shirt. We should be known as the Manly-Warringah Battlers.”
Delmege himself has been battling of late. He was “crunched” in the global financial crisis. His fallout with the Penn family, the co-owners of the club, has been well documented. His personal and professional life has been tabloid fodder.
“At the end of the day, health is wealth,” Delmege said. “I’m still here. The only regret I have in rugby league is that at times people get offensive and try to smear your name, through no fault of your own. It seems to be a bit of a trait. We’ve seen ongoing feuds, which is a shame. It should be something eroded from rugby league.”
Which brings us to the $15 million question. Was it all worth it in the end? “You look back and think, ‘Should I have done it?’. The answer is yes,” he said. “I’ve met so many good people through Manly. I’ve seen a coach like Des Hasler turn ordinary players into extraordinary players. At the end of the day, nobody can take away the fact that, at 7:11pm on October 5, 2008, we won a grand final 40-0.”
Says Elias, who knocked back Delmege’s invitation to become the Manly chief executive due to his ties to Balmain: “He was the saviour. The accolades have been given to him but I don’t think the NRL appreciate the enormity of what he did.”
Delmege has fought back before. In 1987, a development in Mona Vale went sour and he “lost everything”. He bought himself a weekly bus,train and ferry pass, pounded the pavements and again soared like a Sea Eagle. He reckons he can do it again.
“Being brought up in Maroubra, it’s pretty easy to reinvent yourself,” he said.
Max Delmege, in his own words …
“I’ve been very lucky to own a rugby league team, to live in nice houses, drive nice cars, have nice friends, a healthy family and very nice women in my life. And to own an icon like Manly-Warringah. I can never say life isn’t good to me.”
On the tough times
“I’ve had a few hiccups, as have most developers throughout my career, particularly this last one, with the global financial crisis. That has knocked me about. I had a development going in North Sydney where the people I was involved with didn’t do what they said they were going to do. If they did, I wouldn’t have had a problem. I was very badly let down by a worldwide construction group. You can’t blame everybody for what’s happened to yourself. You look in the mirror and say to yourself: ‘Along the line, I’ve made some bad decisions’.”
On his his new direction
“My new challenge is radio and I’ve got a talkback program on 2SM on Saturdays. It’s a new lease of life. It’s something I’ve wanted to do from the age of 20 but I fell into real estate.” I have a new lease of life with my partner Samantha and a beautiful family to continue to look after.
On the only time he involved himself in football matters
“Michael Monaghan was told by senior people in the club: ‘We’ll see how you go over the next three games and if you play well your contract will be renewed.’ So he played exceptionally well and then was told his contract wasn’t to be renewed. If you tell somebody something, he lives up to it and you retract your agreement with him, that’s not the way I was brought up. So I stepped in. It was the only time I ever stepped in. I insisted that Michael Monaghan’s contract was renewed and it was.”
On his career …
“It was a whirlwind. When I look back I was quite hyperactive. I found it very difficult to sleep, I was always thinking. Even today I’m always the dreamer”