Packer, who marks her 54th birthday in August, has lived under the intense gaze that comes from being a member of one of the richest and most successful families in Australia.
She resisted the temptation to quit her hometown of Sydney, as her brother did years ago to escape the constant scrutiny, and today the mother-of-three remains in her Bellevue Hill home down the road from her mother Ros, who presides over the sprawling Packer family compound Cairnton.
Within her close-knit circle of family, friends and associates, she is revered for being a woman of great loyalty, generosity and determination, in both her private and public pursuits.
When asked to describe his sister this week, James told the Herald from his US home: “Gretel is that rare combination of being a wonderful mother, daughter, sister, businesswoman and philanthropist.
“She juggles all those roles with grace, charm, and competence. She is deserving of any accolades she receives.”
Packer has two adult children, Francesca and Ben, to her first husband, Nick Barham, who she divorced in 1999; and one younger child, William, to her second husband, Shane Murray, who she married in late 2005 and divorced in 2007.
It was from Cairnton where her late father, media mogul Kerry Packer, AC, and grandfather before him, Sir Frank Packer, ruled over an extraordinary fiefdom.
James was destined to take over the family business after the death of Kerry Packer in 2005, while Gretel took a back seat as James steered the multi-billion-dollar media behemoth into a global casino operator.
But that all changed a decade later when the Packer family fortune was finally carved up. The brother and sister agreed to separate financially, a decision that was not without reported friction, which has since been quelled.
Gretel’s reported $1.2 billion settlement with her brother included the acquisition of the family’s country estate Ellerston near Scone and her father’s beloved superyacht, the converted ice-breaker The Arctic P.
WHAT DOES SHE DO?
Packer’s inheritance cemented her position as one of the wealthiest women in the country, with an independent fortune estimated by The Australian Financial Review Magazine Rich List last year at $1.16 billion.
Her greatest public passion is philanthropy, and since achieving financial independence she has thrown herself into a broad range of community activities and charities aligned to the arts, education and environment.
Her current positions include vice president of the Art Gallery of NSW Board of Trustees, chair of the advisory board of Crown Resorts Foundation, chair of the Packer Family Foundation and The Sydney Theatre Company Foundation, and a founding patron of the Taronga Zoo Conservation Science Initiative and a founding governor of the Taronga Zoo Foundation.
Between the Packer and Crown foundations, she is pivotal in deciding where and how the $200 million worth of philanthropic funding is distributed, with around $20 million a year going towards countless causes.
“She has a profound duty of care and a deep wanting to understand the issues and the work we do,” says KidsXpress founder and chief executive officer Margo Ward, whose charity focuses on traumatised children in Sydney’s western suburbs through arts-based therapies.
“I’ve had Gretel turn up with Ros in our kids’ paint throwing room, surrounding themselves in the work we do without any fanfare, just to see how the programs work and the impact they have on children.”
Ward estimates the Packers have donated more than $1million to the charity over the past seven years, money which “has helped well over a thousand children.”
Gretel has held previous positions as a director of the Royal Hospital for Women Foundation and as a council member of the Royal Botanic Gardens Foundation.
WHAT SHE DID THIS WEEK?
On Wednesday the Herald revealed the Packer family had joined the list of philanthropists pledging their support to ensure Carriageworks’ survival.
While the financial shockwaves caused by the coronavirus lockdowns were the cause of the venue entering voluntary administration in May, a creditor’s report noted the company’s performance in 2019 had been “significantly impacted” due to an overspend on key arts projects and “an inaccurate
projection of the timing of revenue.”
Administrators KPMG filed a report to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission outlining pledges and loans from philanthropists including $600,000 to unsecured creditors, mostly suppliers, and $1 million upon the resumption of trading to give management a financial buffer.
As part of the bailout, the Crown Resorts Foundation and Packer Family Foundation have promised $240,000 for an independent Carriageworks to continue the Solid Ground Project, a partnership between Carriageworks and the Blacktown Arts Centre.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated arts venues such as Carriageworks’ ability to generate revenue.
With Government coffers now under immense pressure from a variety of sectors, the Carriageworks’ rescue proposal is independent of public funding, making money from the private sector critical for its ongoing survival. It is philanthropy from the likes of the Packers that can help keep many institutions afloat.
Located in the historic railway yards in Redfern, Carriageworks is the largest multi-arts centre in Australia. Its stated mission is to commission local and international artists to “make monumental new work that intersects with contemporary ideas”. We need to keep these ideas alive.
Andrew Hornery is a senior journalist and Private Sydney columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.