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Bill O'Leary

26 years ago, Bill O'Leary arrived in Phuket as crew aboard a yacht. Fast forward to 2013 and he's helping develop the marine side of three Malaysian government-backed mega tourism projects. Here's how he went from yachty 'yobbo' to entrepreneur, artist, musician, avowed family man – and now corporate 'suit'.

December 2013

Where are you from?
Charleville – Outback Queensland, Australia


Tell us something about your ‘early years’.
I’m the second of four kids to an Irish immigrant Flying Doctor who worked for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) for 30 years in rural, then far north Queensland. My childhood was a blur of high-flying awe punctuated by institutionalised terror. The awe was flying with Dad when he’d let me pilot, pull teeth, give injections and eat snake amongst the full-blooded Aboriginals. These adventures were offset by long terrifying stints of Catholic boarding-school brutality.

Dad was a living legend in the outback and had hundreds of amazing stories we put into a book and screenplay after he died. I remember one flying clinic where he’d circumcised dozens of infants in one session at Aurukun Mission up on the Cape. He reckoned he and the pilot kept the left-overs in a Vegemite jar full of sawdust and used them for months after – as Barramundi bait. Half a dozen end-bits skewered onto a 3/0-sized hook caught so many Barramundi he reckoned it was cheating.


When did you move to Phuket and from where?
In 1987 after filming ‘Dead Calm’, I sailed on the famous yacht Stormvogel from Hamilton Island on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef through Indonesia to Phuket.


How well did you know Phuket before moving?
I’d never heard of it before. I was pronouncing it wrong from the start. The Aussie yobo in me loved the notion of sailing off to some magical island in ‘Thigh-land’ called ‘Fwwwuuu-ket’ and visiting those amazing rock formations at ‘Fee Fee Island’ and ‘Fan-ga Nar Bay’.


Did you come here intending to work or set up a business?
No way! When the dinghy hit the beach, I succumbed to a nasty bout of culture shock going AWOL troppo for a few days that culminated in me getting booted off Stormvogel. I didn’t care – I thought I’d found heaven. Unfortunately I hadn’t retained sufficient funds for a return ticket. Down and out, I begged Vincent Tabuteau and Jan Jacobs to help them fit out June Bahtra at Rattanchai shipyard – so I lived on deck up the creek in Phuket Town. Those were hard days and sweaty mosquito-bitten nights staring up at the stars. Sometimes now I wish I were what I was when I wanted to be what I am now.

Tell us about your life in Phuket.
I’m the luckiest foreigner to ever set foot on Phuket. My Seppo [Australian dialect for American citizen – ‘septic tank’] mate Barry Bailey got his melon run over by one of those early jetskis with a hanging outboard motor. So I got his job running the three boats at the newly opened Amanpuri back in 1988. Anthony Lark (Trisara) was the GM and the property had started to set the Kingdom’s luxury benchmark that still hasn’t been topped.

We started a charity band called ‘Free Beer’ with hotel GM Larz Ydmark and Laurent Myter and played fund-raising gigs with various visiting rock stars. The Amancruises manager’s job in those early years never felt like work. I was living the dream. I stayed through the top of the bell curve where we managed and operated 26 luxury boats, with 60 Thai crew.

I invested in Phuket’s first marine services businesses, Thai Marine Leisure and Phuket Yacht Services with good friends Andy Dowden, Vincent Tabuteau and Jan Jacobs. We sold out to the Prataraprasit family, who built The Yacht Haven marina on the site. Another friend, Tony Green, and I founded Phuket Water Taxi, Steppa Boats and H20 Sportz Indonesia, the first fast charter company, fiberglass boat factory and top end half day diving in the region.

More luck came my way when I was invited to invest in Irish Pubs Molly Malone’s and Scruffy Murphy’s – then in the two Pizza Company franchises in Patong. I’m divested of everything now, but I’d probably do it all again if I was given the opportunity.

There’s still one thing left from the old days, though. Grenville Fordham (MD of this magazine’s publisher), Andy Dowden and I write and publish an amazing sailing/cruising guide, ‘Southeast Asia Pilot’, every few years and that keeps me pretty busy charting the region.

Tell us about the latest development in your professional life?
I’ve just started a two-year contract with the Malaysian sovereign fund’s ‘Government Linked Companies Destination Resorts and Hotels and Desaru Coast Developments’. We’re building three mega tourism hotel and themed attraction projects in Johor Bahru, Iskandar and Langkawi. I’m helping plan, build and operate their marinas, workboats, ferries, luxury cruise businesses, beachfronts and coastal areas.

What do you see as your biggest success to date, either here or elsewhere? Being a good Dad for our four amazing kids. If they disagree – I’ll beat them bloody senseless!


Whereabouts do you live in Phuket?
In Pakhlok just east of Heroines' Monument.

What determined your choice of location?
I loathe the traffic and wanted to be a 20-minute drive from everywhere – so I stuck a pin at Heroines’ and drew a 3km ring around it. I also wanted to be10m above sea level (tsunami-proof), with lots of privacy and a straight speed-bump-free access road with no neighbours. Took me a while but I found the perfect plot at Eco Nanua and built a fortress there.


What do you like most about living in Phuket?
The Whitsunday Islands in Australia are pretty awesome, but Phuket is geographically more diverse and has more to offer. I love the ocean and I’m far less paranoid about swimming and diving in the Andaman Sea. In Oz everything in the water wants to kill you.

I love Thailand and Phuket is the best place in Thailand. The island is literally floating right in the middle of the most awesome cruising grounds on the planet. Phang Nga Bay, Krabi, Phi Phi, Racha, the Koh Yao’s, Lanta, The Similans, Surins, Burma and Andaman Islands are stunning and all within easy reach. For a boat guy like me it’s simply paradise on earth.


Do you expect to return here after your KL stint?
For sure. I’m a Phuketian - having lived more years on the island than anywhere else. Home’s not where you’re born – it’s where you’re prepared to die.


What's the hardest/most frustrating thing about living here (and in Kuala Lumpur)?
The traffic really shits me – and the growing number of resident expat Thailand knockers. My family is in the midst of getting our Thai Nationality, so I feel more at home here than I do in other countries. Some people wouldn’t be happy in heaven. I wish those that don’t like Thailand just stopped complaining and went back to where they came from. Nowhere’s perfect – why do they think this should be? And in KL? The traffic mostly and I miss being called “Khun Bill”. In Malaysia they call me Mr. O’Leary, Sir, Boss and even William Francis - but I don’t know who they’re talking to.

How old are you?
52 last 4th of July. 1961 was an awesome batch – haven’t met a bad one yet.


What about your wife and family?
My wife is Carolyn. I met her on Hamilton Island when she was 19 and we’ve been happily married for 22 years. Children? Timothy 20 – 3rd year Chapman University California; Bronty 19 – starts at USC in LA in January; Meg 14 and Mia 11 live with us and are studying at The Garden School in KL.


Which Phuket schools did your kids go to?
Greenhouse and British School (BIS). Then Tim went to NIST in Bangkok and Bronty to Harvard Westlake in LA.


What do you think the future holds for you?
Continued vitality, health, creativity, prosperity – and if I’m lucky, maybe even a tad of wisdom. Progress not perfection. Nihil Admirari is my way of life.

How do you evaluate success?
Serenity and peace. It comes and goes, of course, for all of us. When I truly don’t care about the good opinion of others, am happy in my own skin and try to practice patience, kindness, tolerance and love – that’s success. The happier I am, the more successful I am – and vice versa. By these criteria, the most successful bloke in Phuket must be the weathered one-toothed garland seller at the Boat Lagoon lights. Is there anyone happier on the island? He’s my hero. Actually, plenty of successful people live on Phuket – they’re mainly Thais.

What’s your dream car?
Audi Q7. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.


What do you do with your free time, if you have any?
Kids, art brut and writing screenplays.


Which are your favourite restaurants / clubs / beaches in Phuket?
Anything north of Heroine’s Monument or on Surin beach. It's hard to beat the Amanpuri for all three – but it’s exclusive and expensive


Do you do much travelling, either around the immediate area or overseas?
Yeah, I love travelling on boats to new places anywhere in Asia. I’ve also got a good mate who invites me fast boating with him in the Mediterranean. I love Italy, Croatia, Montenegro, Amalfi, Capri and St Tropez. With two kids in the states, Venice Beach in California is growing on me too. It’s got fruitcakes just like Phuket.


Are you involved in any local charities, clubs or associations?
I don’t have much of a social life anymore. I’m over it. The older I get, the more I agree with Shopenheur on the phases of a man’s life. It’s family time or solitude that I actively seek now.


Charities?
We anonymously support the few worthwhile (in our opinion) island charities. When we have a windfall, we like to pay it forward. I reckon that’s what keeps all this good luck rolling in.

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