Rob Millner’s sprawling $3.3 billion ASX empire stretches from chemists to coal, shares to stockfeed and phones to pharmaceuticals. But most Australians haven’t heard of him.

Indeed, the secret billionaire’s interlocking, family-dominated web of corporate entities — some of which own each other — worm their way into most areas of domestic life.

Since getting the call-up to the family fiefdom from uncle Jim (who got the call from his uncle Fred), the rugby fan has kept Washington H Soul Pattinson mostly in house, leading to all sorts of outrage over perceived conflicts — cousin Michael Millner, brother-in-law David Wills, cousin’s husband Peter Robinson and (until October) son Thomas Millner all serve on the investment conglomerate’s board.

While ranking well down the Optimice Market Capitalisation Influence Index at No. 205 and at No. 461 on the MCII boardroom connectedness index (see a graphical representation below), the Millner’s real power lies in the amount of on and off market capital he controls. It’s a big basket of goodies.

CGI Glass Lewis director of research Aaron Bertinetti told The Power Index the shadowy Newington College old boy “doesn’t nearly get enough attention”. “His interests completely dwarf Kerry Stokes and just the listed ones have a market cap about double that of Packer’s Crown. In fact if you bundled them all up they’d sit somewhere in the lower half of the ASX 20,” he said.

Dubbed “Australia’s Berkshire Hathaway”, Soul Patts’ orbit extends to a further eight listed companies, three of which Miller personally chairs and another three he directs. For a time, he even had a personal media arm through his control of Nine regional affiliate NBN. And for a feather in the cap throw in chair of Sydney Rugby Union.

The listed structure was a deliberate choice; to build his power Millner leveraged sharemarket liquidity to parlay profits into a hive of related investment funds and entities. It’s those shrewd decisions that have built the wealth of the companies — and the family — with Soul Patts’ revenue topping $1 billion. The family controls about 10%, or $300 million, but also marshals significant private shareholdings.

Notionally a pharmacy brand, Patts’ main function is actually as an investment house, with the majority of revenue sourced from stock picking and strategic stakes. For example, Soul Patts owns fully 60% of New Hope mining and 44% of Brickworks (which owns, in turn, 43% of Soul Patts). But it also holds significant piles of ASX blue chips like BHP Billiton, Telstra and the Commonwealth Bank.

Shareholders are sniggering all the way to the bank — they enjoy regular dividends and many cashed in handsomely when each of the eight arms first floated.

The fourth generation Pattinsons and Millners are the closest NSW gets to small business aristocracy. Father Jim was a Japanese POW who died in 2007, went to Newington, chaired Soul Patts and, for a time, the NRMA. Uncle Fred Pattinson chaired the firm, as did his chemist father Lewy before him. It’s Australia’s second oldest public company and has been listed for 109 years. True to its roots, it still operates apothecaries in the CBD and Sydney suburbs.

The Power Index repeatedly harassed Millner to comment for this piece. At one point late yesterday we thought we’d got him between meetings, only for his secretary to relay that he preferred not to speak on the record. If last year’s AGM is any guide, where he was branded a “billionaire disgrace” and “the worse AGM dictator”, he isn’t too keen on public accountability.

But others aren’t so happy to stay mum. At last week’s Brickworks AGM, shareholder activist and tax-the-rich aficionado Mark Carnegie emerged with a small $30 million option over funds manager Perpetual’s 12% stake. The problem is Brickworks owns a 43% stake in Soul Patts while it, in turn, owns 44% of Brickworks, allowing Millner to effectively block independent board appointments.

The Carnegie option is contingent on a successful untangling and “unlocking” of forgone shareholder value, thought by many analysts to be well over $1 billion. It represents a small step in busting up the family clique’s nexus.

Aaron Bertinetti agrees: “Part of the problem is this unprecedented power and the untapped market value in the stocks due to his cross ownership of companies and control of the boards.”

So far Millner’s resisting, claiming each holding is a buffer against cyclical downturns.

Interestingly for someone who prefers to operate behind closed doors, he sometimes holds forth — when the time is right — on political issues. In August he blasted the Gillard government over apparent red tape, claiming the cost of running a business had become “horrific”. “The government”, he explained, was “robbing Peter to pay Paul … the government thinks it can keep milking the business cow instead of cutting back on its own spending.”

Australian Shareholders Association CEO Vas Kolesnikoff told The Power Index the multi-tasking scion is streched for time and new blood is needed. “He’s extremely busy in what is really associated family businesses … one would suggest that he is overloaded as a director, however, then again, they are essentially family businesses which causes the controversy. He seems to fly under the radar.”

The Soul Patts AGM is tomorrow in Sydney and one thing’s for sure — the facade might be genial but if push comes to shove Millner won’t be pulling any punches.

Robert Millner directorships:

  • Corporate: Washington H. Soul Pattinson (chair), New Hope Corporation (chair), BKI Investment Company (chair), Brickworks Limited (chair), Pitt Capital Partners (chair), Milton Corporation (chair), Souls Private Equity Limited (chair), Choiseul Investments (chair), TPG Telecom, Australian Pharmaceutical Industries Limited, Apex Healthcare
  • Not-for-profit/government: Sydney Rugby Union (chair)

Robert Millner’s ASX connections –  click to enlarge