On September 8, Adam Clark plummeted from contention as one of Australia’s richest young entrepreneurs. The company in which he owns about 400 million shares, Media World Communications (whose shares were suspended from trading on the ASX in 2001), failed to relist on the Australian Stock Exchange, citing problems with the “Adams Platform” video compression technology that Clark sold to the company. His shares are probably worthless and a pack of angry investors is chasing him for answers. (Clark did not return BRW’s calls after Media World failed to relist.)
Technology experts have long been skeptical of Adams Platform and its claims to be able to send high-quality video down a normal telephone line. Clark first publicised the technology in 1998, to a torrent of criticism. The algorithms at the heart of his invention, which supposedly compress data by a factor of 1000, would have to break the laws of physics to work. And the invention has been shrouded in secrecy, with strictly controlled demonstrations of the technology and no patent applications lodged until last December.
However, the Media World disaster does not stop Clark’s debut on the BRW Young Rich list, at $25 million. That figure values his Media World shares at zero and is based on more concrete foundations: the cash he received from Media World for Adams Platform; the 41 pubs he bought from Lion Nathan in May and the audio-visual and events-management company he founded at the age of 15.
That company, Centre Stage Australia, employs about 20 full-time staff at its head- quarters in South Melbourne and at a recently opened office in Sydney. Centre Stage produces corporate videos, edits films and television commercials, rents audiovisual equipment and organises corporate functions. Its beginnings — when Clark was a 14-year-old at Boronia Heights Secondary College, in outer eastern Melbourne — highlight a recurring theme in his career: technological innovation to solve a problem.
Clark explains that his school contributed two weeks of programming each year to a fledgling community television group, which was broadcasting from nearby Mount Dandenong where the transmitter was located. Clark, who had written and produced his first feature film at the age of 12, queried the need to broadcast from the mountain when the commercial television stations did it from Melbourne. He decided to get over the problem by using a borrowed microwave link and the program was broadcast from his school.
Clark’s contribution to the program was 14 one-hour episodes of a show he called Centre Stage, based on the student rock eisteddfod competition. He pinned his brickpatterned doona cover to his bedroom wall, swapped the bed for a couch and hired a camera and lights. He was the host and he filmed all the introductions and closes to the performances. He also covered other concerts and festivals and produced a feature story on a touring band, always sending thank-you letters and copies of the video to people who helped him. The work began to flow in, from record companies, band promoters and word-of-mouth recommendations.
By the age of 16, Clark was running his Centre Stage video production company through a mobile phone (then still a novelty) during his school lunch break. He also helped the school program its computers and set up databases and was the student representative on the school council for his final three years. Jan Thomas, who taught Clark English and is now the deputy principal, says Clark was extremely innovative and good at problem solving, “involved in everything” and always making films.
At the end of year 12, with his business flourishing, Clark contemplated formal multimedia studies, but was told he would be bored. So he concentrated on running his video production business full time. The work expanded from bread-and-butter wedding videos and the like into audio-visual and event management and catering.
A key client for the past decade has been the Hard Rock cafe chain. Matthew Putna, Hard Rock’s general manager describes Clark as a pure entrepreneur who “sees things that other people can’t see and has a general feel for technology that others don’t have”.
This entrepreneurial streak was evident in Clark’s decision in May to buy the Lion Nathan pubs in Victoria, for about $16 million. He had wanted to buy a venue for a long time, but kept missing out because he did not have a record in venue ownership. Now he and his partner, Michael Thiele, own 41 sites, with the shareholding roughly split two-thirds to Clark, one-third to Thiele. Clark also plans to acquire one or two audiovisual and event-management companies in the next few months to take his business, renamed The Point Group, Australia-wide.
He seems more excited about the potential for his expanding business interests than he does about the prospects for Media World Communications, which was due to relist a week after he spoke to BRW. This ambivalence might explain why it has taken seven years for him to do anything with the Adams Platform video compression technology that he came across almost by accident. Clark had a contract with Knox City shopping centre to provide content for their banks of television screens in the food court, but the videos kept being chewed up. He decided to try to transmit the data from his office in South Melbourne, but the existing technology for low-bandwidth transmission was not good enough. Clark, who has a certificate in video engineering systems, spent three months writing software that, he claims, could compress the data and send it down a normal telephone line.
“I didn’t develop it because I was going to make millions of dollars out of it, I developed it because I needed to deliver data to a shopping centre … The first two or three years it was just a distraction. I didn’t treat it seriously.” Clark says he spent about two years talking to Australian television networks about Adams Platform and another two years talking to Warner Brothers (the deal collapsed when Warner merged with AOL). He also says he did not have a properly structured approach, and it was very hard to work out the value, with many “silly figures” being put on the table. Another problem was that it took Clark a long time to realise he might have to let go of his technology to allow it to reach its potential. Even his deal with Media World — which has netted him about $10 million in cash, plus the 400 million shares — he expects will end up being “peanuts” (expensive peanuts, indeed, if the Adams Platform technology turns out to be a dud).
Of the experts’ scepticism, Clark says he is used to it. “I’ve had people calling me a liar to my face, things in the newspapers. The frustration of having to keep the technology secret for eight years was eating me up inside. We were very much before our time; people didn’t know what to do with it. It has been a hard struggle. But anything that is going to be successful doesn’t happen overnight. You have to put up with skepticism and criticism. In the early days, it was my age.”
He also says that, after suffering a life-threatening illness, which he declines to specify, for much of his childhood, he has a different approach to life. “I’ve got the attitude of ‘Make the most out of life because you might not be here tomorrow. Let’s make today work’.”