Jim Aitken: No Pretender
By Ellen Hill Photos: David Hill
SITTING above his peers in a seat of power Jim’s white silk and cotton blend shirt with the monogrammed initials discretely embroidered on the breast pocket glows under the neon lights. The folds of the red robe fall elegantly around his body. His rimless spectacles always polished spotless, catch the light as he turns his head. The gold discs of the long chain around his neck clank gently as he moves.
Jim is the number one citizen in his adopted city.
But not everyone is happy.
There are those who don’t like which political fence he sits on. Others have taken offence at his honest opinions and criticism. Some envy his wealth.
Then there are those who will never let him forget he is a newcomer. They show him in so many ways – a glance, a shrug, a power playing downward handshake, an apologetic declining to attend a function. They think he is a pretender and new money living above his station.
But in this egalitarian land of second chances, Jim knows he has earned this right.
PENRITH and Lower Blue Mountains real estate agent Jim Aitken’s prospects didn’t always look so rosy.
Born in 1947 near Parkes in the NSW Central West, his early childhood began happily enough on the family farm.
However, home life deteriorated into domestic violence, alcoholism and poverty about age six as his father spent increasing amounts of time away, leaving his family little or no money. When he did return for short stays, it was to drink heavily and abuse his family.
“When he wasn’t drunk he was a great father,’’ Jim says. “There’s no doubt that he loved us. I wanted to see it worked out because I just wanted to see my Mum and Dad happy.’’
Eventually, when Jim was age nine, his father left for good.
After living off the goodwill of others for two years, the family was eventually tossed off the farm in 1959 and moved in with Jim’s grandparents at another NSW central west town. Six months later Jim’s grandfather died and the family shifted to a caravan in his grandmother’s Penrith driveway before moving from one rental property to another.
Life was miserable.
To compound matters, “I couldn’t read or write very well’’, Jim says.
“They’d say I was just a dummy. I didn’t have many social skills. It was a very unhappy time. In some ways I was dumb because I was uneducated and didn’t understand things and just followed along. I didn’t think far enough ahead. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the opportunity to learn, I just couldn’t grasp some of the things they were saying at school. Some people would say I was dyslexic. It might be true, I don’t know.’’
However, Jim refused to leave his fate in the hands of others and by age 11 had a newspaper delivery run and sold cigarettes, matches and lollies on Penrith railway station. By his Intermediate year, he was also washing cars, vacuuming a mortuary and mowing lawns.
He had no designs on wealth and status. Jim was just desperate to put money on his mother’s table.
“I don’t feel sorry about having to get up early and work. I actually enjoyed it. It was a need. You just have to do it.’’
Jim was then offered an apprenticeship at several butcher shops in the main street. He also helped a bloke repair second-hand washing machines and, in the early 1960s, worked with another mate installing television antennas.
“I figured I wasn’t going to be a brain surgeon. I didn’t have any great ambitions of what I was going to do in life. Education-wise, I just wasn’t interested. I didn’t understand it and I thought it was always better to run away from things you didn’t understand and just concentrate on the things you could do. And that was talking to people, dealing with people, keeping to my work.’’
Although Jim was managing a butcher shop by age 19, he remained on the social fringes. So, he often headed back to Parkes in the NSW Central West where he revelled in his “city slicker’’ status with awestruck mates.
About that time, Jim tracked down his father. The pair stayed in touch but the relationship remained strained. Jim was in his twenties when his father died.
“It damages you in some ways: looking at father/son movies I get a bit teary. There were times when I thought I needed a father: it gives you a history; it gives you a place; its support if you’re going through a rough time. I guess it’s something I’ve never come to terms with, as much as I’ve tried. It’s probably not important anymore.’’
At age 20, Jim added on-call firefighter to his list of job achievements. He also met his future bride.
Jim’s first foray into the property market was in 1969 when he bought two blocks of land. Next he built an expensive house.
Finally he was beginning to receive the social respect he craved.
In 1971, he was asked to manage a butcher shop in Penrith’s first full-blown shopping plaza and in 1972 he bought two shops of his own. His idea was to generate an income from those shops so his wife would not have to work.
“When we’d paid them off I thought: `I’ve never had a flash car’, so I said to my wife: `Those two shops are going to pay for our cars for the rest of our lives’,’’ Jim says. “They still do.’’
The couple married in 1970 and had three children. Their second daughter was born severely autistic.
The difficulties of raising a child with a disability prompted Jim to give up butchering and buy a taxi so he could work more flexible hours for his family. He also serviced and repaired taxis and had a sideline business fixing gearboxes. Then he bought a second cab, employed drivers and ran them 24 hours a day.
“I decided then that I wanted to make a fair bit of money to give my daughter a life and not hold the other two back,’’ he says. “But there was no great plan to become a millionaire. That was never the goal. The goal was to get over the day’s problems, short-term issues, to have my eyes firmly fixed on the next ten years.’’
In 1991, Jim earned his real estate agent’s license and became the highest educated person in his family.
Then, in 1994, he was asked to run for the Liberal Party in the State seat of Penrith. Totally unprepared but so sure of winning that he sold his skip bin hire service business, Jim lost to the long-time Labor incumbent by 750 votes.
“I was very well known in church circles, by the man on the street and the people I did business with, but not in what I call the cocktail set. They’d say: `Here comes another try-hard’. I definitely learnt a lot of lessons.’’
Never one to lie at the feet of defeat, Jim bought a franchise in a major real estate agency with his eldest daughter and another partner. After a few years, they set up their own real estate agency chain under Jim’s name.
Today, eight offices employ more than 100 people and the business includes cafes, printing, gift shops and an art gallery.
Jim has been a Penrith Councillor for 15 years and mayor for a term. He has many business ventures and positions and is a director and shareholder of a local newspaper.
In 1989 Jim was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for Service to the Community of the Penrith District, especially through youth welfare and service organisations and local government. In 2007 he received an award for Outstanding Contribution to Western Sydney at the Champion of the West Awards.
He is a fellow of the Australian Institute of Management, is involved in a plethora of community, church and charitable organisations and is renowned for his generosity.
However, Jim counts his efforts to be the father he never had and having a loving family as some of his greatest achievements.
“The only goal I ever had was to be happy,’’ he says. “You see people with a bit of wealth and they measure themselves on their worth… Those people, when they lose it, they lose everything.
“I’d start again. If I lost all my wealth I’d have lost nothing. I’ve enjoyed this sort of life, I enjoyed life when I had nothing…’’
• Read the full life story of Jim Aitken in the Deep Hill Fine Art Media book People Like You ($49.95). The collection of true stories about everyday people who have overcome challenges we all face in life includes topics on grief, mental illness, poverty and homelessness, immigration, disability, abuse, speech and learning difficulties and anxiety. Order through http://www.deephill.com.au and $5 from every sale will go to the Springwood Neighbourhood Centre Co-Operative’s Christmas Hamper Appeal.