Pollster and businessman Gary Morgan nominates his top 20 Australian businessmen of all time.
Rupert Murdoch (1931- ) Stands out clearly as Australia’s most successful businessman. Now an American for convenience, he is the only Australian who rates as one of the all-time world’s top businessmen.
Kerry Packer (1937-2005) Like Rupert Murdoch, Packer inherited a significant media business from his father, Sir Frank. However, both Packer and Murdoch significantly enhanced their fathers’ media empires as a result of their own unique skills.
Frank Lowy (1936- ) In 1958 Lowy and Jack Saunders developed their first shopping centre at Bankstown, New South Wales. By the mid-1980s, Lowy was head of property giant Westfield Holdings, changing the structure of the industry by constructing massive shopping centres, not only in Australia but in the US and Britain.
Sir Arvi Parbo (1926- ) In 1956 Parbo began a long career with Western Mining Corporation (WMC), initially working as an underground surveyor and mining engineer. Appointed General Manager in 1968 and Managing Director in 1971, Parbo was Chairman during a period of rapid expansion and diversification (1974-91).
Victor Smorgon (1913- ) A butcher from Ukraine, Gershon Smorgon arrived in Melbourne in 1927. By World War II Smorgon was running an expanding abattoir and meat export business. Smorgon’s big break came after the war when in 1948 he persuaded American meat importers to buy Australian rabbit meat – a market he soon cornered. Victor Smorgon and his family then diversified into manufacturing paper, glass and steel.
Geoffrey Donaldson (1913- ) Began his career working for Perpetual Trustees, rising to the level of Senior Trust Officer before joining the war effort in 1939. After returning, Donaldson continued to show his unique ability to survive, this time in the stockbroking business, especially when it came to raising money and underwriting Woodside Oil Co new share issues. For 28 years Donaldson was Woodside’s Chairman. The company made major gas and condensate discoveries near Broome and Dampier in WA.
Reginald Ansett (1909-1981) In 1931 he founded his first transport business using a Studebaker car to run passenger services between Ballarat and Maryborough. Between 1957-1990 Ansett Airlines monopolised the Australian air services industry, with the Government-owned Trans-Australia Airlines (TAA) its only competitor.
Lang Hancock (1909-1992) Hancock was a part-time prospector and a pioneer of the aerial prospecting method. Hancock’s most famous find was in 1952 when he found the world’s largest iron ore deposit in the Pilbara region. He struck a royalty agreement with the mining giant Rio Tinto and subsequently became one of Australia’s wealthiest people.
Sir Ian McLennan (1909-1998) Ian McLennan was responsible for the significant post-war expansion of Australia’s iron and steel industry, and established Australia’s export of iron ore to Japan. He joined the BHP board of directors in 1953, becoming Senior General Manager in November 1955. In the late 1950s, McLennan negotiated with Lewis Weeks to take BHP into oil and gas exploration in Bass Strait. In April 1971, Ian McLennan was appointed Chairman of BHP, a position he held until his retirement in 1977.
Sir Keith Murdoch (1885-1952) Started as a freelance journalist for The Age in 1903 and as an Age cadet in the Federal Press Gallery in 1910. By the time he died in 1952 Murdoch was Chairman of The Herald and Weekly Times, Australia’s largest media company. He was responsible for changing the way Australian companies reported profits by publishing their profits in the afternoon Melbourne Herald the day they were released to the Melbourne Stock Exchange rather than in the following day’s morning newspapers.
Sir George Coles (1885-1977) Coles opened his first store in Collingwood in 1914, selling stock purchased in America. After serving in WWI, Coles returned to Melbourne, opening a larger store in 1919 and launching a proprietary company in 1921. During his time as Managing Director the Coles Company expanded rapidly, opening many stores in Melbourne and Sydney. In his later years Coles dedicated most of his time to charity work and was knighted for his efforts in 1957.
Sidney Myer (1878-1934) After migrating to Australia in 1898 he ran a draper’s store in Bendigo with his brother, Elcon Baevski. In 1911 he established a drapery shop in Bourke Street, Melbourne before opening the eight-storey Myer Emporium in 1914. A dedicated philanthropist and benefactor, he financed Charles Kingsford Smith’s 1928 trans-Pacific flight.
Sir Walter Carpenter (1877-1954) WR Carpenter & Co Ltd was founded by Walter Randolph Carpenter (later to become Sir Walter) in 1914 as a small private company. Carpenter’s fortune was amassed during the 1930s Depression when his company was able to buy many island plantations at bedrock prices. During the Depression his company maintained its dividend rate unchanged at 8%. At its peak WR Carpenter operated nine major companies (plus subsidiaries) in Fiji and New Guinea and 14 (plus subsidiaries) in Australia.
Achalen Woolliscroft Palfreyman (1875-1967) Aged 14 he began working at Launceston’s Examiner but soon moved to Peacock’s Jam Factory, which he took over in 1891 with fellow employees including Henry Jones. Palfreyman remained a director of Henry Jones IXL for 74 years and succeeded Jones as Chairman (1926-65). The company expanded internationally and diversified into fruit production, construction, prospecting and tin dredging.
Sir William Angliss (1865-1957) Educated in England, Angliss migrated to Australia during 1884, eventually moving to Melbourne where in 1886 he opened his first butcher shop in North Carlton and another in Bourke Street. It wasn’t long before Angliss had built a pastoral empire – operating meatworks at Footscray in Melbourne, Forbes and Riverstone in NSW, and Brisbane and Rockhampton in Queensland. Angliss founded a food-trade school in Melbourne that still bears his name today.
William Lawrence Baillieu (1859-1936) Left bankrupt after the 1890s depression, Baillieu diversified into many industries including media (Herald and Weekly Times with Theodore Fink), mining and pastoral ventures, netting large profits. Baillieu directed many companies and became known as “Australia’s Money King”, running his empire with other colleagues and members of his family from Collins House in Melbourne.
John Darling Jnr (1852-1914) Darling, known as Australia’s “Wheat King”, reinvested profits from his father’s then relatively small wheat and flour business in BHP and other companies. He became Chairman of BHP in 1907 and was responsible for redirecting BHP from mining to steel manufacturing.
Sir James Burns (1846-1923) In 1867 Burns travelled to the Gympie goldfields selling stores to miners and buying gold. By 1872 Burns had opened a store in Townsville. By 1910 Burns, Philp and Co. was one of Australia’s leading companies. Burns remained Chairman and Managing Director until 1923.
Alfred Felton (1831-1904) In 1853 Felton migrated from England to Victoria where he it is said he made his money on the goldfields, before establishing himself as a merchant in Melbourne. By 1861, Felton was operating as a wholesale druggist in Swanston Street. In 1867 Felton went into partnership with FS Grimwade to form Felton, Grimwade & Co. which became Australia’s largest drug house. He bequeathed a large estate – half to Victorian charities and half to the National Gallery of Victoria which purchased more than 15,000 works of art making the collection one of the most significant in the world.
Edward Knox (1819-1901) Arrived from Denmark in 1839 and became General Manager of the Australasian Sugar Company (ASC). In 1855 he formed the Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR), with capital of £150,000, to takeover ASC. By 1908, seven years after Knox’s death, the CSR owned 13 mills and five refineries – a total productive capacity of 260,000 tons a year.
Honourable Mentions Frederick Grimwade, Rupert Henderson, WS Robinson, Hugh McKay, Walter Hall, Robert Barr Smith, Harry Howard Smith, Samuel Hordern. No list could include any of the 1980 entrepreneurs such as Robert Holmes-a-Court, John Spalvins, Alan Bond, Christopher Skase or my friend, John Elliott – even though for a period of time they were all looked on as the doyens of Australian industry. Moreover, today there would be no BHP if it were not for John Elliott, Peter Scanlon, Brian Loton, Sir James Balderstone and John Baillieu. In my paper, “Doing Business Globally – Marketing ‘Brand Melbourne’“, I have outlined the contribution John Elliott made to Melbourne while Chairman of the Committee for Melbourne.
Compiled from knowledge passed to me from my father, Roy Morgan, and the following four publications:
1. The 60 Families Who Own Australia, by EW Campbell (1963);
2. Monash Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Australia, edited by John Arnold and Deirdre Morris (1994);
3. Keith Murdoch, Founder of a Media Empire, by RM Younger (2003); and
4. The All-Time Australian 200 Rich List: from Samuel Terry “The Convict Rothschild” to Kerry Packer; by William D Rubinstein (2004)