Crikey, this was a tough enough assignment when it was just Stephen Mayne’s top 20 Australian bizzoids of the last quarter century. But Gary Morgan has made it exponentially harder by starting in 1788. If that’s the case, you’d have to consider starting with James Ruse, the first Australian to manage to produce more than he consumed, at least for a period.

Our first successful farmer set a pattern for many Oz entrepreneurs by doing nicely out of government grants and diversifying into the gambling industry. Unfortunately that was illegal at the time. A former burglar, he was also overly fond of grog and loose company and blew his success, so he has to be scratched. There have been plenty like him.

So instead, my first top 20 entrant not already gonged by Stephen or Gary is the only woman so far:

Elizabeth Macarthur: The revisionists give her rather than husband John the credit for starting the crucially important Australian wool industry which pretty much underwrote the country for much of our history, mining notwithstanding. And the Wool Board never did funny deals with Iraq. Certainly Liz was the one who built up the flock and farm and made the family Australia’s biggest (white) landholders by the 1820s while John was swanning around England most of the time – or in gaol.

William Knox D’Arcy: The bloke who started British Petroleum and therefore perhaps more important than Rupert Murdoch. Check back in a century to see how News Corp is travelling. Rockhampton isn’t the easiest of towns now, let alone in 1866 when 17-year-old Will turned up with Mum and Dad from England. He was a founding member of a syndicate that opened a mine on Ironstone mountain – later named Mount Morgan. He made a fortune as the largest shareholder of Mount Morgan Gold Mining and returned to England in 1889. In 1890 he agreed to fund the search for oil in Iraq. By the time they finally found the stuff in 1908, the venture had nearly sent him broke, but out of that came Anglo-Persian Oil Company which subsequently turned into BP. It’s still pretty big.

James Wolfensohn:
Best known now for his World Bank role, the Sydney High old boy, Olympic fencer, cello player and general Renaissance man was about the best of our merchant bankers before we were familiar with the term. Rose to the top of Schroder’s in London and New York, then became an executive partner in Salomon Brothers. Iacocca wrote the book, but Jim played a bigger role in rescuing Chrysler. Gave up his own successful James D Wolfensohn Inc investment bank to do good things running the World Bank.

Paul Simons: The brilliant and instinctive retailer who rescued Woolworths, refloated it and set standards and systems that made the subsequent success of Roger Corbett et al possible. Probably the best and most respected retailer I’ve met. Famous for his ultra-cheap executive suite above the store in George Street.

John Ralph: For making and keeping CRA Australian on his watch and maintaining the company in rude good health back when there wasn’t a resources boom. Solid diversification when it was possible and as straight as they come. And it would have been interesting to try his real tax reform package.

Gerry Harvey: The next-best retailer of the modern era and he didn’t have much with which to start his empire – Woolworths already existed for Paul Simons to fix. Has looked after his shareholders very nicely with the figures telling the story and the attempt to continue to grow offshore is interesting when so many locals are happy to remain big fish at home.

David Murray: There are quibbles about some aspects of his lengthy reign as CBA CEO and he took over at the start of Oz banking’s long golden summer, but he delivered in spades for the army of small shareholders who took part in the float and passed on a strong and very healthy franchise.

Paul Anderson: OK, he’s not an Australian, but he’s happy to claim Oz as his second home and might well spend considerably more time here when his Duke Energy commitments are eventually concluded and he’s a director of Qantas and BHP. He makes my list for the brilliant turnaround of BHP, setting it up to reap its present rich rewards instead of falling over and being taken over. He could be considered just for the elegance of BHP’s Ok Tedi solution.

James Strong: For an interesting body of work, both as CEO in the difficult airline business and as chairman of Woolworths and IAG, adding a degree of humanity to the Corbett empire in the first instance and performing an extraordinary turnaround of the disastrous NRMA board in the latter.

With those nine added, it’s very hard to decide who to knock out from the other lists. All selectors and judges make mistakes, but I’d want to include:

The obvious – Frank Lowy and Rupert Murdoch. Dick Pratt, pending those cartel allegations – and I haven’t forgotten his Battery Group mess.

Michael Chaney: For the excellent job at Wesfarmers, his concentration on shareholder value and an aversion to hype and hubris. The favourable market reaction to his appointment as NAB’s chairman when the bank was in trouble says much about his reputation.

David Clarke: Someone has to take the credit for Macquarie Bank’s enormous success, so it may as well be the co-founder and executive chairman. And he has more personality than Alan Moss.

Nobby Clark: For keeping his head at NAB when all the other bankers were losing theirs, setting up the subsequent surge. Some might say that was just because the NAB realised what a risk Alan Bond was first. And, as Stephen noted, his fix-it roles as chairman of Coles Myer and Foster’s.

John Cloney: The QBE story, CEO and chairman for a quarter century as it has blossomed into an international player in a difficult industry. Probably should be a team prize with Frank O’Halloran.

Paul Little: The Toll Holdings story is still running strong starting from that $2.5 million management buyout 20 years ago. And it might not have happened if Mayne Nickless hadn’t lost its marbles.

Sir Ian McLennan: Effectively the father of the old BHP before it went astray. A giant of Australian industry.

Brian McNamee: CSL’s CEO for the past 17 years – one amazing transformation from a government business to international player. Especially for sticking to his guns when things were sticky a while back.

Sir Arvi Parbo: For WMC in general when it was at its best, the work that went into discovering Olympic Dam in particular and his own success story as a migrant.

Peter Fray

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