This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007
Sir James Alexander (Jim) Forrest (1905-1990), solicitor and company director, was born on 10 March 1905 at Kerang, Victoria, third of five children of Scottish-born parents John Forrest, draper, and his wife Mary, née Gray. Jim completed his secondary education at Caulfield Grammar School; he was keen to study medicine, but this was beyond his family’s means. Instead, he gained a position as a filing clerk at one of Melbourne’s leading law firms, Hedderwick Fookes & Alston. In 1925 he commenced an articled clerk’s course at the University of Melbourne. Admitted to practise in 1930, Forrest was made a partner of the firm in 1933. At Christ Church, South Yarra, on 9 December 1935, he married Mary Christina Armit with Anglican rites.
Forrest soon became one of Melbourne’s leading commercial lawyers, and was closely associated with the many interests of the Grimwade family, including their involvement in Australian Glass Manufacturers Co. Ltd. He was made a director of their family company, Felton Grimwade & Duerdins Ltd.
Enlisting in the Royal Australian Air Force on 8 June 1942, Forrest was commissioned and employed on security duties, mainly at Townsville, Queensland, before being demobilised as an acting flight lieutenant in September 1943. He then worked for the Department of Aircraft Production, assisting with legal issues between the government and the suppliers of aircraft and parts.
Returning to practice at the end of the war, Forrest consolidated networks in industry and commerce that extended beyond his law firm and its clients: he was appointed to the Victorian board of the Australian Mutual Provident Society (1945-77) and in 1950 joined the board of AGM’s successor, Australian Consolidated Industries Ltd (chairman 1953-77). The managing director of ACI at that time was the dominating and fiercely independent William (`Gunboat’) Smith, who had diversified the company’s operations but treated its board as almost irrelevant. Forrest regarded Smith’s conduct as impeding the board’s responsibility to review the company’s management and performance, and in 1957 dismissed him after a bitter confrontation. He then established a company policy (retained for over seventeen years) of not appointing company executives to its board. To reinforce the point, subsequent chief executives were titled `general manager’.
In 1950 Forrest joined the board of the National Bank of Australasia Ltd. He was chairman in 1959-78. Under his direction both NBA and ACI embarked on significant programs of expansion. ACI developed technology partnerships with leading glass companies in Britain and the United States of America; established manufacturing plants in South-East Asia, New Zealand and the Territory of Papua and New Guinea; commenced fibre-glass and tableware manufacture; and experienced sustained periods of financial success. The NBA, originally a trading bank, extended its activities into savings accounts and customer credit; formed joint ventures to attract international capital; expanded its representation throughout South-East Asia and in Papua and New Guinea; and rapidly increased its profits.
A senior partner in his law firm from 1967, Forrest retired to a consultancy in 1970. He held directorships in other companies including Drug Houses of Australia Ltd (1959-69), the AMP Society (1961-77) and Western Mining Corporation Ltd (1970-72). He was chairman of Chase-NBA Group Ltd (1971-80) and Alcoa of Australia Ltd (1970-78). In addresses and commentary regularly featured in the press, Forrest argued that Australia must expand the export of resources and build up industrial capacity; he looked to the Commonwealth government to lessen restrictions on the flow of capital and to manage the economy, particularly inflation and wage growth, in favour of business activity. A vigorous opponent of `excessive economic nationalism’, he criticised the Whitlam Labor government’s `failure to employ fiscal restraint’.
Knighted in 1967, Sir James was respected as a skilful, urbane chairman: modest and direct, and content to drive a Holden. His commitment to the training and education of youth was evident in service on the State and national councils of the Boy Scouts Association (1949-72), on the councils of Scotch College (1959-71) and Monash University (1961-71), on the Victorian Rhodes scholarship selection committee (1971-74) and as a founding member of the Royal Children’s Hospital Research Foundation (1960-77). He was elected a fellow (1977) of the Australian Academy of Science and awarded an honorary doctorate of laws (1979) by Monash University.
In 1977, as Forrest began retiring from active business, the Australian Financial Review acknowledged him as `one of the most dominant men among Australian company directors for a quarter of a century’. He died on 26 September 1990 at Malvern and was cremated. His wife and their three sons survived him.
Terry Grigg, 'Forrest, Sir James Alexander (Jim) (1905–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/forrest-sir-james-alexander-jim-12505/text22499, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 April 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007