Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fraser, Sir Colin (1875–1944)

by John Kennett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Sir Colin Fraser (1875-1944), geologist and company director, was born on 14 May 1875 at Coromandel, New Zealand, son of John Cameron Fraser, mining manager, and his wife Elizabeth Stuart (Stewart), née McKay. Fraser was a graduate of Auckland University College where he obtained a master of science in geology in 1906, while working as a clerk at the Bank of New Zealand. He joined the New Zealand public service as a geologist. In 1911 he moved to England where he was engaged as a consulting geologist by Lionel Robinson and William Clark, Australian-born stockbrokers with world wide mining interests. Robinson Clark & Co. sent Fraser to Cornwall and Canada to investigate tin and nickel projects before requesting him to conduct a geological survey of the famous Mount Morgan mine in Queensland in 1914. On the completion of this report Fraser made his home in Melbourne; he had married on 20 March 1913 at St George's Church, Hanover Square, London, Mary Helen MacNamara, a Canadian.

Fraser's subsequent career was closely associated with W. S. Robinson, Lionel's younger brother. In the early months of the war Robinson and W. L. Baillieu founded Broken Hill Associated Smelters Pty Ltd (B.H.A.S.), a company which acquired a silver-lead smelting plant at Port Pirie, South Australia. With the support of Baillieu, Robinson secured Fraser's election to the board of B.H.A.S. in July 1915; a year later, Fraser was promoted to joint managing director. These appointments marked the beginning of his career as a company director.

B.H.A.S. was the first of a series of joint ventures undertaken by three large Broken Hill mining companies: Broken Hill South Ltd, North Broken Hill Ltd and Zinc Corporation Ltd, the parent companies of the loosely integrated but powerful Collins House group. As joint managing director of B.H.A.S., Fraser was a leading figure in the group from the outset, and as it expanded to embrace a wide range of activities, his directorships multiplied swiftly to include: Broken Hill South Ltd (1916, chairman 1926), British Australian Lead Manufacturers Pty Ltd (1918), Electrolytic Zinc Co. of Australasia Ltd (1919, chairman 1933), Zinc Corporation Ltd (1927), Electrolytic Refining and Smelting Co. of Australia Pty Ltd (managing director 1928), Metal Manufactures Ltd (chairman 1928), Austral Bronze Co. Ltd (1929), Associated Pulp & Paper Mills Ltd (1936), Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation Ltd (1936) and North Broken Hill Ltd (1937). Fraser emerged as effective head of the Collins House group in Australia in the 1930s. Outside the group, he was appointed a director of Dunlop Rubber Australia Ltd in 1926 and a string of mining companies including Western Mining Corporation Ltd in 1933. Eventually, he held forty directorships, many of them in major companies. He ranked high among Australia's business élite in the inter-war period.

Reflecting his prominence in mining and manufacturing, Fraser was the official government representative for the Australian non-ferrous metals industry at the Ottawa Economic Conference in 1932. In 1935 he was knighted for his services to mining and industry. He was one of the select circle of leading businessmen appointed to senior positions in the Department of Munitions during World War II. As director of materials supply his task was to procure essential raw materials.

Fraser had outstanding managerial ability. A dedicated man with enormous reserves of energy, he could handle a vast and strenuous work-load. Pragmatic and endowed with a talent for mastering complex and minute details of a company's operations, he had a reputation as a problem-solver, the director to whom the most difficult tasks were allocated. In his entrepreneurial outlook, he tended to be cautious, but his clear-headed assessments of the potentialities and pitfalls of an enterprise made him a valuable foil to more flamboyant colleagues, while a deep concern for attaining economic and technical efficiency rendered him receptive to innovation. He strove to introduce improvements in administrative techniques, machinery and processes and was an ardent advocate of research. In labour relations his name was connected with avowedly radical managerial initiatives to defuse tension at the turbulent centre of Broken Hill.

Equipped with this business aptitude, Fraser was important in bringing to fruition several significant developments in the Australian economy between the wars, such as the founding of the zinc-refining, hardwood pulp and paper, and aircraft industries, the revival of gold-mining in the 1930s and the extension of the silver-lead smelting, copper products and paints industries. His greatest achievement was at Port Pirie where, under his guidance, B.H.A.S. was transformed into the world leader in its branch of metallurgy. Fraser was president of the Australian Mines and Metals Association Inc., Melbourne, from 1932, represented Australia on the council of the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy, London, for seven years, and was a council-member for fifteen years and in 1923-24 president of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.

A tall, trim man, Fraser was polite and genial yet distant in his personal relationships, rarely revealing his emotions. Shy of publicity and conservative in dress, he projected an image of modesty and restraint. In business he was satisfied with discreet power and prestige while socially he was an unobtrusive member of the Establishment in Melbourne. He had little time for social activities or recreation although he enjoyed golf and racing and was a collector of antique furniture, often attending auction sales. He was a member of the Melbourne, Australian and Athenaeum clubs, Melbourne, and of the Union Club, Sydney. A firm believer in the work ethic, Fraser sought fulfilment and security almost solely from his work. He did not accumulate a large fortune.

Fraser died of cancer at his home in Toorak on 11 March 1944 and was cremated. His wife and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • L. J. Hartnett, Big Wheels and Little Wheels (Melb, 1964)
  • W. S. Robinson, If I Remember Rightly, G. Blainey ed (Melb, 1967)
  • Australian Journal of Science, 6 (1944), p 176
  • Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Proceedings, Mar 1944, no 133, p 26
  • Herald (Melbourne), 11 Mar 1944, and Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Mar 1944
  • Sir Colin Fraser papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

John Kennett, 'Fraser, Sir Colin (1875–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fraser-sir-colin-6236/text10733, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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