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Grimwade, Geoffrey Holt (1902–1961)

by J. R. Poynter

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Geoffrey Holt Grimwade (1902-1961), business leader, was born on 19 September 1902 at Caulfield, Melbourne, fourth of five sons of Melbourne-born parents Edward Norton Grimwade, merchant, and his wife Phelia Maud, née Whittingham. Born into the business dynasty founded by his grandfather Frederick Sheppard Grimwade and Alfred Felton, Geoffrey followed his father, uncles and brothers to Melbourne Church of England Grammar School in 1912. War soon disrupted family life. His uncle Harold Grimwade embarked a colonel and returned a general, and his three elder brothers all enlisted: one, Risdon, was killed at Gallipoli, and when the eldest, Fred, was shot down, wounded and captured in France in 1916, his parents took Geoff and his younger brother to London for some months while they sought, with eventual success, repatriation of the prisoner from Germany. Geoff returned to school until 1920 without further incident, apart from his alleged responsibility for an explosion which wrecked the chemistry laboratory.

By the time F. S. Grimwade died in 1910, the family business had become a network of enterprises manufacturing chemicals, glass bottles and industrial gases as well as pharmaceuticals. (Sir) Russell Grimwade, the uncle with whom Geoff was to be most closely associated in business, insisted that he follow his example by taking a science degree. Entering Trinity College, University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1923), Geoff completed his degree without particular distinction, excelled at tennis, football, athletics and golf, and made himself conspicuous riding a motorcycle. In 1924 he went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge (B.A., 1927), became president of the Hawkes Club, and gained Blues for tennis and, most notably, golf. Recognized as one of the best amateur golfers in Europe, he led Cambridge to a famous victory in 1927, defeating Oxford's Harry Oppenheimer in a dramatic play-off. Grimwade financed holidays on the Riviera by judiciously backing himself against rich but less skilled golfers on Mediterranean courses. His appetite for sport and for gambling was never to diminish, though the extent of the latter activity was to be known only to his closest friends.

He shared with his father a reserved, at times forbidding, demeanour, but where Norton was bookish, with some interest in the arts, Geoff was extrovert, philistine, energetic, and caustic in wit, although companionable in private enjoyments. Dark, and of middle height, he did not look athletic, despite his sporting skills, but had a powerful physical presence.

On 17 February 1931, four years after his return from Cambridge, Grimwade married Mary Lavender ('Pie') Stuart at St John's Anglican Church, Toorak; they settled in a flat at South Yarra before acquiring their main residence, at Toorak. Four daughters—but to Geoff's regret no sons—were born between 1937 and 1946, the year the Grimwades acquired a property at Rye which became a centre of family life at weekends and holidays. Geoff was never a keen farmer, though he took a scientific interest in improving soils with trace elements.

Competition in a difficult market and a threat of overseas takeover had led in 1929 to the formation of Drug Houses of Australia Ltd, a holding company for seven firms in five States. Geoff's father Norton was the first chairman, but the family's interests were diluted, even in the Victorian operations of Felton, Grimwade & Duerdins Pty Ltd, which Geoff joined. In December 1928 he replaced his father on the board of Australian Oxygen and Industrial Gases Pty Ltd, of which his uncle Russell was chairman. Russell soon enlisted him as managing director of a new venture, Carba Dry Ice Pty Ltd; Geoff negotiated the right to manufacture the 'gas which could be wrapped in newspaper' in Britain in 1929, on an eventful trip which included return through the New York stock-market crash and a Pacific cyclone. He admitted very large personal losses in the crash, but soon demonstrated his outstanding business skills and strategic sense in successfully establishing Carba. When Australian Oxygen was merged into Commonwealth Industrial Gases Ltd in 1935, he transferred to the new board, and Carba (which by 1938 was healthy enough to expand into South Australia) and C.I.G. were his main business responsibilities for some time. In 1936 he also joined the board of J. Bosisto & Co. Pty Ltd, pioneer producers of eucalyptus oil.

After the outbreak of World War II Grimwade enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, but before completing training he was sent to the United States of America in 1941 to negotiate agreements for the manufacture of optical glass in Australia, and was discharged from the army when he returned in 1942. In that year he became involved, with (Sir) Leslie McConnan, in the establishment of the Institute of Public Affairs. Convinced that Australian interests, and especially business, had been ill-served by all the political parties, Grimwade threw himself into the I.P.A.'s role as an initiator of debate and formulator of policy, chairing (from 1943) its industrial committee which drafted a detailed postwar programme as 'an alternative to socialism' and which became a de facto executive. He had strongly independent views, distinctively Australian despite family links with Britain, and insisted that the programme include several proposals, especially in the fields of labour relations and profit-sharing, unwelcome to traditional conservatives. Hard working, blunt to the point of tactlessness, and 'terribly persistent', he eventually prevailed. His further insistence that the I.P.A. have no formal party association—despite pressures for involvement in the collapse of the United Australia Party, the 1943 election and the 1944 referendum—was another crucial contribution to its independent development. Grimwade welcomed the establishment of the Liberal Party of Australia, and became a close friend of his Mornington Peninsula neighbour Harold Holt, but had no taste for political life, nor perhaps the necessary skills, though he did improve his limited ability in public speaking. He believed the work of the I.P.A. itself to be so important that for a time it might have tempted him from the world of business.

Grimwade felt a special responsibility to continue family business activities, since none of his brothers and only two of his cousins (one of whom died young) entered the firms. As his father and uncles retired, he took many of their roles, though not the whole range Norton had played as the senior of the brothers. Geoff had little to do with Australian Glass Manufacturers Co. Ltd or its successor Australian Consolidated Industries Ltd, in part because he disliked W. J. 'Gunboat' Smith, its managing genius. Geoff replaced his father on the board of Cuming Smith & Co. Ltd, though not as chairman.

In 1942 Grimwade had joined the board of D.H.A. and in 1950 was appointed chairman and managing director. Modernizing the company's unwieldy structure and strategies became his principal task, symbolized in moving from the old headquarters in Flinders Lane to Bourke Street. He shared Russell's curiosity about new products, producing a sunscreen cream in the 1950s, but his major projects for Drug Houses were international joint-ventures in chemicals and manufacturing, including a large petrochemical plant in Sydney. He gradually reduced his involvement in Carba and even in C.I.G.

Grimwade's stature as one of the ablest businessmen of his generation was earned, not inherited, and extended beyond the family businesses. After an early involvement in Victorian Insurance Co. Ltd, he joined the Victorian board of the Australian Mutual Provident Society in 1939, became its chairman in 1945 and was appointed to the principal board in Sydney in 1957. A member (from 1951) of the new board of the Commonwealth Bank, he quickly developed a warm respect for its governor, H. C. 'Nugget' Coombs. Grimwade also became one of the few men equally at home in the business worlds of Sydney and Melbourne, with (Sir) James Vernon, (Sir) Vincent Fairfax, (Sir) Colin Syme and (Sir) James Forrest among his close associates. His other business interests included Courtaulds (Aust.) Ltd, Wrightcel Pty Ltd and Kempthorne Lighting Ltd.

Work never absorbed all Geoff Grimwade's prodigious energy. Like other Grimwades, he gave much time to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, joining its board in 1948 and becoming chairman in 1958. (He did not, however, feel sufficiently at ease with either art or charity to succeed Russell on the Felton Bequests' Committee, on which there had been a Grimwade since its inception.) Geoff continued to play competitive sport throughout the 1930s, and golf all his life; he was a member of the Royal Melbourne and president (1956-61) of the Sorrento golf clubs. Keen on duck-shooting, he nevertheless took a camera on safari in Africa rather than a gun. He attributed his excellence at billiards to nights spent playing compulsorily with his father 'when I wanted to be out chasing girls'. A member of the Union (Sydney), Australian and Melbourne clubs, he was president of the Australian Club at 49, an unusually young age. Geoff became increasingly interested in racing, joining the committee of the Victoria Amateur Turf Club in 1959 and owning several horses, including Khyber (he was addicted to rhyming slang) which won at 20/1 carrying £1000 of its owner's money and a jockey who had a heart attack before weighing in. Grimwade remained a prodigious gambler, in the market and at play. His holidays at Rye always included a poker school, and he also played frequently in Sydney where he once took from (Sir) Frank Packer—whom he incongruously nicknamed 'Dainty'—£5000 on the turn of a single card. With Pie he played bridge. He claimed that his records, which were meticulous, showed he won slightly more than he lost at gambling, and he certainly enjoyed it, as he did smoking, and drinking his favourite 'mallet'—one part of French to five of gin—habits which no doubt contributed to the increasingly ruddy complexion which earned him the nickname 'Purp'.

Grimwade was appointed C.M.G. in 1960. On 22 February 1961, in Sydney on a business trip, he was found dead of a coronary occlusion in his room in the Australia Hotel. His death, at the height of his influence, was a significant loss to business, and in particular to D.H.A. which became the first major Australian victim of overseas asset-strippers a few years later. Survived by his wife and daughters, Grimwade was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £388,239.

Select Bibliography

  • C. D. Kemp, Big Businessmen (Melb, 1964)
  • J. R. Poynter, Russell Grimwade (Melb, 1967)
  • IPA Review, Jan-Mar 1961, p 13
  • company records of Drug Houses of Australia Ltd and Commonwealth Industrial Gases Ltd (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Carba Dry Ice Pty Ltd records
  • private information.

Citation details

J. R. Poynter, 'Grimwade, Geoffrey Holt (1902–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 27 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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