Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Johnston, Robert Henry (Bob) (1924–1995)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published online in 2019

Robert Henry Johnston (1924–1995), businessman, was born on 26 May 1924 at Camperdown, Sydney, second of three children of William Johnston, ship’s mate, born in the Shetland Islands, and his London-born wife Helen, née Malton. Brought up at Lakemba, Bob attended North Newtown Boys’ Intermediate High School and in 1938 began work as a copy-boy at John Fairfax & Sons Ltd. Mobilised for service in World War II, he joined the Royal Australian Naval Reserve on 1 June 1942 and was soon selected for officer training. In January 1943 he was appointed as a midshipman and posted to HMAS Assault, the navy’s amphibious-training establishment at Nelson Bay. From March 1944 he served in the Pacific as an acting and confirmed sub-lieutenant aboard the landing ship, infantry, HMAS Kanimbla. He was promoted to provisional lieutenant in May 1946 before the termination of his appointment on 3 June. His war service left him with a hearing disability, but in 1953 he was ruled to have ‘no pensionable degree of incapacity’ (NAA A6769).

Returning to his civilian occupation, Johnston studied at Sydney Technical College, passed his accountancy exams, and became an associate of the Australian Society of Accountants. By 1951 he was chief financial officer at Fairfax. That year he became a sales executive at the motor vehicle distributor Hastings Deering Pty Ltd, later taken over by Leyland Motor Corporation Ltd. He rose to become managing director of its trucks and bus division in Melbourne, before returning to Sydney, where he was a director of British Leyland’s Australian subsidiary. Joining Thiess Toyota Pty Ltd in 1972, he was managing director of the company’s Sydney-based commercial vehicle arm. In 1986 he was appointed chairman and chief executive officer, a rare example of a non-Japanese chief executive of a Toyota enterprise. He became president when the two arms of the company merged in 1989 to form Toyota Motor Corporation Australia Ltd, based in Melbourne. Two years later Toyota overtook Holden and Ford as new car market-leader in Australia for the first time. He was president of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries from 1990 to 1992.

Following negotiations with Senator John Button, the minister for industry, technology, and commerce, Johnston embarked on his great achievement, the establishment of Toyota’s motor car-manufacturing plant at Altona, Melbourne. With the factory under construction, in the 1993 Federal election campaign, Johnston joined Ford’s Jac Nasser and Mitsubishi’s Mike Quinn in condemning the zero tariff policy of John Hewson’s Liberal Party Opposition. The first Altona-built Toyotas were produced in 1994. A board restructure in December 1992 had seen Johnston move to become chairman of the company. The Keating government chose him in November 1993 to be chairman of the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade), and the next January he was appointed AO. He retired from Toyota in December 1994.

Johnston’s marriage at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney, on 9 July 1958 to Raymonde Dorothy Garner, a comptometrist, ended in divorce on 8 July 1971. He was nearly six feet (183 cm) tall, with black hair, brown eyes, and a dark complexion. A newspaper report in 1980—‘Our 25 Most Eligible Men’—described him as ‘a quiet man who lives in an elegantly modern townhouse in the Eastern Suburbs’ and a ‘keen tennis player who entertains with tremendous style on his cruiser’ (Sun Herald 1980, 123). He also enjoyed playing at the Australian Golf Club. Johnston was president of the Melanoma Foundation at the University of Sydney. He suffered from cancer himself in his later years, losing the sight of his right eye as a result, and for a time sported an eyepatch. Early in 1995 he also underwent an operation for a brain tumour, but was soon back at work.

After opening a new Austrade office in Detroit, Johnston was on a private visit to Houston, Texas, when he died on 7 May 1995. He was cremated after a funeral at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point. He had regarded automotive manufacture as the key to Australia’s future competitiveness. Toyota’s Altona plant closed on 4 October 2017; on 20 October Holden, too, closed its factory in Adelaide, ending motor car manufacturing in Australia.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Brewer, Peter. ‘Revered Captain of Trade.’ Canberra Times, 9 May 1995, 23
  • Conomos, John. ‘Prime Mover Behind Our Car Industry.’ Australian, 16 May 1995, 16
  • Lyons, Patrick. ‘Motoring Chief Helped Save Car Industry.’ Herald Sun (Melbourne), 12 May 1995, 88
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, JOHNSTON R H
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney). ‘Our 25 Most Eligible Men.’ 6 April 1980, 123

Additional Resources

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Johnston, Robert Henry (Bob) (1924–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/johnston-robert-henry-bob-27657/text35188, published online 2019, accessed online 16 September 2019.

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