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Jones, Norman Edward Thomas (1904–1972)

by Narelle Crux

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

Norman Edward Thomas Jones (1904-1972), businessman, was born on 2 August 1904 at Petersham, Sydney, son of Edward Jacob Jones, commercial traveller, and his wife Eliza Esther, née Swain, both Australian born. Following Edward's death in 1906, the family moved to Newcastle, New South Wales. Educated at Hamilton and Cooks Hill high schools, Norman studied part time at Newcastle Technical College (Dip.Chem., 1925) where he won a bronze medal for the highest academic results in chemistry in the State's technical colleges. At St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Newcastle, on 17 November 1928 he married Mabel Elizabeth Swainson.

In February 1920 Jones had joined the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd as an office-boy at its Newcastle steelworks. Next year he moved to the chemical laboratory as a junior chemist and in 1926 was sent to the open hearth department to learn steelmaking. In 1933 he was promoted to the manager's office at the steelworks as assistant to the production superintendent. He was transferred back to the open hearth department in 1934 as assistant-superintendent, and in the following year studied steelmaking in Europe and the United States of America. From 1936, as a special cadet, he gained eighteen months general experience working throughout Australia in a range of areas in B.H.P. Two years later he was appointed technical assistant to the general manager Leslie Bradford at the company's head office in Melbourne. With Bradford, he played a key role in the management of B.H.P. during World War II and was appointed assistant general manager in 1943.

After A. S. Hoskins retired in 1949, Jones became a director of B.H.P.'s subsidiary, Australian Iron & Steel Ltd. In February 1950 he was appointed that company's managing director. In the same month, when Essington Lewis stepped down, Jones replaced him as chief general manager of B.H.P. He was appointed managing director and joined the B.H.P. board in January 1952. He also joined the board's finance committee on its establishment in 1959. Lewis's retirement as chief general manager and the death of the company's chairman Harold Darling in the same year had marked the beginning of a new era in B.H.P. Lewis had been the company's chief executive-officer since 1921 and Darling its chairman from 1922. Both men had formidable personalities and Lewis's reputation for ruling the company with a rod of iron was legendary.

Described as humble, quietly spoken, self-effacing and unpretentious, Jones could not have been more different. He had a wiry and athletic figure, and none of the imposing physical characteristics of his predecessor. He hated being photographed and pictures of him taken in later life show his face hidden behind heavy spectacle frames. He was the only managing director of B.H.P. in modern times not to have had his portrait painted for the company's collection.

To add to the challenge of succeeding Lewis, Jones inherited a company whose performance after the end of World War II had been weak. Labour and coal shortages, industrial problems and management's fear that there would be another depression, combined to frustrate growth. As the monopoly producer of steel in Australia, B.H.P. adopted a policy of underproduction and did not equal its pre-war output of steel until 1953. It soon found, however, that consumption of steel, spurred by demand generated by the new immigrant population, outstripped production. Between 1950 and 1952 Australia's steel imports increased by almost 50 per cent. B.H.P. soon lost its competitive edge in pricing (from 1932 it had produced the world's cheapest steel) and by 1955 the company had lost almost all the export markets it had gained before the war.

Jones had a tough job to turn the firm's performance around. Major expansion and modernization programmes were first undertaken at the steelworks at Newcastle and soon after at Port Kembla where a flat products plant, incorporating a hot strip mill, plate mill and tinplate mill, was installed. In 1952 B.H.P. reached agreement with the Western Australian government to build a fence-post plant and steel rolling-mill at Kwinana in exchange for iron-ore leases in that State. A subsequent agreement in 1960, which saw B.H.P. establish a blast furnace at Kwinana in 1968 and agree to build a fully integrated steelworks in Western Australia by the end of the 1970s, secured additional iron-ore reserves for the company. Jones's discussions with the Western Australian and Federal governments were critical in securing approval to mine iron ore for export. This permission would later assist B.H.P. and its co-venturers to develop the massive Mount Whaleback deposits in Western Australia.

At Whyalla the company negotiated successfully with the South Australian government over the security of iron-ore leases and upgraded its operations by the addition of a fully integrated steel plant which opened in 1965. B.H.P.'s commitment to research and development was boosted by the establishment of laboratories at Newcastle and later in Melbourne, and the company began to invest in some innovative technologies, notably basic oxygen steelmaking. As a result of these and other initiatives, B.H.P. profits trebled, steel output more than doubled, and the company's equity base more than trebled in the ten years to 1965.

To support the growth in its steel business, B.H.P. opened a ferro-alloy plant in Tasmania in 1962, established new iron-ore mines in Western Australia and South Australia, and in 1964 secured leases over manganese deposits on Groote Eylandt off the Northern Territory coast. At its yard in Whyalla the firm built seven ships for its fleet in the decade after 1955. In response to the widening scope of operations during these years, B.H.P.'s management structure was reorganized in 1959 and ten general managers, including three at the steelworks, were appointed.

Jones had joined B.H.P. only five years after the company had expanded its business into steel production. He headed the organization in 1960 when it made its next critical decision to diversify, this time into oil and gas exploration. Titles were taken up in Bass Strait in 1960. In partnership with Esso Standard Oil (Aust) Ltd, B.H.P. discovered commercial reserves of natural gas in 1965 and oil in 1967. Sensing the new opportunities presented by oil and gas and minerals, Jones urged the board to commission a comprehensive review and restructure the company's management. The chairman Sir Colin Syme subsequently noted: 'We felt our organisation wasn't as good as it should have been. We were inbred and couldn't see the wood for the trees'.

The review was conducted by the American management consultants, Cresap, McCormick & Paget, during 1966 and resulted in the most thorough overhaul of B.H.P. in its history. The key recommendation of the review was to reorganize the company along product lines—steel, oil and gas, and minerals—and to give each division a degree of responsibility and accountability for its business performance and profits.

In his capacity as managing director of B.H.P., Jones played a significant role in the establishment of the Australian Administrative Staff College at Mount Eliza, Victoria. 'Some of us felt it was vital and necessary to train middle and top management', he said. The college was incorporated as a private company in 1955; a college company of senior executives from prominent Australian businesses acted as guarantors, but with limited liability. Jones was a councillor (1955-72), a member of the college company and signatory to the college's first articles of association.

Having earlier indicated his wish to retire as managing director—as at least one commentator noted, he 'often seemed uncomfortable in the . . . role'—Jones stepped down on 31 January 1967. He had worked with the firm for forty-six years, and been its chief executive for sixteen, during a period of significant growth and change. Later he remarked, 'my time with B.H.P. was not work for me, it captivated me'. In March 1967 he was reappointed to the B.H.P. board as a non-executive director, a position he held until his death.

As a senior executive with B.H.P., Jones had been invited to join the governing bodies of many prominent organizations. In 1947 he had become a councillor of the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures (vice-president 1948-72); the auditorium at its head office was named in his honour. In 1951-71 he was a council-member of the University of Melbourne, and for fifteen of those years chairman of the university finance committee. From 1958 until 1972 he sat on the board of management of the Alfred Hospital (vice-president from 1967). He joined the Institute of Public Affairs as a councillor in 1961, was elected to its board in 1965 and was treasurer (1965-72). In 1960 he had been appointed to the Dafydd Lewis Trust and in 1961 he joined Sir Leslie Martin's committee, established to inquire into the future of tertiary education in Australia.

In Melbourne the family lived at Toorak. They also had a small property at Kallista in the Dandenong Ranges, where Norman indulged his enthusiasm for gardening. He listed his other interests as golf and tennis. He was a member of the Melbourne, Australian and Athenaeum clubs (Melbourne), the Union Club (Sydney), the Newcastle Club, the Weld Club (Perth) and the Adelaide Club. Following his retirement, in 1967-72 Jones was a director of the National Bank of Australasia Ltd, Australian Paper Manufacturers, and the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd.

A member of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, the Australian Institute of Metals and the Institute of Australian Foundrymen, Jones received international recognition for his contribution to the steel industry. He was a member of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers and in 1962 was made a member of the American Iron and Steel Institute, New York. In 1967-68 he was president of the Iron and Steel Institute, London. He was awarded honorary doctorates of science by the New South Wales University of Technology (1955) and the University of Newcastle (1966). In 1969 he was appointed C.M.G. Like Lewis, he reputedly declined a knighthood.

Survived by his wife and son, Jones died of a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm on 10 August 1972 at Prahran and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $385,831. During an association which lasted almost fifty-two years, this man—who once said that he never imagined leading the company and that his ambition was 'simply to be a good chemist'—had seen B.H.P. grow from a young Australian steelmaker into a more diversified business poised for success in international resources and energy markets. His contribution to the company's development was distinguished by absolute loyalty, a fine sense of judgement and outstanding ability in management.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Ivurson (compiler), The Leaders of Commerce and Industry in Australia (Melb, 1963)
  • A. Trengove, "What's Good for Australia...!': The Story of BHP (Syd, 1975)
  • D. Sawer, Australians in Company (Melb, 1985)
  • BHP Review, 11, no 1, Dec 1933, 27, no 1, Dec 1949, 27, no 2, Mar 1950, 29, no 2, Mar 1952, 39, no 4, June 1962, 48, no 3, Sept 1972
  • BHP Co Ltd, Annual Report, 1950-1972
  • BHP Journal, Spring 1971
  • University of Melbourne, Gazette, Dec 1972
  • minutes of meetings of Directors, BHP Co Ltd, 1950-72, and Chairman's addresses to shareholders, 1950-72, and Jones papers, 1941-69, and C. Y. Syme papers, 1945-72, and information files, 6E—Jones (BHP Billiton Archives, Port Melbourne).

Citation details

Narelle Crux, 'Jones, Norman Edward Thomas (1904–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jones-norman-edward-thomas-10639/text18909, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 October 2014.

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

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