Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McConnan, Sir Leslie James (1887–1954)

by D. T. Merrett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Leslie James McConnan (1887-1954), by Sam Hood

Leslie James McConnan (1887-1954), by Sam Hood

State Library of New South Wales

Sir Leslie James McConnan (1887-1954), banker, was born on 15 June 1887 at the Manse, Benalla, Victoria, second son of Rev. Alexander Candlish McConnan, a Presbyterian minister from London, and his South Australian-born wife Harriet-Jane, née Don. On completing his schooling at North Eastern College, Leslie joined the local branch of the National Bank of Australasia in June 1904. He worked as a clerk at Birchip (1905-07), Hamilton (1907-09) and Melbourne before being promoted accountant (1910) at Corowa, New South Wales, and inspecting accountant (1912).

Moving to Sydney, McConnan held various responsible positions in city branches, becoming sub-manager of the George Street branch in 1920. At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, on 10 January 1921 he married Scottish-born Gladys Anne Hay. In 1923 he was appointed manager for South Australia. He acted as temporary manager (1928-29) of the London office, then resumed his post in Adelaide. By August 1930 he was back in Sydney as manager for New South Wales. Assistant chief manager at head office, Melbourne, from December 1934, he succeeded (Sir) Ernest Wreford as chief manager on 1 May 1935.

McConnan's polished performance as a witness before the royal commission into the monetary and banking systems in February 1936 impressed the commissioners. Not surprisingly, he argued strongly that the existing relationship between the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and the trading banks—based on voluntary co-operation—provided the fledgling central bank with all the powers it required, and that legislation to give the Commonwealth Bank wider authority was both unnecessary and unworkable. He foresaw many of the practical problems that would arise from trading banks being required to hold uniform proportions of their deposits with the Commonwealth Bank. His stewardship of the National Bank was competent rather than remarkable. He lacked the outstanding technical banking skills of his predecessor, but was better liked by the staff. Due to the depressed 1930s and wartime regulations, the performance of the National was undistinguished in terms of its return on shareholder equity and its asset growth. The National's most conspicuous success was its acquisition of the Queensland National Bank in 1947 when McConnan out-manoeuvred another eager bidder.

By 1941 McConnan belonged to the Savage, Australian and Melbourne clubs, the Union Club (Sydney) and the Adelaide Club, as well as to the Royal Melbourne and Royal Sydney golf clubs. In close touch with many individuals who were to reshape conservative politics, he was deeply opposed to the 'socialist' policies of the Australian Labor Party in general, and to its proposals regarding banking in particular. He was a foundation (1942) council-member of the Institute of Public Affairs, Victoria, a connexion which brought him into contact with a wider group of businessmen. In these councils McConnan was the practical man of action with shrewd political sense rather than a political philosopher. His wider purpose was to bring about the defeat of the Labor government, and so end what he perceived as its threat to free enterprise. A range of powerful commercial interests were represented on the National Bank's board: its directors included H. G. Darling and (Sir) George Coles—both foundation councillors of the I.P.A.—and Sir Frank Clarke, who were willing to allow their chief executive to play an overtly political role. Moreover, McConnan met regularly with (Sir) Ian Potter, the prominent stockbroker, and (Sir) Robert Menzies.

Once the government's plans to continue the substance of its wartime banking controls into the peace became known in late 1944, it was McConnan who took the offensive. He was dismissive of his fellow-bankers who avoided a head-on confrontation. In contrast, he played directly on the fears of the banks' employees and customers about the loss of their jobs and freedom. His campaign included direct mail to customers and a series of radio broadcasts. McConnan mobilized the banking community at large, drawing on the private banks' 22,000 staff, 80,000 shareholders and 1.25 million customers as a single-issue political faction within the new Liberal Party. The Associated Banks of Victoria, of which McConnan was president (1938-39, 1942-44 and 1947-49), provided the administrative support for a co-ordinated nationwide campaign against the government, while the individual banks were generous in providing personnel and funds. McConnan revelled in the fight, particularly after the Chifley government introduced legislation to nationalize the trading banks in 1947. He was absent from his desk for months at a time, travelling to lobby and organize, to galvanize his loyal troops of bank-workers, and to make public appearances.

With the defeat of the government in 1949, McConnan returned to his banking duties. A grateful board asked him to remain another three years beyond the usual retirement age. McConnan, however, had no grand plans for the bank, now free of the threat of nationalization, but still shackled by the Banking Act of 1945. The form of central banking that McConnan had argued against in 1936 had come to pass. It fell to another generation of bankers to negotiate peace with the regulators.

Knighted in 1951, McConnan eventually retired on 31 July 1952. He became a director of several companies, including the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society, and some investment firms associated with Potter. Sir Leslie was also a member of the central executive of the Victorian division of the Australian Red Cross Society, and of the finance and management committees of Royal Melbourne Hospital; in addition, he was a trustee of the Royal Society of Victoria, a councillor of Geelong College, Melbourne Scots club and the Australian-American Association, and president of Banks Rowing Club. His business and private worlds intersected in city clubs and on the golf links, and through his work for numerous charities. He regretted his lack of formal education, but its absence did not prevent him becoming one of the most influential men of his generation. Of middle height and medium build, he had expressive dark brown eyes, 'kindly and smiling when in a good humour, penetrating and questioning when not'. Following complications arising from a fall, he died on 22 December 1954 in the Alfred Hospital and was cremated; his wife and daughter survived him. His estate was sworn for probate at £18,843. (Sir) William Dargie's portrait of McConnan is held by the National Australia Bank, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • A. L. May, The Battle for the Banks (Syd, 1958)
  • G. Blainey, Gold and Paper (Melb, 1958)
  • C. D. Kemp, Big Businessman (Melb, 1964)
  • D. T. Merrett, ANZ Bank (Syd, 1985)
  • C. B. Schedvin, In Reserve (Syd, 1992)
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, Feb 1945, May 1952
  • information from the National Australia Bank Group Archives, Springvale, Melbourne.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. T. Merrett, 'McConnan, Sir Leslie James (1887–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcconnan-sir-leslie-james-10916/text19391, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018

Leslie James McConnan (1887-1954), by Sam Hood

Leslie James McConnan (1887-1954), by Sam Hood

State Library of New South Wales