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McCusker, Sir James Alexander (1913–1995)

by Patrick Cornish

This article was published online in 2019

James McCusker, by Stevenson, Kinder &​ Scott Corporate Photography, 1983

James McCusker, by Stevenson, Kinder &​ Scott Corporate Photography, 1983

State Library of Western Australia, 3759544

Sir James Alexander McCusker (1913–1995), entrepreneur and philanthropist, was born on 2 December 1913 in Perth, only child of Victorian-born parents James Alexander McCusker, storekeeper, and his wife Lilian Mary, née Brittain. Jim attended Highgate Primary School, winning a scholarship to Perth Modern School (1925–28) before family financial pressures forced him to find work. He joined the Commonwealth Bank of Australia as a junior clerk, studying accounting and gaining experience at a number of branches in the metropolitan area and country. As a boy he had learned much about customers’ needs through pushing a barrow to deliver fruit and vegetables, before and after school, for his father's greengrocery.

On 16 November 1936 McCusker married Mary Martindale While, a machinist, at St Alban’s Anglican Church, Highgate Hill, Perth. Mary supplemented the family income by working as a seamstress. After World War II broke out in 1939, he enlisted first in the Citizen Military Forces (1940–41) then, from 15 December 1941 to 15 June 1944, the Australian Imperial Force. He served in Australia with the 2/10th Armoured Regiment, rising to sergeant (1943). Returning to his employment with the bank, and having qualified as a valuer, in 1948 he was transferred to Hobart as a security officer. He returned to Western Australia in 1953 when he was promoted to manager of the bank’s main State branch in William Street, Perth.

In 1959 McCusker resigned to establish and manage several terminating building societies. The decision to strike out on his own was prompted, he said later, by a wish to stay in Western Australia rather than seek promotion in another State. Five years later, with his son Malcolm and a business associate, Bob McKerrow, he founded the Town and Country Permanent Building Society (chairman of directors, 1964–83). With a starting capital of £100,000, within five years the company held over $100 million in assets. Having merged with the Western Australian Building Society in 1983, the company had increased its assets to over $900 million by 1990.

Specialising in marketing house, land, and finance as a package, McCusker led the company to purchase and develop property in outer suburban and country areas. During the 1980s when interest rates were high, he established a rental-purchase scheme to attract customers whose lack of equity would otherwise disqualify them from securing a loan. Unlike most member-based financial institutions, he sought finance from overseas banks, establishing lines of credit which the company could draw on at times of strong housing demand. Such arrangements allowed flexibility in the way housing finance could be disbursed; he estimated that as many as two hundred thousand Western Australian families had benefited from the comparatively low rates of interest offered by his company.

Elected State president (1978–79) of the Australian Association of Permanent Building Societies, McCusker was a member (1979–82) of the State committee of the Indicative Planning Council for the Housing Industry; a member (1982) of the Rural and Allied Industries Council; and chairman (1980–81) of the State Committee of Inquiry into Rates, Taxes, and Charges related to Land Values. In 1984 he was briefly associated with the John Curtin Foundation, a body established to raise funds for the State branch of the Australian Labor Party, and he was deputy chairman (1985) of Exim Corporation, an initiative of the ALP government. He had been knighted in 1982.

In 1990 the ANZ Banking Group purchased the Town and Country Building Society; Sir James's shares were reported to have gained him $80 million of the $145 million that ANZ paid. He was appointed chairman of the bank’s local advisory board. Through his family company, Martindale Pty Ltd, he became a generous benefactor. When his wife started to suffer from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, he established (1990) the Sir James McCusker Training Foundation to provide support and training for carers, and the McCusker Foundation for Alzheimer’s Research. A donor to a number of medical research organisations and welfare providers, he was praised by the Anglican archbishop of Perth, Peter Carnley, for his generous but careful support which was ‘in part determined by his ability to become himself really committed and involved’ (On Line 1995, 2).

Through Martindale, McCusker also engaged in land development, agriculture, and grazing, acquiring pastoral properties in the Murchison and Gascoyne regions, and farms at Chittering and New Norcia. Having a keen interest in farming, he was made a life member of the Royal Agricultural Society of Western Australia. In conjunction with the faculty of agricultural science at the University of Western Australia and the Western Australian Department of Agriculture, he and his son established the Martindale Research Project to develop cattle and sheep fodder plants for dry lands.

McCusker professed a talent for timing but retained a degree of humility. He liked to work on the bank counter to have direct contact with customers, but stopped because his staff ‘thought I was looking over their shoulder’ (Smith and Urquart 1988, 96).  Despite his wealth, he led a quiet and unostentatious life. Known for his dry wit and self-deprecatory style, he had a habit of ‘producing the apt quotation from Shakespeare or the Bible’ (McIlwraith 1995, 13) at board meetings. He died on 30 September 1995 at Dalkeith, Perth, survived by his son and two daughters, and was cremated; his wife had died earlier the same year. The Business Review Weekly had that year listed him as one of Australia’s richest men, with a net worth of $120 million. Malcolm McCusker later became governor of Western Australia (2010–14); he and his sisters continued to manage the family trusts and companies. A park in the suburb of Iluka commemorates his contribution to Western Australia.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Armstrong, Paul. ‘Sir James Leaves Town for Country.’ West Australian, 31 July 1990, 9
  • Bell, Susan. ‘Praise for a Noble Man Who Gave Much.’ West Australian, 3 October 1995, 10
  • McCusker, Jim. Interview by D. Lipscombe, 1978. Sound Recording. State Library of Western Australia
  • McCusker, Malcolm. Personal communication
  • McIlwraith, John. ‘Banker Transformed Housing Finance.’ Australian, 16 October 1995, 13
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, WX18045
  • On Line (Anglican Homes Incorporated) ‘Anglican Homes Benefactor Sir James McCusker Dies at 81.’ 1 (November 1995): 2
  • Smith, Roger and Barry Urquart. The Jindalee Factor: Insights on Western Australian Entrepreneurs. Perth: Marketing Focus, 1988

Additional Resources

Citation details

Patrick Cornish, 'McCusker, Sir James Alexander (1913–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccusker-sir-james-alexander-23804/text32677, published online 2019, accessed online 14 December 2019.

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