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Myer, Kenneth Baillieu (Ken) (1921–1992)

by Sue Ebury

This article was published online in 2019

Kenneth Baillieu Myer (1921–1992), businessman, philanthropist, and patron of the arts and sciences, was born on 1 March 1921 at San Francisco, United States of America, eldest of four children of Russian-born Sidney (Simcha) Baevski Myer (1878–1934), merchant and philanthropist, and his second wife, Victorian-born (Dame) Marjorie Merlyn, née Baillieu (1900–1982). Ken and his siblings’ early years were divided between the United States and Melbourne. The family returned permanently to Victoria in 1929 and Ken was enrolled as a border at Geelong Church of England Grammar School. There he came under the influence of the headmaster Dr James Darling, a Christian socialist whose belief in social responsibility became embedded in Ken’s consciousness along with his father’s philanthropy. When his father died suddenly on 5 September 1934, his life changed dramatically. Aged thirteen, he assumed his place as head of the family and joint heir to the Melbourne retail empire founded by Sidney in 1911.

Conscientious, hardworking, and fiercely competitive, Myer was on his way to New College, Oxford, United Kingdom, to read Modern Greats in 1939 when World War II broke out. Enrolling instead at Princeton University, New Jersey, United States, he studied liberal arts for one year until his mother demanded he return to Australia. On 17 February 1941 Myer was appointed as a sub-lieutenant, Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve. Having trained and then instructed in the Anti-Submarine School at HMAS Rushcutter, Sydney, he joined the destroyer HMAS Arunta in February 1942, as anti-submarine control officer. The ship patrolled eastern Australian waters and escorted convoys to Papua and New Guinea. Off Port Moresby on 29 August, Arunta attacked the Japanese submarine RO 33 with depth charges. Myer’s accurate reporting of the submarine’s movements ensured its destruction; he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Sent to Britain in 1943 for service with the Royal Navy, Myer spent three months as a trainee submariner but discovered it was not for him. In September he was promoted to lieutenant and the next month posted to the destroyer HMS Tenacious, operating in the Mediterranean. On 21 May 1944 Tenacious and two other destroyers sank the German submarine U 453 off Cape Spartivento, Sardinia. For his prominent part in the action, Myer was mentioned in despatches. He went to England in November to qualify as a navigation officer. From February he served in the frigate HMS Louis in the eastern Atlantic. In May he transferred to the destroyer HMS Ursa in the British Pacific Fleet. He was demobilised in Australia on 27 February 1946. Throughout his service, he had been liked and respected by his superiors, peers, and subordinates.

On 12 March 1947 in an Anglican service at Christ Church, St Kilda, Myer married Prudence Marjorie, née Boyd (1925–2005), a student at the University of Melbourne (LLB, 1947). To inherit his portion of his father’s estate, Myer was required to be a senior executive by age thirty. The added responsibility of marriage saw him launch into retailing. He became a director of the Myer Emporium in 1948, a month before travel to the United States inspired his most significant contribution to the company’s corporate strategy and Australian retailing. California’s postwar retail and urban planning environment showed him the future: great shopping centres linked to booming suburbs by expressways, demonstrating the interdependence of shopping, customers, and automobiles. Back in Melbourne and bursting with ideas, he joined the Town and Country Planning Association of Victoria (president, 1953–58) and enthusiastically lobbied organisations, businessmen, engineers, town planners, and architects. Privately, he and his brother Baillieu (born 1926), known as ‘Bails,’ funded traffic engineering scholarships to Yale University and retained planners and estate agents to identify development sites. However, their cousin and chairman of Myer, (Sir) Norman Myer, favoured regional development by acquisition. After Norman’s death in 1956, Ken became deputy chairman and joint managing director and embarked on building Chadstone, Australia’s first American-style regional shopping centre. Eventually, Myer stores ringed Melbourne and dominated Australian retailing.

Honorary secretary (1948–58) of the National Gallery Society of Victoria, Myer was also a member of the Victorian Arts Centre Building Committee (later Victorian Arts Centre Trust) (1958–89; chairman 1965–89). A visit to China during the first year of Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958) alerted him to Asia’s importance for Australia. This was the catalyst for founding, with Baillieu, the Myer Foundation (1959) and funding the establishment of the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Melbourne (1959). As president of the Myer Foundation (1959–92), he enjoyed the rare privilege of backing his own judgement and ideas with money beyond what he required for his needs.

Impressed by Myer’s widening business and civic responsibilities, Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies appointed him to the interim National Library Council in 1960. Menzies called on him twice more; he was appointed to the Universities Commission (1962–65) and the Committee of Economic Enquiry (1963), known as the ‘Vernon Committee’ after its chairman Sir James Vernon. Myer’s long absences from Melbourne were welcome escapes from the family business and a deteriorating marriage; however, the government’s rejection of the Vernon Committee report soured him against further such exercises.

Fulfilling his mother’s ambitions, Myer became chairman of the family business in 1966. He felt thwarted by his inheritance and described his life as ‘programmed’; responsibility for the ‘biggest retailing chain below the equator’ (Prudence Myer Papers) was a burden. Finding an escape in nature, with the architect (Sir) Roy Grounds (1905–1981) he had purchased 544 acres at Tanja, New South Wales, in 1965. Grounds and Myer donated the restored and replanted forest and several dwellings to the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service in 1976. Known as ‘Penders,’ it was later added to Mimosa Rocks National Park and listed on the New South Wales Heritage Register (2013).

Myer experienced a technological epiphany at the opening of the National Library of Australia (1968) when a visiting librarian observed that the building’s information retrieval systems were mired in the eighteenth century. Subsequently he became a passionate, well-informed advocate for information technology, seizing every opportunity to position the NLA in the vanguard of computer-driven technology. He personally funded travel and research by senior staff that resulted in the purchase of software infrastructure leading to the online Australian Bibliographic Network. As the NLA’s fourth chairman (1974–82), he was ‘meticulous, hard-working and utterly exhausting … He was completely in control … and remorseless in eliciting all the facts’ (Thomson 1992, 8).

Professor Derek Denton’s experiments on merino sheep, specifically the control of aldosterone (the salt-retaining hormone) secretion, at the University of Melbourne triggered Myer’s fascination for science. With Baillieu and the stockbroker and financier (Sir) Ian Potter, he helped to underwrite the costs of building the Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine at the university (1971) and served as its first president (1971–90). He served as a member of the Australian National Capital Planning Committee (1971–82). In 1972 he took long service leave in Japan where he met and fell in love with twenty-seven-year-old Yasuko Hiraoka. That year, as one of sixteen signatories of a controversial letter to the press calling for a change of Federal government, he provoked public outcry, family division, and angry repercussions by Myer customers. His influence with government increased when Gough Whitlam became prime minister. Whitlam asked him to consider succeeding Sir Paul Hasluck as governor-general, but Myer refused; his undisclosed reason was Yasuko, who was living with him by 1974.

Myer was appointed AC in 1976. He resigned as chairman of Myer that year, untethering himself from his mother and family responsibilities, and married Yasuko on 5 September 1977 in Sydney. He was the first chairman of the restructured Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 1983–86. To his regret, he regarded it as ‘one of his principal failures’ (Myer 1990–92) as a chairman. The ABC board and staff were initially enchanted by their tall, charming chairman with laser-like intelligence and piercing blue eyes, but he came into conflict with members of the board over access to documents and resigned in anger and frustration.

In 1989 the Australian Libraries and Information Association recognised Myer’s ‘outstanding service to the promotion of a library and to the practice of librarianship’ (Whitlam, quoted in Thompson 1992, 8) with its Redmond Barry award. His generosity brought other unsought honours, including foundation honorary fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities (1969); life member, National Gallery of Victoria (1975); honorary LLD (1971), University of Melbourne; and, by special election of people who are not scientists but have rendered conspicuous service, fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1992).

Myer was known for his sense of humour, his generosity with time, friendship, and money, and his modesty. However, conflict could swiftly turn his exuberance into bleak melancholy. Wes Walters’s portrait (1990) captures his cool, patrician stare that some recipients found unnerving. A baptised Anglican, Myer was often identified in the public mind as Jewish. When rejected for membership of the Melbourne Club, he concluded the cause was anti-Semitism. Gardening, the natural environment, and fishing were lifelong loves. From fishing as a small boy in California, he graduated to angling with dry fly, or spinning on the coast at Penders, sharing these activities with Yasuko. They would travel to the wilds of Alaska when the salmon were running, and they died there in a light aircraft crash on the way to a fishing camp on 30 July 1992. Their ashes are interred in Tokyo, in the handsome Myer Memorial designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens at Box Hill Cemetery, and scattered at Penders. Myer was survived by one daughter and four sons from his first marriage. He left the bulk of his substantial estate to the Myer Foundation.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Barber, Stella. Sydney Myer: A Life, A Legacy. Prahran, Vic.: Hardie Grant Books, 2005
  • Canberra Times. ‘Arts Patron, Lovely Bloke.’ 3 August 1992, 14
  • Denton, Derek. ‘Kenneth Baillieu Myer 1921–1992.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 18, no. 1 (2007): 97–111
  • Ebury, Sue. The Many Lives of Kenneth Myer. Carlton, Vic.: Miegunyah Press, 2008
  • Myer, Ken. Interview by Heather Rusden, 23 November 1990–13 February 1992. National Library of Australia
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, Myer K. B.
  • Prudence Myer Papers. Private collection
  • Thompson, John. ‘Kenneth Baillieu Myer: An Appreciation.’ National Library of Australia News, November 1992, 7–10
  • University of Melbourne Archives. 2011.0092, Kenneth Bailleu Myer Papers

Additional Resources

Citation details

Sue Ebury, 'Myer, Kenneth Baillieu (Ken) (1921–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/myer-kenneth-baillieu-ken-27624/text35045, published online 2019, accessed online 18 August 2019.

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