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O'Grady, Oswald James (1901–1971)

by Martin Shanahan

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

Oswald James O'Grady (1901-1971), businessman, was born on 6 April 1901 at Parkside, Adelaide, son of Thomas Patrick O'Grady (d.1916), motorcar manufacturer, and his wife Violet Isabel, née Fraser. After attending school at Unley and Woodville, Ossie was employed as a clerk by the National Bank of Australasia. In 1918 he moved to the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Ambitious to improve himself, he disregarded his mother's wish that he become a lawyer and studied commerce at night at the University of Adelaide (Dip.Com., 1923), a decision in part taken to enable him to continue supporting her.

From an early age O'Grady wanted to emulate the business and sporting success of his father. Despite being short and bespectacled, he developed a fierce competitive spirit which helped him to excel in sport throughout his life. He played Australian Rules football for the West Torrens club, represented the State, and in his first season was runner-up (1923) for the Magarey medal; his football career ended when stomach cancer was diagnosed in 1925. He worked as a sports-writer for the Sunday Mail and continued to be associated with West Torrens (president 1954-71). Australian dinghy (1930) and 12-metre yachting (1947) champion, he was also a member of the four which won the State lawn bowls title in 1934.

At St Paul's Anglican Church, Adelaide, on 9 October 1926 O'Grady had married Jessie Bartlett Adcock Ellis (d.1967). He left the bank in 1930, allegedly because of lack of promotion. Within months of taking up an offer to manage a small finance company, he was acting as its liquidator, but he had seen the potential of its cash-order business. He established a similar enterprise, Cash Orders Ltd. That the firm succeeded through the Depression was testament to his hard work and business acumen.

Throughout the 1930s O'Grady's cash-order business in linen and Manchester grew, expanding locally and into Western Australia. Careful selection of clients enabled the company to allow its customers flexibility in repayments. Common sense, initiative, local connexions and a desire to succeed kept interstate rivals at bay. None the less, through the war and immediately after, the business endured tight financial conditions. The company, by then named David Murray (Holdings) Ltd, prospered due to rising immigration, new home building, and consumer demand for such products as electrical appliances.

The seeds of financial collapse, however, were sown when O'Grady followed an American lead and began funding expansion on the basis of debentures rather than retained earnings and direct borrowing. In 1957 David Murray merged with Robert Reid & Co. Ltd. The late 1950s saw a frantic expansion in Reid Murray Holdings Ltd. The board's small-town mentality and O'Grady's self-confident, but trusting, management style began to lose touch with a nationwide company's diverse interests in finance, retailing and real-estate development.

The collapse of Reid Murray in the credit squeeze of 1961—one of the largest corporate failures in Australia's business history to that time—left O'Grady battered but unbroken. Although he was fined for making loans to finance share issues and for issuing a prospectus with false statements, he was cleared by a parliamentary inquiry of any moral culpability. He maintained that precipitate and ill-judged asset sales by the trustees of debenture holders had increased the firm's losses, as had the opportunism of business rivals. His stoicism masked feelings of betrayal by some trusted social and business associates.

O'Grady's attitude was never particularly materialistic. The loss of a good deal of his personal wealth affected him little. Rather than dwelling on the past, he turned his energy to improving his family's properties in South Australia. While he had been described as 'Australia's most dynamic businessman', he always ensured that he balanced his time between family, work, community obligations and sport.

A generous (and frequently anonymous) donor to charity, O'Grady regarded his involvement in local affairs as a responsibility he owed to others. He helped to establish a youth centre at Woodville, and served as founding president of South Australian Youth Clubs, vice-president (1962-63) of the Kindergarten Union of South Australia, and a governor of the Adelaide Children's Hospital. Survived by his three sons and two of his three daughters, he died of cancer on 27 January 1971 in Royal Adelaide Hospital and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Sykes, Two Centuries of Panic (Syd, 1988)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1963-64, 1, p 807, 1966-67, 1, p 1045
  • Sunday Advertiser (Adelaide), 18 Feb 1956, 24 Aug 1957
  • News (Adelaide), 22 Nov 1961
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 4 Aug 1963
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 5 Aug, 14 Dec 1963, 7 May 1965, 19 Nov 1966, 26, 28 Jan 1971
  • O'Grady papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Martin Shanahan, 'O'Grady, Oswald James (1901–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ogrady-oswald-james-11291/text20149, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 21 July 2019.

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

View the front pages for Volume 15

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