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Russell, Robert Geoffrey (1892–1946)

by Robert Murray

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Robert Geoffrey Russell (1892-1946), manufacturer and distributor, was born on 26 May 1892 at Castlemaine, Victoria, son of Robert Frederick Russell, a school inspector from Ireland, and his second wife Lucy Coles, née Gammon, who was born in Victoria. Geoff grew up at Geelong and at Hawthorn, Melbourne. He completed his schooling at Scotch College, without showing the scholarly aptitude of his father. Instead, from an early age, he developed an intense interest in mechanical engineering. He was both a perfectionist and ambitious, but was not driven by love of money.

After completing an apprenticeship to a fitter and turner at the Glenferrie workshop of A. H. McDonald & Co., Russell worked as a journeyman motor mechanic at Wangaratta. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 22 March 1915 and served at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, mainly with the 6th Field Ambulance. Promoted sergeant in May 1916, he returned to Australia in June 1919 and was discharged from the army on 9 August. At Holy Trinity Cathedral, Wangaratta, on 14 April 1920 he married with Anglican rites Hazel Margaret Notcutt.

Russell had become a partner in a garage at Wangaratta in 1919. Restless and determined, he sold out after about two years and went into debt to buy a 'tin shed' workshop at Collingwood. There he established a specialist engine-reconditioning business which he registered as the Auto Grinding Co. Pty Ltd. His first equipment, obtained by hire purchase, included a Heald cylinder grinder, a lathe, a vertical drilling machine and a power hacksaw.

In 1924 Russell moved to larger premises in Queensberry Street, Carlton, the centre of Melbourne's motor trade. Two years later he and his friend Bill Ryan formed Replacement Parts Pty Ltd. Its office was located in Elizabeth Street. More genial than the taciturn Russell, Ryan proved an ideal partner. The company distributed automotive spare parts, accessories and general equipment, stocking its own products and those of other firms. Profitable trading enabled the Russell Manufacturing Co. Pty Ltd to be set up (1927) in North Melbourne. By 1930 this piston-making factory had moved to Burnley Street, Richmond. The trade name Repco was registered that year.

Russell embarked on his ventures at a time of small-scale manufacturing in Australia, when proprietors often ate a sandwich lunch with their workers on the footpath; business lunches might consist of a meat pie, an apple slice and a cup of tea in a nearby café. Respected by his employees, Russell was one of the 'hard but fair' employers much valued in the period. He had a talent for welding a team from varied but complementary individuals. Several of his apprentices and trainees became Repco executives.

The number of motor vehicles in Australia grew rapidly: 123,000 were registered in 1921 and 656,000 in 1930. The expansion made Russell and Ryan wealthy. Their businesses catered for the numerous 'niche' requirements of an industry that had a proliferation of motorcar brands, an inconsistent quality of original components and difficulty in meeting the demand for parts. The Depression wrought mixed effects on Repco. More motorists chose to recondition and repair their vehicles rather than buy new ones. The Federal government increased protective tariffs on Australian manufactures. Both these developments enabled the business to survive a severe reduction in liquidity caused by customers who were slow—or failed—to make payments.

The Repco group of companies resumed their growth after the slump. Spare-parts branches were opened at Sale and Hamilton, and, under the umbrella of Replacement Parts (Tasmania) Pty Ltd, at Launceston and Burnie. By the mid-1930s the four companies employed over five hundred people and manufactured 60 per cent of the goods they sold. Russell bought out Ryan in 1936. Next year he floated Repco Ltd as a public company; he was its chairman and managing director. During World War II he worked fervently to supply the armed services' needs for engine parts and repairs. In addition to running Repco, he managed a plant for the Department of Aircraft Production. In spare moments he worked on aircraft cylinder heads at his home. His elder son Tom was killed in action in 1943 while serving with the Royal Australian Air Force.

Russell was one of a band of visionary, innovative and technically gifted entrepreneurs who provided a firm base for Australian manufacturing after World War I. The enterprises which they established helped the economy to adjust to peacetime conditions and later to recover from the Depression. In World War II their productive capacity was critical to the nation's survival. With probing, steel blue eyes and a rigid moral code, Russell became more reserved and aloof as he aged. He fell seriously ill in 1945, resigned from Repco's board, sold his controlling interest for some £200,000 and retired to his mansion, Amberley, at Lower Plenty. Survived by his wife, and their daughter and younger son, he died of a cerebral tumour on 19 April 1946 at Heidelberg and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • manuscript histories of Repco by J. Goode, and by R. Murray and K. White, in R. Murray/K. White papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Repco papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert Murray, 'Russell, Robert Geoffrey (1892–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/russell-robert-geoffrey-11588/text20687, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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