Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smith, William John (Bill) (1882–1972)

by Gordon Rimmer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

William John (Bill) Smith (1882-1972), industrialist, was born on 28 May 1882 at Walton, Liverpool, England, sixth surviving child of David Smith, engineer from Belfast, and his Lancashire-born wife, Elizabeth, née Bernard. With his mother and siblings he reached Melbourne on 2 November 1885 to join his father; they settled at Spotswood in 1887. Endowed with a powerful physique and a reputation as a fighter, Bill left school at 12 and began work as a 'water boy' at the Melbourne Glass Bottle Works, owned by Alfred Felton and Frederick Grimwade. On 28 September 1897 he was indentured as an apprentice glassblower and, as assistant secretary and secretary, helped to form the Melbourne Glassblowers' Union. Believing himself a marked man, he took ship to Sydney in 1902 and on arrival found himself blacklisted. Unable to enlist for military service in the South African War, he worked for a small firm where he earned eighteen shillings a day blowing a hundred dozen bottles. Nine months later he returned to Melbourne where he was employed by the Caledonian Glass-Bottle Works, whereupon M.G.B.W.'s general manager William James McNeilage successfully sued him for breaking his indentures.

In the protected national market created by Federation, M.G.B.W.'s operations expanded and when it acquired the Caledonian works in 1904 Smith, at McNeilage's instigation, became its manager. After restoring the profitability of this plant, Smith was sent to South Australia in 1907 to manage M.G.B.W.'s latest acquisition, G. Hinrichsen's Adelaide glassworks. He arranged mergers with the three existing glass-bottle manufacturers in Adelaide, erected a modern factory at Kilkenny, effectively controlled the South Australian market, and protected customers' property rights by producing 'named' bottles. On 12 December 1908 he married Anna Gertrud Hoff (d.1924) at Flinders Street Baptist Church; they had three sons and a daughter.

Appointed manager of the rundown Sydney Glass Bottle Works in 1915, Smith in July became assistant general manager of the Australian Glass Manufacturers Co. Ltd, formed in July 1915 with issued capital of £276,005 by a merger with (Sir) Mark Sheldon's Waterloo Glass Bottle Works Ltd. Based in Sydney, Smith negotiated a large overdraft to re-equip the Dowling Street factory with American semi-automatic bottling machinery, manned by skilled glass-gatherers recruited in America; the Waterloo works was closed; and Vance & Ross Pty Ltd was bought out for £40,000 and shut down. He soon managed to allay considerable strife and unrest within the industry and from 1917 had no serious strikes. By the end of the war, A.G.M., profiting from reduced imports at a time of rising demand, dominated the State's bottle trade with its lower cost-structure.

When McNeilage began to groom his son as his replacement, Smith, who had expected to succeed as general manager, accepted the position of managing director of the Zetland Glass Bottle Works Ltd in 1920. Within eighteen months, A.G.M. invited Smith back and the two firms merged in October 1921 when A.G.M. was re-registered with an issued capital of £950,695. As general manager and a director for the next thirty-five years, Smith presided over the spectactular development of one of Australia's largest industrial empires. With thick wavy hair, small glittering eyes, 'a chest like a barrel, his massive head set on a thick neck … and muscular of every limb', he dominated policy-making through his forceful personality. Self-made, a prodigous toiler and extensive traveller, Smith was a tough, cantankerous autocrat with a swashbuckling style. Nicknamed 'Knockout' and 'Gunboat', he thrived on risks and brooked no opposition. With abundant resources at his disposal, mergers formed the basis for growth. Wherever possible he internalized transactions through vertical integration and diversified the company's product range whenever the government protected the domestic market.

In the mid-1920s Smith embarked upon other types of glass manufacture, such as flintware, with the acquisition of the Crown Crystal Glass Co. Ltd in 1924. Australian Window Glass Pty Ltd began to produce sheet glass by the Fourcoult process in 1932. Three years later, after difficulties with the quality of Tarzan safety glass, Smith, with Pilkington Bros Ltd of St Helen's, England, invested in and became a director of Pilkington Bros (Australia) Pty Ltd, established to make toughened sheet glass for motor vehicles. By the mid-1930s A.G.M.'s glass-manufacturing activities were as comprehensive as local conditions permitted. The company had diversified its activities both directly and through subsidiaries into producing cast-iron, coal, containers, tools, machine parts, structural steel for the fabrication of producer goods, and into real estate. In January 1939 Smith's diverse, far-flung industrial empire was reorganized as Australian Consolidated Industries Ltd with an issued capital of £2½ million and Smith as managing director. A large part of the company's profits now came from activities other than glass-making.

Early in 1940 Smith reluctantly made a controversial agreement with the Menzies government which gave him a virtual monopoly to manufacture motor cars under the protection of the Motor Vehicles Engines Bounty Act (1939). The minister for trade and customs, John Lawson, who had organized the deal, resigned in February 1940 after his arrangements for leasing a racehorse from Smith were made public. Thereafter repeated allegations were made in Federal and State parliament and by the press that 'Knockout Smith' exercised 'such influence in Governmental quarters that he can buy members of Parliament'.

Appointed director of gun ammunition in the Department of Munitions in June 1940, Smith efficiently organized the manufacture of shell bodies, 'pressing into service the resources of all the State railway workshops, the steel industry, and other private engineering firms'. When he stepped down in August 1942 (after constant friction with the Labor government) production had 'leaped to astronomical levels'. He remained a focus of public controversy. He was at least twice sued and acquitted of improper business practices: in a breach of contract case in 1940, it was alleged that he was of German descent. In October 1941 he unsuccessfully demanded a public inquiry into charges against him made under privilege in State parliament, against which he had no means of redress: 'I have been shot at, and sniped from ambush, and, as a British citizen, most despitefully used'. Although such repeated allegations were proved unfounded, the publicity tarnished his reputation and rumours continued to circulate. In 1945 he survived extortion and death threats.

In 1944 Smith took on the Curtin government, when it paradoxically denied the existence of his car-manufacturing agreement and repealed the relevant Acts. Eventually, after arbitration A.C.I. was awarded £56,000 compensation. The company grew rapidly post-war, venturing into manufacturing fibre glass and starting production in Asia with a factory in Singapore in 1948. Smith was appointed C.B.E. in 1956. When he retired next year shareholders' funds exceeded £18 million.

At St Clement Danes Church, London, Smith had married a 31-year-old widow Jessie Davenport Barbour (d.1969), née Nicholson, on 20 October 1937. In the late 1930s he founded two family investment companies, Danmark Pty Ltd and Forestwood Pty Ltd, with his children as shareholders; in 1943 the companies successfully appealed to the High Court of Australia against taxation assessments: the commissioner of taxation had claimed that Smith 'had been guilty of every possible fraud'. Next year he bought into the ailing tabloid, Smith's Weekly, in which from 20 September to 15 November 1947 he published reminiscences of his early years; he sold out for a handsome profit in 1950. He indulged in motor-boating, swimming, riding and motoring with gusto, but, apart from business, Smith's main interest was the turf: he had bought his first racehorse in 1917. From 1930 he raced in partnership with Frank Crittenden as 'F. Smithden'; they sent their horses to Harry Telford, trainer of Phar Lap. About 1937 he bought St Aubin's stud at Scone where Ajax and sundry imported stallions stood. In 1947 he paid a record £27,300 for the champion thoroughbred Shannon (whom he soon sold). He gave up racing because of rising costs in 1951.

Smith died at his Point Piper home on 14 July 1972 and was buried in South Head cemetery. He was survived by his two sons and daughter Thelma, wife of Senator Sir Alister McMullin. Smith's estate was valued for probate at $10,647. In 1941 he had claimed that 'the world has gone well with me. I direct industry … on a vast scale … I have no trouble with labour. Men who have grown up in the industry with me call me “Bill” and I call them by their Christian names. I know every man in our works'. With his passing, Australia lost one of her few industrial giants.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1939-1941 (Canb, 1952)
  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (Canb, 1958)
  • C. McKay, This is the Life (Syd, 1961)
  • J. R. Poynter, Russell Grimwade (Melb, 1967)
  • T. C. Barker, The Glass-Makers, Pilkington 1826-1976 (Lond, 1977)
  • Rydge's Business Journal, 1 June 1935, p 426
  • People (Sydney), 26 Sept 1951
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Mar, 1 Apr, 24 Sept, 24 Oct, 5 Nov 1940, 1, 9 Oct, 14, 21 Nov 1941, 9 Sept 1942, 29, 30 Oct, 10, 16, 17, 19 Nov 1943, 7 Mar, 3 Aug, 13, 14, 15 Sept, 28 Oct 1944, 23 Mar 1945, 31 Mar 1956, 18 July 1972
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 June 1945
  • Herald (Melbourne), 5 Nov 1935, 25 Oct 1940, 30 June 1945, 21, 27 Aug 1947, 6 Apr 1957, 29 May 1969
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 20 Sept–15 Nov 1947
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 22 Sept 1951
  • Nation, 8 Apr 1961
  • Australian Financial Review, 17 July 1972
  • Bulletin, 29 July 1972.

Citation details

Gordon Rimmer, 'Smith, William John (Bill) (1882–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-william-john-bill-8492/text14939, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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