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Syme, Sir Colin York (1903–1986)

by D. T. Merrett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Syme, Sir Colin York (1903-1986), businessman, was born on 22 April 1903 at Claremont, Perth, eldest of four children of Victorian-born Francis Mark Syme, insurance inspector, and his South Australian-born wife Marion Barr, née Gardiner. Colin attended (1912-19) Scotch College, Perth, before commencing studies in the faculty of arts at the University of Western Australia in 1920. The family returned in the following year to his father’s home State and Colin completed his studies at the University of Melbourne (LL.B, 1923).

In 1923 Syme took articles with the leading firm of Hedderwick, Fookes & Alston, becoming a partner in 1928 and specialising in company law. A council member (1934-39) of the Law Institute of Victoria, he made his mark in the financial world with equal speed. In 1929 he was appointed to the board of Union Theatres (Victoria) Ltd, which owned the freehold of the magnificent new State Theatre in Melbourne. The company was a part of Stuart Frank Doyle’s Union Theatre group, which ran into financial difficulties during the Depression. Union Theatres (Victoria) leased the State Theatre to Union Theatres Ltd, which went into liquidation in 1931. As a consequence Union Theatres (Victoria) defaulted on the dividends for its preference shareholders, whose interests Syme represented. The firm passed into their hands with Syme as chairman in 1933. A major reconstruction of the company followed and dividend payments resumed in 1935. Syme left the board in 1937 having made a reputation as a determined and imaginative businessman. He had married Patricia Hamilton Baird on 5 April 1933 at St Michael’s Church of England, Vaucluse, Sydney.

Two of Australia’s leading companies, the pastoral business Goldsbrough Mort & Co. Ltd. and the iron and steel producer Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd, secured Syme’s services as a director in 1937. He was fortunate that his family was firmly placed within Melbourne’s commercial and social networks. His uncle, David York Syme, sat on the boards of the National Bank of Australasia and the Mt Lyell Mining & Railway Co. Ltd, where his fellow directors included Harold Darling, the chairman of BHP, Thomas Alston, the senior partner of Hedderwick, Fookes & Alston, and Kenneth Niall, the chairman of Goldsbrough Mort. In 1937 Darling sought Alston’s permission to offer Colin Syme a seat on the BHP board. The managing director, Essington Lewis, had earlier joined a fishing party on the Howqua River, presumably to appraise the qualities of the younger man at closer quarters. Having passed the test, Syme accepted the offer, but had to borrow to pay for his 500 qualifying shares. He confessed his ignorance of steelmaking and was sent to the Newcastle works for a week’s indoctrination, which he found ‘baffling’.

For the next thirty-four years BHP absorbed the greater part of Syme’s energies. Shortly after joining the board, he undertook an examination of the company’s superannuation scheme for senior staff, against the advice of the chairman. Having revealed its deficiencies, Syme set about improving the scheme. He quickly moved to the centre of affairs, working closely with Darling and Lewis before the outbreak of World War II. The company was consolidating its position at the heart of Australian heavy industry, having absorbed its steel-producing rival Australian Iron & Steel Ltd in 1935, and investing heavily in a number of steel-fabricating companies and the joint venture Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation Pty Ltd.

Syme sat on the boards of many BHP subsidiary companies. He became an increasingly powerful figure during the war years, especially after Lewis left to act as director-general of munitions. Yet he found time in 1942-45 to serve part time as a private in the 3rd Battalion, Volunteer Defence Corps. Meanwhile, Syme and Darling became heavily involved in BHP’s day-to-day operations; the return of Lewis after the war made little difference. When Darling died in 1950, Syme became deputy-chairman under Lewis; two years later he assumed the chairmanship, a position he held until 1971.

During Syme’s nineteen years as chairman, BHP was transformed from a domestically focused steel producer to a resources company increasingly involved in exporting and offshore operations. Throughout the 1950s the company was criticised for its conservatism, evidenced by a cautious approach to expanding production capacity and adopting new technologies. Customers complained about scarce supplies and high prices, while shareholders grumbled about low profits and dividends. Syme was the public face of the company, unruffled and calm in the eye of the storm, always with a pipe in hand. He was a commanding presence, described by the Herald in 1966 as a ‘six footer, with greying dark hair, combed sharply back, a rather full, good-looking face, [and] a quietly resonant voice’.

The resources boom of the 1960s provided great opportunities, allowing BHP to develop new markets and new products. Syme, now in his sixties, led a company that grew rapidly in size and complexity. It became increasingly international in its orientation; Syme strongly defended the contentious influx of overseas funds into the Australian mining industry. BHP had been a highly centralised organisation with key decisions being taken by a small group, including Syme, at the Melbourne headquarters. This system was breaking down under the strain of expansion into a wider range of activities and greater geographic spread. Syme was a driving force behind two major organisational reviews in 1959 and 1966–the latter involving American management consultants Cresap, McCormick & Paget–that strengthened the senior executive and devolved responsibility to product divisions. To oversee its implementation, Syme resigned as a partner of his law firm in 1967 and was a full-time executive chairman and director of administration until his retirement in 1971. He worked closely with Sir Ian McLennan, who was appointed managing director in 1967 and succeeded Syme as chairman.

In 1953 Syme had become chairman of Goldsbrough Mort, but the sure touch he showed at BHP deserted him. Goldsbrough Mort drifted under his stewardship, failing to rectify a series of earlier strategic mistakes and managerial weaknesses. It accepted a proposal to merge with a rival in 1962. Syme declined an invitation to chair the new company, Elder Smith Goldsbrough Mort Ltd, but was a director until 1975.

Stepping down as chairman of BHP and relinquishing his other directorships did not permit Syme to enjoy a quiet life. He had followed the examples of his grandfather, father and uncle in serving on hospital boards of management. He was president (1961-78) of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. In 1973 the Victorian government appointed Syme and Sir Lance Townsend, dean of medicine at the University of Melbourne, to undertake a wide-ranging review of the State’s health system. Reporting in October 1975, Syme and Townsend proposed a new Health Commission, responsible to the minister of health and replacing the Commission of Public Health, the Hospitals and Charities Commission and the Mental Health Authority. Syme guided the implementation of this major reform as chair (1975-78) of the Victorian Health Planning Committee.

Knighted in 1963 and appointed AK in 1977, Syme was the inaugural president (1980-83) of the Order of Australia Association. Holding many additional offices and gaining awards along the way, he became a member of the International Advisory Committee for the Chase Manhattan Bank in 1965 and a vice-chairman of the Private Investment Co. for Asia in 1969. He chaired the Nuffield Foundation Australian Advisory Committee, was a member (1976-77) of the Interim Australian Science and Technology Council and a director (1971-77) of the Australian Industry Development Corporation. An honorary member (1966) of the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, he received honorary degrees from the University of New South Wales (D.Sc., 1960) and Monash University (LL.D, 1981) and the (Sir) John Storey medal (1971) from the Australian Institute of Management.

Sir Colin was one of the leading businessmen of his generation. His success came from his capacity for hard work, common sense and balanced perspective. The boards he chaired worked harmoniously; he sought consensus rather than conflict. While the press saw him as a reserved man, he described himself as ‘gregarious’, and a lover of good food and wine. He possessed a warm sense of humour and, for all his power and influence, he was a modest man. A member of both the Melbourne and the Australian clubs, he served as the latter’s president in 1971-72; his standard luncheon order there was a half serving of whiting. Although living in Toorak, he continued to drive an old Holden car, used a battered plastic briefcase and wore well-used suits and coats. He enjoyed fly-fishing, describing it as ‘a combination of art and science – a skill never finally learnt which creates a further striving for learning’. A remote shack ‘beyond Eildon’ enabled him to pursue this passion. Predeceased by his wife (d.1981) and survived by their daughter and three sons, Syme died on 19 January 1986 at Howqua and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $1,889,368.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Iverson, The Leaders of Industry and Commerce in Australia (1963)
  • H. Hughes, The Australian Iron and Steel Industry (1964)
  • G. A. Manning, The Elder Smith Goldsbrough Mort Merger (1970)
  • A. Trengove, ‘What’s Good for Australia..!’ (1975)
  • T. Hewat, The Elders Explosion (1988)
  • P. de Serville, The Australian Club (1998)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 6 Aug 1965, p 9, 22 Dec 1966, p 4, 7 Sept 1968, p 23, 20 Oct 1975, p 1
  • Age (Melbourne), 22 July 1970, p 2, 23 Jan 1986, p 18
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 8 Jan 1969, p 35, 21 July 1970, p 10
  • B884, item V363595 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

D. T. Merrett, 'Syme, Sir Colin York (1903–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/syme-sir-colin-york-14874/text26063, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 17 July 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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