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Thiess, Sir Leslie Charles (Les) (1909–1992)

by Peter Bell

This article was published online in 2016

Sir Leslie Charles Thiess (1909–1992), construction and mining industries entrepreneur, was born on 8 April 1909 at Drayton, near Toowoomba, Queensland, son of locally born parents Heinrich (Henry) Thiess, carpenter and farmer, and his wife Mary Paulina, née Rutsch. The eighth of eleven children and sixth of nine brothers, and with one surviving sister, Leslie experienced the traditional upbringing of a rural German family, inculcating the values of thrift and hard work. He gained a childhood reputation as independent and restless, and as a leader among his siblings.

 Four of Thiess’s elder brothers became itinerant farm workers. In 1921 Henry sold his dairy herd and bought a tractor, a mobile chaff-cutter, and a corn-thresher, to enable his sons to increase their earnings through contract work. This early lesson in the economic advantage of labour-saving machinery undoubtedly helped shape Les’s business career. Leaving Drayton State School, he joined his brothers in their travels to farms around the Darling Downs. His first independent job, at the age of eighteen, was a small contract with the Main Roads Commission. On 14 December 1929 at St Paul’s United Evangelical Lutheran Church, Toowoomba, he married Christina Mary 'Tib' Erbacher (d. 1985). Soon afterwards he persuaded his father to buy a tractor and scoop, so that he could obtain earthmoving work.

Thiess secured his first sizeable road-building contract in partnership with Henry Horn in 1933, and brought in four of his brothers: Cecil, Bert, Stan, and Pat. They spent the Depression years in roadside family camps, working on small road-making and earthmoving projects in southern Queensland. In the mid-1930s Les purchased a Caterpillar D4 tractor and converted it into his first bulldozer. When Horn retired in 1939 the firm became Thiess Bros. It was to be incorporated as a proprietary company in 1946 and would eventually grow into a group of thirty or more interlocked enterprises.

In World War II Thiess won a succession of military engineering contracts, including an airfield at Kingaroy, and excavations in Brisbane for the Commonwealth government’s future munitions factory at Rocklea and military hospital at Greenslopes.  Thiess Bros established its base in Brisbane. When Japan entered the war Thiess successfully resisted a move by (Sir) John Kemp, the deputy director-general of allied works, Queensland, to requisition his plant and redeploy his staff, arguing that his business could be more efficiently utilised intact. The firm carried out military construction projects for the Allied Works Council and the United States Army, beginning with the upgrading of the Eagle Farm aerodrome, which brought access to imported American machinery and unlimited fuel. Concurrently, the business expanded into open-cut coal mining, first at Blair Athol, then in New South Wales at Muswellbrook. The brothers formed Thiess Holdings Pty Ltd in 1950 and floated the public company Thiess Holdings Ltd in 1958, with Leslie as managing director.

After the war Thiess had joined (Sir) Manuel Hornibrook and others in forming Milne Bay Traders Ltd, which imported and recycled machinery and scrap metal from former American bases throughout the Pacific. He also bought two surplus Avro Anson trainers, the beginning of a private aircraft fleet. The Thiess group ploughed grassland at Peak Downs for the Queensland-British Food Corporation, enlarged its coal-mining operations in Queensland and New South Wales, built drive-in theatres, pioneered canal developments on the Gold Coast, and added a pastoral division. Completing ever-larger projects, Thiess companies were associated with many of the biggest civil engineering contracts in Australia in the post-war decades—for railways, suburban subdivisions, highways, bridges, aviation infrastructure, and power stations. Dams became a specialty: after completing the Bostock reservoir at Ballan in Victoria, Thiess Bros built many more, including (in New South Wales) the Tooma, Geehi, Talbingo, and Murray 2 dams—and associated tunnels—for the Snowy Mountains Authority. Among their overseas constructions was the Sembawang dry-dock in Singapore.

Thiess played a key part in developing new open-cut coal mines at Moura and Kianga in Queensland’s Bowen Basin. In 1963 he formed the multinational consortium Thiess Peabody Mitsui Coal Pty Ltd, which commenced the export of Queensland coal to Japan. Mainly because of losses on their Snowy Mountains work, the Thiesses were in financial difficulty in the early 1960s. The sale of nearly half their share of Thiess Peabody Mitsui to the Peabody Coal Co. and a loan from that company eased the crisis. In 1964 the Queensland government decided to build a railway to transport coal from Moura to the port of Gladstone—originally the consortium’s responsibility—in exchange for higher royalties and rental charges. The government’s decision doubly assisted Thiess Bros: the consortium was relieved of the railway’s capital cost and Thiess won the construction contracts. Leslie’s commercial links with Japan had led to an agreement with Toyota Motor Sales Co. Ltd to market their products in Australia from 1959. Thiess Toyota Ltd became a new arm of his group, dominating Australian sales of Japanese commercial vehicles, particularly the popular Toyota Landcruiser.

In the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy’s devastation of Darwin in December 1974, next month the Whitlam Federal government appointed Thiess as chairman of the Darwin Reconstruction Commission. Controversy quickly arose over the question of Thiess Bros’ tendering for contracts. Thiess found it intolerable that his firm might be denied work as a result of a perceived conflict of interest on his part, and he resigned in March. In the 1970s he appeared to be winding down his business involvement. He relinquished office as managing director of Thiess Toyota in 1976, and as chairman of Thiess Bros in 1978. His career seemed to be over when CSR Ltd succeeded in a hostile takeover, gaining a majority of shares in Thiess Holdings in 1979. Although Leslie remained on the board, the other former directors retired. He was not finished as an entrepreneur, however. His family company, Drayton Investments Pty Ltd, joined with Westfield Ltd and Hochtief AG to buy back the construction division of Thiess Holdings from CSR.

At the age of seventy-two Thiess formed with BP Australia Ltd and Westfield Ltd a consortium which, in 1981, beat thirty-one other tenderers to develop a new central Queensland coalfield, Winchester South. Opponents of the Queensland government questioned the propriety of the tender process as the Thiess group's proposal was not the most financially advantageous to the State. A Labor politician, R. J. Gibbs, alleged in State parliament that Jack Woods, the director-general of mines, had holidayed at Thiess's beach house shortly before the tenders were considered. In another business combination, the Thiess Watkins Group, Thiess won the licence for a casino in Townsville, and his tenders were accepted for a number of government constructions, including prisons and the project management of the 'Expo ’88’ site in Brisbane.

There was a hint of personal scandal in 1982 when a Labor front-bencher, Kevin Hooper, linked Thiess’s name in parliament with a paternity case brought by a Qantas hostess. His name arose again in Tony Fitzgerald’s (1987–89) commission of inquiry into corruption. Among his findings, Fitzgerald determined that Thiess had made dubious gifts to a government minister, Russell Hinze, taking the form of unsecured loans from Thiess subsidiary companies. Much worse followed in August 1989, when the journalist Jana Wendt broke a story on Channel 9's A Current Affair alleging that Thiess had bribed Premier (Sir) Joh Bjelke-Petersen, an old friend and business acquaintance, to gain the controversial Winchester South project, the Expo ’88 deal, and other contracts.

Unwisely, Thiess sued Channel 9, Wendt, and a former Thiess Watkins employee, Ron Woodham, for defamation. The court case from January to April 1991 aired his business and political dealings over many years. A pantheon of leading Australians, Gough Whitlam among them, gave him character references. The jury found that he had been defamed, and awarded him a pyrrhic $55,050 in damages, but concluded that thirteen out of twenty-one claims in the Channel 9 story were true. Not only had Thiess bribed Bjelke-Petersen with gifts—including an aircraft hangar and equipment repairs—worth nearly $1 million to secure government contracts, but he had also defrauded a Japanese business partner, Kumagai Gumi, and other shareholders in his companies.

With that judgment Thiess 'lost the good name he had built over a lifetime of achievement’ (Walker 1991, 5). He insisted he had done nothing corrupt, believing that his gifts had been within the norms of rural business mateship from an earlier era. Even more unwisely, he appealed to the Full Court, which in 1992 dismissed his appeal and awarded most of the costs against him. In poor health, he withdrew completely from public life.

Thiess’s entrepreneurship had brought him enormous wealth and influence. He built his empire on a personal combination of business acumen, energy, austerity, self-sufficiency, and family solidarity, qualities evident from his teenage years. He gained many clients through his reputation for economy and reliability: consistently undercutting his competitors' prices but finishing projects on time. All his business activities were underpinned by his capacity for grasping the potential of new technologies, which kept his companies at the forefront of the civil engineering, construction, and mining industries for fifty years. By the time his business affairs came under scrutiny in 1981, it is evident that he had established a pattern of regularly obtaining Queensland government contracts through his closeness to politicians and officials, and sometimes by means of inducements.

Thiess did not seek publicity and generally lived an unpretentious personal life, devoted to his enterprises and his close-knit family. Appointed CBE in 1968, he had been knighted in 1971 for services to the coal industry and for philanthropy, although he had no conspicuous record of charitable activities. He usually travelled by private aircraft, assisting him to keep in touch with the many major business and political figures he knew throughout Australia and Japan. That country conferred on him the Order of the Sacred Treasure in 1971. He was awarded (1980) the (Sir) John Allison memorial trophy for his contribution to developing Australia’s exports. A journalist called him 'the Uncrowned King of Queensland’ (Syvret 1990, 43).

Survived by his three daughters and two sons, Sir Leslie died on 25 November 1992 in Brisbane and, following a private Anglican service, was buried in Mount Gravatt cemetery. In 1999 the Queensland University of Technology posthumously honoured him with its distinguished constructor award and membership of its Construction Hall of Fame. The Heifer Creek (Thiess Memorial) Rest Area, near Gatton, Queensland, commemorating him and his family, was dedicated in 2006. Obituaries had highlighted his rise from modest beginnings, and portrayed him as a great contributor to Australia's development brought down by moral misjudgement. One quoted a business colleague’s earlier comment, 'finally all his thoughts come down to the matter of profits’ (Robson 1992, 40).

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Boyden, Louise. 'Courtroom Nemesis of a Corporate Giant.’ Australian Financial Review, 6 May 1991, 12
  • Canberra Times. 'Labor Party Demands Disclosure of Winchester Tenders.’ 21 March 1981, 19
  • Cullinan, Rob. 'Joh Bribe Ruling Upheld: Thiess Legal Costs Could be $2 Million.’ Courier-Mail, 3 April 1992, 1
  • Montagnana-Wallace, Neil, ed. Building a Nation: The Thiess Story. Preston, Melbourne: Bounce Books, 2014
  • Priest, Joan. The Thiess Story. Ascot, Brisbane: Boolarong Publications, 1981
  • Queensland. Inquiry. Report of a Commission of Inquiry Pursuant to Orders in Council dated 26 May 1987, 24 June 1987, 25 August 1988, 29 June 1989. Brisbane: Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct, 1989
  • Queensland. Parliamentary Debates, 30 March 1965, 3012–16
  • Queensland. Parliamentary Debates, 1 April 1981, 680
  • Queensland. Parliamentary Debates, 21 September 1982, 1046
  • Robson, Frank. 'Yesterday’s Man.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 5 December 1992, 40
  • Syvret, Paul. 'Sir Leslie an Earth Mover and Shaker.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June 1990, 43
  • Turner, Megan. 'Thiess Bribed Joh: Jury.’ Courier-Mail, 27 April 1991, 1
  • Walker, Jamie. 'Sir Leslie Pays Price for “Victory”.’ Australian, 27–28 April 1991, 5
  • Voisey, Mark. 'Thiess: A Matter of Winners and Losers.’ Courier-Mail, 4 May 1991, 31

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Citation details

Peter Bell, 'Thiess, Sir Leslie Charles (Les) (1909–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thiess-sir-leslie-charles-les-17797/text29376, published online 2016, accessed online 18 November 2017.

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