Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thompson, James Tuson (1879–1954)

by Geoff Browne

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

James Tuson Thompson (1879-1954), insurance manager, was born on 17 August 1879 at Ararat, Victoria, second child of Florance Thompson, a draper from England, and his wife Ann, née Tuson, who was born at Ararat. Educated at a state school and privately at Geelong, James began work in the office of a Melbourne solicitor. He found that he was temperamentally unsuited to law and moved to New South Wales where, in 1899, he became an agent of the Australasian Temperance & General Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd. T. & G. was the first insurance company in Australia to offer industrial assurance, by which many who could not afford ordinary life insurance received coverage in return for the regular payment of small premiums.

Industrial assurance, which relied on agents making frequent home visits, was ideally suited to Thompson's energy and natural flair for salesmanship. His early success in New South Wales led to posts as a superintendent, both in that State and in Victoria. In 1907 he was appointed manager of the Western Australian branch. Instructed soon after his arrival to close the branch, he ignored orders, recruited and personally trained more agents, and put the operation on a secure footing. In September 1908 he was made inspector of branches for Victoria and Tasmania. He continued to promote industrial assurance and in 1909 was given charge of a new four-man group, known as the field special staff (later interstate inspectorial staff). These agents, experts in industrial policies, went from State to State soliciting extra premiums from existing policy-holders. The members of the F.S.S. proved extremely proficient in gaining new business.

On his rounds in the bush, Thompson welcomed overnight stays on farms. He used the opportunities to 'convert' farmers to life assurance and to learn of others who might be similarly persuaded. On one occasion, however, he 'slept the night under his trap when his commission failed to come through and he had no money'. In 1912 he took charge of all branch organization. Constant travel—involving visits to the society's offices in Australia and New Zealand—remained an integral part of his job. At St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, on 1 April 1916 he married with Anglican rites Lina May Butcher (d.1940).

In 1917 Thompson was appointed acting general manager of T. & G. He was confirmed in the post in the following year. From 1922 he was managing director and chairman. For years afterwards he believed that he had been 'unjustly treated' as acting general manager and inadequately remunerated in comparison with his predecessor. In 1939 he threatened to resign, but, after negotiations with the board, was persuaded to stay.

The thirty-seven years of Thompson's leadership of T. & G. saw a continuing focus on industrial assurance and the society's steady growth. In 1917 funds stood at £2.5 million; by 1949 the figure was £63.6 million. Accident assurance (introduced in 1929) succeeded, despite the Depression. During the 1930s a popular, low-interest, home-loan scheme was developed. The losses sustained in the Depression by American life assurance firms which had invested freely on the stock market convinced Thompson that T. & G. should never invest in shares: only gilt-edged government or semi-government securities, and commercial and housing mortgages, were acceptable. Security was paramount, and the society was not to be tempted by high rates of interest.

In the 1920s Thompson had embarked on a building programme that left a striking physical legacy. Distinctive T. & G. buildings were erected in major Australasian cities. All were constructed in a neo-Renaissance style and were part of his deliberate strategy to exhibit the society. He chose their locations with the same intent, moving, for example, the head office in Melbourne to the fashionable eastern end of Collins Street in 1928.

Thompson had a chauffeur-driven car, a home at Toorak and a holiday house at Portsea. Although he would not countenance T. & G. doing likewise, he invested in the share market, transacting much of his business during office hours. He was a member of the Athenaeum and Savage clubs, and a devotee of horse-racing, golf and tennis. To motivate his staff, he made them compete, 'setting one against another, or one division or branch against another'. Fair haired and solidly built, he spoke and moved quickly. He had a 'distinctive walk peculiar to sergeant-majors on parade', and, when occasion demanded it, 'could roar like a bull'. At the annual meeting of winning divisions, he set a three-minute limit on all speeches—other than his own: a staff member enforced the edict by using a ruler to tap the legs of wordy speakers. During his term of office, T. & G. was said to stand for 'Thompson and God'.

Despite his ready adoption of the trappings of authority, Thompson remained primarily a salesman and motivator. He never lost his passion for travel and for keeping in personal touch with the various branches. If he could inspire fear, he was also respected for his straightforwardness. As one of his executives put it, he was 'a little Hitler', but 'also quite a friendly old bloke'. The society was his life and he remained in harness until his death. Survived by his adopted daughter, he died on 19 November 1954 at his Toorak home and was buried in Box Hill cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £93,078. In his will he bequeathed £1000 to his chauffeur.

Thompson had stayed on too long and refused to countenance the retirement of his senior colleagues. By 1954 T.& G. was being run by 'a small coterie of elderly people, with little idea of training or grooming successors'. The costs of administering industrial assurance were steadily increasing, and insufficient attention was paid to the development of ordinary business and broader investment strategies. Yet, by his tireless promotion of industrial assurance over several decades, Thompson had achieved a significant social good. Many households of limited means were given access to life assurance for the first time. In 1983 T. & G. merged with a larger competitor, the National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Thomas, Yours for Life (Melb, 1976)
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 21 Dec 1954
  • Herald (Melbourne), 20 Nov 1954
  • Geoff Browne papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Thompson, James Tuson (1879–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thompson-james-tuson-11847/text21205, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 September 2014.

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

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