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Wilson, Sir John Gardiner (1913–1994)

by Heather Evans

This article was published online in 2018

Sir John Gardiner Wilson (1913–1994), engineer and company director, was born on 3 July 1913 at Brighton, Melbourne, second of three children of Victorian-born parents John Sydney Wilson, stockbroker, and his wife Ruby Marion, née Gatehouse (d. 1924), whose father had been mayor of Melbourne (1874–75). John was educated (1921–30) at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, where he was a recipient (1927–29) of a Witherby scholarship. He secured a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge (MA, 1934), graduating with first-class honours in mechanical sciences. Returning to Australia, he worked (1934–39) with his father at J. S. Wilson & Co., and was a member of the Melbourne Stock Exchange from 1935.

Having been commissioned in 1936 as a lieutenant, Royal Australian Engineers, Citizen Military Forces, Wilson joined the Australian Imperial Force on 13 October 1939, immediately after World War II broke out. While serving in the Middle East (1940–42), he rose rapidly to major and was mentioned in despatches for commanding the 2/2nd Field Company with distinction in the Libyan and Greek campaigns of 1941. Back in Australia, he performed staff duties as a lieutenant colonel, based at Allied Land Forces Headquarters, Melbourne. In 1943 he was appointed assistant engineer-in-chief and on 25 January 1944 promoted to temporary colonel. The technical instructions and intelligence summaries he edited or wrote became ‘renowned throughout the Military Engineering world’ (NAA B2458). He finished the war as deputy director of works at Advanced LHQ, Morotai (1945–46), transferring to the Reserve of Officers on 8 March 1946. For his outstanding service, he was appointed OBE (1947). From 1953 to 1956 he commanded the 6th Engineer Group, CMF, Melbourne. On 22 July 1944 he had married Margaret Louise De Ravin, at the Melbourne Grammar School chapel.

In 1947 Wilson joined Australian Paper Manufacturers (APM) Ltd as technical assistant to the managing director (engineering). He was appointed to the board of directors two years later. As deputy managing director from 1953, he helped (Sir) Charles Booth deal with the myriad of problems arising from the company’s expansion program. He completed the advanced management program of the Harvard School of Business Administration in 1954, and in 1959 he succeeded Booth as managing director (1958–77), later serving as chairman (1978–84). During his tenure APM became ‘a leading international manufacturer of cans and packaging’ (McIlwraith 1994, 15). Six new paper and board machines came on stream and the production of paper pulp and board more than doubled. The growth in forest plantations was also substantial: Wilson planted the 150 millionth tree in 1979, and when he retired there were seventy thousand hectares of APM forests.

Wilson’s manner was direct, often abrasive, and his maxim was: ‘I can forgive sins of commission, but sins of omission I cannot and will not forgive’ (Sinclair 1991, 185). It was always clear where he stood on issues and he had a reputation for acerbity in defence of the company. In contrast, he loved gardening and the flowers he grew at home decorated the boardroom table. Friends recall many warm and sympathetic gestures. Above all, his ability and the range of his knowledge of the specialised functions of the company were universally acknowledged. The company’s historian observed that, when he did not fully understand an issue, he admitted his ignorance and promptly rectified it, and he ‘never hesitated to say: “Yes, that was my fault”’ (Sinclair 1991, 185).

Wilson was promoted to CBE in 1972 and knighted in 1982. A friend and business colleague wrote: ‘If you hadn’t been such a difficult and awkward fellow you’d have probably got it sooner’ (Sinclair 1991, 185). He was a director of British Petroleum Co. Aust. Ltd and Vickers Aust. Ltd, a councillor (1961–73) of Monash University, and a member of the science and industry forum of the Australian Academy of Science. Conservative Federal governments appointed him to the Commonwealth Advisory Committee on Science and Technology in 1972, the board of Qantas Airways Ltd in 1976, and in 1979 named him deputy chairman of a consultative committee on the Trade Practices Commission, an old adversary in the 1960s. A member of the Melbourne and Australian clubs, he was known as ‘an enthusiastic bridge player (though reckless in his bidding) and a keen golfer’ (McIlwraith 1994, 15). Survived by his wife and three daughters, Sir John died on 22 August 1994 at Malvern, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • McIlwraith, John. ‘Boss Helped Paper Industry Unfold.’ Australian, 11 September 1994, 15
  • National Archives of Australia. B2458, 3162041
  • Sinclair, E. K. The Spreading Tree: A History of APM and AMCOR 1844–1984. North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1991

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Heather Evans, 'Wilson, Sir John Gardiner (1913–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-sir-john-gardiner-27538/text34941, published online 2018, accessed online 20 June 2018.

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