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Sir Reginald Myles (Reg) Ansett (1909–1981)

by Charles Fahey

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Sir Reginald Myles (Reg) Ansett (1909-1981), aviator and businessman, was born on 13 February 1909 at Inglewood, Victoria, fourth of five children of Melbourne-born parents Charles John Ansett, cycle engineer, and his wife Mary Ann, née Phillips. Charles had a bicycle repair shop that evolved into a garage. When he joined the Australian Imperial Force in 1916, Mary closed the business and moved the family to Melbourne. After the war Ansett senior operated a small factory at Hawthorn (later Camberwell) that produced knitted woollen garments. Reg was educated at state schools in Essendon and Camberwell. Leaving at age 14 and entering his father’s employment, he attended Swinburne Technical College and qualified as a knitting-machine and sewing-machine mechanic. In 1929 he cashed in a life assurance policy and took flying lessons. He was awarded Australian pilot’s licence number 419.

Soon afterwards Ansett sailed for the Northern Territory, where he spent about a year, working as an axeman with a survey party. He briefly contemplated establishing a peanut farm but, deciding that he would not be able to bear the loneliness of such a life, returned to Victoria. With his savings of £70, he purchased a second-hand Studebaker car and used it to carry passengers and freight between Maryborough and Ballarat. Losing money, he shifted his base to Hamilton and from December 1931 ran between there and Ballarat. This venture was more successful. He hired employees, the first of whom, Colin MacDonald, was to remain with him and retire as a senior executive in 1974. Ansett also bought extra cars and established new routes in the Western District. On 1 October 1932 at Christ Church, Maryborough, he married with Anglican rites Grace Doreen Nicol, a clerk.

In 1932 the Victorian minister of railways, (Sir) Robert Menzies, introduced legislation that established the Transport Regulation Board. One of the board’s functions was to protect the railways from competition. Refused a licence to operate between Hamilton and Melbourne by road, in 1935 Ansett registered Ansett Airways Pty Ltd and purchased a six-seat Fokker Universal; he already owned a small de Havilland Gipsy Moth. The Hamilton to Melbourne air service, begun in February 1936, proved to be unprofitable and Ansett made ends meet by taking people for `joyrides’, and by giving acrobatic displays and flying lessons. In December, piloting a Porterfield, he won the handicap section of the Brisbane to Adelaide air race; the prize was £500.

Backed by local graziers, Ansett had acquired an eight-seat Airspeed Envoy in August 1936. His aim, soon achieved, was to develop a network of air-routes linking Melbourne, Mildura, Adelaide, Sydney, Broken Hill and Narrandera. In 1937 he floated Ansett Airways Ltd and moved his headquarters to Essendon, Melbourne. While the road-transport side of his business was generating surpluses, the airline was not, a situation made worse by his decision to win over customers by high standards of service. Later that year he bought three Lockheed Electras for £50,000. The banks would only provide finance on the guarantee of his backers, which they gave in exchange for a substantial number of his personal shares.

By 1938 the value of £1 shares in Ansett Airways had dropped to 8s. 6d. The chairman, Ernest O’Sullivan, recommended that holders accept an offer by Australian National Airways Pty Ltd to buy the company for 8s. 10d. Per share. At a meeting of shareholders the 29-year-old Ansett opposed his chairman and carried the day; the attempted takeover failed. In February 1939 a fire swept through the company’s hangar at Essendon aerodrome and destroyed several aircraft, including one of the new Electras. Faced with this set­back, Ansett summoned his senior staff and boldly announced that the firm would expand. With the aid of Commonwealth government subsidies–paid to all commercial airlines–Ansett Airways resumed its Melbourne-Sydney services, which had been stopped because of the fire, and quickly recovered lost ground.

During World War II Ansett’s business expanded. All domestic services, other than the Hamilton-Melbourne run, were suspended and the aircraft diverted to charter-work for the Federal government and the American armed forces. Government aid helped the airline to double its hangar capacity and a manufacturing division (named Ansair Pty Ltd in 1945) was formed to make aircraft parts, including Beaufort gun-turrets. New hangars and engineering shops were built and by 1943 two thousand people were working for Ansett, mostly in production. Three years later, however, the airline was surviving on government subsidies and employment had declined to three hundred. Ansett restructured his business, forming Ansett Transport Industries Ltd as a holding company for Ansett Airways Pty Ltd, Pioneer Tourist Coaches Pty Ltd, Pioneer Tourist Hotels Pty Ltd, Ansair Pty Ltd, Air Express Pty Ltd and other subsidiaries.

Ansett’s marriage had failed because of his absorption in his work and his affairs with other women. The couple were divorced in 1941; Grace remarried and moved to the United States of America with Ansett’s two sons. On 17 June 1944 at Caulfield, Ansett married, with Presbyterian forms, Joan McAuliffe Adams, his 21-year-old private secretary.

At the end of the war Ansett expected that his airline would be the major competitor for ANA but the new government-owned Trans-Australia Airlines quickly assumed this position. Challenges in the High Court of Australia to the Chifley government’s airline policy removed restrictions against interstate operations and Ansett seized the opportunity to extend his services, particu­larly to holiday destinations in Queensland and Tasmania. This initiative complemented his growing coach and hotel businesses; by 1948 ATI was the largest operator of hotels in Australia. Yet Ansett believed himself to be at the crossroads and unable to topple ANA without the resources available to TAA. He offered to sell his airline to the Australian National Airlines Commission but the parties could not agree on a price and Ansett decided to stay in the industry.

Increased government charges in 1947 for the use of aerodromes and navigation aids forced Ansett into a more aggressive approach. His competitors sought to recoup these costs through higher fares. He responded by increasing the seating capacity of his planes and reducing cabin services. When the Commonwealth government attempted to force him to raise his prices in line with TAA and ANA, he refused, claiming that it was illegal for the government to dictate interstate fares; legal opinion supported his stand. In 1948 he negotiated a contract with Collier’s Interstate Transport Service Ltd to carry its freight exclusively, enabling him to use his fleet of Douglas DC3s as freight carriers by night and passenger planes by day.

In 1952 the Menzies government introduced the Civil Aviation Agreement Act, which was designed to reserve the main interstate routes for the two major airlines. Ansett resolved to take business from ANA, the weaker of the two. He purchased new aircraft in 1954, gradually upgraded his cabin service and discounted fares. ANA could not compete. When the founder, Sir Ivan Holyman, died in January 1957, Ansett closed in. He approached the government and offered to take the place of ANA should it fail. In July the government refused financial help to ANA and next month its board reluctantly agreed to sell the company to Ansett for £3.3 million.

After he took over ANA, Ansett waged a brutal battle for control of his main regional rivals. The Commonwealth government wanted to stabilise the interstate airline industry and in 1958 introduced the Airline Equipment Act, which barred other companies from flying the main trunk routes. Under the two-airline policy Ansett-ANA (later Ansett Airlines of Australia) and TAA were made equal in the types of aircraft operated, seat capacity and scheduling. As a result there was little difference between them. Safety standards were excellent but customers complained of being taken for granted.

In the 1960s and 1970s Ansett’s business empire expanded to encompass television stations in Melbourne and Brisbane, and interests in Diners’ Club Pty Ltd and Biro Bic (Australia) Pty Ltd. Although he was firmly in control of the day-to-day management of his conglomerate, he owned only about 1 per cent of the shares in ATI. In April 1972 Thomas Nationwide Transport Ltd attempted to buy a controlling interest in ATI for $44 million. The Victorian State government of Sir Henry Bolte legislated to delay the takeover; TNT withdrew its bid and its managing director, Sir Peter Abeles, was elected to ATI’s board. After he retired from parliament, Bolte also joined the board.

Other challenges confronted Ansett in the 1970s. In March 1975 air hostesses went on strike, prompting his regrettable remark that they were a `batch of old boilers sitting on their executive’. His opposition to the recruitment of women as pilots ended with a decision of the High Court in 1979 ordering him to employ Deborah Wardley as a trainee. More damaging were the decisions of ATI to invest in two companies: Avis Rent-A-Car System Pty Ltd and Associated Securities Ltd. The purchase of Avis in 1977 sparked commercial competition and painful personal conflict between Ansett and his son Bob, who had earlier returned to Australia and become head of a rival firm, Budget Rent-A-Car System Pty Ltd. Bob successfully opposed his father’s attempt to maintain monopoly rights to hire-car rental desks at airports. The collapse of ASL in February 1979 cut deeply into ATI’s profits and rendered it vulnerable to takeover.

By April 1979 Robert Holmes à Court’s Bell Group Ltd was buying large numbers of shares in ATI. TNT immediately acted to increase its stake in Ansett’s company. Several other buyers entered the market, most importantly Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation Ltd. The ensuing fight for control ended in December and left ATI in the hands of Abeles and Murdoch. They persuaded Ansett to stay on as chairman.

Ansett had been appointed KBE in 1969 and awarded the (Walter) Oswald Watt gold medal for 1975. He cultivated the image of the entrepreneur and industrialist. Addressed as `R. M.’ by his senior executives and other business intimates, he placed heavy demands on himself and his subordinates. At ATI headquarters he impressed his son Bob with `his power, the confidence he projected that anything he wanted to happen would happen’. Each day he commuted by helicopter between his 113-acre (45.7 ha) property, Gunyong Valley, at Mount Eliza, and his office in Melbourne. He took a keen interest in the programming of his television stations. Espousing the interests and championing the virtues of private enterprise, he saw no contradiction in attacking the publicly funded, loss-making Victorian Railways--a competitor for his road-transport business--while his air-transport operation enjoyed the protection of the Federal government’s two-airline policy. Yet he did not `think that private enterprise should be allowed to go mad—some govern­ment control is necessary’.

According to John Hetherington’s description, Ansett in middle age was `a lean and limber man, with an easy gait, five feet eleven and a half inches (182 cm) tall and weighing only eleven stone (70 kg). His face [was] long and narrow, with a lightly cleft chin and deep vertical creases beside the mouth’. His passion was breeding and racing thoroughbreds. He was also a foundation member and sometime chairman of the Mornington Racing Club, and was president for some years of the Port Phillip District Racing Association. It was through racing that he cemented his friendship with Bolte, who in 1960 intervened on his behalf to prevent the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission from resuming 9.5 acres (3.8 ha) of Gunyong Valley for a dam.

Sir Reginald died on 23 December 1981 at Mount Eliza and was cremated. His wife and their three adopted daughters survived him, as did the sons of his first marriage. Ansett’s estate was sworn for probate at $8,266,556. More than half of this amount was either bequeathed to his wife and daughters or held in trust for their benefit. There were also bequests to the Mornington Racing Club, and to the Peninsula Church of England School and Toorak College, Mount Eliza. His sons received $50,000 each. The remaining money was placed in a trust named after him and set up to support selected charities.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hetherington, Uncommon Men (1965)
  • B. Ansett with R. Pullan, Bob Ansett (1986)
  • S. Brimson, Ansett (1987)
  • P. Blazey, Bolte (1989)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 18 Oct 1947, p 13, 3 Nov 1979, p 12
  • People (Sydney), 11 Apr 1951, p 35
  • Aircraft, Mar 1961, p 30
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 13 July 1961, p 13, 9 June 1962, p 29, 13 Dec 1979, p 1, 11 May 1982, p 3
  • Age (Melbourne), 12 Dec 1962, p 8, 20 June 1979, p 10, 28 June 1979, p 16, 18 July 1979, p1, 8 Aug 1979, p 1, 1 Nov 1979, p 1, 2 Nov 1979, p 3, 3 Nov 1979, p 1, 24 Dec 1981, p 1
  • Australian, 14 Apr 1979, `Weekend Magazine’ p 1, 16 Apr 1979, p 7, 17 Apr 1979, p 7, 21 June 1979, p 6, 23 June 1979, p 4, 6 Nov 1979, p 10, 24 Dec 1981, p 1
  • National Times, 10 Nov 1979, p 73.

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Citation details

Charles Fahey, 'Ansett, Sir Reginald Myles (Reg) (1909–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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