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Avery, Eric Nugent (1907–1986)

by Robert Murray

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Eric Nugent Avery (1907-1986), oil company executive, was born on 8 May 1907 at Alford, Lincolnshire, England, son of Leonard Ray Avery, bank accountant, and his wife Florence Seaton, née Loweth. Educated at Sedbergh School, Yorkshire, where he was head student, Eric read law as an exhibitioner at St John’s College, Cambridge (BA, 1930; MA, 1944). In 1928 he won a Henry P. Davison scholarship to study economics at Princeton University, New Jersey, United States of America. Joining the elite international service of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, by 1930 he was on the staff of the subsidiary Asiatic Petroleum Co. (North China) Ltd, Shanghai. He acquired knowledge of Oriental philosophy and at the College of Chinese Studies, Peking, learned to speak and write Mandarin and to speak Cantonese. In addition, he spoke French and German fluently, knew some Italian, understood Spanish and read widely in Latin and Greek. He served (1936-37) in the Shanghai Municipal Police (Specials).

Transferring to the Shell Co. of Australia Ltd in 1939, Avery occupied executive positions in Melbourne. In 1940-41 he served part time in the Militia as a lieutenant with the 4th Provost Company. On 19 October 1944 at Christ Church, South Yarra, he married, with Anglican rites, Freda Marjorie (d.1983), daughter of Eric Connolly; she had worked as a secretary. Avery was promoted to general manager of the Shell Co. of Australia in July 1947. When the conglomerate’s head office in London appointed a local board in 1951, he became inaugural chairman. His determined vision for Australia led to Shell’s building at Geelong the first major postwar oil refinery. After a prolonged and intricate business manoeuvre, in 1951 Shell surprised its competitors by introducing single-brand petrol retailing by service stations tied to the company. These initiatives changed the face of the industry in Australia.

In 1955 Avery was transferred to London. Three years later he resigned from Shell and returned with his family to Melbourne. As chairman and chief executive, he welded together a number of small exploration companies as the Associated Oil Group, dependent for capital on the good will of mainly small investors. In the Roma district of Queensland in the 1960s the group found several minor natural gas fields, which it developed to supply the Brisbane region. The group also discovered huge deposits of coal at Hail Creek, near Mackay, in 1968. As chairman of Claremont Petroleum NL from 1981, Avery helped build the company into a medium-sized petroleum producer and owner of pipelines. He was also a director of Jennings Industries Ltd, Dun & Bradstreet (Australia) Pty Ltd and other companies.

Avery had been a founder (later chairman and life member) of the Australian Petroleum Exploration Association, established in 1959 to give the exploration industry a united voice and to improve its reputation. His background, wisdom and standing helped advance the APEA’s aims. He served on the board of the Alfred Hospital for nineteen years. In 1970 he was appointed CBE. A sportsman, he enjoyed polo in China and golf in Melbourne and ever rejoiced in his Hawks Club tie from Cambridge. In 1968 he became honorary consul for Brazil, a role that allowed full play to his gift for entertaining. He led a vigorous social life, lunching daily at one of his clubs, travelling extensively and offering hospitality to a wide circle of friends at his home in Toorak. Because of his fey sense of humour, English reserve and telling turn of phrase, his colleagues found it easier to respect him than to share the love for him of his close friends. He retired aged 77. Survived by his son and two daughters, he died on 8 January 1986 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, Go Well: One Hundred Years of Shell in Australia (2001)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 6 Feb 1974, p 2
  • Age (Melbourne), 13 Jan 1986, p 22
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert Murray, 'Avery, Eric Nugent (1907–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 30 September 2022.

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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